Tribute to a Teacher

“I’m a success today because I

had a friend who believed in me 

and I didn’t have the heart

to let him down.”

— Abraham Lincoln


There are two teachers I remember who made a difference in my life early on. My parents were not able to provide guidance, leadership or direction. When I was in German elementary school in my little town, when I was 10 years old in 5th grade, there was one classroom for the first eight grades. The first row of six kids was the first grade. The second row was the second grade, and so on. In the morning, Herr Sicheneder started in the front and gave the “little ones” assignments and then he worked his way back. I was in 5th grade, and he usually combined grades 5 through 8 and taught them together, at least in subjects where it made sense, like history or geography. After 8th grade, you were done with school and everyone went to a trade school and start a three-year apprenticeship for a trade. I was a shy little boy who had no idea where he was going.

Herr Sicheneder pulled me aside one day and told me that I should apply for prep school. This was in 1966. In the German school system, in those years, maybe 5 to 10 percent of all kids got to go to Oberschule (high school), in German called Gymnasium, which was the only pathway to higher education and university. To get in, you had to pass an entrance exam. I had no idea what was involved, how you applied, and what the exam was like. Herr Sicheneder kept me in school after all the other kids went home for many months and tutored me. I still remember many of the drills today, almost 60 years later. Wegen, während, statt, kraft, oberhalb, unterhalb, diesseits, jehnseits are all German prepositions followed by the genitive case. Who knows stuff like that? I do, because Herr Sicheneder made sure I had them all memorized. He drilled me in German, mathematics, essay writing and whatever else was in the exam. I have no memory of taking it, but I passed, and in the fall of 1967 I started taking the bus to the city every day and went to Oberschule. Herr Sicheneder was the single most important influence on the direction of my life by a long shot. He put me on a course that resulted in what I am today, and without him, my life would have been very, very different.

Herr Sicheneder was in his late fifties then. As an adult, I never got the chance to go back and thank him for what he did for me. He passed away many decades ago.

I met the second teacher with similar impact on my life on my first day in Gymnasium at the end of August 1967. My professor of Latin and German, and my homeroom teacher, was a young man right out of university perhaps in his first year of teaching, by the name of Wolfgang Illauer. I had Professor Illauer in Latin and German for three years. Being a bit of a German literature snob, he taught us discipline in writing, grammar and spelling and made sure we appreciated German literature. Professor Illauer taught me how to write, imparted critical thinking, instilled values for beauty, art, literature and general culture. Being a professor of the classic languages of Greek and Latin, he had a strong classical background which rubbed off on me. Professor Illauer was my coach and teacher between ages 11 and 13, and he shaped my intellectual and cultural trajectory unlike any other teacher I remember. As I grew into the upper grades, I never saw him again.  Eventually I went on a scholarship foreign exchange program to the United States and got my entire college education here.

A number of years ago I googled Professor Illauer and being the academic he was, he had given some lectures as a guest professor in his retirement. I found his email address. We connected and established correspondence, mostly sharing our thoughts on literature, poetry, writing, education and all the things that academics of the classics are interested in.

Finally, a couple of weeks ago, we met in person for the first time after more than 50 years. I spent a night at the Hilton at the Munich Airport, and he drove in from Augsburg to have dinner with me. When I was a child, he was a god. Today, we’re almost equals, two old men interested in a common quest for language and education. We’re on a first name basis and use the German familiar form of address. We talked about Tolstoy. Wolfgang recently read War and Peace in the original Russian language. Go figure. He recommended that I read Somerset Maugham’s short stories, which he reads in English.

I spent a couple of hours over dinner with an “old friend” and one of the two teachers with immeasurable impact on my life.

Wolfgang reads this blog. This is my thank you.


If You Ain’t Got Style, You Ain’t Got Nothin’!

It’s reminiscing time, and a high school friend (EP) just sent me this blurb in an email today:

I teach college-level writing, and was looking over an old American classic of writing instruction, the little white paperback called Elements of Style, by Strunk and White.

