Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

The Best Teacher I Ever Had

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The best teacher I ever had was my eight grade social studies teacher, Mr. Molnia.    He was a middle-aged man who wore bargain-basement suits and the same pair of black shoes every day.   Most people probably walked past him on the street without giving him another thought.  I have no idea whether he was married, had children, or if he is still with us.  But this man blew my mind open with his radical ideas. 

It’s an old intellectual concept that "reality" is the superficial part of life — and the real action is going behind the scenes.   It was the Greeks who first introduced us to the "Platonic ideal."   Christian thinkers such as Aquinas infused Greek thought with Christian thought — creating a separation between heaven (the ideal) and earth (the sinful senses).  Later philosopher rejected this religious outlook, but still sought "the real truth" beneath the sensory world.  Hegel and Marx saw history as pushing society forward.   Marx’s vision  became the basis for Communism and Socialism.   Freud’s search turned matters inward, with the unseen truth usually having something to do with sex and repression. 

As an eighth grader, I didn’t know much about Marx or Freud.   Mr. Molnia talked about issues that I could relate to — like television, and the reality behind the facade.  He explained to our class that the networks existed as much for the commercials as they did for the programs.   This was an earth-shattering concept to me.  I always thought of TV as my friend.  Suddenly, I realized that it was two-timing me with the Milton-Bradley Company, telling me I needed to buy certain games just to get some action with his other friend. 

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Mr. Molnia told us to watch some of our favorite shows, and make note of the commercials.  By doing this, we could find out what type of audience they were shooting for, and we could get insights on how they’re trying to manipulate us.  Years before everyone was arguing about media bias, he was telling us that EVERYONE IS BIASED.   He told us to take everything with a "grain of salt," even text books.  He read us part of a book explaining that the "Founding Fathers" were as interested in personal gain as they were in forming a new country.  I couldn’t believe we were learning this stuff.  It was as if we had just found out that the world was round, and every other teacher had been telling us for years that it was square.

I felt a paradigm shift in my mind.

Now, Mr. Molnia was NOT some sort of ex-hippy.  He was far from it.   His biggest enemy was propaganda.  He showed us how it was used in Nazi Germany.   He showed us various American political campaigns from the past, and how their aim was to manipulate the populace.  He made us watch commercials for products, and how they used the same propoganda techniques to make us insecure and buy their products.  He taught us different  techniques — assertion, bandwagon, card-stacking, glittering generalities — not so we can become copywriters — but so we could analyze the false message that we are being told.

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Mr. Molnia has had a great impact on my life.    Whether it is good or bad is another matter.   I can be a stick in the mud at times, still questioning the accuracy of some "60 Minutes" segment.  I’m always curious about a media company’s advertisers, because that tells you a lot what their content is and isn’t going to be about.

For instance, Gawker, the wildly popular gossip site, which the New York Times has called “the national go-to spot for keeping up with the rich and scandalous, the media elite and the pop-culture trends of the moment.”

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Much of their website’s content involves mocking media companies and celebrities.  And who are their sponsors?  This week, it includes:

• Showtime
• Travel Channel
• NBC Blow Out
• American Public Media
• MovieBeam
• Hershey’s
• Don’t Come Knocking
• Speedo
• Basic Instinct
• H&M
• Dyson
• HSBC
• Toyota Yaris
• Brick
• Shatner DVD Club
• Delta
• Fox Searchlight
• Hard Fi
• American Apparel
• Nontourage
• New Line
• Sanctuary Group
• The New School

What does this tell you about their coverage?  Will they be mocking New Line this week?  And what does it say about the advertisers?  Why do they think that Gawker’s audience will want to buy "American Apparel" t-shirts? 

