Saturday, September 24, 2011

please consider this a challenge...

Too hard to understand      ...or too unpleasant a story to tell? Each week I wonder how I’ll answer each of those questions while I prepare to present another controversial topic to my four dozen college students. Of late, I’ve found that more is better.
Perhaps that’s because more are studying to be R.N.’s. They seem to have an appetite for documented fact, corroborated. And they love reading about both sides of a debate; they seem to refuse to deny that there can be another view to almost any rational inquiry.
Always, each class, I tell them how much I appreciate that; I remind them that they should challenge anything I present to them, whether factual or well-supported opinion. That allows me to be candid, enables me to deal with subjects that present very rough edges.
One of those is the topic that focuses on whether there should be an Islamic mosque at the Ground Zero site. Preparing them to understand that issue has meant addressing the question of tolerance, i.e., whether it is intolerant for an American who enjoys freedom of religion to be against the free expression of religion when that expression takes on a concrete shape.
Few, if any of the mosque supporters press for an equally meaningful apology from Muslims who appear to be insensitive to the thousands of 9/11 family members and friends (and people like me) who continue to feel traumatized and grief stricken. Healing those wounds would never be the purpose of the Ground Zero muezzin’s call to prayer five times each day. Selling the Burlington Coat Factory building to Donald Trump for a sizable profit might have been.
But even moderate Muslims are unapologetic; they’re victims, misunderstood and, therefore, poorly treated by those who are not Muslims.
Most who try to salve their superficial complaints (as does our President) can’t seem to understand that will never change. There’s good reason for that, good in the sense that it makes good sense to Muslims.
And it’s not hard to comprehend. Muslims divide the world into two realms, Dar el Islam (all who are Muslim), and Dar el Harb (all who are not). Since Harb means war, it is taught that those who comprise Dar el Harb (infidels, non-believers, people of the book, kuffar, etc.) are fair game for Muslims, are proper targets for jihadis.  Indeed, authoritative Muslim texts prescribe proper treatment of those who refuse to convert by exclaiming the shehada, a simple statement of loyalty to Allah and his prophet, Muhammad.
Failing to do that causes non-Muslims to be regarded as second class. That means that there are two kinds of justice. One for Dar el Islam, and a totally different set of rules for Dar el Harb. By its very nature, due to the sanctified intolerance of Islam, equal justice that applies to us all regardless of race, religion, or gender has nothing to do with Islam.
Non Muslims have no rights that aren’t given them by Muslims; Muslims can only assign rights to those non-believers according to what is prescribed in the Koran and other holy texts.
Because Islam is seen to be the lone perfect religion and its prophet the world’s role model, there is no place for infidels (non-believers) other than as second class citizens who accept the supremacy of Islam.
In other words, the only good non Muslims are the ones who support Islam’s preeminence. Its believers know that any harm they mete out to non believers is OK according to Allah, especially if they, the infidels, don’t convert. 
How is that compatible with religious freedom of expression? Then, too, as an ideology, how can Islam’s distaste for equality (gender and otherwise) make Islam compatible with democracy? For years, I’ve challenged my students to debate about these questions. 
Some have tried, but they can’t find Islamic texts that contradict what I’m teaching. Instead, they respond with emotion rather than reason. I plead with them then to use facts. But they can’t.
My guess is that some of you understand their frustration all too well. They have found that, although there may be moderate Muslims, there is no such thing as moderate Islam. If you don’t believe me, please consider coming to my class next year, around the time of the 11th anniversary of 9/11.  
And please bring your questions with you.
B. Koplen  9/23/11