And this memory came back: The two of us found a stack of these in a Southwestern classroom, maybe Robie’s debate classroom, and we started to joke about it. I can still hear you say in your accented voice from back then, “If you ain’t got style, you ain’t got nothing!”

Rather than responding to him in an email, I thought I’d write this post instead.

My Writing Shelf [click to enlarge to see individual book titles]
Behind my desk is a bookshelf, and the second shelf down is my “writing shelf.” There are dictionaries, a thesaurus, grammar guides (which I still need on a regular basis), handbook, vocabulary builders (the old Word Smart), a couple of rhyming dictionaries so I can whip out a quick poem now and then. Right from the middle I pulled out my trusty old Strunk and White classic that my friend refers to above. It is copyrighted 1979, I paid $2.25 for it (the faded stamp is still in there), so I must have bought it some years after high school.

English is my third language. I still have a discernible accent, but it’s usually not identified as German, which I generally accept as a compliment. My German language development stopped at age 18, so I only have the German language skills and vocabulary of a teenager. But I remember owning a Stilfibel (Handbook of Style) by Ludwig Reiners, which is definitely the equivalent of Strunk and White in the German language.

There is a box of books in my garage, labeled “languages,” which contains dictionaries for Japanese, Latin, French, Spanish and German and many other foreign-language related books, text books, and the like. I believe my original copy of the Stilfibel is still in that box, but I haven’t opened it for decades. Goodness, I would need it if I had to write anything in German today. I am sure my English vocabulary is ten times the size of my native German one by now, and it’s still growing. I still look up words – like “opacity” as elevated by American current events in the last few days.

I try to keep my language skills up, because, after all — if you ain’t got style, you ain’t got nothin’.


Movie Review: Freedom Writers

It is the time after the Los Angeles Riots in 1992. Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) is a young and idealistic teacher who leaves her safe hometown of Newport Beach to teach freshman and sophomore English at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach. The school has just implemented a voluntary integration program, and gang violence in the community is terrorizing the school. The Latinos hate the blacks, the Cambodians hate the Latinos, every group hates every other group, and the white minority is drowned out. Every kids knows somebody who has been killed by gang violence. The students are un-teachable. None of them have any respect for Ms. Gruwell.

When she intercepts a racist drawing one day, she uses it to teach the kids about the Holocaust. Slowly, one student at a time, she wins them over. She asks them to write journals about their lives and experiences, and slowly she wins their trust. To finance materials and field trips, she takes on a second and third job. In the process, she loses her husband. Only her father sticks with her and supports her endeavor. One by one, she brings the students together and  they transcend their former boundaries and hate. The students become friends, and they revere Ms. G, as they endearingly call her.

Freedom Writers is not just a movie about a high school teacher, it’s about America locked in diversity and divide, trying to overcome the differences, and growing as a microcosm – a single class of kids – and as a nation.

Freedom Writers is an uplifting story that left me feeling enriched and inspired.

Dumbing Down of America: Foreign Student Visas

Our government obviously has something against immigrants, and the whole thing does not make any sense to me. Clearly, the current government is a nationalist government, and they think that is a good thing. I think it’s a terrible mistake, which sets the United States back in the world intellectually and scientifically, and it does damage that it will take decades to repair.

I am not going to talk about agricultural workers for now, service workers, and all those “low income” workers that we depend on every day for the goods we consume and the services we hire. I am not going to talk about the moral abomination of separating children from their parents and putting them in cages.

I am talking about revoking student visas from foreign students if they are only taking online courses during the pandemic. What good could that possibly accomplish other than looking good for a political base that apparently does not understand the foundation of our scientific community and our tech economy.

Do they know that 29% of all Medical Doctors in the United States are foreign born? Have they noticed that just about every emergency room physician interviewed on television during this pandemic appears to be foreign born? We need these doctors. We could use twice as many of them right now.

Do they realize that 79% (yes, 79%) of all Ph.D. candidates in Computer Science studying in the United States are foreigners (as of 2015)?

