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Posts Tagged ‘poverty’

Recently I was shopping at South Shore Plaza and decided to visit the restroom to take a peek in the mirror and check out how I looked. Hey, even mature guys like me must look presentable when cruising the mall. Of course, none of the young ladies that I’m hoping to impress are interested in checking out the guys with graying temples, shapeless butts and sagging jowls anyway.

As I was leaving the restroom an older gentleman who was standing nearby, grabbed a paper towel from the dispenser, smiled and asked how I was doing.

Now believe me, the last thing I want to do when I’m in a mall restroom is converse with a stranger, particularly when he’s smiling and flashing his pearly whites. Call me old fashioned but there are certain rules that must be adhered to while using a public restroom and smiling and chatting are gestures almost universally frowned upon. In fairness to my would be conversationalist, it was a warm smile and certainly not threatening in any manner.

The man smiled and said “think hard” and so I did as he suggested. My mind raced as I searched for the identity of this stranger because the more I scrutinized the man’s face the more familiar he looked. Since I had spent most of my life in Charlestown, and had relatively few acquaintances in the vicinity of the Plaza I assumed the man was from my old neighborhood.

However, earlier in my career I had worked as a jail guard and often encountered former prisoners on the street. Consequently, I always exercise extreme caution when “bumping” into strangers who recognize me. Not knowing what to say and trying to buy time, I blurted out “Charlestown” and the stranger smiled saying “that’s right, Charlestown, its Mr. Avery”.

No sooner had the words left the man’s mouth then my thoughts drifted back over thirty years earlier to Charlestown High and the life altering advice that our guidance counselor, Mr. Avery had offered during a personally challenging time. Seventeen years old, hopelessly in lust with a young lady from one of my classrooms and wondering where life would take me following graduation.

Sure I had signed up for the draft but I didn’t really want to go to Vietnam because several of my neighbors had shipped out and returned home in body bags to grieving friends and family members. Hell, I had barely left the confines of the Bunker Hill housing projects and rarely ventured beyond Charlestown never mind fight in a war light years away from home.

No one in my family had ever attended college or even contemplated doing so leading me to believe that I was destined to follow their lead. Given my personal circumstances there was no reason for me to even remotely consider the possibility of furthering my education. Then my friends and I were having way too much fun hanging on “Dope Corner”, drinking in the project hallways and running away from the cops whenever the neighbors “ratted” us out.

I figured I could always find a decent job and make a respectable living if push came to shove. I just wasn’t in any great rush to be shoved.

I remembered how Mr. Avery and I had discussed personal issues and talked about my going to college and leaving welfare and the projects behind. Years later, my mother would often remind me of how proud she was that I had graduated from college, earned a Master’s and became the first member of her family to obtain a driver’s license and own a home.

A guidance counselor’s charge is to help students to raise their self esteem, gravitate toward their goals and discuss and by extension reduce unpleasant feelings associated with their problems. Guidance counselors, or at least the good ones are supposed to help us labor through those awkward teenage years.

Guidance counselors play an integral role in the success of the students and in their interactions with teachers, classmates and parents as they wend their way through seemingly endless school years en route to adulthood. Mr. Avery was an incredibly concerned and compassionate counselor and all the kids had great respect and admiration for him.

Mr. Avery and I left the restroom and he introduced me to his wife whom he met when they were in the seventh grade. We talked about my family and job and discussed the whereabouts of several of my former classmates including those long deceased or serving lengthy prison sentences.

I told Mrs. Avery how her husband had influenced my life greatly and how much I appreciated his help and guidance. Mr. Avery and I shook hands and parted company knowing that we might never meet again. I thanked my friend for remembering me so many years later and for breaking the rules about smiling in the men’s room and for taking the time to stop and talk with me.

Unfortunately, Mr. Avery couldn’t save all of us but that never stopped him from trying. I know that my classmates echo my sentiments and appreciation for his dedication to an often thankless job and for guiding us when we needed help the most

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What Christmas is all about. Helping one another

David Flanagan

As the holiday season approaches I thought of sharing the following piece. I wrote the story about twenty years ago when my kids (and I) were much younger. I decided to leave it unchanged from the original despite editorial changes I would make now if rewriting the story.

The story appeared in various local newspapers on the editorial page and I think my angst over being able to provide for my children as a parent then is perhaps even more true for many now given the current economic climate.