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Living history

What history is made of   “Struck ‘em out, all of them.” Not boastful, Smitty spoke, history book style. Chances are that Smitty could have provided dates of those major league games, times too. But, after pointing to my very old picture of the Giant’s three Willies, McCovey, Mays, and Kirkland, he was leaving.
“Sure I knew Robin Roberts. A Philly teammate,” he’d told me, “and I roomed with Curt Simmons.”
In their eighties, Smitty and his friend, Ron, make a “southern swing” almost every summer for the golf. And to visit old friends. Fortunately, I’m one of them.
I’m not sure why. Nor do I ever know when they’ll appear. They seem to enjoy surprising me. That always makes for a joyous reunion.
“And each of us wants a copy of your book. Signed,” they’d told me. Honored that they’d want to read No Gold Stars, I did as they asked.
“Four books in one day!” I later told my mother, excited that one of the purchasers, Anita, had called from California.
Anita had asked me to be interviewed on her radio show. We’d talked about the Civil Rights era, our roles in it. She wanted to hear more. A friend of hers, an old customer of mine, a Vietnam War vet, Raymond L., had called her about No Gold Stars.
What I didn’t tell Anita was that my cousin Susanne, in Greenville, SC, may have located the wife of the fatherly Coach Walters in my novel. Although fond memories persist, the Coach (his real name, Joseph Mathis) has passed away. My hope is that his wife doesn’t mind that he is one of the heroes in my book.
According to my cousin, Coach’s granddaughter wants to talk to me. About her grandfather. Just the thought of sharing stories with her thrills me.
Next time I see him, I’ll have to tell Smitty about that conversation I hope to have very soon.
                           B. Koplen 9/22/11

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

the way it was

More to come She listened as if I were telling her story, a story she had lived as a child. “Soon after I began teaching in Greenville at Sterling Jr.-Sr. High, I realized that my students had never been to the white ‘public’ library. Their parents had never dreamed of going there. That’s why I gathered permission slips from each parent to allow me to take their children to the library. It was an important step, profoundly important. Or so I thought.”

I paused to ensure myself that she wanted to hear more. “A few weeks ago, more than 40 years later, my cousin, a teacher from from Greenville, SC, told me that she wanted to have my book made into a required text for her entire school. That book, No Gold Stars, is based on my memoir about when I taught at Sterling. I was the only white person at the school, like To Sir With Love in reverse.

“Anyway, my cousin told me about one of her students who had turned in a term paper about the Civil Rights era in Greenville. When she told her student that I had taught at Sterling, that I had integrated the school, she surprised my cousin by telling her that she knew about me. In fact, the student told my cousin that her Uncle had been one of the students I had taken to the library!”

“I want to read your book,” she told me. We were at my mother’s house where she worked as a CNA who cared for Mom on a regular basis.

“You remember those days, don’t you?” I asked.

“Yes,” she told me, “they were hard.’

It was my turn to listen. She talked about growing up as a black person in Danville, VA, how there were places she could not enter, motels and restaurants she knew that wouldn’t serve black people, were not allowed into. She started to cry. She told me that she still remembered how it felt. “At the movie theaters downtown, we had to sit upstairs. There were separate drinking fountains.”

I gave her a hug.

Although those days were over, memories of them were deep and lasting. She told me about one of the women she had cared for decades ago. “She used to refer to us caregivers as her nigger ladies.” She took a deep breath. “I knew she didn’t know better.”

I listened carefully, wanted to learn how she had distilled from those bitter recollections such clarity and kindness that made her seem an angel to me. I was sure that her caring ways had extended my mother’s life, had helped make Mom’s Parkinson’s less of a living nightmare.

“I’d like to hear more,” I told her, “if you ever want to talk about those days.”

“And I want to read your book,” she said.

Both of us agreed that it was a story that needed to be told.

B. Koplen 9/20/11

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

you're invited to our next class

A time to learn “Scott Pelley interviews them all--the developer, the Imam, and the blogger, now all big names in what has become a national debate.”

On the back of the cover of the DVD I’d purchased from 60 Minutes, The People Behind The Mosque, I’d read that synopsis and the air date, 9/26/10. Almost a year later, I was showing the DVD to my class at our Community College. Following it would be Pamela Geller’s response (along with Robert Spencer), her DVD, 9/11, The Second Wave.