Do they realize that 75% of all Ph.D. candidates in Industrial Engineering are foreigners?

Do they realize that we need highly educated people in this country if we want to remain competitive in biomedical sciences – like inventing vaccines?

Do they realize that we need computer scientists for the economy of the future if we want to remain at the top of this field?

Our government does not appear to know what it is doing, and the only thing I can think of is that it’s systematically trying to dumb down America as fast as it can.

It seems to be working.

Famous Rhodes Scholars – including Corey Booker and Pete Buttigieg

In the current field of Democratic candidates for president, there are two Rhodes Scholars, which is somewhat unusual.

The Rhodes Scholarship is an international postgraduate award for students to study at the University of Oxford. It was established in 1902, making it the first large-scale programme of international scholarship. The Rhodes Scholarship was founded by English businessman and politician Cecil John Rhodes, to promote unity between English-speaking nations and instill a sense of civic-minded leadership and moral fortitude in future leaders irrespective of their chosen career paths


The Rhodes Scholarship requires a very high academic record and successful extracurricular life.

In addition to:

  • Corey Booker (1994)
  • Pete Buttigieg (2004)

there are many other famous Rhodes Scholars, some of which I am listing here:

  • Edwin Hubble – astronomer, and one of the first Rhodes Scholars
  • J. William Fulbright (1928) – U.S. Senator
  • Kris Kristofferson (1959) – singer, actor
  • Wesley Clarke (1966) – U.S. Army general
  • Bill Clinton (1968) – U.S. President
  • Bill Bradley (1968) – professional basketball player, U.S. Senator
  • Naomi Wolf (1985) – author
  • Susan Rice (1990) – National security advisor
  • Bobby Jindal (1994) – Governor of Louisiana
  • Rachel Maddow (2001) – talk show host
  • Myron Rolle (2009) – NBA football player, medical doctor in neurosurgery


More Thoughts on American Egalitarianism

A few weeks ago I posted about Sigmund Freud’s conclusions after a visit to America.

My friend and French and Latin teacher Pit (PG) corrected some of my thoughts from a grammatical and etymological perspective and I reported on that here. He is correct in all his statements and his language lesson about the origin of you and the fact that you is actually plural from an etymological point of view.

Here is what I said that led to his challenge:

They have trouble, at first, calling everyone “you” in the familiar form. In the English language, we address each other with you, no matter what the relationship is. We talk the same way to our doctors, our supervisors at work, the president of the country, teachers, relatives, parents, students, playmates, buddies and our dogs. Not so in German, French, Spanish, or Japanese, to name just a few major languages which differentiate the common address based on relationship and status.

While Pit is correct, the fact is that modern Americans have no idea that “you” is plural, and even less that “you” is therefore an ancient formal address.

In our world today, “you” certainly seems singular and very familiar, and we are used to addressing everyone the same way.

In German, there is almost a ceremony when you transition from the formal “Sie” address, which is originally plural, per Pit’s discussion, to the familiar “Du.” It does not happen automatically, and generally the elder or higher-ranking in the relationship will propose that the new address henceforth shall be “Du.” And the relationship changes.

Another representation of egalitarianism is the use of first names to address almost everyone in America. We do not use Mr. SoAndSo in our general interactions. We use our first names. There are some exceptions, like when writing business correspondence with people we have never met, in student teacher relationships (but even there not universally) and when initially addressing customers in business situations. However, 99% of the time we call each other by our first names, and that is not something the average German would be used to.

For Germans first arriving in America, and using “you” and the first name to address everyone, is at first disorienting. It takes some getting used to. The inverse is also true. Once used to the linguistic egalitarianism in America, I have run into many a German tourist, and when speaking German with him, I have unthinkingly used the “Du” form simply because it flows out naturally and it goes well with the first name.

Why am I telling you all this? As Thou Thinkest, Thus Thou Feelest!

