May Day . . . then and now

Hello on a Wednesday afternoon from my office,

When I was growing up as a child in Northwest Iowa, May 1st was a celebratory day. We had a May festival at school and we practiced dances and we had bleacher set up at my school yard and parents came to watch their sons and daughters perform. The May pole was a great thing and I remember hoping I might somehow get to dance with the prettiest girl in my class (which, somehow never happened; perhaps because I was smaller, had incredibly large ears, and was not the most coordinated kid in the class). As a festival of Celtic origin, there was an appropriateness for this small Northwest Iowa boy who can trace some of his ethnic heritage to County Cork, but as an elementary boy who was beyond shy around girls it was a chance to be able to speak with them without having to have a pretense. Certainly I was unaware of the symbolism of the May Pole and the interweaving of the dance and the ribbons. The flowers in May baskets was another part of that celebration. Perhaps that is where my appreciation for flowers, which is a significant part of my life today, began. It was the beginning of considering the summer and being away from school, of being able to play and ride my bike as we all did. We tore up the sidewalks and alleys with all our riding, which we could do for hours. As I look back now, I thought my life was complicated because of being an adopted child and some of the difficulties that went with that (much of it discussed in previous blog posts), but what I realize now it life was quite simple. Everything I actually realized as a need was supplied. There were other things that probably should have happened, but that is for another time.

Having two Russian (well, one technically Moldovan) students this year, I am aware of the May 1st holiday in the former Soviet Union as a celebration of International Workers’ Day. Certainly, it is still acknowledged in the Russian Federation and is a national holiday. It reminds me of a perchance conversation that occurred in a Georgian Restaurant in Poland. It was a conversation about growing up during the Cold War for two of us, and for the other two growing up in the Soviet era or in the current Russian Federation and how we understood or perceived the other. As a small child, I did not realize the difference in how those on the other side of the world celebrated May Day and how their practice on that day was so different from what I did at Riverview Elementary School. We were taught to fear the Soviets and hide under our desks in case of an air raid. The Soviet Union was the big bad boogie man, so to speak. My Polish traveling colleague, who was born during the time of the CCCP, speaks about weekly requirements they had to research and understand the United States and to present what they learned to their classmates. What a much more reasonable way to understand the other than what I did as an elementary school child. The one student (both are students of the Financial University under the Government of the Russian Federation – Финансовый университет при Правительстве Российской Федерации) takes all her classes in English in spite of the fact she is a Russian studying in Russia. That blows my mind. I am trying to imagine myself trying to take classes in German (which is the foreign language I know most proficiently of the several I have acquaintance with) as a student at an American University. Holy Buckets!!

Yesterday in my Rhetoric class I asked my students to define civility and then have a conversation about why and how it is we have become such an uncivilized people. Pondering the variety of comments and the way the conversation proceeded, it was interesting how one student noted that we have so much different from others, but I countered, perhaps we have more in common than we have different. Be that as it may, the fact that he noted the difference before the similarity speaks volumes. While this is a bit simplistic, I am quite sure that most parents work at an early age to teach their children manners, to be appropriate, to treat the other with respect. Those actions have a lot to basic civility and yet we seem to have lost those childhood lessons. I have noted previously that when I was about eight years old my grandmother said to me one day, “Michael, always be a gentleman.” She said it in a tone that was both caring and serious. She had little tolerance for disrespect or rudeness. At the amazing age of eight (or third grade for me) I thought she meant it was important to say please and thank you. Thinking back now, I think it might have been because I had gotten in trouble on the playground for retaliating when someone had hit or hurt me. I was smaller than most of my classmates and what I know now is I was bullied more than I realized. I called it negative teasing at one point, but now I realize my small stature and my fear of those bigger than I led to more difficulties in daily life than I knew. I learned to stay away from those who were mean and also learned to keep a smile on my face regardless the situation. There was more to managing my life at that point, but those lessons of being civil in what were sometime uncivil treatment perhaps prepared me for life as an adult. As I generally try to do, I must admit there are times I have failed to be a gentleman or to be civil, but generally I work hard to do both. It is that being human, and sometimes it vexes me more than I wish it did.

What are the reasons for our lack of civility? I think that is a question we must individually ask ourselves and then follow up with pondering the consequence of the propensity of our present world to act with little to no tolerance. The consequence is what I noted in my last blog. I know that I was taught to act differently. I was taught to have respect and address elders respectfully. It was more than a teaching, it was an expectation, and to do less than would result in a reprimand that caused me to rethink forgetting to ask appropriately in the future. I remember failing a quarter of chemistry when I was a junior in high school. That evening when I had no reasonable answer for my failure, my father called my chemistry teacher. He would get to the bottom of things. After speaking with my chemistry teacher, he did not blame the teacher for my failure nor did he question why the teacher did not do more to help me pass. He simply informed me that I was grounded for 9 weeks, and when I smarted off – not a wise move on my part – I was grounded to my room for 9 weeks. There was no discussion; there was no bargaining. The punishment was imposed and it stood. I could have tried to argue, but that would have created only a deeper hole, and I was already deeply embedded and any more protestation would result in added sinking on my part. I needed to understand the consequences of my failure and when my father was the person to impose said consequence, I knew I had overstepped the boundary. There was no blaming the other. It was mine and I had to own it.

