Letters to the editor

Thanks to an early-morning bagel heroine

Deb Hanek (I’m not sure of the spelling), a professor of nursing at UNCA, did a very nice thing this morning at Brueggar’s Bagels in Biltmore, as did the woman behind the counter (sorry, I don’t know her name).

I was making my run for a bagel and juice before work … when I stood at the register realizing that I had no cash and had written my last check the night before. I quickly ran to the car to get my credit card. Declined. The card expired yesterday at midnight.

I want to scream but — defeated — I just think to myself, it figures. That’s the way everything seems to be going lately. At that point Deb, standing just behind me in line, says, “I’ll pay for her.” I offer to take her address and mail her the money. She says don’t worry about it.

I stood stunned. The woman behind the register wants to thank Deb for her kindness, so she grabs a punch card and proceeds to fill it up: Deb will get a free item on her next visit.

This is not newsworthy stuff in our world. No baby was saved. No giant act of heroism was demonstrated. But it is huge when the “end-of-winter blues” gets to a person and all they can see are the things that go wrong. It’s easy to start expecting that from the world. And so I just want to thank these people who, at 8:30 in the morning, proved we don’t have to buy into it. As for the rest of us, let’s all try to be that person to someone else. You never know what it might do.


— Elisabeth Bocklet

Honoring an eloquent environmentalist

There are those voices, distinctive above the pack, that are bell clear and tell you what you need to know. Donella Meadows had such a voice.

An eloquent, impassioned scientist who turned to the media professionally as the tool for reaching society with her message, she was an astute environmental and social columnist for the past decade.

Her writing impact began much sooner, during the early years of her scientific career as a systems analyst, when she teamed with others in 1972 to produce the timely and prescient book The Limits to Growth. The team had performed one of the first attempts at computer-modeling the environmental implications of the rates of growth and resource consumption in the world. This book was a clarion call that is still sounding, magnified in its subsequently validating follow-up, Beyond the Limits.

Meadows — who held a truly positive vision of our capacity to understand and correct our course — took her understanding of the laws of nature and the responsibilities of society and began to write remarkable, accessible prose in the form of weekly editorial columns that gained national readership.

That unique and eloquent voice was lost last month. An untimely illness took Meadows’ life, and leaves a threatening silence in its wake. It is a loss I feel personally.

I used a collection of Meadows’ essays, The Global Citizen, when I taught graduate courses in environmental communication at Antioch New England. Our school was just down the road from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where Meadows was a part-time professor. She quickly became a heroine to our students — and to me — because of the depth of her understanding based on scientific findings and the breadth of her humanity based on personal experience and compassion.

A favorite essay for most students was entitled “Living Lightly and Inconsistently on the Land.” In it, she spoke with humor and forthrightness about the struggles and the self-righteousness involved in living out a personal environmental ethic. “We were the best global citizens we knew how to be,” she wrote. “And we were a pain in the neck.”

Vividly conscious of her humanity and that of the people around her, Meadows always combined this awareness with her love for natural systems and her passion for harmony. She never stopped examining her own lifestyle or questioning the global toll society takes on an ecology that has finite limits. But she never lost her gift for lifting the discourse to a higher level and searching for a perspective that could become a common goal.

And she never gave up her personal commitment to be the best global citizen she knew how to be. Shortly before she died, she helped launch a new venture of ecologically sensitive housing and community on a lovely hillside in Hartland, Vt.

The last column of hers that I was privileged to read was sent to me by a friend just recently. It was entitled, “What Comes Next: Outrage or Passivity?” Meadows was challenging our willing reliance on complacency — which affects not just our environment, but our democracy.

“The large issue,” she said, regarding our recent presidential election, “is what the history books will say happened next.” She then painted a glowing picture of citizens demanding trustworthy voting machines and ballot handling, reaffirmation of the Voting Rights Act, the institution of campaign-finance reform, and the reclaiming of democracy that would inspire others around the world.

Her alternative: a dispirited society sinking back into “a TV-fed trance” that allows for an erosion of democratic ideals and realities until an “unrestrained desire for power” effects a “complete disrespect for the people.” Profoundly, she closes by saying, “That’s what democracy was designed to avoid.”

