June 29, 2017: So much more than a book

June 29, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

When I was growing up, the “book mobile” visited our neighborhood each week.  Every Tuesday night, an over-sized bus lined floor-to-ceiling with books would park in the lot of our local ice cream parlor. It opened its doors and the neighborhood kids streamed in.  The librarian/driver not only knew each and every child, but also knew what they liked to read.  Stacks of books came and went.  Our family’s weekly outing to the book mobile was as much a part of the rhythm of life as attending Sunday morning church service was.

Not all children have that same access to books.  Belmont resident Kylia Garver is trying to help fix that for one small Boston school.  Having opened in 2014, the P.A. Shaw School serves predominantly low-income families, with 100% of the student population qualifying for the free school lunch program.  A high proportion of the student population has learning disabilities.  A high percentage of the kids are homeless.  Access to books is not a way of life for these kids.

With its expansion to fourth grade this coming fall, P.A. Shaw prepared to handle its students with a part-time librarian.  The problem was. . .the school library had zero books.  Garver describes the school as having a “huge library with lots of empty shelves.”  A school the size of P.A. Shaw, she says, should have at least 7,000 books.

She vowed to help.  You see, Garver also grew up in a reading family.  Her mother, Janet, was a teacher and a literacy specialist.  She was known in her community as the “book woman,” often going to local schools to read to the kids. Garver learned early that reading books helped kids engage their interests.  Whether it was sports, or science or history, reading helped children pursue those interests.  It also worked the other way. Kids not otherwise particularly interested in reading might pick up a book about baseball or a biography about Helen Keller.

Garver has been beating the bushes in Belmont to gain donations of books for P.A. Shaw. “Anything you might find in a library,” she says.  “Picture books, easy reading, science, biography, chapter books.”  She talks about how Belmont families may have aged past certain book “stages.”  Those unused books need not become clutter in your home, she says.  “P.A. Shaw can sure put those to good use.”

Garver tells friends and neighbors (and anyone else who will listen) that cleaning out and donating no-longer-used books is one small way to help the P.A. Shaw School. And Belmont has responded.  As of last week, Garver says, she had collected more than 2,300 books from Belmont residents, which she is organizing and preparing to take to P.A. Shaw. If you want to pass on some old family favorites, you should contact Garver by e-mail at kyliab@gmail.com.  She will arrange with you either to pick up, or to have you drop off, the books you wish to give.

Belmont residents should understand, Garver says, that what you might give is “so much more than a book.”  When the P.A. Shaw librarian shares new books with the school’s students, she explains to the kids that “people gave these books because they care about you. They want to help you learn, to grow.”  What the kids take away, she notes, is the knowledge, perhaps newly found, that the kids have worth and that they should believe in themselves just as others believe in them.

Kylia Garver.  Belmont’s own book woman.  The efforts spearheaded by Garver should not be simply a project of Belmont’s young parents. Garver’s efforts deserve the support and participation of the entire Belmont community.

June 8, 2017: Words matter–use them wisely

June 8, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

Congratulations Belmont High Class of 2017.  As you cross the stage to accept your diploma, family, friends and community members all look on with justifiable pride.  You represent not only our today, but offer us our tomorrow.  And while it looks like our tomorrow is in pretty good hands, we need some help from you.

Today’s world poses some problems that I’d ask you to help us all work on as you move forward.  One of the biggest problems is that we frequently seem to forget today that words matter.  The old childhood rhyme is just plain wrong when it asserts that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Now I concede, as a person with training in both law and journalism, I pay particular attention to words. I won an Iowa supreme court case once because the state legislature used the word “that” where it should have instead used the word “this.” Nonetheless, for everyone, words do matter.

Some words get over-used today.  For example, I fear we may have become too casual with the word “hate.”   I, personally, often proclaim that I “hate” the Yankees, the Jets and the Jayhawks.  Hate, however, is a strong word, capturing a strong emotion.  We cheapen its meaning by making its use too casual. When we become desensitized to the word’s true meaning, it becomes too easy to overlook expressions of disapproval (or even simple discomfort) through proclaimed “hate” in language, or through practiced “hate” in behavior.  Be wary if you find the word “hate” popping up in your vocabulary too frequently.

