Carnegie Hall is one of those magical places that you always heard about growing up. I love New York City, especially during the holiday season. The city is so festive, and even with the hustle and bustle, people in general seem so much more pleasant. As a teacher for more than thirty years, I have taken countless students to New York City to experience the theater and the city s rich culture.
With all of my trips to the city with students over the years, I have never had the opportunity to visit Carnegie Hall until recently. In early December, I was given a ticket to a Christmas program at Carnegie Hall. It was entitled The Magic of Christmas. The hall was filled to capacity with people from every walk of life. The room was electric with holiday spirit and cheer. The entertainment was extraordinary. Andy Cooney was the star performer, supported by a gospel choir from Harlem, a children s choir from Westchester, a wonderful soprano and an extraordinary violinist from Europe.
Mr. Cooney is a gifted performer. He was able to engage more than 3000 guests in a Christmas sing-a-long that was most moving. As I sat in this famous music hall, I was reminded of its history. The walls just echoed the famous people who had taken the stage in front of me over the years. At the end of the show, all of the performers took the stage for one final number. At its conclusion, the audience spontaneously stood and gave a sustained ovation.
As I left the hall and walked to the subway, it was rather late. There were Christmas lights everywhere and still a lot of hustle and bustle on the streets. I took the subway and went to Penn Station. As I was waiting for my train to go home, I could not help but look around at the sea of humanity that was gathering. There were people in long evening gowns and tuxedos. There were people in business suits. Then there were people snuggled in corners sleeping on milk crates and on top of crushed boxes to keep warm. There was opulence and utter poverty all around me. I could not help but feel a profound sense of gratitude, but also a need to work harder at addressing those social concerns that shackle so many of our brothers and sisters.
Riding the Long Island Railroad from Manhattan to Ronkonkoma gave me a lot of time to think, even though it was the early hours of the morning. On my trip in, I read an article about human rights. This year we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eleanor Roosevelt worked hard at writing and urging the passage of this important document. She envisioned it as an international Magna Carta and Bill of Rights for people everywhere. Sixty years ago, the United Nations adopted this declaration. Mrs. Roosevelt was not a starry eyed idealist. She was a woman, an advocate for the poor and the wife of a man with a disability. She knew that the US rhetoric on human rights often did not match reality. She was well aware of our contradictions and failures as a democracy. But she also knew that there were voices among us who wanted to improve our democracy. She placed her faith in the transparency of our society and the awareness of everyday prophetic voices who would continue to challenge us to overcome our injustices.
Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights prohibits torture. It states unequivocably no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment. This statement is so important and such a basic human right that those who drafted this document placed it at the very beginning, right after the article stating that all human beings are free and equal and enjoy the right to life, liberty and security of person.
Since 9/11, much has been written about homeland security and protecting our nation from future terrorist attacks. Much has also been written about men and women who have been detained because it was feared they were terrorists or that they aided and abetted terrorism. How we have detained these subjects has caused great concern. The allegations of torture and other human rights abuses is a direct conflict to the spirit and the letter of the law as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Unfortunately, human rights violations wear many different faces. At a very basic level, we don t always treat people with respect. Too often, some among us act arbitrarily when it comes to dealing with people who are different from us. If a person breaks the law, it does not give anyone the right to treat them just as disrespectfully or to violate their basic human rights. Roughing people up, demeaning them and threatening them is not acceptable. Whether people have papers or do not have papers does not justify harassment or instilling fear in those who are undocumented. Breaking human rights rules should never be acceptable on any level for any reason. Emotional torture is sometimes more painful than physical torture. Both kinds of torture are reprehensible and unconscionable.
How do we treat our teenagers who are noncompliant, who break social rules? What does a single mother do with a fifteen year old son who was suspended from school for a whole year because he brought a pocketknife on campus? His father gave him the pocketknife and told him he might need it. The boy was new to the district and he was afraid. Prior to the incident, he was a good student and was well liked by his peers and his teachers.
His mother works three jobs. When he was suspended, he was put on home instruction. His mother was concerned that tutoring for two hours a day was not enough. She also had concerns for his supervision while she was working. Her appeal for support and openness fell on deaf ears and cold hearts. According to this mother, the administration s interaction with her regarding her son bordered on being rude and disrespectful.
Through her own efforts, she found a non-traditional school program that was willing to take her son and work with him for a year. For more than twenty years, the district has had a relationship with this program. However, they wanted nothing to do with it regarding this boy. Their position was that they put something in place for him, no matter what the mother s obstacles, she needed to deal with them.
What happened to the principle of dignity and respect for all people? We are concerned that a growing number of our young people are reckless and hateful. Where have they learned these behaviors? Respect for human dignity is a learned behavior. As we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, let us be more conscious of how we treat and respect one another. Let us work harder to lead by example and be more willing to speak out against human injustices.