Meadows always saw the connections. She understood what a deadly game we play when we ignore the ecological limits of life on this planet. She dedicated her life to sounding an alarm — albeit in a civilized and human voice — regarding the daily decisions made by each of us that have consequences for us all. And she comprehended the danger of a society in which the citizens remove themselves from both the nature of the green world and the nature of the political power.

Her vision of “The Global Citizen” was one of attention, responsibility and active participation. May it not die with her.

[Editor’s note: For a series of essays from Meadows’ The Global Citizen column, dated 1996-2001, visit http://iisd.ca/pcdf/Meadows/default.htm on the Web.]

— Nelda Holder

New school transfer policy a red herring

Buncombe County School Superintendent Cliff Dodson’s new policy of not releasing students to the [Asheville] city-school system is the classic example of trying to fix something that ain’t broke. [Releasing students] is a policy that’s been in effect for over 30 years, and now, after seven months in his position, Dodson thinks he knows what’s best for this community.

There is no mass exodus of students clamoring to get into the city schools: 300 out of 25,000 county-[district] kids currently have opted out, and this is offset by 100 city students who choose to attend county schools. This is a net lost of 200 kids — less than 1 percent of the county student population. Dodson claims they are the best and the brightest, but he has no way of knowing this. I have spoken to many parents, and each one has a different reason for choosing city schools, the most prominent being the diversity of the student body. His claims that keeping these students will make for more advanced-placement classes is ridiculous: The county has 10 times as many students as the city.

Dodson’s other stated reason for making the change is to bolster the communities and schools where these kids live. This is another red herring. The original school-district boundaries were never drawn to promote communities, and they are so arbitrary that … next-door neighbors are zoned differently. Also, the numbers involved are so small (less than 1 percent) that they don’t make for the crisis he envisions.

Mr. Dodson, if there is a problem with the current policy, please be forthcoming. Otherwise, work on strengthening the programs at the county schools, learn about the diverse community you have recently joined, and then you will be qualified to make recommendations rather than issuing proclamations.

You don’t strengthen communities or schools by forcing kids to attend against their will. You build schools and communities by giving children and parents choices and involving them in the day-to-day decisions that affect their lives. Don’t take away our freedom to choose!

— Joshua Tager

Amount of Social Security benefits for disabled shameful

It was great to see a letter written about disability [Feb. 28]. Ms. Hubbard has been working a long time to get community action for the ignored disabled people. All of the ideas Ms. Hubbard mentions are wonderful, and it is an ambitious agenda upon which she and others have embarked.

One item that wasn’t mentioned that I feel the community should be aware of is the amount of money many of us receive. I get $507 a month in Social Security. I was [injured] when I had just accumulated enough working quarters to be eligible for Social Security at age 21. There are many of us struggling to live on these low amounts of money. I would like all of you to really think about what it would be like to live on this amount of money. … It is a frightening existence; many [disabled people] live on the streets for lack of affordable housing throughout the nation.

It breaks my heart every time a new budget comes out and the rhetoric on tax cuts gets heated. Instead of these huge breaks for the richest 1 percent, how about an extra $100-$200 a month for those who live under a certain amount per month — say $800 a month. I still have a parent alive and am lucky for a bit of assistance, but I pray when she is gone that I shortly follow. I know this sounds like I am not being tough enough, but after almost 25 years of pain and surgeries, I am tired of the struggle. I hope ACCESS can bring about some changes.

All I can hope anyone can do is write our representatives, knowing that won’t get us very far, but at least we could give it a try. No one asks to be disabled and I am sure all would rather work. And for those who work off the books, one day you may get hurt and have to struggle on the minimum amount of benefits Social Security has to offer. You don’t want to go down that path. The money will be there for those who so cavalierly say they won’t live long enough to see Social Security or that it won’t exist. The joke will be on you if it does exist and you do live long enough to be entitled to benefits.

— Melinda Haigh

Tree harvesting leaves hollow feeling

Maybe it’s the mountains or the collective spirit of our local population, or maybe it’s just my maturity showing, but this last job put that hollow feeling in my stomach. This must have been shades of how Oppenheimer felt at the end of the Manhattan Project. I do this thing called systems integration. It means I go out to a new plant or some industrial application and make it work. Pretty mundane stuff, of no real social significance — or so I thought.

