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January 14, 2010

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Make every day Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 18.

A program that changed students’ lives

When I started college in August 2000, I was, for lack of a better word, directionless. I was presumably moving forward with my life, but like most freshmen who weren’t groomed from age 2 to be a professional golfer or a U.S. senator, my plans for the future were either wildly contrived or laughably vague.

Like many of my peers, I could hardly articulate why I’d enrolled in college in the first place. (“Um, cause how else am I going to get a job? And, you know, people will think less of me otherwise.”) But there I was, a disheveled 17-year-old heretic, waiting in a vacant conference room at a small Catholic college, hoping that my orientation would be canceled or delayed so I could hop in my mom’s gold Altima and drive as far away from Center Valley as a tank of gas would let me.

Alas, Ann Koefer foiled my escape plans before they had germinated. With a disarming smile and an authentically gentle voice, she welcomed me to the Allentown College (now DeSales University) Act 101 program. A cynic since birth, I’m usually wary of nice people in a first encounter, but there was something I could trust about her. My mood perked up instantly, and I settled into my chair.

Over the next four years, I would periodically bare my soul to this woman, share my dreams, my poisonous secrets, and she would listen without judging me. As an Act 101 counselor, Ann lived her occupation. Even on her worst days, she radiated positive energy. She helped me see things I could never see in myself.

Over the past decade, Ann has profoundly impacted the lives of dozens of students. So has the program director, John Dickson. But both of them may be out of a job in May, along with their peers at 64 other colleges in Pennsylvania.

The state legislature has chosen not to fund the program for the first time in 39 years, and hundreds of low-income and minority students will suffer the consequences.

* * *

When Pennsylvania’s budget deficit eclipsed the $3 billion mark in June, it was soon clear that the legislature would have to raise taxes or dramatically cut spending.

Instead of levying a tax increase, the legislature gave us an emaciated budget. Farmers lost $450,000 in subsidies for transitioning to organic farming. Struggling communities lost $39.6 million in revitalization grants and $40 million in conservation and employment assistance.

Safe water protections were zeroed out from $11 million.  Higher education assistance was pared down to $400,000 from $19.5 million.

Fiscal politics is a game of trade-offs, and inevitably there will be losers.

It’s troubling that higher education may now be out of reach for hundreds of smart and enterprising students who otherwise would have made it through college with the help of Act 101, who otherwise would have gone on to pump discretionary income, tax revenues and fresh ideas into our economy.

Through state grants, the program has made college more affordable for thousands of minority and low-income students since 1971, when former State Rep. K. Leroy Irvis persuaded his fellow legislators to pass the Higher Education Equal Opportunity Act.

But Act 101 was designed to offer more than just financial aid. The program was inspirational in nature.

Dedicated learning specialists helped to diagnose learning differences and teach students techniques to work around them and succeed. Writing specialists pinpointed grammatical misunderstandings and clarified the rules through individualized lessons. Counselors cast fears into perspective and made dream careers seem attainable.

For some Act 101 students, all it took was a push. (That’s all I needed.) For others it took more intensive instruction. Either way, the program worked. Ask any Act 101 graduate, any employee, and they’ll tell you it was worth every dollar.

* * *

The irony in all this is that I learned of the program’s demise when I called Ann last week to tell her that I had found a new job. Even with the prospect of losing her own job looming high over her head, Ann was lively as always, ecstatic that my career path was taking another exciting turn. (Sorry, dear readers, but it’s top secret.)

Ten years earlier, I had decided that I would be a sport management major because I could think of nothing better to do with my life. The funny thing is I was hardly a hardcore sports fan, and I figured that I would turn my job as a Philadelphia Eagles ball boy into something with more longevity, something less akin to being a surrogate mother for professional athletes.

If it weren’t for the Act 101 program, I would have probably skated my way through college at a state school and ended up in a meaningless, unfulfilling career. I would have probably been content with mediocrity because I had no ambition and little self-esteem.

I can only hope that some heir to K. Leroy Irvis’ legacy, that some Act 101 beneficiary, will end up in the state legislature and show his colleagues all that has been lost, all that will never be.

 

The need to witness: Sitting in the moonlight with a dying young baboon

Sometimes the smallest objects can trigger large memories. 

Clearing some bookcases of all the odd objects left on the edges of the shelves or on top of the books themselves, my wife, Janet, said to me, “Is this something you want?”

What is it?”

“Some Kodachrome slides.”

I took the box and looked at the fading inscription on the side: ‘Pancho’s Funeral.’

“Yes.”

I opened the box and held the slides to the light and that long day came back from my deep memory to the surface.

For a while in my life I was one of those persons who studies animals in the wild. On this particular occasion I was studying a troop of about 75 olive baboons that lived on the savannah near Gilgil, Kenya (about 90 miles NW of Nairobi).

For most of the day, nearly every day, I walked on the fringe of the group, taking notes about their behavior, and also photographing and tape recording them. More often than not, I was alone, the sole representative of our vaunted genus among the animals. An ambassador, if you will.