Sophia and I both love reality TV, but we get into endless arguments over it.  I don’t believe half of what goes on in those shows.   As a film school graduate, I can tell you now that there can be no "reality" with a camera in your face, a producer behind the scenes, an editor cutting the material, and music punctuating the emotions.  There is no doubt that someone like Steven Speilberg could film me typing this post right now, and manipulate things with lighting, editing, and music so you would be bawling in your chair after he’s done with it.

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One of my first student movies at USC Film School involved a scene with a baby and a mother sitting under a tree.  We put an ad in the trades, and we were shocked to get hundreds of professionally-made photos from mothers wanting to get their baby in a no-pay silent 16mm student film done by two inept amateurs.  We held auditions and met all these crazy mothers who wanted to get their babies (!) into commercials so they can make money for the family.  We picked some cute baby for the part.

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On the day of the shoot, the mother showed up with her baby — but there was some bad news.  The baby was sick and throwing up.  We were about to call up another "baby," but this psychotic mother insisted that her baby could "go on."  We ended up using this baby, shooting between the times she threw up on the actress.  Months later, after we cut and added music to the short film, people were touched by it, especially the scene with the "angelic baby."

You all know Kelly Clarkson, the shy girl from Texas who made it big on the first American Idol, right?  But did you know, she already lived in Hollywood before her audtion, working as an extra on Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and recording vocal demos with famed songwriter Gerry Goffin ("You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman").  She wasn’t just some cute local girl they found working at a Texas Walmart.

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Does it take away from her talent?  No.  But, it doesn’t surprise me one bit that her "story" was bullshit.

Here is one of the most famous photos documenting the civil rights movement. 

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It is Rosa Parks sitting in the front of the bus with a scowling white man behind her.  I’ve seen this photograph in many documentaries.   After Ms. Parks’ recent death, there was an article in the New York Times about this photo.  It seems that the man behind Rosa Parks is Nicholas C. Chriss, a UPI reporter who was writing an article about her.  He posed in the picture to make it look more dramatic.

Does this take away from Rosa Park’s heroism?  Of course not.

But I guess I am a Watergate child at heart — I don’t trust too many politicians or media outlets — no matter which side of the spectrum they come from.

Maybe that’s why I don’t write about politics at all.  Whenever I start believing something is true, I hear Mr. Molnia in my ear and start questioning what I’m being told.

On Saturday, 500.000 marchers walked in Los Angeles to protest proposed federal immigration legislation.   My first instinct was to side with the protesters — and my local NPR station certainly seemed proud of them.  I heard an interviewer talking about racism and Minutemen and how terrible it was that it was OK for Europeans to come to this country, but not Mexicans. 

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Suddenly, my bullshit radar went off. 

I was pretty sure I wasn’t for HR 4437, the border protection bill, but surely something needs to be done to stem immigration from Mexico.  As a resident of Los Angeles, it is a vital issue.

I turned to progressive Chicago blogger Alley, because she is always insightful on political subjects.   But I didn’t quite buy what she was saying today, either.

Do you have any idea what would actually happen to the economy of this country if we turned all of our hard working immigrant non-citizens into criminals, and/or if we actually succeeded in stopping illegal immigration from Mexico? Say goodbye to your clean office buildings and your cheap veggies and your Italian lunch in Downers Grove. No, really.

What proof do you have that your assertion is true? 

The truth of the matter is that it is a complicated issue.   I think conservatives need to remember that most of our grandparents came to this country as immigrants.  But, then again, most of these immigrants came legally.  Is it fair that certain illegals now get "amnesty?"  How do others legal immigrants feel about this issue?

I know progressives are concerned with the well-being of the immigrant community.  But I think we should also be concerned with our poorer citizens who are being pushed aside because there is too much demand for city services.   In Los Angeles, county hospitals are being closed because they have to care for countless numbers of illegal immigrants without insurance.   Our inner city schools are overcrowded because we have to educate these students.  And illegals keep the minimum wage down, further hurting the poorest segment of society.  

As you can probably tell by now, I am wishy-washy politicially, spending way too much time thinking about the other side of the story.  Thank you, Mr. Molnia, for making me a more intelligent, but more indecisive person.

