America divided: ideas from a veteran and educator

By Story of America Team

Steve Heminger

What does it mean to be an American today?

The United States is, in comparison to the majority of nations, very powerful and also very immature nation. This combination is a very dangerous one and can be likened to a teenager with the keys to their parent’s car; a whole lot of power and no set direction to go. This means the people who call themselves Americans today, don’t really know who they are, where they stand, or what to believe.

Because of this we Americans tend to want someone to tell them what to believe, buy, feel, cherish, celebrate, and live. Oh, we still brag about the individualism of the American past, but for the most part that’s what it is, the past. My generation, the Baby Boomers, inherited a nation that had just survived a depression and a World War. Our parents knew what sacrifice was and is. They had a sense of pride in themselves and our country for what they and the country had accomplished. They are known as the “Greatest Generation”. Their children, the Boomers, enjoyed the rewards of their parent’s labors and thereby became complacent, to a degree spoiled, and unfortunately generally ignorant of what their parents had accomplished

In what ways are we divided as a country?

Our divisions are not unique. I had the opportunity and honor to have served our country for 26 years and during that time I managed to visit 37 countries with a spectrum of governments, culture, religion, and belief systems. While in a minority of these nations life was considered to be “cheap”, in most I found the average man and woman had the same desires as the typical American, security, shelter, food and a chance for their children to do better than them. Our divisions are very similar, but there are important differences.

Many countries have a division of religion and in this regard, until of late, we were fairly immune to this malady. We are not so much divided about religion as we are about the role religion plays in our society. The religious feel persecuted for their beliefs and the non-religious feel that the religious “Right” wants to control of society. While we do not have an organized class system in our country, there is and has been a “shadow” society based upon birth and financial means. In addition, we have had a class system in regard to ethnicity, race, and political beliefs. The latter, political beliefs can and does set up the social society as your beliefs of a political nature color your view of society in general.

Why do you think we are so divided?

My view as to why there as such a large chasm in our country today is that we have become dependent on others to tell us what to buy, what to wear, who to have as a hero, and what to think and believe in. Technology is definitely a two edged sword. Today it is possible to form your belief system without conversing face to face with another human being, got a question, just Google it. I am a retired educator and a believer in technology, but I’m also what I like to think, a thinking person. It’s easier to not question and to follow, than to blaze your own ”path” and converse with others agreeing when you can, but more importantly putting yourself in the “shoes” of the other person and look at the topic of discussion from the perspective of the other person. The media plays an important part in this, but I have a hard time believing in conspiracy theories as to the press being own totally by any particular political belief. These media providers are corporations and corporations make their decisions based upon profit and profit can be made by catering to a particular political stance.

In concert with my thoughts on intellectual beliefs, I feel the lack of differing views beginning at childhood keeps us divided. I consider the greatest loss my children have had is to not possess the childhood I did. Socializing is at its best when you are young and still open to different views. I gained much of my beliefs by playing with other children of different background, religions, cultures, and position in society. Our society is extremely distrustful and in some instances rightly so, but on the whole I think society has definitely suffered because of this.

Finally, as a military man, I have lost good friends due to my differing views politically. I’ve gotten the phrase that, “I’ve been “brainwashed” by the Socialist Liberals.” I’ve tried to explain to them that I haven’t changed; I believe in America, I believe in everyone having an opportunity, and I believe in being my Brother’s Keeper. These are all qualities I had during my career and qualities that aided me in attaining the rank that I did. I soon tired of the names, such as Nazi, Communist, Socialist Communist (if that isn’t an oxymoron, then I guess I don’t know what one is), traitor, Liberal (with the tone that it is a four-letter word) and just plain un-American. To be honest these terms angered me, but they hurt more coming from those I had worked with, put our lives on the line at the same time, and especially those who I respected. If this can happen to me, then it goes it can happen to anyone and therein lies the division of our country.

What unites us as a country?