In the year since The People Behind The Mosque had been aired on national TV, Geller and Spencer had become media targets. They were blamed for inflammatory right wing sentiments that had wrought murderous havoc. Their blogs, Atlas Shrugs (Geller) and JihadWatch (Spencer) had been attacked for tarnishing America’s image as a tolerant nation that protected freedom of religion. In addition, they were openly in opposition to Mayor Bloomberg and President Obama, two of many who favored construction of the Ground Zero mosque.
Although I’d heard both the President and the Mayor tell their constituents that building the Ground Zero Mosque had to do with religious freedom and tolerance, I’d found fault with their arguments. Where was the reciprocity? Why were there no churches in most Islamic countries? Why were there no Jews and so few other religious minorities in those Muslim countries that sponsored mosques in America? And why were non Muslims treated so poorly?

Scott Pelley left many questions unanswered. Nonetheless, his documentary did reveal that the developer of the mosque had help; most of the money for the building had come from a rich Egyptian now in America. What he didn’t say was that the same developer turned down Donald Trump’s offer to buy the property at a much higher price than was paid.

Spencer noted that the Ground Zero mosque (originally called the Cordoba House, see Cordoba House mosque near Ground Zero slaps new name on ...
The Cordoba House is now Park51.Developers behind the controversial 13-story Islamic community center and prayer space near Ground Zero announced Tuesday a ... is another “triumphal mosque,” one among more than a thousand that are meant to attest to Islam’s supremacy over all other religions as did the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount.

My students paid rapt attention to both documentaries. Just two weeks before, the same class had answered a diagnostic quiz that included the question, “What do you know about Islam?” Not one claimed to know anything at all. Suddenly, they were curious, desirous of knowing more. Eight of them wrote responses that I promised to send to Geller. Only one supported the mosque.

Six remained after the class ended emotionally. One of my students, usually quiet and attentive, answered my call for comments just before the class ended.

“9/11 is why we left New York,” she said, obviously distressed. I stood closer to her, hoping my presence would lend support to her as she struggled to continue. “The smell was terrible, terrible,” she said. She’d started to cry. “We used to have such a diverse neighborhood, Christians, Jews, Muslims. We got along. Then 9/11 happened. We had to leave.”

For a moment, I stood beside her. When I returned to my desk, I told the class, while looking at her, that those stories must be told. She nodded her agreement. I told everyone that I’d see them next week.

That’s when I pointed to my computer to show the remaining students a message they’ll never forget. Before my class had begun, I had e-mailed Geller and Spencer that I would be airing the Second Wave video in my class that morning. Pamela Geller had responded. Along with me, my students read her message. Some cheered. One of them handed me her two sentence reply to the documentary. It stated, “Your blog [Atlas Shrugs] has opened the eyes of so many. Thank goodness they can’t shut you up.”

Pam’s message follows.

Friday, September 16, 2011 10:09 AM


You are amazing. Your work is so important as the leftist/Islamic inculcation of American young minds in our universities is overwhelming. Thank you.

Yours in liberty,
Pamela Geller
Editor, Publisher Atlas Shrugs
Executive Director, AFDI/SIOA

  1. Koplen 9/20/11

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

the day after

on 9/11, in the wake of the list they read at Ground Zero

All the names, thousands of them,

float from lips like promises



remembered as if spoken

with last acts or pictured in ten year old

photos held,

that final embrace

that wasn't meant to be final then,

but a promise for the next

kiss or the next picture or the next

bulletin life delivers.

Imagined now, those moments

guide us, bracket ordinary promises

they mean to keep.

B. Koplen 9/12/11

Sunday, September 11, 2011

close to the World Trade Center

Near misses “Did you have a question?” I asked a student who seemed to be waiting after class until all of my other students had left.

“It’s personal,” she told me as she stroked a string of dirty blond hair away from her left eye. She didn’t move. “If you don’t mind, we’ll talk when everyone leaves.”

‘Everyone’ didn’t really mean all of her classmates. When the chatty young man who’d been sitting next to her finally left, she started to talk. Others were still in nearby rows.