43 Comments

  1. My teaching philosophy has always been to teach children to question and to think for themselves. I have told students to not accept something simply because it is printed in a book. The great teachers I had in my life did the same for me.

    Before I was a teacher, I worked in corporate America. At my first job I out of college, I worked in HR for a company whose employee population was madely made up of immigrants. A couple of years around these folks and I had a pretty good idea of how they came to be working there. I also know because of the work conditions of the company that many citizens would not accept the jobs.

    This was all at the time of Prop. 187. A family friend voted in support of the proposition. I kept asking him, “Are you sure that you want to deny the people who pick your produce health care?” Luckily the folks in the healthcare industry agreed with me. Even after it passed, they refused to ask patients if they were citizens.

    This family friend could not seem to understand how much more that pint of strawberries would cost if it were not for immigrant employment. I just read a fascinating article on brown collar workers this week at my current job.

    Sorry for the long comment but as a native of California, this is a subject upon which I am quite passionate. (Also being one of those snotty folks from Northern California, I am quite the bleeding heart liberal.) I figure that when middle America has the same proportion of immigrants as the coastal states do, they will finally truly understand.

  2. I read many posts thinking you were very much political. Questioning what is being read (seen,heard, etc..) is a political statement to me.

    Do I think you are arguing one side or the other? No, but I am a born trouble maker and will ask anyhow.

  3. I’m envious you had a teacher like Mr. Molnia to push the envelope and encourage you to think for yourself. I think questioning things helps us live smarter.

  4. Indecisiveness or not, questioning everything (much to the chagrin of others) is more precise than having a qualifying stand (situation depending of course) – oh the irony! Rather than accept what is being fed to you intravenously (TV, print, and other every other form of media), the wiser choice would be to, “Well, that’s interesting, but here’s another side to it.” It can become rather annoying (despite our own amusement) to those who have such a strong opinion and supposed assurance and even more so to people you know on a closer level; I know well a few people who are very politically one-sided and when someone they know equally doesn’t agree outright with them, oh buddy!, watch those political fireworks zoom.

  5. As a fellow child of Watergate, I say Mr. Molnia rules! Too bad there weren’t more Mr. Molnias.

  6. Skepticism is healthy. Being inquisitive is a great quality too. Glad you found a teacher who was able to equip you with those two virtues.
    Interestingly, I took a stance against that labor law that is causing havoc in France – yet, I still think that there is a huge other side to this story, and that France needs to face reality, and seriously look into altering some if its social laws. So, yeah, maybe I am wishy-washy too.

    Thanks for a great post.

  7. I had a Mr. Molina, too. I’m not convinced he contributed to my issues with indecision but, like you, my mind always goes back to him when I sense that I’m being fed a line of crap.

  8. A teacher like Mr. Molina is rare and necessary. Opportunity for discussion and thought should always be presented to students. As far as immigration, I will say this: All 4 of my grandparents came here legally from Russia, worked hard, learned the language, took pride in being an American, never took that for granted a day in their lives. Something must definitely change, not exactly sure what or how. But I do know that you are right about hospitals closing and schools overcrowding…not just inner city, Neil. My youngest child is in high school in a suburban part of the San Fernando Valley, and the school is overflowing with students. At least 20 busses arrive each morning bringing students from all over the city to a school that should be filled with neighborhood kids only.

  9. Great post, Neil.

    I had a history teacher in college that was pretty insightful in similar ways. I had signed up for the wrong history course (I misinterpreted the name of the course and I never read the description). On the first day of class, the teacher introduced himself as “a marxist with a lower-cased m.” I wasn’t quite sure what that meant. But I soon discovered that it simply meant he had a different outlook on history and how things are interpreted. He was not a propaganda-spewing democracy hater in any way, shape, or form. But was simply dedicated to making us look at historical events from another PoV. I loved that class.

