One of my patients, Frank DiFiglio, an octogenarian and second-generation Italian American gentleman, grew up in Brooklyn during the Great Depression. Sure, times were tough, but everybody had it tough, and it was through a communal and shared determination to persevere that people made it through — stronger than ever.
Frank’s personal situation was bolstered by a large and closely knit family whose energies were fueled by direct Sicilian lineage. He grew up speaking Italian so well that, when he finally did visit the old country, people over there couldn’t tell that it was actually his second language.
He and I work out at St. Andrews Family Fitness Plus! and one day — just to poke a little fun at him — I observed that his gentle demeanor runs counter to the stereotype of Sicilians being hot-headed, overly passionate Cosa Nostra types. He just smiled and said Cosa Nostra is going to get me if I don’t watch out.
Anyway, we got to talking about this and that and what it was like growing up in New York during the 1930s. Everybody’s story is fascinating, but to hear that of an immigrant family and their struggle for the American Dream in the Big Apple during the early part of the 20th century is remarkably so.
One of the things that helped young people survive back then, Frank says, were vocational high schools. With the economic recovery still stuck on lukewarm and with college tuition costs and student loans totally out of control, it’s time we put a re-emphasis on them, he says.
They are lifesavers, providing essential and practical skills for young people who either can’t afford or don’t want to go to college. Since corporate America isn’t hiring at all like it did just a few years ago, they are an option to graduate from high school and go right to work with a marketable trade.
In fact, many Charlestonians still talk about the old Murray Vocational School, where high school students could spend their last two years learning a trade. While there isn’t anything exactly like Murray anymore, I was pleasantly surprised to learn what is being offered. Virginia Reijners, director of career and technology education for the Charleston County School District, tells us there are plenty of opportunities for high school students to learn a marketable skill.
It seems to me that Lowcountry Tech comes the closest to Murray in that it offers only career and technology courses. It’s designed primarily for students from downtown and West Ashley to come from their home schools to take tech classes. There’s also Garrett Academy of Technology, a magnet school. Students who enroll there are majoring in technology courses, but it also serves their secondary education needs and may result in a decision to further their education.
And Reijners emphasizes that unlike the old days, all high schools have programs that allow students to gain skills that will allow them to go right to work when they graduate.
Speaking of struggle and perseverance, here’s a poem that many people refer to under difficult circumstances. Written by English poet William Ernest Henley (1849-1902), it is notably controversial. Read it and see if you can perceive what all the fuss has and continues to be about, with a brief discussion to follow.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
The title of the poem is “Invictus,” which means “Unconquerable” in Latin. If you’ve not read it before, do you find anything offensive about it?
The poem was read by Nelson Mandela during his long period of imprisonment, and it obtained some notoriety in 2001 when used as Timothy McVeigh’s final statement before being executed for blowing up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
Its author, Henley, contracted tuberculosis of the bone at the age of 12 and ended up having his left leg amputated below the knee. Frequent illness would either keep him out of school, work or in the hospital for much of the duration of his life, and it was during a particularly difficult time that this poem was conceived. He would ultimately end up succumbing to the disease at age 53.
I basically like the poem and interpret it as a paean to an English and personal resolution to carry on, but there are many who are offended by the perceived agnostic leanings of the opening verse — particularly the phrase “whatever gods may be.”
Is Henley really promoting agnosticism so much as self-reliance and free will (both God-given qualities)? I don’t think so, but here are criticisms by some bloggers: “brilliant anti-religious poetry;” “cursing Jesus Christ for saying that few enter heaven and that many enter hell (Matt 7:21);” “agnostic and no wonder Christians don’t approve.” Also, “the fact that Henley titled the poem with a Latin word (a dead language used by the Romans who killed Jesus Christ) speaks volumes.”
Well, I don’t know about all that. I wonder if those same people would be offended if we asked golf gods, weather gods, fishing gods and lottery gods to weigh in?
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth@ comcast.net.