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Over the past few months, we’ve been continuously bombarded by an endless flow of advertisements from merchants heralding the arrival of the holiday season and announcing the availability of their products.

Of all the merchants hawking their wares and urging us to spend our hard earned dollars, perhaps none are as persistent or potentially influential as those who represent the toy and games industry. Television commercials, full-page newspaper ads and glitzy flyers all implore us to do one thing-run out to the nearest mall ASAP and pick up as many items as possible in time for Christmas.

Have I been affected by their pleas? Of course, toys and games are loads of fun, and after all don’t I have two kids at home who are anxiously awaiting the arrival of Santa? Let’s face it, the advertisements have worked or shall I say the arm twisting has been extremely effective. I mean, what type of father would I be if I didn’t do everything in my power to make sure that the kids are amply rewarded with as many toys and games as possible? Talk about guilt feelings!

So recently I found myself at the Independence Mall among hundreds of other parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and other would-be Santas joined in the quest for the ideal gifts. As I wandered down aisle after aisle of bikes, games, dolls, Playstations and stuffed animals I found myself simultaneously awed and disheartened over the exorbitant cost of toys today.

Forty dollars for a not-so-cute doll, fifty bucks for a Legends of Wrestling videogame, $130 for My Size Barbie as Rapunzel and $250 for the Star Wars 25th anniversary LEGO Imperial Star Destroyer.

As my journey continued I experienced tremendous feelings of ambivalence toward the holiday season. On the one hand I was thrilled at the thought of being able to purchase gifts for the kids and witnessing the pleasure that such items would surely bring. Conversely, I felt great concern and guilt over whether I would truly be able to afford enough gifts to ensure such pleasure.

At the same time, I began thinking about other parents who, as a result of the current economic climate, may not have the wherewithal to feed, clothe or house their children, never mind smother them with gifts. What does a single mother tell her child on Christmas morning when the boy rushes over to their tree and finds that there’s nothing beneath it?

How does an unemployed father answer a child who asks, as tears well up in her beautiful blue eyes, what has she done that was so wrong, so terrible that it could cause Santa to abandon her this Christmas? What crosses a little boy’s mind when he visits his friend’s house and notices a mountain of toys and games heaped beneath the tree?

While thinking about these questions I found myself drifting back to my own childhood and recalling Christmases past: the annual Christmas Eve ritual of leaving out hot cocoa and cookies for Santa and carrots for his reindeer, my sister and I opening our gifts and the family gatherings at Nana’s home in Dorchester.

How wonderful those Christmases were and how fortunate I am to have such pleasant, enduring memories of them. Yet, while my Christmas memories are indeed positive ones, there were several that may not have been quite so enjoyable had it not been for the generosity and compassion of various charitable organizations and their contributors. Charities and Good Samaritans that come to mind include the men and women who threw the annual Christmas party in the Charlestown Navy Yard, Globe Santa in Boston, Scituate Community Christmas, the Kennedy Center and Townie Santa, and the Salvation Army among others.

Unless you have been fortunate to have received assistance from one of the many charitable organizations that exist I’m not sure that you can ever really appreciate how wonderful a service they provide to their recipients. Such organizations and the volunteers who support them truly embody the spirit of Christmas and can make a profound difference in the lives of those dependent upon them.

Think about it-total strangers coming together, giving of their time, money and energy to help make life a bit more bearable for people whom they may never meet. That to me is truly what Christmas is all about.

Has Christmas become too commercialized and focused on material pleasures and the temporary satisfaction that showering one another with gifts during the holidays brings? Yes, of course it has and in reality there is so much more to Christmas and the holiday season such as getting together with family and friends and celebrating how much we mean to one another. It also means reaching out to help someone in need and trying to bring a smile of joy to those we encounter in all that we do.

Like most parents I have always tried to instill within my children the same strong values of honesty, compassion, hard work that my mother provided to me by way of example.

However, my point here is that when your kids are young you simply have to try to find the right balance of making their wishes for material things come true until such time as they’re mature enough to realize there is so much more to Christmas morning than finding a pile of gifts beneath the tree. Sure, many never mature to the point where they acknowledge that there is more to life than just self satisfaction but that is a story for another day.