Education of Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow

Sean Hannity

Hannity attended Sacred Heart Seminary in Hempstead, New York, during his middle school years and St. Pius X Preparatory Seminary high school in Uniondale, New York. He attended New York University, UC Santa Barbara, and Adelphi University, but did not graduate.

— Wikipedia


Rachel Maddow

Maddow earned a degree in public policy at Stanford in 1994. At graduation, she was awarded the John Gardner Fellowship. She was the recipient of a Rhodes Scholarship and began her postgraduate study in 1995 at Lincoln College, Oxford. She had also been awarded a Marshall Scholarship the same year but turned it down in favour of the Rhodes. This made her the first openly gay or lesbian American to win an international Rhodes Scholarship. In 2001, she earned a Doctor of Philosophy (DPhil) in politics at the University of Oxford. Her thesis is titled HIV/AIDS and Health Care Reform in British and American Prisons, and her supervisor was Lucia Zedner.

— Wikipedia

Trump on the Way to Book Burning – Take Two

The Trump Administration has ordered the CDC from using these words in official statements:

  • vulnerable
  • entitlement
  • diversity
  • transgender
  • fetus
  • evidence-based
  • science-based

I posted about this here.

Then I saw the above comment from a poster in Facebook on a friend’s page.

“Love it, doing away with fake words! Go Trump! Just watching liberals freak out and get hysterical over something every other day was worth my vote!”

— Neil Neuwirth

This seems really bizarre. I certainly have severe objections to censorship of any type, particularly as it relates to communication and government. This is the opposite of transparency. Any democracy-minded person should be alarmed when censorship enters the official discourse, particularly at the highest level of government. Mr. Neuwirth does not seem to be worried about that.

Then he calls those words “fake.” I don’t understand. What are the true words for these concepts? Give me a better word for “diversity!” Or “transgender” or “science-based.” I don’t understand the concept of “fake words.” How does a scientific organization like the CDC speak about a fetus without using the word “fetus?”

In the past year, Trump and ilk have created this new concept of “fake” which has become to engender everything they don’t like, it appears. If they don’t unilaterally approve, it’s “fake.” But the contrary is actually the case. When you censor communications, you are hiding the true meaning and covering it up with obfuscation.

Purposefully obfuscating simple concepts so the public can no longer grasp what is really going on is propaganda. We should be weary of propaganda. While the Trump camp now tries to make us believe that all media, foreign and domestic, is “fake news,” except of course Fox News, I suspect the opposite is actually true. When I watch Hannity now I always feel that I am bombarded by propaganda, yet when I read the Washington Post, I feel I am getting clean, succinct and world-class journalism.

By definition, half of the population in the United States has an IQ below average. By banning “big words” the government is pandering to those who have not learned to think critically.

Making America Dumb Again is in full swing.


The First Five Years are so Important

My work is serving human services agencies that administer childcare and early education programs. So I get into contact a lot with educators and activists on behalf of children. In those circles, it is common knowledge that 80% of the brain development occurs during the first five years of life. When you know that, it is tragic to see how many children are left in a state of stupor staring at the compelling distractions on a television screen, bombarded with cheap programs and highly targeted commercial messages.

Small children need to be held, cuddled, tickled, read to, and played with. Children need to be stimulated, they need to be taught.

They need to be loved.

What happens when a small child is completely neglected? Missing the window of the first five years has a devastating effect on the entire life.

Here is the story of a feral child that was found in utter neglect at age 7, and a view of her now at age 19.


The Lowest Bar in Presidential Speeches

“Four score and seven years ago…”

“Ask not what your country can do for you…”

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself…”

Those are two of the most memorable phrases from presidential speeches, and they have entered into the very fabric of our nation’s history.