First and foremost, individuality, which also is one of the major sources of our division. During my sixty some odd years of life I have been witness to this country coming together during a crisis. All differences are put aside when it is time to take care of a victim of a disaster or attack. Unfortunately once the disaster is over, we tend to return to our individual belief systems. I find this to be one of our greatest failings and one that keeps disagreement in our society. I believe we are more united than we tend to believe in regard to abortion, women’s rights, and pro-life. The danger lies in how our emotions are stoked by Special Interest groups and politicians. This may sound odd, but when it is all said and done I would bet that every adult who acts in a mature manner would agree that life is precious, we just disagree on how to protect that life.

How were you, your family and/or community impacted by the 2008 financial crisis?

At first, my family felt no impact. We as a family have resources not usually available to the average family. My wife and I are both retired military with the associated retirement check. I spent 17 years after the military as a public school teacher and when I retired early, I received a modest retirement check from the Public Education system. My retirement was the major impact as it was premature in nature. I received a layoff notice at the end of the 2010-11 school year. It came as a complete surprise as I had signed a contract to teach next year and as an Emotional Disabled Special Education Teacher my student load was at a level where I could in normal times be secure in my employment. I’ll not name my state, but my story should make it easy to recognize where I live. I was told by the Principal and Special Education Director that I was being laid off at the end of the school year. I asked why and I was informed that it was due to my student load, which was 17 at the time. For an Emotional Disabled teacher, this was and is above normal.

I didn’t question the School Board’s decision, as I really in fact, knew why I was receiving my notice. You see I unfortunately had worked myself up the pay scale where it was monetarily possible for the district to hire two new teachers straight out of college. Sure enough, two weeks later when the job postings were published there were two openings for my particular position, thus making it possible to lower the class size and more efficiently teach the student, something I had advocated for during the year. My state has recently gone through an extremely rough period for teachers because we have an union that supposedly runs education so I did not have seniority in the job to help keep me employed, that went away the year prior, so I had three choices, one, put in for my position away at a much lower pay scale, two, find another position in a different district at a lower pay rate, or three, retire.

I chose to retire as my retirement check is based upon the last three years of employment; having taught 17 years that would mean a drastically lower retirement check, so it really was a no-brainer, one that I’m sure my district realized. Am I bitter, to be honest, yes at first, but now I have taken early Social Security and have secured employment as a part-time instructor teaching CPR, AED, and First Aid. My hours are mine to decide, I have more time with my family, and I am not stressed out and working 12-16 hours a day. As I began this section, my family is not the norm, and I consider my community to be that of education so the effect on my community would be that many other teachers have lost positions that did not have my cushion, therein lies their problem.

What are your living conditions like today?

As I stated in the above paragraph, I have sufficient funds to survive. We have health care right now because my wife and I are retired military and my thirteen year old is also covered by that. We own our own home and because of my wife’s acumen at budgeting, we are living fairly close to the manner we were prior to my retirement.

Are you hopeful about the future?

I am always hopeful about the future to be otherwise would be self-defeating and giving up. I have faith in my country, despite the actions of a few. I do my part by remaining active in the issues facing us today. I feel that the populace as a whole is becoming more aware of the problems facing our country and addressing them appropriately. Finally, I know, as a teacher, that during our history we have faced just as difficult a problem as we face today. I firmly believe that the cool-heads of our country will prevail and we will survive, but my greatest unanswered question is, “Will we finally learn from our difficulties or are we doomed to repeat them?”

What are your fears?

My greatest fear is that we, as a society, will not relearn the ability to sit down and talk. If we continue to live in our own little “bubbles” and distrust anyone who disagrees with us we are doomed to go the way of Greece, Roman Empire and England. I fear we will do what Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Saddam, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban couldn’t, destroy our way of life.

What do you think are some solutions to our country’s challenges?

This question is an easy one to answer, but extremely difficult to do:

1. Listen; we have to learn to listen to others and put ourselves in “their shoes”. By doing this we can begin to understand others.

2. Communicate with respect, especially when you don’t agree with the other person.

3. Prioritize our problems and brainstorm as a whole on how to tackle each problem.

4. Both political parties need to put partisanship aside and become statesmen.

5. We, as the populace of American need to be more involved and active politically and demand the best from our elected officials and if we don’t get the best hold them accountable.