The word “them” gets over-used as well.  “Them” (as in “not us”) connotes a focus on that which makes someone different.  One problem with its use today is that the word too frequently focuses exclusively on a single attribute of a person (or group of people).  A presentation last year here in Belmont, for example, concerned “Muslims in America.”  One speaker eloquently questioned how a person might become a “them” based solely on differences in religion, even though the commonalities arising from being a parent, a spouse, a sibling, a neighbor might be far more substantial. Finding yourself with lots of “thems” in your life may merit some reflection on whether you are allowing yourself to experience the entirety of individuals you meet.

When I was in college, comedian George Carlin had a popular routine about “seven words you can never say on TV.” Carlin used humor to make the point that words are just words; they are harmless unto themselves. But words are rarely “just words.”  And they almost never stand unto themselves. Words almost always carry a context: expectations, judgments, emotions, history. Their use conveys that context. Please, be aware of the full context you are conveying in the words you use.

The world seems recently to have become a less civil society. Your conscientious use of words in the future can help reverse that trend. To do so, whether you move from high school to college, or to some other life pursuit, you should strive to be constantly self-aware of your day-to-day, person-to-person impact on the world.  One of those impacts is through your awareness that no matter the setting –work or play, on-line or in-person, public or private– what you say, and how you say it, makes a difference.

In short, as you move on after graduation, I ask that you consciously strive to use words wisely.  Words matter.

Class of 2017, as an entire community, we smile and feel a rush of pride upon your graduation.  Congratulations on your accomplishments. Godspeed on your life journey.

May 11, 2017–Belmont’s Chess Legacy: A win in 19 moves

May 11, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

What do the Dan Scharfman Run, the municipal flag pole in Waverley Square, and the Reischauer Memorial House all have in common?  They each seek to preserve part of the human heritage that has found its home in Belmont over our community’s storied history. Scharfman was known informally as the “Mayor of Belmont” for his multiple civic leadership roles.  The Waverley Square flag has a small plaque commemorating the service of James (“Jimmy“) Castanino, long-time director of Belmont’s Highway Department.  The Reischauer House preserves the memory and work of Belmont resident Edwin Reischauer, former ambassador to Japan and noted East Asia scholar.

These three memorial efforts came to mind last week as Town Meeting voted to make substantial improvements to various Belmont open space and recreation areas.  New facilities are being planned and installed. New spaces are being created.  Whether at the Grove Street Park or around Clay Pit Pond, it would not only be “nice,” but it would seem also to be appropriate for town officials to take this opportunity to give a tangible, public, nod of acknowledgement to Belmont’s chess heritage.  More specifically, ongoing and future plans might reasonably easily incorporate a public “outdoor chess table” with a small plaque dedicated to Belmont resident Harold Dondis.

Dondis, of course, made local history back in March 1964 when he required just 19 moves to defeat future world chess champion Bobby Fischer in a tournament at the Wachusett Chess Club (Fitchburg).  Granted, Fischer, who was only 20 years old at the time, was participating in what is called by chess devotees a “simul exhibition match” (playing against multiple opponents at the same time). He was playing against 56 separate people at once, one of whom was Belmont’s Dondis.  If anyone could do that, however, it would be Bobby Fischer, considered by many to be the greatest to ever play the game.

The legacy of Dondis, however, extends well beyond his defeat of the future world chess champion.  Dondis was author of the Boston Globe’s chess column for nearly 50 years.  When the Globe once decided, as a cost-cutting measure, to cancel his column, the paper received so many protests that not only was the column reinstated, but the newspaper increased its publication from once to twice a week.

If Dondis were alive today, he would likely say that a public place devoted to allowing people to play chess need not be large enough to accommodate any type of crowd.  While Dondis was quoted in 2004 as saying that interest in chess was “exploding,” he nonetheless still did not view it as a spectator sport.  It’s a personal game, he believed, an intensely personal game focused on problem-solving.

A lot of conversation occurred on Town Meeting floor last week about “preservation.” The new sign by-law was offered to help preserve the character of the town. The Demolition Delay By-law was offered as a way to preserve architecturally and historically significant homes. The Pay as You Throw resolution was offered to preserve the environment.  Our human heritage merits preservation as well.

People tend to remember that Belmont once was the heart of orchards and greenhouse gardens. But, in addition to that historical role, for many years, in its own way, Belmont, in the person of Harold Dondis, was also the heart and soul of the Massachusetts chess world.  A public outdoor chess table and small plaque acknowledging his role in one of the Town’s ongoing projects would be appropriate. Dondis has been gone since December 2015.  Without some small action to memorialize his work, the memory of his contributions may soon be gone as well. That would be a shame.