    And I still love Kelly Clarkson.

  10. Mr. Molnia is the kind of teacher we need more of—but the Mr. Molnias of this world will never survive the sheer idiocy of our government’s current obsession with high-stakes standardized testing and the dreaded No Child Left Behind Act. If Mr. Molnia is still teaching, he probably needs to do it behind closed doors.

    I’m not sure if many of those high school kids could have explained exactly what they were protesting about HR4437. I was driving downtown on Monday and saw the young protesters walking onto the 110 Freeway to “make a statement.” They tried it again yesterday and were arrested, thank God. There’s nothing in the Constitution that protects their right to get hit by oncoming traffic.

    I agree that there’s no reality on reality TV! Our next-door-neighbor’s house was taken over for three months for MTV’s “Sorority Life” and we saw many reshoots of supposedly spontaneous moments. And all those stories are created in the editing.

    P.S. That baby scares me.

  11. Question everything. I absolutely agree that manipulation is rampant – maybe not maliciously, but in the name of making a point or selling a product. I know a lot about how advertising is placed strategically & I think it’s interesting that you learned that in school. I talk to my kids about just these sorts of things – and I hope they end up with a teacher like Mr. Molnia to reinforce it. It’s essential that we think. Really think. “News” is fed to us and so many just believe. There is more to it and if more people question and explore, we’ll be a better society for it.

    Just this morning, a mom at the bus stop told me that she’d read an article that the government was touting a certain food to help the producers – rather than because of the supposed health benefits. While I’d like to believe that couldn’t be, I do believe it’s feasible. And that makes me disappointed.

    Thanks, Neil, for making me think this morning.

  12. Danny, at my son’s high school, the kid’s were trying to get out of school on Monday. When challenged to stay and protest after school, and not disrupt the school day…do you think there was one kid remaining after school to protest? of course not. Students shouldn’t be pawns and have their lives risked marching on freeways, nor should they compromise their education for something they have no knowledge of. (when asked why they would be walking out of school the other day, none of the students could answer)

  13. Finally, Neil, something substuntial from you we can agree on: divide what you’ve been told in 2 and follow the money trail.
    It’s healthy to question motives of people who try to influence you, but then comes the next question: how to procede with your own stand on any issue?
    The answer is principles. Teenagers are inexperienced-> insecure-> indecisive. Adults form their own principles and views. It doesn’t mean you have to shut your eyes to the facts if they don’t fit into the nicely rounded theory (like American Left, or rather, Communists and “fellow travelers” fed by Soviets, did, to the Stalin’s crimes up to the 70’s). It means you’ve seen all sides lie and manipulate, but you’re mature enough to weight their “meaty” arguments and form your opinion based on facts, not propaganda.

  14. oh, and something else: funny the guy who tried to teach you critical thinking has a name like pseudonim for some flaming revolutionary: Mr. Thunderbolt.

  15. This family friend could not seem to understand how much more that pint of strawberries would cost if it were not for immigrant employment.

    And my answer is so what. So they cost more.

    I am really tired of the fallacy that some people try to promote. It goes like this.

    “Illegals do work that Americans will not do.”

    The reality is that if you pay more people will. There is no reason to allow the illegals to be exploited for ridiculously low wages and no reason why we should just accept millions of undocumented people coming in to the US.

    It is not racist to ask that laws be followed. If people don’t like the law they can work to have it changed.

    How many of the protesters vote? I am always disgusted by how a small percentage of the voting population makes all of the decisions because so many people do not vote.

  16. My roommate from college, Heather, has an amazing singing voice. She’s sung for the Pope, the President, and for all of us in college. She has beautiful raw talent. When American Idol went big its first season, we were all on her to audition for the next one… her voice could easily blow Kelly Clarkson away! Heather could be famous! She could live a life of luxury!