As we move into the last couple days of classes and toward finals, students are coming to terms with what they have or have not done during the past 14 weeks. I am always a bit stunned when I hear students lament how difficult college is. I do not say this to sound uncaring because I am keenly aware of the myriad of difficulties that face students from increasing costs to food insecurity, from family issues that distract to being a first generation college student, but in terms of what is required here, things are generally laid out quite well. If one considers the process for a moment, here is what first year students have: a place to live; utilities paid for them; food cooked for them; a schedule created for them telling them where to go and when to go there; and in a syllabus they have what they must do and when for each class. I wish people would help me in so many ways on a daily basis, and yet, we hear regularly that it is so difficult. How does that happen? I am feeling a bit curmudgeonly at the moment, but how is it that so many 18-19 year olds find that so arduous? It is not merely entitlement. We seem to want to blame everything on that, but I think it is more complex. Undoubtedly it is about learning to manage what is on one’s plate, but perhaps it is something as simple as discipline. Unquestionably, it is learning accountability for what one does, but how do we teach accountability? When should we teach it? Whose job is it? The other day in my rhetoric class, we considered the issue of food insecurity on campuses. What is that you might ask? It means that students do not have either have the monetary resources, the physical access or sustainable possibilities to maintain a healthy and nutritious diet. The result is more than merely being hungry. What I asked after helping them realize what this is, I asked whose responsibility it was to manage this? I got a variety of answers. Not surprisingly, some argued it was the university’s responsibility. Undeniably, I believe the university needs to have resources to help students, but I think the university has the responsibility at the admissions level to help students and parents understand all the costs. When they are in the dorm that is one thing, but when they are in apartments, either on or off campus, the way that is managed is something quite different.

I did not know until the last year that the only thing our brain uses is carbohydrates. I think I noted that recently, and about 1,300 grams of carbs a day is what your brain needs to function optimally. If you want to know about eating on a budget and with some modicum of nutrition, this is what my students have been working on in my technical writing courses the last couple of years. If you look at the following: https://www.huskieshelpinghuskies.com/, you will find some options. It is continually updated at the end of the semesters. One of the things I am most proud of is my students came up with the idea to put this on line and to get alumni to donate through the Foundation. This is a great example of students looking beyond themselves. Certainly not a sense of entitlement on their part. This is part of the complexity that is being a student today. It is an element of all the ways students work to understand this complex world they are moving toward “adulting” in. One of the most amazing things about being a professor today (and probably so when I was a student) was how one becomes an academic mentor, but also the professor. I am reminded of Dr. John W. Nielsen, one of my two advisors, noting that being a professor is exactly that: it is professing by both word and action. That is not that difficult, but it takes thought; it requires me to stop and think and ponder, but that has been part of who I am since I was small.

I was never content knowing the why; I wanted to know the why about the why, and perhaps even more about a third why. I am now old enough that I do not sleep through the night and I am often awake at 2:15 a.m. If you have read my blog with any regularity, you know that sometimes that is when these missives begin. It is also the time I try to make sense of this crazy (and growing more so) world that we find around us. Each day this week I have been stunned by the events in a country that was built on such profound democratic principles. Certainly, democracy was at work this week, but there are a variety of understanding on how that should work. The very discord we have is democracy at work, but it is also important to consider what is under the discord and how that affects our checks and balances. It is an unbelievable time to be in the country (or in the world for that matter). I wonder if it was similar in the 1850s and 1860s. It seems to me, and I was a history major and took a class specifically on the Civil War one interim, that the struggle over slavery had the same potential to destroy our country much like some of the chaos today. Each day seems to create a new craziness. Life was so much simpler when I only had a May Day Dance to worry about. Certainly those days were much more about living each day and having fun, and by doing whatever the day required. Requirements were decided by parents, other adults, and our teachers. It was not complicated. There are times I wish it were that simple again. The picture above is of a May Day in Russia. You can see the Kremlin in the background. I will get to see these amazing buildings soon. We all have a voice of our history that calls on us to remember the lessons of our past and realize that we can learn from those times. It is a voice of years and seasons and a voice that can provide comfort and hope for the future.

Thank you as always for reading. I wish you a beautiful and hopeful May and beyond.

Dr. Martin