Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Thomas Grant Hynes

             My dad was one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. He sported an SAT above 1400 and combined a quick wit with wisdom and integrity. He grew up poor and never forgot what that felt like. He lived in a house that wasn’t always loving, and he never forgot that, either.

            He served his country in a war that was deeply complicated, and few people welcomed him home upon his return. For most of his career, he didn’t care too much for his job, but he clocked in and supported his family in spite of that. During my adolescence, his struggles with alcoholism peaked and tore at our family, and he found sobriety at just the right time. During the last 25 years of his life, he dedicated himself fully to service, making amends many times over by caring for his family and community.

            As an English teacher, I see his life in many of the books and characters I’ve taught. Like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, he could be too smart for his own good and was a bit lost at times in his youth. Like Huckleberry Finn, he was abandoned in some ways by his father but found his moral compass just the same, with help from two peers who became his lifelong best friends. Like Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried, he was haunted by the shadows of Vietnam long past his service time.

            Like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, he stuck with a career even though it didn’t give him as much as he gave to it. Like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, he was observant, reluctant to judge others in public, but quietly judgmental in private. Like Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, he always remembered to look at things from another person’s point of view. And like Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, he grew throughout his life in taking action to support his neighborhood, community and society as a whole.

            It’s not possible to fully express a man’s life in one blog post; that’s not what this is about. I’ve been grieving my father’s death since he passed a few days ago (a stroke took him from us suddenly, at 78 and full of activity – house projects, travel plans and volunteer work, not to mention serving as my mom’s caregiver). I’ll keep grieving in the ways that fit the often-complex nature of father-son relationships in late-20th and early-21st-century America. My dad had incredibly positive and negative impacts on me at different times in his life; he made up for it more than I can ever express; I forgave him completely; and I continue to assess which parts of him I am proud to exhibit in my personality, and which parts I’d like to work on shedding.

            I’m a school administrator now, and in that role I find myself often reaching for the most impressive part of my dad’s character – his ability to stay cool under pressure. So many things happen in a school every day, and administrators strive to remain calm, reassuring and present-minded as the crises mount. My dad, who was never able to stop sweating the small stuff, was actually always capable of handling the big stuff. In that way, he reminded me of a character from one of the first movies we saw together – Han Solo in Star Wars. I was just six years old, but I can remember talking with him the whole ride home about how great that movie was. And in his best moments, my dad could manage the moment with the grace and wit of Han.

            One of the most frequent crises I see as an administrator is the constant pressure students feel to reach the highest levels of excellence between ages 14-18. Secondary education has become all about preparing oneself for the college application process, with both students and parents fretting over what each high school class and experience will mean to the arbiters of admission, who will supposedly alter each student’s life with either acceptance or rejection.

            My dad, like a lot of people I know, did not peak in high school. Nor did he peak in college. He didn’t even peak in his 20s, 30s or 40s. I’d say he had a heckuva run in his 50s, 60s and 70s, and found more of his potential during that time period than ever before. To me, that makes more sense – you develop your character and work ethic early on, then figure the rest out as you go along. There is nothing my dad did or failed to do at age 16 that defined his life; it was a collection of decisions over 78 years that did so. High school and college were just a sliver of it all, and honestly the best things he did during that time were paying attention in class, keeping his head up amid struggle, and meeting his best friends and my mother.

            We carry many role models in our lives, for a variety of reasons and purposes. If we’re lucky, our parents’ presence remains with us beyond their lives and serves to guide us forward. I am raising two teenage daughters who have made it clear that I was not the only adolescent to feel angst toward my father; they’ve got plenty of that at this very moment. But I know that they’ve also got a lot of love as well. And I hope that the pieces of my father that made me a better man are somewhere inside those girls, adding some rays of light to their life’s journey.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

The Power of Small Steps

             I recently finished a belated reading of Samantha Power’s gripping and inspiring memoir, The Education of an Idealist. As she describes her tenure as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Power attempts to describe just how many crises exist in the world at one time, and how hard thousands of dedicated U.S. personnel work to address all of them.

            While describing the steps she tried to take for women’s rights around the world, Power mentions the Afghan Women’s National Cycling Team, which had been banned by the Taliban but had been able to get back together in 2011. Power writes that some men would yell at these women to get off the road, and some would even grab at the women while they rode past. When she spoke about these athletes, Power would ask her audience to think about the impression they left on others:

            “Imagine just for a minute what it must feel like to be a little girl from a rural town in Afghanistan – and to suddenly see those forty women, in a single file, flying down the road. To see something for the first time that you couldn’t have believed possible. Think about where your mind would go – about the shockwave that image would send through your system. Think what it would allow you to believe possible. You would never be able to think the same way again.”

            Like many people, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about all that’s been happening in Afghanistan in recent days. I pray for the people of this country, and I of course think about the women and girls, as well as those who are not Pashtun or Sunni, and those who worked alongside troops from the U.S. and other nations. I hope that those who wish to leave will have a flight out of the country and that those who wish to stay will experience more equality and equity than they did 20 years ago.

            There are so many aspects of these past few days to despair over, particularly with regard to concerns over human rights. Place all of this on top of the other despairs we’ve had in our lives and minds – the ever-evolving virus, our changing climate, debates over social justice, a polarized U.S., disagreements over the very nature of the truth – it has already felt like too much, and now we add in images of the Taliban in power again.

“Even committed, motivated people felt overwhelmed by the gravity of challenges in the world,” Samantha Power writes in her book, “from climate change to the refugee crisis to the global crackdown on human rights.” Power adds that she worried about people falling into a “doom loop” in which they’d choose to do nothing but despair because they couldn’t solve all these problems. But she adds, “Whenever my own thoughts about the state of the world headed toward a similarly bleak impasse, I would brainstorm with my team about how we might ‘shrink the change’ we hoped to see.”

            Power chose to adhere to the theory that big problems can be solved by a series of small solutions. Even when this takes years or even decades, small steps are made. A friend advised her, “The world is filled with broken places. Pick your battles, and go win some.”

            This week, as many eyes focus on Afghanistan, Power – who now serves as administrator of USAID – is working along with many others to provide relief to those devastated by the earthquake and storms in Haiti. Another crisis, with yet another nation in peril, and some are choosing to shrink the change, through whatever small solutions they can find.  

There are individual steps we all can take to help just a bit, to try and move the needle toward the greater good. In my own headspace, that is seeming like a better path than a doom loop.

            “People who care, act, and refuse to give up may not change the world,” Power writes, “but they can change many individual worlds.”