Speak into the mic: Bush equals Hitler

0 1425 sz 1 i 75069 00As GetReligion readers know, I am about as pro-free speech as you can get, even pro-offensive speech in the tense world of religion and politics. I even think that the U.S. military doesn’t need to mandate a kind of lowest-common-denominator Unitarianism, funding with tax dollars. I’m a radical.

So I have some pretty conflicted feelings about a fascinating free-speech case unfolding out in the Cherry Creek School District in my old stomping grounds of Denver. This is the case in which the social-studies teacher delivered an anti-President Bush sermon that ended up, in the age of digital recorders in every backback, reaching the whole world. (Let’s assume it was an iTalk or an iTalk-like device.)

You can read the national coverage, here’s Los Angeles Times, or you can read the local, here’s Rocky Mountain News, and you’ll get the same basic facts.

Of course, you can also listen to the sermon and make up your own mind.

Here is the top of the Los Angeles Times story, for those who want to catch up:

It was the day after President Bush’s State of the Union address, and social studies teacher Jay Bennish was warning his world geography class not to be taken in.

“Sounds a lot like the things that Adolf Hitler used to say,” Bennish told students at the suburban high school Feb. 2. “‘We’re the only ones who are right, everyone else is backward and our job is to conquer the world.’”

The teacher quickly made clear that he wasn’t equating Bush with Hitler, but the damage was done. A sophomore in the class had recorded the lecture on an MP3 player, and turned it over this week to a local conservative talk radio show.

So the teacher is on leave, lawyers are circling and the student who made the recording is getting all kinds of threats. The boy’s father and mother are not amused.

… Jeff Allen, 50, who works for Buena Vista Games, the video game arm of the Walt Disney Co., said the family is strongly behind Sean, a budding stand-up comic who lives in a typical, covenant-controlled neighborhood in Aurora. He said that even Sean’s mother, Patti Allen, 52, a registered Democrat, is supporting her son “100 percent.”

“She’s a Democrat; she’s not a lib,” Allen said. …

“Regardless of party affiliation, there are certain things that don’t belong in the classroom,” Scott Thornton, Sean’s 24-year-old half-brother, said about his mother’s position. “Mr. Bennish’s comments were inappropriate and radical. She feels ultimately that Sean made the right decision.”

The key, to me, is whether Bennish’s rant was part of a consistent pattern of behavior in the classroom in which he verbally beat up on students who disagreed with him or, worst of all, docked their grades for views that he felt were too conservative or traditional.

But you also have to wonder: What would have happened if a teacher had voiced similar views, only coming from a politically or even morally conservative point of view? What would have happened if he had preached in favor of, oh, a conservative stance on a religious/moral/political issue instead of against the political right?

It seems the teacher managed to steer clear of religious and cultural issues, which is almost impossible to do in this day and age.

Or did he? Listen to the recording and try to imagine a teacher trying to get away with a sermon like this on, on, Hillary Clinton.

But the most explosive issue for educators is even more basic. Here’s the big question: Was the student wrong to give us the option of listening in?

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Straight from the the horse’s mouth

ron hubbardI wanted to revisit the Rolling Stone article on Scientology from earlier this week, partly because it generated a tremendous amount of discussion, but also because I want to highlight an aspect of the article that I overlooked the first time around.

Greg Churilov, a Scientologist who posted numerous times criticizing the Rolling Stone article and people commenting negatively on Scientology, said the Rolling Stone writer should have spoken to actual Scientologists before writing the article. Churilov said the article was merely a rehash of “rumors about Scientology” that have been proved false “time and time again.”

Many journalists covering Scientology cite two problems: the unwillingness of Scientologists to speak to reporters, and the difficulty of disproving “rumors” when they come from Scientology documents.

Speaking to actual Scientologists was the strongest aspect of the Janet Reitman article. I regret overlooking placing blockquotes of Scientologists speaking in the article. Nevertheless, this is a blog, we have plenty of space, and I believe they’re worth visiting now.