“I’ve been working for Muslims for years,” she told me, “almost since I left home when I was fourteen. I’ve been working and taking care of myself ever since. They gave me a job. I’ve opened stores for them. They’ve been good to me. But...”

I’d turned away when I noticed another young student, a woman, standing by the door. I’ll wait ‘til you’re finished,” she said, then looked at a book she was holding.

We’d spent most of our class discussing Islam, and the causes of 9/11, how the two related. “How old are you?” I asked when I turned back to the young woman seated in front of me.

“18,” she said, although she looked much older. I noticed her wedding band.

“And you’re married?” I asked.

“No, I’m a waitress. It keeps me out of trouble. But I only work lunch hours.”

Why all of that seemed important, I wasn’t sure. I’d read her first introductory test, a diagnostic; according to her writing skill, she seemed to be one of my better students. Now I saw her as precocious, wise in ways many 18 year olds would never be.

“The brother of the man who hired me,” she said, “now that you’ve explained some aspects of Islam, the documentaries, I can better understand much that I’ve heard and seen. I’ve worked with Muslims from India and Pakistan, from other parts of the world. I started understanding their language. I’ll have to alter some of what I’ve written. You’ve given me reasons to change my opinion. That’s unusual. I’m pretty hardheaded. Do you mind if I wait until next week to turn in my homework?”

“Certainly,” I said, accustomed to such a request. Others had asked the same, but for different reasons. She stood, smiled, and walked away.

My other student approached. “I’m sorry, but I wanted to say something in class, but I was afraid to. I didn’t want to upset the others.”

I explained that our room was a safe place where all of us were free to speak as we pleased.
“It’s about 9/11,” she said, “ my mother and grandmother and I were there. I was afraid I’d start to cry.”

“Your tears are treasured here,” I told her. “Why don’t you write about what all of you, each of you, saw, and e-mail it to me. I would appreciate your doing that,” I said. She promised she would, maybe later in the day.

Hours later, when I was choosing poems for a reading I had promised to do that night, I still wondered what she would send me.

Mine wasn’t an ordinary poetry reading. In the newly renovated building that had once been an Army-Navy store just a few doors up from mine, Wayne, a Brooklyn artist and his partner, Sally, were celebrating their grand opening. Following a pair of talented teenage violinists from Gibson Middle School, I was to read. As a backdrop were 11’ X 6’ canvasses, six of them side by side, impressionistic pieces that represented Wayne’s response to 9/11. He’d asked me to read poems about that gruesome day.

“Please gather closer,” I asked everyone. Fifty people drew near, in a semicircle no more than five feet from me. I told them how shocked and saddened I had been, that I felt compelled to to go to New York immediately after as if part of me had been injured and traumatized. “I’ll only read five or six,” I told them.

And I did. With each one, the group became more and more quiet. “Thank you,” I said, when I’d read the last, relieved that, a few times during the reading, I’d been able to keep from crying.

Regular noises returned. People talked and looked more closely at the huge canvasses I no longer stood in front of. I felt drained, but content that my poems had done what I’d wanted them to do. Sometimes, that doesn’t happen.

That’s what I was thinking as a young man approached me. I’d known him as a friend of Wayne’s, another New Yorker who’d come to make his mark on our city. He’d found a building a block away on Main, had turned it into an impressive art studio. Both he and Wayne were vanguards of change.

“Thank you so much for your poems,” he said. “I’m Jeff. I can’t tell you how much they meant to me. I was there that day,” he said.

All other sounds around me seemed to subside. “At the Twin Towers?” I asked, astonished.

“Yes,” he said, quietly, “September 11th is my birthday. My sister, who worked on the 102nd floor, was going to celebrate with me.”

I shuddered. Did his sister die that day? I didn’t want to ask. But I had to know. I stared at Jeff; I couldn’t speak.

“She went in early, so that she could do a few things, then came out to meet me.”

I exhaled.

“Then we saw the planes, heard the sounds. Immediately, I headed for the Towers. Everyday for the next three months, I worked at the site.”