    She went to the initial audition, and we all went with her – sleeping on the pavement for a few minutes of face time with “judges” who could potentially bring her into stardom. The first thing that they asked her to do was sign a waiver. Basically it said that anything from her past could be used on TV and that, if she made it to the top 12, she would be required to endorse whatever products American Idol decided.

    Heather is a strict vegan. She works in animal welfare and is an activist for animal rights. She has been to more protests than I have even seen on TV. After reading the paper she got up and we got into the car and drove home. She wouldn’t endorse whatever they wanted her to endorse, because it was very possible that those things would go against her morals.

    She didn’t want to be portrayed on TV as the crazy activist girl.

    Now, even though I watch these shows regularly I know that for every talented person up on that stage, there is an equally talented person who refused to sell their souls for fame.

    It’s a hard thing to remember when you’re caught up in the show – television is meant to make you forget your own reality – but a powerful one, and one that shouldn’t be forgotten!

  17. My grandfather was a stickler for critical thought; if you voiced an opinion around him, even as a little kid, and couldn’t back it up with sound reasoning, he’d smash you with logic. I wish more people had been taught that in school.

  18. I think I had that same teacher. He did teach us to recognize propaganda, like you. My favorite was always the “Bandwagon Technique” that you see in commercials, everyone is doing it so don’t be left out.

  19. I think what frustrates thinking people most, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum, is how critical thinking has fallen out of favor.

    I’d give it up myself but it’s too much fun to poke the propagandists.

  20. Having an efficient bullshit meter is essential for a writer. I got mine from my college professor, Dr. McAlexander. He also taught me that there are times when it’s okay to break the rules. Particularly if you know what you’re doing is the right thing. We’re lucky to have been blessed with such teachers.

    BTW, I love that story about the Rosa Parks photo. That photo is omnipresent in the South.

  21. A child of Watergate? I knew you were old.

  22. I started reading but then followed the wikipedia link and got caught up for awhile over there hitting “random article” (I LOVE WIKIPEDIA). But I did make it back and enjoyed the rest of it. This makes me excited to eventually be a kick-ass teacher.

  23. This is a perfect way to disagree. It’s thoughtful and insightful. We should all be able to as honest with ourselves about our flaws as we are about our opinions. I am also not sure about the immigration issue. America is not the only country facing immigration problems; it seems everyone wants to live somewhere else in this world and all the good places are filling up.

  24. Great post, Neil. I think we probably do not agree completely on the immigration issue itself, but in terms of questioning everything we’re on the same page.

  25. Your thought process is absolutely intriguing! I feel “wishy-washy” about politcs, too. Not because I don’t know what I believe, but rather because I don’t believe any ONE person can represent my beliefs. I always try to look at the “other side” of the issue, and usually just come down to the basic idea that I have to make decisions based on what’s best for ME (my family, my future, etc). It seems selfish, but I figure as long as I’m “doing no harm,” my goal in life is to achieve my Best Life. And, if, on the way, I am able to help others (to have a better life) that is all Bonus.
    Finally, I get very aggrivated with people who are so gullible or close-minded that they don’t SEARCH for answers. It’s hard to accept, but I know that there will always be people who just take the “Easy Road” and accept everything that is given to them (gov’t handouts, national news, general lies).
    I’m glad that you are able to incite us to THINK and COMMENT about “important” stuff!! Thanks!

  26. my grade 5 teacher was similar to your teacher, made me think. i’ve rarely watched any of those reality shows, i don’t understand the fascination with them. our government is currently deporting a large group of illegals that are here from portugal, some have been here for many years, filed claims for refugee status, all of the claims denied. they never thought to enter the country legally. at least that’s what the newspapers are reporting, if they can be believed. who really knows anymore?

  27. I wish more people were willing to view news, politicians, ads, etc. with some skepticism, but considering more than one side of an issue takes effort.

  28. I remember learning this same thing when my French teacher gave us multiple articles on the same subject to read from American and French newspapers. It was shocking to see the differences in opinion and spin put on the issues.