My last project was for a certain well-known paper company. They had built a totally automated sawmill for lumber production. I was part of a team assigned to do the startup. We do our jobs pretty well — maybe too well, in this case. We got it running, then, in our parlance, we optimized this baby. Sawmilling is not, by tradition, a pretty process, but this monster of a plant was almost beautiful as it rendered trees with a sort of magnificent violence. Some 16,000 trees — or stems, as they called them — would be processed each day. It would take 200 or more log trucks a day to feed it. Every five seconds, a fresh stem was peeled, bucked and sliced into profit. The computer even calculated the net worth of each tree as it passed through, updated constantly by links to the lumber-commodities and futures market. Not a chip from any tree was wasted; the residual cuttings had a process line all their own, and positively every cutting had a profitable destination.

The mill administrators were giddy; the return period on this $72 million investment was very short. With a meager staff of employees, the operating costs were low, and with a million acres of company owned and managed land, the raw resources were plentiful. They said it would produce, each shift, enough finished lumber to rebuild Charleston. Our optimization team politely/politically danced around the obvious question: Could they really keep up this level of protracted deforestation? And how many trees were found on an acre of “sustainably harvested” land, anyway?

I have never thought of myself as a “tree hugger.” But when we had finished, I wasn’t feeling so good, and the feeling persists now — a month later. I wondered how many animals would call a tract of land with 16,000 trees “home.” I once worked at the Quaker Oats plant in Arden, before it closed, helping to make rice cakes. I worried then that making rice cakes didn’t seem “socially significant.” Now, I think: Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.

— Tim Coonse

City school system ignored child’s special needs

I mailed the following letter to the Asheville City School Board recently:

As I signed the legal papers finalizing the lawsuit [Georgia Pitts v. Asheville City Schools] on Friday, and sent your $50,000 check to our attorney in Greensboro, I was filled with a sense of sadness and frustration. What had the emotional turmoil and great expense of both time and money accomplished in the last two years? Certainly not what we so desperately wanted at the time the suit was filed. Our child with a neurological disorder was “sinking,” less able to function with each passing school day. We sought advice and guidance from every resource in North Carolina. We were unable to successfully communicate with those who had the task of educating her. Our goal was to get a more genuine effort from the Asheville City Schools to help us work together to educate our daughter.

From the very beginning, the legal action took on a life of its own. The doors for collaboration were closed and the gates for legal maneuvering were opened, with neverending delays and numerous depositions, whose only purpose seemed to be to exhaust us emotionally and financially. Besides the $75,000 Asheville City Schools has now contributed to our legal expenses, we spent another $34,000.

We never did get anyone from Asheville City Schools to pay attention to Georgia’s educational needs, let alone those of other exceptional children for whose welfare we had justified such an extravagant investment on our part. During the legal proceedings, Georgia’s disability was at first trivialized, only later to be characterized as a major psychiatric disorder, and then finally declared insignificant because she passed the end-of-year tests. Our motives as parents were labeled as “unreasonable,” “crazy” and eventually, “greedy.”

In the meantime, our neighbor, who had taken an interest in Georgia, located a boarding school for her in Delaware. Georgia’s difficulties both socially and educationally led to her “Willie M.” designation. Blue Ridge Center has paid for The Cedars Academy, even though it is an educational facility.

The practical tragedy of all this is that not one person from the Asheville City Schools has been interested, challenged or curious enough to inquire about the philosophy or the techniques utilized so successfully at The Cedars Academy with children with ADHD and other learning difficulties. Perhaps it is this same passive, disinterested and defensive attitude that fed our frustrations two years ago when we were desperately seeking solutions with the Asheville school system.

Georgia has recaptured her love of learning and her self-esteem. It’s unfortunate that she wasn’t given this opportunity in her own community by interested educators who were more motivated to seize upon new ideas and methods than to cling to such a defensive position, resulting in the waste of thousands of precious education dollars.

— Jacksie C. Pitts

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