First, Reitman spent some time with Natalie Walet, a 17-year-old Scientologist who was born and raised in the group. Reitman revisits Natalie’s story several times, using her conversation with Natalie in an adequate attempt to explain the Scientologist’s belief system and way of life:

Natalie has a long way to go before she reaches OT III. Although virtually everything about the OT levels is available on the Internet, “I don’t look at that stuff,” Natalie says. She believes it is mostly “entheta,” which are lies, or negative information about Scientology meant to undermine the faith. “You know, sometimes in school, kids would hear I’m a Scientologist and be like, ‘No way — are you an alien?’” Natalie says. “I don’t get mad about it. I just go, ‘OK, let me tell you what it really is.’”

Natalie’s view of Scientology is the one church officials promote: that it is not a religion about “space aliens” but simply a set of beliefs that can help a person live a better life. And Natalie appears to be the poster child for Scientology as a formula for a well-adjusted adolescence. Articulate and poised, she is close to her family, has a wide circle of Scientologist and non-Scientologist friends and graduated from high school last spring as a straight-A student. “I’m not saying that everybody must be a Scientologist,” she says. “But what I am saying is that I see it work. I’ve learned so much about myself. LRH says, ‘What is true for you is what you observe to be true.’ So I’m not here to tell you that Scientology is the way, or that these are the answers. You decide what is true.”

Two other interviews, one conducted with Tommy Davis, a 33-year-old Scientologist who helps run a celebrity center in Hollywood, and another with Mike Rinder, the fifty-year-old director of the Church of Scientology International’s legal and public-relations wing, delve into a common complaint of Scientologists that reporters are quick to run stories of disillusioned Scientologists in an attempt to slander the group. Where this motivation comes from, I am unaware.

This section from which the following paragraphs come from is particularly interesting, and if you don’t have time to read the whole article, I recommend at least reading this section. Here are the key parts from the section (heads up: the article contains a handful of those four-letter words, particularly from Rinder, but the following paragraphs do not contain any). Reitman describes visiting Gold Base, which she describes as “the heart of the Scientology empire”:

In my ten or so hours at Gold, I am aware of being taken on an elaborately orchestrated junket, in which every step of my day has been plotted and planned. I don’t blame the group for wanting to present its best face; at least half of my conversations with Rinder and Davis pertain in one way or another to what Scientology perceives as a smear campaign on the part of the mainstream media. A chief complaint is that reporters, eager for a story, take the words of lapsed members as gospel. Davis says Scientology gets little credit for the success of its social-betterment programs, which include Narconon and also literacy and educational programs. “Look around,” says Davis. “People are out here busting their butt every day to make a difference. And one guy who leaves because he wants to go to the movies gets to characterize the whole organization? That sucks.”

time cover on scientologyScientologists do not look kindly on critics, particularly those who were once devout. Apostasy, which in Scientology means speaking out against the church in any public forum, is considered to be the highest form of treason. This is one of the most serious “suppressive acts,” and those who apostatize are immediately branded as “Suppressive Persons,” or SPs. Scientologists are taught that SPs are evil — Hitler was an SP, says Rinder. Indeed, Hubbard believed that a full 2.5 percent of the population was “suppressive.” As he wrote in the Dianetics and Scientology Technical Dictionary, a suppressive person is someone who “goofs up or vilifies any effort to help anybody and particularly knife with violence anything calculated to make human beings more powerful or more intelligent.”

Given this viewpoint, I wonder why anyone with connections to Scientology would critique them publicly. “Makes them famous,” Rinder says. “They do it for their fifteen minutes.”

So there you have it: the words of an influential Scientologist out for the public to examine.

While pinning a Scientologist down for an on-the-record discussion of Scientology, which would include both the group’s merits and drawbacks, the challenge of reporting on Scientology is compounded with the threat of legal action. Apparently Scientology sued Time magazine for just over $400 million for a 1991 cover story on the group and while a federal judge eventually tossed the case out of court, it wasn’t cheap for the magazine to defend against.

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Maybe SUVs really are linked to terrorism!

suvIt will be interesting to see how media coverage of yesterday’s unfortunate event in North Carolina develops. Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar, an Iranian-born man raised in Charlotte, drove an SUV into a crowd of students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. No one was killed and a handful were injured. The local ABC affiliate explains:

The driver of an SUV that plowed into a group of pedestrians at UNC-Chapel Hill on Friday told police it was retribution for the treatment of Muslims around the world, sources tell Eyewitness News and ABC News . . .