A neighbor informed me that she doesn’t support Christmas only-oriented charitable organizations since she believes it is inappropriate to focus on helping kids one day a year while ignoring their plight for the other 364 days. I can understand the point that my friend is trying to make; however I totally disagree with her. Yes, of course we should try to help one another each and every day of the year. Unfortunately, however, there’s really no way that we’ll ever be able to fully eradicate the poverty, hunger and hatred confronting mankind, nor ease the pain and suffering that people, particularly our children, are experiencing with an ever-growing frequency.

The least that we can do is to try to brighten up their day and bring a smile to their face around the holidays when they might otherwise be forgotten.

To those who can afford to put a little bit of money or time aside I would ask that you consider making a contribution to one of the many Christmas charitable organizations that work tirelessly to ensure that no one is forgotten during the holiday season. I can assure you that your compassion and consideration will be appreciated and never, ever forgotten.

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David Flanagan

Herald op/ed page several years ago

Not long ago I read a newspaper account about several of my boyhood friends from Charlestown who were sentenced to life in prison on charges that include murder and armed robbery. Anyone else reading the story might have thought about it a bit then perhaps moved on to the sports pages. But I put the paper down, closed my eyes and drifted back to a simpler time many years ago, when all that my friends and I could think about was how to best spend a lazy summer day.

Looking back, I see a group of teenagers playing cards on the cold, dirty, concrete steps at 17 Carney Court, one of dozens of red brick buildings in the 1,000 unit Bunker Hill housing projects. In the background, that quintessential 60’s song “Light My Fire” blasts from a transistor radio.

As our interest in the card game wanes, our thoughts turn toward whether to play a game of pickup baseball, ride our bikes or head to the nearby Mystic River for a swim. In many ways we were no different from kids beyond the project walls, yet at the same time we were worlds apart.

I see a group of kids dependent upon welfare: living in homes without role models: with visible and not-so-obvious alcohol or drug abuse. Some of these children went to bed each night never knowing what they would wake up to the next morning and praying that the next day would be better than the last.

I wonder about my old friends, about what they have been up to for the past 35 years and whether they are truly guilty of the crimes. I’m flooded with emotions about our childhood, growing up in the projects and the tragedy of living day to day in an environment that offered little hope of fulfilling dreams and goals.

Project kids often do not have access to employment and educational opportunities, family vacations or a night out at a first class restaurant. Nor do they have perfectly manicured lawns, little white picket fences, fine clothes, privacy or even a cellar for saving cherished memorabilia. The often forgotten and maligned project kids sometimes have to step over drunks and drug addicts and wade through human and animal waste to get into their apartments.

These kids must learn how to endure the sneers and taunts of those living outside the projects, and how to smile cheerfully while silently seething when someone calls them a “project rat” and tells their children to stay away from “them”. Kids from the projects must learn to distinguish the echo made when a 38 caliber is fired from the sound of fireworks and to look the other way when they see something they shouldn’t have seen. Above all project kids must strive to never, ever lower their eyes and stare at the ground in shame when asked where they live.

I can’t help but wonder about what effect the unique, personal challenges each of my friends faced as kids may have had on their ability to “make it” and prosper within society. Each of us knew what the others were going through we just chose to remain silent about it, hoping that by maintaining our “Code of Silence” things would get better but they never did. Regrettably, many of these kids did indeed live “lives of quiet desperation”.

Then it seemed as though hardly a month passed by without hearing about the death of one of our friends succumbing to the thrust of a knife, a flash from a gun or the ravages of drugs. The helpless and often terrifying feeling of never knowing who might be next or whether the madness would ever end. Wakes and funerals packed with grieving friends and heartbroken family members numbed by the senseless passing of children far before their time.

Normally, I am cynical toward those who seek to blame an individual’s antisocial behavior on his socioeconomic background, parents, or self-esteem. However, deep within me I know that a number of my friends would not have been murdered or incarcerated, and wouldn’t have committed crimes or abused drugs if they had been exposed to a bit more compassion, hope or opportunity as youngsters.

A lack of opportunity or hope is by no means an excuse to commit a crime or to hurt another, but I suppose it is possible that those without either may fall victim to external influences and temptations at a greater rate. Returning to the present, opening my eyes, I thought, “There but for the grace of God, go I” before I turned my attention to the sports pages.

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