On a typical day, the troop arose from their sleep cliffs at daybreak, yawned, stretched and slowly came down to the grassland to pick desultorily at whatever may be handy to eat, before some group consensus clicked in and suddenly they’d be off and marching across the plains at a good pace, usually eating as they went, but sometimes making a rapid march of several miles before suddenly, magically appearing in a meadow where giant mushrooms had bloomed overnight. Or dung beetle larvae could be found near a water hole — luscious and wiggly, fat as a man’s thumb.

Wherever baboons go, whatever they do, individual and group survival lies in staying close to the troop. There is safety in numbers if predators appear. There is food to be found if you stay near the older, more experienced members of the group. A lone baboon (some large, fierce males being the occasional exception) is a dead baboon, or will be one soon.

I was following the troop one morning, doing my best to keep up, take notes, do censuses, map their progress, and so on, when I noticed that a young male baboon who’d been named Pancho by my research team, seemed to be straggling behind. Youngsters normally are running ahead of everyone. Whenever he wound up too far behind, his brother would go up on a rock to look for him and wait a bit before running ahead to keep up with the troop.

The group came to a meadow where they started pulling up small, nearly inconspicuous plants to get at the bulb-like corms at their base – one of their staple foods, especially during the dry season. They stayed there for more than an hour, by which time Pancho had caught up. Instead of eating, however, he sat with his back against an acacia plant, his chin lifted as though he were having trouble breathing.

In a little while, the troop was up and moving across the savannah again, this time at a good clip. This routine of lagging behind and struggling to catch up continued all afternoon, until, towards evening the group climbed a cliff face. Most of them went to the top and sat up there, resting or quietly grooming one another. The young baboons ran around, playing the usual chasing, mock-fighting games. It seemed to take forever, but eventually Pancho appeared at the top of the cliff and staggered to a place where he could rest in the shade.

I thought, good, they’ll probably stay here tonight and he’ll get a chance to recuperate from whatever has been bothering him all day. I was guessing snake bite. Again he sat, falling asleep while sitting up, occasionally getting up to move and sprawling in the dust. His odd behavior stimulated curiosity among the other youngsters. They ‘d approach, but cautiously, and lean forward as far as they dared and touch him and leap back. After a while, with no reaction from him, they gave up and left him alone.

I was hoping the troop was sleeping here tonight. If so, I had done a good day’s work and I’d gather my backpack and walk back to my research center/home. This site was close to the equator, where there are no long, slow sunsets. Darkness comes in a hurry.

Suddenly I noticed that half the troop was gone. I looked over the edge of the escarpment and saw half the baboons inexplicably hurrying across the savannah in the golden glow of the fading day, the remainder of the troop now scurrying down from the cliff, eager to join them.

What would happen to Pancho now? His mother, her fairly recent newborn clinging underneath her, stood a few feet away from Pancho. He opened his eyes enough to make eye contact and she stared at him for a few seconds before she moved off. She stopped at the edge of the cliff and looked back. He sat where he was, breathing slowly, looking drowsy. She hesitated, then disappeared beneath the lip of the cliff and hurried down through the encroaching darkness. In a minute I saw her run out onto the savannah to catch up with the troop.

The shadows of the cliff almost seemed to chase her across the golden plain. Eventually the baboons could be seen only as rapidly diminishing specks on the horizon.

That left me and Pancho.

I was anxious to get home. I never enjoyed moonlight strolls on the African savannah. I was hungry and tired. But I didn’t feel right leaving Pancho to die there alone. Healthy young baboons don’t suddenly get sick and die in the space of a day. I was fairly certain he’d been bitten by a poisonous snake. Whatever the cause, no matter how tempted I was to rescue him (if I could), I was not allowed to intervene.

So, I had no choice but to sit on a rock nearby and keep him company. Baboons are quite admirable in their ability to live their lives neither giving, nor seeking, sympathy. Or mercy. Life is what happens. But for myself, another flawed human, the choice was not so simple. Sometimes the deepest root of morality for me arises from simply avoiding doing things that I know I’ll regret. I chose to stay.

The moon came up. Every now and then Pancho would switch position slightly, weaker each time. I moved over to sit on the edge of the cliff.  I was looking at the moon-drenched valley remembering with sympathy the way his mother and brother and playmates and the rest of the troop had run in such fright towards the temporary haven where they now hovered, awaiting the morning light.

At some point I looked over and realized that Pancho had not moved for a while. My duty served, I stood up and stretched and walked home in the dark with only the moon to guide me.

The next day I came back. When the troop discovered Pancho’s body, some of the younger ones sniffed and poked him, and jumped back a few times. Then four of his age-mates finally settled down in a circle around him and stared for a while.

It’s a great puzzle to them, I thought. Of all the creatures on the cliff top that morning, I was the only one who understood why this young baboon was lying there and wouldn’t get up and play chase when his friends dared him to.

Well, not “understood,” exactly. I was the only one who had a word for the phenomenon: Death. Whatever that means.

I took photos that I labeled “Pancho’s Funeral.” Many years have passed since they were laid on my bookshelf.

Sometimes witnessing is all you can do. Bless the hospice workers.

 

 

 


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