A law enforcement source tells Eyewitness News that Taheri-azar had been plotting the attack for some time and was prepared to die. Sources think he acted alone.

It’s great that Taheri-azar, who graduated in December, was such a bad driver. Anyway, this happened yesterday afternoon and I am surprised at how little coverage it has received thus far. The foreign press and local papers all over the country have stories, but I didn’t find anything in the New York Times this morning.

The Muslim student group on campus has already spoken out against Taheri-azar’s actions. When people claim religious motivations for their behavior, it invites a certain scrutiny. This would be another great hook for reporters looking to explore different interpretations of Islam. I bet readers, at least, would love to learn more about what motivates some Muslims to violence.

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Black parents are pro-choice (in education)

mplsBK400aI realize that I have started seeing the “pew gap” factor all over the place. Nevertheless, that is what I thought of this morning when I read the Wall Street Journal‘s “Black Flight: The exodus to charter schools” piece by Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten.

This piece never, I admit, comes right out and talks about the role of religion in the fading black support for rank-and-file public schools in Minneapolis (pictured). Overall, about half the students who live in the city attend public schools and the numbers are dropping among black families as they use “freedom of choice” options in order to seek other alternatives.

Still, I suspect that reporters who dug into this would hit religious and moral issues that could be lurking just beneath the surface. Take this passage, for example:

According to the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute, Minneapolis charter school enrollment is 91% minority and 84% low-income, while district enrollment is 72% minority and 67% low-income. Joe Nathan, the center’s director, says that parents want strong academic programs, but also seek smaller schools and a stable teaching staff highly responsive to student needs. Charter schools offer many options. Some cater to particular ethnic communities like the Hmong or Somali; others offer “back to basics” instruction or specialize in arts or career preparation. At Harvest Preparatory School, a K-6 school that is 99% black and two-thirds low income, students wear uniforms, focus on character, and achieve substantially higher test scores than district schools with similar demographics.

At this point, several major news stories start to intertwine. One of the most controversial issues in urban life, for several decades, has been the link between intact black families — homes with a father and a mother — and the mental, physical and emotional health of the children. Can you say Daniel Patrick Moynihan? I knew you could.

So I would predict that a high percentage of the black families choosing the charter-school option are intact families. Then, I predict that a high percentage of those intact families are also involved to one degree or another in local churches. In fact, I’ll go further than that: I predict that a high percentage of the charter-school students from single-parent homes are also coming from homes in which, for the parent, “church” is a positive word and “God” is not a curse.

Yes, this is tragic. It is a tragic development for public schools and a sign that, in the “culture wars” and “culture of death” era, it is getting harder to separate morality and education. Now, this “pew gap” in education can be seen all over the country, especially in urban areas. Ask leaders of Catholic, Lutheran and Christian Reformed schools if they see evidence of a link between religious beliefs and intact marriages and minority enrollment numbers in alternative schools.

Of course, you would expect people in religious schools to see these factors and to talk openly about them. Kersten’s article made me wonder how these trends are now beginning to affect life in secular alternatives. (Then there is homeschooling, of course, which tends to draw families of deep religious commitment.) You have to listen for the code words. When black parents talk about the need for “safety” and “smaller schools,” are they talking only about violence? Are they seeking schools that support the “values” in their homes?

At some point, the “pew gap” will affect other parts of African American life, if it is not doing so already. Yes, this is going to cause big tensions and, sooner or later, headlines. Remember this story?

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A Christian cartoon controversy?

radford mcconell lib2Another cartoon controversy involving religion has popped up in the news. This time it involves an American educational institution (Radford University in Virginia) and a student-run Internet magazine (Whim). There’s been no talk of censorship, according to administration officials, despite some protests from students. Another installment of the cartoon tilted “Christ On Campus” is supposed to be launched Friday by sophomore Christian Keesee.

It’s a cartoonist making fun of Jesus Christ, who is shown playing poker, in a sexual situation and punching a doubter in the face, among other things. This series of six cartoons published over course of a few months only recently generated any news coverage, and that’s clearly because of the controversy over the cartoons portraying Muhammad.