March 23, 2017: Boston Belmont Friends Group: A service to yourself

March 23, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

What do you do?  What do you do when the school day ends at 2:30 and your play rehearsal or basketball game doesn’t begin until 7:00?  Where do you do your homework? Eat dinner? Simply stay grounded for that four or five hours?  These are very real questions facing Boston METCO students attending the Chenery Middle School and Belmont High School.

The Boston Belmont Friends Group helps fill that gap.  According to Lorraine Kermond, one of four parents who helped organize the group at the Chenery, one role of the Friends Group is to provide a safe, welcoming place –a home-away-from-home if you will– to allow Boston students to be grounded when they have time gaps created by participation in after-school activities and can’t just run home for a few hours.

“Having a host family is a lifeline,” says Janee Carroll, one of the Boston parents involved with the Friends Group.  “I don’t have to worry if my son (a ninth grader at BHS) gets stuck at school. He has a place to go.”  In the same way, Belmont host families help, also, when kids get sick at school.

While important, says Kermond, the role of “host families” misses the core of the Friends Group.  Yes, the Friends Group is a collaboration to ensure that kids don’t get stranded. Yes, the group helps parents in each community make connections in the other community.  However, Kermond says, “the parents who help make this group go are not merely fellow committee members, there is genuine friendship. We all have interesting jobs. We all have had interesting life experiences.”

And I “got it.” After all, our daughter has been out of Belmont High for six years. Nonetheless, some of our closest friends remain those parents we first met while waiting outside the Wellington for school to be dismissed.  The Friends Group recognizes that since the Boston parents will not have that after-school waiting time to bond, special efforts must be made to provide opportunities for relationships to sprout and for friendships to blossom. The kids are in school together and will choose their own friends. The parents would never have reason ever to meet.

Accordingly, parent-to-parent dinners are arranged throughout the year. Local events are scheduled when school events (such as curriculum night) occur.  Indeed, this year’s annual all-family bowling night is on the calendar for March 26th (contact Carol Sabia, crsabia@gmail.com if you’re interested in attending).  It takes effort and persistence to reach out to connect people, Kermond says. But it is an effort of passion, she says, given what each community has to offer the other community.

The parents of the original Friends Group at the Chenery have now aged with their kids into the High School; the friendships have followed.  Nonetheless, a Boston Belmont Friends Group persists at the Chenery. Starting next year, Kermond says, the aspiration is to also have such groups in all four elementary schools. Parent participation at all grade levels is sought.

Parents do a remarkable number of volunteer tasks to support their kids in Belmont’s public schools. The Boston Belmont Friends Group, however, feels different in nature. It feels like opening yourself to new friendships more than like volunteering for a job needing to be done. Opening your home to let a kid crash for a few hours; taking your family bowling; going to dinner with the parents of your student’s classmates. In short, making cross-community connections. It’s one of the things that METCO is all about.  Participating in the Boston Belmont Friends Group is not just a service to your child or to your school.  It is a service to yourself.

January 12, 2017: Community policing: a two-way street

January 12, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

The Belmont police department is a step ahead of much of the country in the connections that exist between the police and the community.  Sure, part of that can be attributed to the fact that we’re a small town.  Even in a small community, however, the connections between community residents and the police don’t just happen.  Specific, conscious actions are taken to promote the feeling that the police and community are a “we” and not an “us” and “them.”

One important part of this connection involves stability at the top.  Police Chief Richard McLaughlin will soon reach his tenth anniversary of being Belmont’s Top Cop.  Such longevity in police leadership results in a web of personal relationships that would not otherwise exist.  It has been some time since Chief McLaughlin could count on his fingers the number of Memorial Day parades he’s marched in, the number of PTO meetings he’s attended, and the number of Light Up the Town and Town Day events he has helped celebrate.

Such events are a way for the Chief to meet Belmont residents, and for those residents to meet him. This process works best, however, only when residents avail themselves of the opportunity.  In a recent conversation I had with Chief McLaughlin, he encouraged Belmont residents to introduce themselves to him (or to any other Belmont officer) on the street or at events.   A handshake and a hello, he said, is not an intrusion on an officer’s job.  Rather, individuals engaging in such small, personal interactions make Belmont a stronger, safer, healthier place to live.