President Obama was an excellent orator, and I believe that was one of the major contributors to his meteoric rise. Critics spent years ridiculing him for reading from a teleprompter. I don’t agree. I have personally given many a speech in my life, never with a teleprompter, and never with a deck of cards or sheet of paper. I know a bit about what it takes to give a powerful speech, and I know that Obama is one of the outstanding orators of our time. Yes, he needs a teleprompter because there are not enough hours in the day for him to memorize all these speeches. But it was always obvious to me that he knew what he was talking out. When Obama spoke, he spoke from within, and the teleprompter was there to make sure he didn’t miss his points. It never felt like Obama was reading.

President Trump, in contrast, is a completely inadequate speaker. He did not get elected for his oratorical skills. Trump cannot even form a coherent sentence on his own, let alone speak. He spouts trite soundbites, and he repeats them for effect. When Trump speaks from the teleprompter, he sounds wooden, like he is reading his material.

Trump is so bad, that the media praise him when he simply reads, in his wooden, stilted way, a speech without going off script. He is so transparent that we know immediately when he is off script, since he sprinkles in Trumpisms like “believe me” or “that I can tell you” which no speech writer would ever insert. Trump does not speak any better than an average fifth-grader even when he reads.

The bar of presidential speeches is now so low that we praise the president when he reads a statement and stays on track, like he did in response to the Las Vegas shooting. In the future, our textbook examples of presidential speeches will highlight:

“Four score and seven years ago…”

“Ask not what your country can do for you…”

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself…”

“That I can tell you….”

Polarization over School Lunch Programs

One of Michelle Obama’s signature accomplishments was the institution of healthy school lunches around the country. The Trump Administration has just rolled back that initiative. Here is Michelle’s response to that.

She argues understandably that she doesn’t understand how somebody can actually say they don’t care if our children eat crap. “Who does that?” she asks.

Some of the comments under that video in YouTube are grotesque and offensive. Obviously, the cardinal rule is: Never read the comments under a political YouTube. I could not help it, here are some:

Ok, Tomahawk1775 is pointing out that the school lunches didn’t taste good. But since he can’t make a coherent argument, he tries to make his point by spouting obscenities and insulting Obama. You can say anything about Michelle Obama, but you can’t say she does not have a brain. She has a law degree from Harvard. I wonder what Tomahawk1775’s degree is?


Chelsea Roan resorts to a similar strategy, albeit more crass, and more offensive. No actual argument. Just crude personal attacks. But at least she uses her own name and stands behind her assault. She is not hiding behind an anonymous handle.


Santacruz474 just makes an observation and interpretation, which appears flawed. I don’t believe that Obama is shallow enough to be just pissed about “her program.” I truly believe Obama is concerned about the future of our country and about the nutrition of our children.


Here, CritterOnFire (anonymous) and Amanda Gonzalez (apparent actual name) use deflection because apparently they can’t come up with a logical answer. The deflection on abortion is not only inappropriate in this context, it is illogical and it points out a common fallacy of the so-called pro-life proponents. Pro-life is defined as “opposing abortion and euthanasia.” These two people, and many others in the pro-life circles, are using false logic by labeling the opponents of pro-life, who we call pro-choice, as people who are somehow pro-death. There is, if course, a huge difference.

Then inferring that “Democrats are saying ‘abort all the kids, abortion is great'” is an insult to all Democrats. Not all Democrats are pro-choice, not all pro-choice people think abortion is great. As a matter of fact, I know some pro-choice people, of course, and I haven’t met a single one who thinks abortion is great.


Finally, there are tons of statements like this. That’s why we came up with the term “deplorable.” I am sorry, Pana Sonic, but your statement is deplorable.


So what have we learned?

  1. Never read the comments below any political YouTube.
  2. Our country is polarized and hateful. We write and comment things about each other that we’d never openly say to each other at a backyard BBQ party.
  3. Pro-choice is not pro-abortion or pro-death.
  4. School lunch programs have serious issues.

Since this is about school lunch programs, we should discuss this in more detail.