An old friend of mine, Greg Esposito of the Roanoke Times (I knew Esposito from my 2004 summer internship at the Times‘ New River Valley bureau), picked up the story on Tuesday and followed it today with this:

Fans and critics of the “Christ on Campus” cartoon posted on Radford University’s student Internet magazine can expect another installment of the version Friday — uncensored.

A meeting Monday afternoon between RU Whim Executive Director Andrew Lent and university officials opened up a dialogue on the cartoon but left editorial control in the hands of students.

“I think that it went pretty well,” he said. “There were some early tense moments but the tensions eased by the middle of the conversation. They never pushed for censorship. … It’s going to be business as usual, at least for now.”

Compare Radford University’s reaction to “Christ on Campus” with the administration reaction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign when its student newspaper published the internationally controversial Muhammad cartoons. Daily Illini editor in chief Acton Gorton was suspended along with his opinion editor.

According to this report from Michigan State University’s The State News, Gorton acted without consulting his editorial board. That’s a big no-no in college newspapering. Whether the newspaper should have run the cartoons is a separate issue.

Publishing cartoons portraying Jesus Christ — and even mocking him — would typically receive little more than a bat of an eye from the mainstream news media. But in this case, an enterprising reporter can take what would be and probably should be a minor issue and use it to explore another angle of an international religious storm.

cartoonistMy big question for Esposito is whether this is even a story at all if the Muslims cartoon controversy isn’t boiling over. Initially there seemed to be a possibility that the school’s administration — which provides funding for the magazine — was considering censoring the toons, but that’s not going to happen.

And that’s a good thing. While I had trouble finding the cartoons funny (they’re fairly sophomoric, written by a college sophomore who says his favorite movie is Dumb and Dumber), and some were fairly offensive, I do think they were an honest attempt by a student — whose first name is ironically “Christian” — to provide some social commentary on this small campus tucked away in the beautiful mountains of southwest Virginia.

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Uncovering Scientology

scientology recruiterGive me your first guess. What publication would devote nine months to report on a super-secret, cult-like group that claims millions of adherents along with some of Hollywood’s most famous people, namely Tom Cruise?

Well if you’re thinking Scientology and guessed Rolling Stone magazine, you’d be correct.

In one of the most thorough accounts I’ve ever seen on Scientology, Rolling Stone contributing editor Janet Reitman goes to great lengths to get inside the group, and she has 13,660 words to show for her work. It’s an incredibly long article, but well worth the read. I suggest chewing on it in segments. Otherwise it’s a bit overwhelming on the eyes and the morale.

Much could be said on this article. I’m hoping my fellow GetReligion bloggers will chime in when they get a chance to read the piece along with you all with comments. Please focus your thoughts toward the journalistic issues contained in the piece.

To begin with, Reitman brings the reader inside the reporting process, explaining what she had to do to obtain interviews with people inside the group and why most of the former members quoted in the story had to be renamed or mentioned anonymously (they fear retaliation, according to Reitman).

scientology crossUnlike many Rolling Stone pieces on religious issues, the article does not immediately dismiss Scientology as completely “out there.” In this case, Reitman allows the religion to speak for itself:

Scientology is also America’s most controversial religion: widely derided, but little understood. It is rooted in elements of Buddhism, Hinduism and a number of Western philosophies, including aspects of Christianity. The French sociologist Regis Dericquebourg, an expert in comparative religions, explains Scientology’s belief system as one of “regressive utopia,” in which man seeks to return to a once-perfect state through a variety of meticulous, and rigorous, processes intended to put him in touch with his primordial spirit. These processes are highly controlled, and, at the advanced levels, highly secretive. Critics of the church point out that Scientology, unique among religions, withholds key aspects of its central theology from all but its most exalted followers. To those in the mainstream, this would be akin to the Catholic Church refusing to tell all but a select number of the faithful that Jesus Christ died for their sins.

