Monday, October 31, 2011

From the Files: A Halloween Crisis

Halloween in a school is always an adventure. The best advice for school personnel on this day was shared with me by a senior teacher early in my career: "Stay more sugared up than the kids." Whether or not the school has particular activities or parties planned, there's a certain level of craziness that infects most kids the day of the biggest candy fest of the year.

Several Halloweens ago, I was dressed as Greg from the Wiggles for Halloween. For those of you unfamiliar, the Wiggles are an Australian children's music and television group. They dress in black slacks and solid colored shirts. Greg used to be the yellow one, before he got sick. My infant son was Jeff (purple) and my husband was Anthony (red). My daughter wisely refused to have any part in this.

I arrived at the office at school that morning to find a witch and a mad scientist already hard at work answering phones and assisting kids. The day proceeded as Halloweens usually do, with a smattering more behavior issues than usual and a lot of cute costumes. Around lunch time, a bleeding tree frog entered the office.

The frog had had a collision with a pole on the playground and was sporting a cut on his forehead. There were no signs of a concussion, but he was bleeding pretty heavily. Greg the Wiggle took a look and immediately realized that the frog was going to need to be seen by a doctor -- the cut was pretty deep, and stitches looked like they were in the tree frog's future. The witch got out the emergency cards and started calling his mom.

With the mad scientist assisting, Greg donned gloves and cleaned the frog up. He was scared. He was only a third or fourth grade tree frog, and he'd never had stitches before. There was a lot of blood, and it hurt. Greg spoke calmly to the frog, explaining that the stitches would be quick, and that nowadays they sometimes even use glue to seal up cuts like this. Head wounds bleed a lot, she said, but it really wasn't that bad. The mad scientist held supplies and handed them over as Greg applied a butterfly bandage to the frog's forehead, pulling the edges of the cut together and stopping the bleeding.

Mom arrived and transported the frog to the emergency room, and the office returned to normal, or at least as normal as things can be in a school office staffed by Greg from the Wiggles, a witch and a mad scientist. We had our annual Halloween parade around the neighborhood, with 450+ kids trailing behind Greg in their costumes, scaring the neighbors. I called mom's cell phone that afternoon and learned they were still waiting in the ER, no news.

Around four o'clock, as I was finishing up for the day, the phone rang. It was tree frog's mom. She said, "He wants to talk to you. We're in the car on the way home."

Tree frog got on the phone and exclaimed, "Nothing!" I didn't know what he meant. "No stitches, no glue, nothing! The doctor said whoever put on that butterfly bandage did such a good job he wasn't going to touch it. So I want to know. What's your favorite candy?"

"Why do you need to know my favorite candy?" I asked

"'Cause I'm going trick or treating tonight and I'm gonna get a bunch of candy and I'm getting you some!" he replied.

The next morning, one of my students, sporting a big band-aid on his head, greeted me with a bag full of mini-snickers and a big smile. It may have been my best experience as an administrator ever, the Wiggles notwithstanding.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Bombing at Occupy Maine

Imagine, if you will, that you are a protester at Occupy Maine, the Portland, ME off-shoot of the Occupy Wall Street protests. In the interest of economic equality, you have been camping in Lincoln Park in Portland for a few weeks. There aren't many of you, but you're committed. And while not everyone agrees with you, those who don't tend to brand you as harmless loons. Not a compliment, certainly, but if you can stand Portland nights in October you can stand a little ridicule.

Then, early one Sunday morning, someone tries to kill you. Maybe that's actually their intent, or maybe they think they're being funny or its a "prank," but they throw a chemical explosive device out of a passing car into the tent next to yours. You awaken to an explosion. You realize that if they had aimed a little bit to the side you would be maimed or dead right now. You're shaken. You're scared. Sleep isn't going to come easily the next night, or for a few nights. The police come, but have no real leads.

To you, this is a turning point, not just for you but for the Occupy protests. Now it's not just us vs. the banks, or even us vs. the police. Someone out there hates the Occupy movement enough to want people dead. You wait to see what the reaction will be. Will the anti-Occupy folks denounce this act of violence? Will it galvanize support for the movement or cause others to think twice about participating? Is this the first of a rash of similar incidents or an isolated problem? You wait to see what the press will say.


The sum total of press coverage of this attack in the first 24 hours is 148 words in the Portland Press Herald. Not only is there no national coverage, there isn't even any coverage in other parts of Maine. You're pretty sure that if this had happened while you were just out camping in the park for fun, or if it had happened at your house, it would be big news. But you, as a protester, don't matter. Your movement doesn't matter. Your life is so insignificant that nearly losing it isn't news.