I like Belmont’s approach to “community policing.”  “Regardless of the town or city in which they reside,” BPD’s community policing Mission Statement says, “community members should have a say in what kinds of services they receive from the police.” The BPD Mission Statement states that “the problems of terrorist threats, school shootings, and identity theft add new challenges to local policing. In addition, the other community problems of speeding cars in neighborhoods, domestic violence, vandalism and school bullying are still major issues that need to be addressed.”  In responding to such challenges, the Mission Statement goes on to assert, and I not only agree, but wholeheartedly agree, “making community members active participants in the process of problem solving is imperative.”

The question, of course, is how to do this.  BPD acknowledges that “some residents may have reservations about approaching the police for concerns they may have.” BPD, however, defines part of its job as seeking to “knock down some of the barriers between police and citizens.”

One action step pursued by the Belmont police several years ago merits replication.  In 2008, Belmont police officers and community members gathered at Belmont Town Hall to discuss problems being experienced in Belmont’s neighborhoods.  It is difficult to improve upon the direct exchange of information that such an opportunity for personal conversation can provide.  The concerns that faced community members in 2008, however, may differ from those facing Belmont residents today.  Hate speech and opioid addiction, for example, are concerns that may present themselves today in a way they would not have back in 2008.

The BPD’s approach to community policing posits that “when community members are active participants in the problem solving equation, the level of service and quality of life for the community is improved.”  Much of that “active participation” depends on personal interaction, which is a two-way street, flowing from the community to the BPD as much as from the BPD to the community.  Repeating the Town Hall meeting between town residents and Belmont’s officers would be an additional important action that can be taken.

October 6, 2016: BHS protest honors father’s WWII service

October 6, 2016: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Last week, Belmont High principal Dan Richards issued the following public announcement:

“This past week at Belmont High School, a group of about twenty students peacefully organized their voices to support the national protest of ‘Black Lives Matter.’  On Friday. . .the students wore black to school and some students chose to write ‘Black Lives Matter’ on their arms. The students’ intentions were to bring awareness to the topic and to continue the conversation our nation is having. The students successfully brought attention to the topic in a peaceful and respectful manner by having dialogues with students, faculty, staff, and administrators without any disruption to the school day.”

Principal Richards stated: “In addition to the events during the school day, approximately twelve of our athletes chose to support our students’ voice at the evening football game by mirroring what some professional athletes have decided to do by kneeling during the national anthem. The athletes who chose to kneel in support of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement did so in an organized, respectful manner. The athletes who chose not to kneel decided to support the students kneeling by standing next to them, placing their left hand on their shoulder and their right hand over their hearts. . .This was also done in a peaceful and respectful manner.”

I attended junior high and high school in Des Moines, Iowa, during the Viet Nam War years.  Particularly as a former Des Moines resident, I appreciated the efforts of our BHS students.  How are those two things related?

John and Mary Beth Tinker were Des Moines students who wore black arm bands to school to protest the Viet Nam War.  School officials, who had been told this was going to happen, suspended both of them. The Tinkers’ schools were the same schools that my brothers and I attended.

The ensuing court case challenging the suspension of the Tinker kids ultimately made its way to the US Supreme Court.  The Court, in famous language applicable yet today, pronounced that “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate…”

The Court found that rather than trying to prevent “a material and substantial interference with schoolwork or discipline,” the suspension handed out by the Des Moines schools was used to prevent the “discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint.”

My father fought in World War II.  My father was forever scarred by his service in Northern Africa and in France during WWII.  Nonetheless, I fervently believe that the actions of our Belmont High students honored, and didn’t dishonor, the memory of his long (and painful) military service.  Indeed, those BHS actions exemplified the very reason my father served. He fought to preserve the fundamental right to pursue the precise activities that the Tinker kids did, as did our Belmont High students fifty years later.

Principal Richards concluded his announcement last week, stating: “Allowing students to express themselves while respecting the views of others is one of the hallmarks of Belmont High School. The ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement continues to be a topic of passionate conversation across our nation and in our schools. I am extremely proud of the manner in which our students organized and conducted themselves this past week.”

Principal Richards, I could not agree with you more.  I offer my congratulations, my respect, and my admiration both to our BHS students who sought to bring attention to the Black Lives Matter issue, and to our Belmont school officials who sought to facilitate that discussion rather than trying to shut it down or squelch it.