In June of last year, I set out to discover Scientology, an undertaking that would take nearly nine months. A closed faith that has often been hostile to journalistic inquiry, the church initially offered no help on this story; most of my research was done without its assistance and involved dozens of interviews with both current and former Scientologists, as well as academic researchers who have studied the group. Ultimately, however, the church decided to cooperate and gave me unprecedented access to its officials, social programs and key religious headquarters. What I found was a faith that is at once mainstream and marginal — a religious community known for its Hollywood members but run by a uniformed sect of believers who rarely, if ever, appear in the public eye. It is an insular society — one that exists, to a large degree, as something of a parallel universe to the secular world, with its own nomenclature and ethical code, and, most daunting to those who break its rules, its own rigorously enforced justice system.

ron hubbardOne thing you cannot miss in the article is the financial drive of the organization. Nearly everything costs money. Lots of money. The second thing you’ll notice is the secretive nature of the organization. The article portrays the organization as desperately attempting to squelch dissent among and outside its ranks. Finally, one definitely gets the sense that everything in the church centers on founder L. Ron Hubbard.

One thing I was wondering about was the explanation given for Hubbard’s authority. I know some people say he is (he never died, according to Scientologists, he just left his physical body) the “coolest guy ever,” but that’s not enough for me. Christians derive their faith from Jesus Christ, Muslims from Muhammad. Ron Hubbard was a science-fiction writer. What’s the spiritual draw there?

Another thing I think Reitman could have given more attention to was the legal angle. An organization of this size must leave some type of legal imprint, or crater — especially considering its battle with the IRS for tax-exempt status in 1993, and the number of people who have alleged exploitation and retaliation. Nevertheless, the size of the Scientology movement (is it even a movement?) is certainly up for debate:

Church officials boast that Scientology has grown more in the past five years than in the previous fifty. Some evidence, however, suggests otherwise. In 2001, a survey conducted by the City University of New York found only 55,000 people in the United States who claimed to be Scientologists. Worldwide, some observers believe a reasonable estimate of Scientology’s core practicing membership ranges between 100,000 and 200,000, mostly in the U.S., Europe, South Africa and Australia. According to the church’s own course-completion lists — many of which are available in a church publication and on the Internet — only 6,126 people signed up for religious services at the Clearwater organization in 2004, down from a peak of 11,210 in 1989. According to Kristi Wachter, a San Francisco activist who maintains an online database devoted to Scientology’s numbers, this pattern is replicated at nearly all of Scientology’s key organizations and churches. To some observers, this suggests that Scientology may, in fact, be shrinking.

time cover on scientologyBut discerning what is true about the Church of Scientology is no easy task. Tax-exempt since 1993 (status granted by the IRS after a long legal battle), Scientology releases no information about its membership or its finances. Nor does it welcome analysis of its writings or practices. The church has a storied reputation for squelching its critics through litigation, and according to some reports, intimidation (a trait that may explain why the creators of South Park jokingly attributed every credit on its November 2005 sendup of Scientology to the fictional John and Jane Smith; Paramount, reportedly under pressure, has agreed not to rerun the episode here or to air it in England). Nevertheless, Scientology’s critics comprise a sizable network of ex-members (or “apostates,” in church parlance), academics and independent free-speech and human-rights activists like Wachter, who have declared war on the group by posting a significant amount of previously unknown information on the Internet. This includes scans of controversial memos, photographs and legal briefs, as well as testimonials from disillusioned former members, including some high-ranking members of its Sea Organization. All paint the church in a negative, even abusive, light.

The article suggests that the organization has incredible powers of intimidation (as the South Park incident illustrates). Is this why other media organizations have not taken a closer look at the group? I wonder. Could this article change that?

Two final questions with which I leave you: why haven’t other religiously oriented publications tackled this subject? And why did Rolling Stone run with this and spend nine months and 13,660 words on it?

Time magazine devoted a cover story to the subject back in May 1991, stating that “Scientology poses as a religion but is really a ruthless global scam — and aiming for the mainstream.” (Because I am no longer a subscriber, I was unable to access the entire article, so those of you with access, let us know what you think.) Is Scientology arriving in the mainstream? And if this is true, one would think journalists would burn some shoe leather and spill some ink in order to poke away at this group that poses as a religion, yet demands incredible sums of money from its followers.

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Lack of perspective

Hindu Childrens Book 01We’ve been covering the Hindutva textbook controversy in California for a few months. The Los Angeles Times‘ Theresa Watanabe has a piece on the Hindu nationalists who are fighting to make the changes that’s worth a read.

