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Lately I have begun watching old episodes of a very popular TV series that aired from 1952 to 1961:  This is Your Life.  In an era of live television, this was the show to watch because right at the beginning producer/host Ralph Edwards surprised the person whose life was to be told and no one could be sure how that person would react. 

“This is Your Life” (“TYL”) and “Candid Camera” were television’s earliest reality TV shows in capturing live events of people being surprised.

I am enthralled with everything about “TYL.”  From the sincerity of Edwards to the amazing stories of its honorees.   From a sociology standpoint, it is also curious to observe how people used to interact with one another unscripted.  As a former school mate or early mentor would appear on stage to talk about the honoree, the language used and the enthusiasm of the handshake or hug seem so remote from our society today—polite, respectful, truthful.

Even the audience is well-mannered and well-dressed.

While I was but a baby when “TYL” went off the air in its first run (years later a revamped version aired that was not live or as captivating), I recall watching reruns years ago.

But recently I began watching them again on YouTube.  I was trying to figure out why was I doing this?  Is this a sign that my retirement is failing? 

And then on Jan. 6 it hit me.  Watching another live TV event, this time an angry mob rioting the U.S. Capitol Building, the one government building that represents democracy throughout the world, the one that the 9/11 terrorists wanted to destroy with the plane where passengers rushed the perpetrators sending it crashing in a field in Pennsylvania, I was shaken.  Just what the hell has happened to our country?

In absorbing myself in the 1950’s, I’m trying to pretend that I am living in another time period.  Any time period other than now.

Yes, the 1950’s had its own scary issues, from segregation to the threat of nuclear war.  But human qualities like decency and consideration for others were mainstays for most people. 

That hasn’t been true for a while now.

Each morning I take a walk around my neighborhood with my mask on.  On average, I pass about a dozen people, some walking a dog, a few jogging.  Maybe three of them have on a mask.

This is the way it was months ago before the most recent surge that began in mid-December, and nearly 4 weeks later, nothing has changed even though the Los Angeles area is displayed on maps in a deep fireman red coloring to denote high cases of COVID-19.

I also observe drivers and bicyclists not obeying speed laws or stop signs.  I walk by 14 four-way stop intersections on my route and rarely see a driver make even a California stop.  Most slow down a little then accelerate through.  A few drivers blow right through them as if they had a green light.  God forbid a parent with a stroller or a child on a bike is not in their pathway for it would result in severe injury or death.

People no longer feel legally or even morally obligated to stop at a stop sign or wear a small mask over the lower half to protect fellow human beings.

Every day I think about this when I am supposed to be focused on enhancing my mental and physical health.

In one hour I see a microcosm of selfish human behavior that when inflamed to a high temperature erupts into domestic terrorism.

Why do I seem to be in the minority of people who feel an obligation to do the right thing?

It’s almost as if many people were not brought up right.   They lack strong parenting that should have established a foundation of knowing right from wrong, a foundation of values and morals.  They lack a Golden Rule education of consideration for others, respecting those unlike themselves.  People used to learn how to be decent from their parents or their religious upbringing; now, many are brought up on social media.

Going back to that driver who purposely chooses not to obey a stop sign.  Why does he misbehave?   He feels the chances of a police officer catching him breaking the law is miniscule.  But what about the law of morality?  There is no conscience in this person, no little voice begging them to do the right thing.  Whether you believe in a heaven or hell, or some kind of after-life reckoning, for those who are self-absorbed without being brought up correctly, our society will continue to devolve.

Too many bad people get away with bad behavior.  A society without consequences is no longer a society.  Chaos takes over.

Decency must come from within each one of us.  You can’t legislate a law about it.

Without decency we are no longer human, just animals like the ones who stormed the Capitol.

Today, Americans can hardly come together about anything, even when it comes to a global health crisis.  But once they stop accepting the definition of what it means to be an American, the United States will no longer survive.

Being an American means respecting others, believing in equality for all.  It also means welcoming immigrants for that is the story of America.

When I grew up, I believed in the American story because it was my parents’ and grandparents’ American story.   They came to the United States not to get better jobs but to not be killed in their homelands.

Millions of Americans no longer believe in this story anymore.  Immigrants are viewed as ugly foreigners.  Forget the adage of loving thy neighbor.

Look at what President Kennedy said at his inauguration 60 years ago, “Ask now what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”  Citizens believed in that sentiment once.  Today, the reverse is true.

One of the few benefits of being my age is knowing that not that far in the future, I will die and won’t witness more decline in civilization.

I thank God that I had loving parents who brought me and my siblings up the right way.  I’m thankful that I am the way I am and wish more people were decent.

I will try to remind myself of the better parts of people each day despite seeing firsthand evidence to the contrary so that their indecency doesn’t erode mine.

Meet tomorrow’s inspirational young people

With so much ugly human nature saturating our senses these days, I wanted to give my students a different life experience.

At the start of spring semester in January, I created an assignment allowing them to explore the goodness that is within themselves.

Called the Decency Project, the months-long endeavor gave them an opportunity to pursue charitable work in any area of their choosing.  Students could decide to work alone or with up to two other people from any of my four English classes.

During the semester, students turned in progress reports.  Their projects covered a wide spectrum, from working with disabled children and the elderly to feeding the homeless and caring for cancer patients.

Since I have never done this before, I was not sure how I was going to evaluate their work in terms of a grade.  That is why I asked them to answer this question at the end:  How would you feel if I told you that after all your work on this, I decided not to award any points for it?

I was so impressed with their responses that I shared several of them with all my classes so that the students could see how the decency project impacted their peers.  And I listened to them—no grades were given.

It was one of the most powerful moments in my 29 years as a teacher.

While a few students wrote that they would be very disappointed if they did not receive points for this project, over 95 percent of the 135 students said they would be fine without.  Here’s what they said:

“If this project was graded, it would defeat the whole purpose of being a decent person.”

“Soon after beginning my work, I began to not really think of this so much as a school assignment, but an incredible opportunity for me to give back to my community and grow as a responsible, hard-working citizen.”

“Rewarding someone for doing something diminishes the values behind volunteering, turning what should be a selfless act into a selfish one.”

“I would feel very proud and glad if you decided not to reward any points.  Kindness should not be rewarded.”

“It was more of a life lesson than a project.”

The last question students answered in their final report was this:  Looking back over your efforts, was it worth it?

Here are their responses:

“It was absolutely worth it, and I am willing to do it again.”

“This project was an eye-opener as we wouldn’t have normally aided others in such an impactful way.”

“It helped me to become focused on others rather than self-focused, which is a thing we all need to do.”

“We have seen how those that are less fortunate than us live, and we are able to see the world through their eyes now.”

“I felt like I actually put my time, dedication, and hard work on something that became useful at the end.”

“Since the people we were helping were cancer patients, it was quite sobering and it made our complaints of homework seem irrelevant.”

“I am thankful that this project was assigned because of how much freedom was granted.  Students do not get many opportunities to be so creative and self-dependent in projects.”

“Nowadays, there isn’t a lot of kindness going around in the world.  I hope this project motivates other students to do this.”

“This project has shaped me into a humanitarian.”

“I feel more humbled as a person.”

“I have become a better person.”

What a breath of fresh air in today’s times.  I learned how lucky a teacher I am to work with such inspirational students who will be leaders in our society one day.  I am proud of their accomplishments, and I hope the public is, too.