    I try every day to bring a little bit of this into my classroom. It’s great to see high schoolers start to question what is right and who is creating their “reality”.

    I think it’s a true sign of adulthood and, unfortunately, one that many “adults” never reach.

  29. You mean Kelly Clarkson was ALREADY trying to make it Hollywood. Man, I feel so used and cheated now. I totally bought that story.

    Your 8th grade teacher sounds awesome! Maybe he’ll happen upon this blog entry. Ya never know.

  30. Wow. I came here to see if your penis was talking again and instead I am impressed with your insight and subject matter. Mixing it up on me, eh? I like it….Do it again. 😉

  31. Now I will spend the rest of the evening contemplating this issue in my head. I can see both sides, but it’s my job to see one side over the other. Quite the conundrum.

  32. This post had lots of words. Lots and lots of them.

  33. thank you for a wonderful post.

  34. About the Kelly Clarkson thing…lots of the Idol contestants are like that! It really pisses me off! But then again, I guess I should be a little more concerned with something more important…like what Donald Trump’s hair is made of

  35. 1. do you think there are any more cool teatchers?
    2. he was teaching you logic Neil. Suprised you didn’t go down the law path.
    3. You watch reality tv? shame, shame! fie, fie! and all that.
    4. How can an anorexic woman, in the photo, be considered sexy?
    5. The truth of the matter is that it is a complicated issue. Actually, the truth is complicated. the end.

  36. I concur muchly with your thoughts on skepticism. I wasn’t taught to THINK until I was 25. Now I think everyone’s a big fat liar. Except you of course. But really, the many many words to which Brooke referred were very good ones.

  37. My favorite teachers were my English teachers. Miss Lawson and Miss Lang.

    Totally inspired me to be who I am today.
    They drove my love for writing.

    Imagine my surprise when 12 years later who should work at the same college campus as I? Who should happen into my office? Miss Lang! My 11th grade it. teacher!

    To know her as an adult and have adult conversations? Wow! To her her beliefs and ideas that she couldn’t share in a classroom of 16 and 17 year-olds? Needless to say it’s interesting. Only recently have I stopped calling her Miss Lang!

  38. that baby looks like old father time. the baby in jude the obscure. wise old baby time.

  39. I had Mr. Molnia also, at Parsons Junior High School in Queens. He broke our minds open, it was thrilling sitting in his class (way unlike the rest of junior high school).

  40. What is your problem didnt you know that you wouldnt be here if your ancestors hadnt come here illegaly. At one point one of your ancestors was an imigrant. Thanks for supporting the illegals.

  41. I had Mr. David Molnia in the 7th grade, almost 40 years ago.I recall him teaching with that big dimpled smile. Here are some other things I remember him for. He liked to quote the Winston Churchill line, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others…” He said that if there is a real problem in society the governments knee jerk reaction is to form a commitee (where the answers to the problem go to die). Also, when you read a set of statistics to support an argument, another set of statistics can be readily gathered to support the opposite argument. I remember him being a fan of James Reston and the editorial section of the NY Times. Neil, thanks for immortalizing this amazing man and teacher.

  42. This was definitely worth the rerun for so many reasons.

    How lucky you were to have Mr. Molnia in the 8th grade. The first time anyone really taught me about critical thinking in regard to the media, I was a junior in college. A teaching assistant instructing a bunch of half-witted, summer students about media manipulation and propaganda gave me the best gift of my entire educational experience.

    And how interesting it is that so little has changed since you wrote this piece. We’re still dicking around about immigration.

  43. I remember Mr. David Molnia as well. I also had him for Social Studies, but I think it was 7th grade for me. The “Propaganda” sequence was earth-shattering to me! Like you, I also credit him with teaching me how to think critically, and why doing so is so important. It was a very rare gift that he gave us, and I will always appreciate and remember him for it.

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