This story has not gotten enough coverage so it’s great that Watanabe is looking into it. The impetus for the story is that the California State Board of Educaction’s five-member history-social science committee is set to recommend final action for the full board at its March 8 meeting. She begins by telling the story of Abhijit Kurup, a young Hindu who didn’t recognize his religion when he was taught about it in government schools years ago. He is joining with other Hindus in a campaign urging textbook changes.

One requested change, for instance, would say women had “different” rights than men, not fewer.

But their efforts have sparked a heated counter-campaign by scholars and others who accuse the groups of trying to fabricate history and gloss over the treatment of women and minorities in India, where Hinduism is the dominant religion. Some also contend that the requested textbook changes are so similar to those imposed by Hindu nationalist groups in India that California should not put its stamp of approval on them.

Watanabe mentions a bit about the conflict. However, she doesn’t really explain why the notion that the caste system would be portrayed as one where women had different rights instead of fewer rights is so offensive to so many people who fought or remember efforts to subvert the system. And what is not quite explored in the piece is what Hindu nationalists believe in a larger political context. She offers little perspective on the nationalists’ outsize influence — such as how large a group they are or how they are viewed in India or by Hindus here in the States. Mostly she portrays the fight as between Ivy League scholars and Hindu adherents:

“This is the first time Hindu groups are trying to protest against 300 years of prejudice,” said Madhulika Singh, a Bay Area computer networking specialist. She says her son told her he didn’t want to be Hindu anymore after studying ancient India and Hinduism in sixth grade.

I do not know Madhulika Singh, but I imagine the one Watanabe quotes is the same one who is affiliated with the Hindu Educational Foundation, a group with Hindu nationalist ties which is fighting to change the textbooks to match its particular views. Why not mention that? It doesn’t really hurt the article to mention that Singh, who makes such a powerful claim about her son’s religious identity, is also intimately involved with one of the more partisan groups in the debate. The group comes up in the very next paragraph of Watanabe’s story. Perhaps it’s just coincidence about the name, but if not, the affiliation should be mentioned.

Indeed, the issue is seen on both continents as the first major test of Hindu political clout in the United States and showcases the growing influence and political savvy of Indian Americans, now one of the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic groups. Led by the California-based Hindu Education Foundation and the Vedic Foundation in Texas, a broad-based group of temples, educators and community organizations has mobilized on the issue, drawing extensive news coverage in the Indian media here and abroad.

Okay, I have been following this story more than the average American and I have no idea what it means to say that the Vedic Foundation is a broad-based group. That doesn’t say anything. It doesn’t mean anything. Do a small minority of American Hindus affiliate with it? A majority? Something inbetween?

Not until the second to the last paragraph are readers told that not all Hindus share Hindu nationalist views about the merits of the caste system, “different” roles for men and women, whether Hinduism is polytheistic and where Hinduism originated. Watanabe ends the story by quoting a UCLA professor who think the Hindu nationalist views are ridiculous.

It reminded me of a comment from reader Ryan Overbey last month when we spoke about the issue. He blamed the problems with press coverage of this story on his view that reporters are generalists:

So suddenly the story changed from some minor changes to make CA textbooks more sensitive, to a bunch of scientifically unjustifiable changes motivated by wacky religious groups with connections to right wing politics.

It’s fairly upsetting that the press didn’t notice what was happening earlier (it was up to academic Indologists to figure out what was going on and put a stop to it). But you can chalk this up to a problem with the press generally: being for the most part generalists, they can hardly be expected to unravel a Hindutva agenda by reading a seemingly innocuous list of textbook changes. Scholars and scientists are much better at that sort of thing.

It just seems weird that after many months of this textbook battle waging on, so few reporters have had the desire to dig in and find out more about Hindu nationalists behind the fight.

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Ships sailing in opposite directions

dh1 01Sigh. Click here. Now, please take a deep breath and click here.

So who said the following and what is the context?

“As children we always knew that someone else came first because she had special needs and we were taught from when we were babies to respect and understand that. It is a hard lesson to take when you are little but as you grow older you just appreciate how important it is to think of someone else first.”

Now pause and reflect. Does anyone else out there sense a ghost?

Have a nice day.

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