I couldn’t move. My mouth felt dry, as if Jeff had read my poems back to me while bleeding, covered in dust and ash. He told me how, years later, he developed cancer from exposure caused by his work at Ground Zero.

“I’ve recovered now,” he said, answering me before I’d asked that question, “just a little short of breath sometimes.”

“Please come to my class,” I said. I wanted to honor his work; that would be a good way. My students would appreciate him as a hero. I know I did.

We shook hands. I wanted to sit down, but there were no chairs at Wayne’s. So I said goodbye, walked to my store two doors down. I was trembling.

Upstairs, I fell into my chair, guided my computer to the Net. There I saw a message from my student, the one who’d promised to tell me what her mother and grandmother had seen that day. She wrote that her grandmother had been working on the 100th floor, but that a friend had arranged an interview for a better job a few blocks away. Her appointment had been scheduled for just before the planes hit.

I gasped about the near misses I’d heard about, about the tragedy’s reach, that it had come to Danville, that its effects were still being felt here in our safe and uncrowded city. I knew I’d take those stories with me this weekend, that I’d think of them often on my way to the tenth anniversary of that special site at the heart of Manhattan.

B. Koplen 9/10/11

Friday, September 9, 2011

in memoriam

once there was a rainbow

On the tenth anniversary, I’ll travel to New York,

to Manhattan near Ground Zero.

I’ve been there before

just after dust and ashes settled

atop resting heaps the Towers were.

Quiet came to me there

at the edges of the Trade Center, its

fenced in confines,

a cemetery where bodies were buried

without markers.

My nephew worked near there that day,

near enough to see death and destruction

reveal their fatal display.

He felt it. He saw it. He tasted its color.

All of it was gray.

American gray.

Manhattan gray.

A gray he hears when I ask him to meet me there.

B. Koplen 9/9/11

Thursday, September 8, 2011

an anniversary poem

murder made holy

No better camouflage,


its sacred attire,


armies of believers wear

like shields,

wield as lances


at ignorant infidels

in unlit Jahilliyah

where proud


are no match

for well disguised


dying to get to Paradise.

B. Koplen 9/8/11

Monday, September 5, 2011

an incredible discovery

What would you say? “I want your book to be required reading at our school in Greenville.”

Of course I was flattered when my cousin, an award winning art instructor in Greenville, SC made mention of No Gold Stars. What she didn’t know was that I had spent half an hour being interviewed by a reporter from the Greenville News the day before.

My cousin was thrilled, asked whether I’d come to Greenville to discuss my book at her school.

“I’d love to,” I answered. “A few days ago I spoke to Barnes and Noble in Greensboro. They want me to have a book signing there. It’s good to know that the story of of my amazing students will finally be made public.”

Based on my memoir, No Gold Stars relates stories about my students at the school I integrated in 1968, Sterling Jr.-Sr. High, Reverend Jesse Jackson’s alma mater. One of the chapters tells about when my students and I integrated the formerly all white public library, a frightening experience for a few of my students.

“Although I haven’t seen any of my former pupils, I think of them often,” I told my cousin.

“Then you’ll love hearing this,” she said. “One of my students wrote a term paper about the Civil Rights era in Greenville. When I told her that my cousin had integrated Sterling, she surprised me. It seems that her Uncle had told her that he was one of your students who had gone to the library with you!”

“Who was it?” I asked, hoping to hear a name I might have remembered. I was thrilled and excited. Although I had thought that taking my students to the library was a profoundly important experience, I had no idea that they had felt the same. Almost too stunned to speak, I managed to ask my cousin whether she could find the name and address of my former student.

“I’d love to talk to him,” I said.

“I may be able to arrange that,” my cousin responded, “perhaps when you come to our school. But I’ll need some books.”

I told her that they were now available at Barnes and Noble’s web site or Amazon’s. “And the price has been reduced to $12.60. Kindle should be available soon.”

My cousin promised to let me know as soon as a date was set. As she spoke, I was trying to imagine what I would say to one of the stars of No Gold Stars...

B. Koplen 9/6/11