I believe that nobody in the country would argue that we want our kids to eat crap, well almost nobody. We agree with Michelle Obama on that. The problem is that it’s not the school’s job to nourish children. It’s the parents’ job. Researching for just a few minutes lays open that the school lunch programs, as implemented by Obama, were a failure. Not because the lunches were supposed to be healthy, but because the children didn’t eat them. They went into the trash. Administrators and school officials everywhere seem to agree that the trash cans were overflowing with unopened and untouched food. Not only did we waste the money spent on the food, but we ended up not feeding the children.

Parents report that they had to pack lunches, since the children complained about the food and went hungry.

Clearly, while Obama’s initiative was admirable, the way the program was implemented does not seem to have been successful.

I do not know what thought the Trump Administration put into the repeal of the program, but I am sure it wasn’t an initiative to start feeding kids “crap” again. It had something to do with the philosophy that it’s not the job of the public to nourish children. It’s the job of the parents. They wanted to stop spending money on food going into the trash.

That leaves us with the dilemma of what to do. Dictating a certain menu to schools nationwide, while it makes sense in concept, didn’t work in practice. Our children eat what they are taught is good at home. That’s what they expect in school. Government is not good at dictating what people eat. That has never worked before, and it’s not going to work in the future.

The problem, of course, is that for a significant portion of our children of poor families, the school lunch may be the only solid, sound and reliable meal they get in a day.

This, too, is not viewed as a government problem. It’s one of education and it’s one of parents acting responsibly. Unfortunately, this is now a generational problem. We have a generation of children whose parents and grandparents never learned the tenets of proper nutrition, who have been nourished by McDonald’s. How could they pass on good nutritional habits?

There is no easy answer to school lunches. Polarizing the issue with hate messages going in both direction is not solving the problem. And the children continue to eat poorly.

I know I have readers who are professional educators. I encourage their comments and insight.


Betsy DeVos Booed at University Graduation Address

This is really cringeworthy. DeVos wearing a Masters gown, even though she has only a B.A. degree from Calvin College, a Christian university.

She reads her speech off a piece of paper. She is stiff and wooden, and the speech has no substance or inspiration whatsoever, not because the subject of the speech she chose, but because everyone knows she’s a phoney.

How did she even get invited? Who thought this was a good idea?

DeVos has no place giving a commencement speech, and she proved it here.

This is how we are making America great again!

Backward Thinking in Trump’s Government on Coal

Here is Trump rolling back progress in keeping our federal lands protected, our air clean, and our heritage intact. And he is proud of it, telling the coal workers behind him that they’re getting their jobs back. This makes no sense to me whatsoever.

First, as the Washington Post article suggests, the action will not make any difference in the number of coal jobs. Coal production and consumption in the United States has gone from about 820 million tons in 2000 through about 2007, and have steadily declined to below 600 million tons long before Obama’s freeze on federal coal leasing in 2015. Demand has been well below supply for the last 15 years. Trump’s ceremonial undoing of Obama’s regulation will not make any difference in this trend. We’ll burn less coal, and that’s a good thing.

Trump and his cronies paid by the coal industry are reveling in the admiration of the coal workers.

COAL WORKERS, for heaven’s sake! Coal is one of the dirtiest industries. There is no such thing as clean coal. Not only does it pollute the environment, our water, our forests, coal mines are ugly and leave scars upon the land that will be there for millions of years. Coal workers get sick and die years, sometimes decades earlier than their contemporaries. Read Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence and then tell me you want to work in a coal mine! But Trump and his billionaire cronies think they are doing these coal workers a favor by sending them back into mines. And the coal workers seem to be lapping it up. This is so wrong.

The coal workers should be going to school and learn about solar power. That’s where the money is. That’s where the jobs are.

source: Forbes

This chart shows there are more than four times as many jobs in the solar industry as there are in the coal industry. Even wind energy jobs are more plentiful than coal.

When coal demand goes down to 400 million tons in the next ten years, those are the skills they will need.

Trump will ride into the sunset of his life then, much richer, living in his golden tower, and the miners will still be unemployed, dreaming about working in coal mines, and admiring their billionaire benefactor.

This makes no sense to me at all.