At least there isn't intrusive and inaccurate press coverage. At least the press aren't hounding you. At least no one's trying to spin it as justified.

Somehow, I doubt you feel any better.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

What if a Wolf Should Come Out of the Forest?

A dead lion on the Ohio game preserve.
Zanesville, Ohio is basically under lockdown this morning after more than 40 animals escaped from a preserve. The owner was found dead, and the animals' cages were all open. So far authorities have shot and killed about 25 of the animals, which included lions, bears and wolves. Four local school districts have cancelled classes.

My first impression when I heard this story was that someone had murdered the preserve owner had been murdered by someone who then thought it would be a good idea to let the animals out, perhaps to cover his tracks. Upon reflection, I don't know why I thought this. Certainly that was not in any way what the media reported. But I think all of us, at these moments, become "experts" based on the many crime novels and cop TV shows we've been exposed to over the years.

One article this morning, however, reports that initial indications are that the owner killed himself. This would imply that he released the animals himself in an unusual twist on a murder-suicide.

I will not pretend to understand what causes someone to decide not only that they would be better off dead but that they should take other people with them. I suppose I vaguely understand, although of course do not agree with, people who believe they've messed up their and other's lives so badly that it's best to put everyone out of their misery at once.

But this type of case is different. In this situation, someone decided that others have made their lives unlivable, and that the others need to be punished with death at the same time that they themselves stop living. That's not just depression, that's a level of rage I simply can't imagine.

This is of course just one facet of the story. These animals did nothing wrong at all and will now be killed to protect human life. I get it, it's probably necessary, but it's wrong. And kids are locked in with their parents out of fear of a wild animal eating them. It feels like a scene out of "Peter and the Wolf." The kicker is that this is the second death of a wild animal keeper this year in this area -- another man choked to death in what the press delicately termed a "voluntary sex act" in July. I'll spare you the details.

If we went with that fictional crime expertise we all seem to posess, this would all be part of a bizarre plot, perhaps on the part of radical animal rights activists, to murder wild animal preserve owners and free the animals. The defense would try to convince the jury that the action was necessary to save the lives of hundreds of animals. Perhaps Jessica Fletcher would crack the case after her nephew was falsely accused by the bumbling local law enforcement authorities.

Unfortunately, this is real life, and real life can be just plain weird sometimes. I hope more of these animals can be tranquilized rather than killed now that daylight is here, and I hope that happens before anyone gets hurt. I also hope we all remember that, no matter what incomprehensible thing he did, this owner was someone's son, brother and/or friend, and they are hurting in private somewhere today. Coming to grips with this is not going to be easy.

* The title of today's post comes from Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf," about a boy who encounters a wolf after being warned not to play outside. The link above is to a really fun version illustrated by Bono of U2 fame. It's my favorite, and proceeds benefit Irish Hospice.
Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Why Terrorism is Like Mosquitoes

There's an old wives' tail that goes something like this: Male mosquitoes buzz, but don't bite. Females bite, but don't buzz. So it's when you don't hear anything that you should worry.*

I was reminded of this yesterday, when news broke of the failed plot, allegedly by Iran, to recruit members of a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate the Syrian ambassador to the United States by bombing an undetermined location in Washington, DC. The media has been making the obvious comparisons to a spy novel or Hollywood script.

The plot seems amateurish. The evil Iranians we all fear can certainly do better than this, can't they? In the Middle East, the story has been met with outright disbelief.

In the sage of another highly publicized failed plot, the "underwear bomber" pled guilty in Detroit today. Apparently what he wanted more than anything was the chance to make a public statement about why he did it, and so he did.

Both of these plots should, from one perspective, terrify me. Not only do I live in the Detroit area, I've taken Flight 253 from Amsterdam. I have family in Washington, DC. These plots represent plots against people and places I care about.

And yet, I'm not terrified. To me, these plots seem like the male mosquitoes. They're the ones that we notice, but not the ones that are dangerous. They make the noise, but they don't bite.

I'm not worried about these. If this is the best the terrorists can come up with, I think we're OK. What scares me isn't the ones we know about. It's the ones we don't. Remember, it's the silent, female mosquitoes that bite.

* Like many pieces of "common knowledge," this turns out not to be true. While it is only the females that bite, the buzz is the sound of beating wings and comes from both males and females.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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