Thanksgiving has passed, and Christmas is around the corner with a new year not far behind. It's a strange day in New York public schools (and I mean real public schools where doors, desks, programs and services are available to all students in its area), and it would be easy to give in to cynicism and pessimism when things being done in the name of children are so wrong for us all-but giving in is not my style. My style is to start with being thankful- having a full awareness of how fortunate I am. Then, I consider carefully how I can do for others as has been done for me (only the good stuff, of course), and who around me can I rally to make these good things happen. This is where reality and the wish-zone begin to blend. It's easy, after all, to go all Norma Rae (a link for those too young to know that name) in your mind-but the real world rule-makers and game-players present a challenge. After reminding myself of how lucky I am, and then contemplating who is on my side, I make plans and promises to myself. These resolutions are most often about trying harder to change the world. Think big or go home, right? It's the same this year, with the 40-something amendment of dropping ten to fifteen pounds and getting my cholesterol down.
I am thankful for my childhood, my family, and all the experiences I have had. I catch myself sometimes making a reflexive mental-diagnosis for students who come from broken homes and bad influences. Judgements regarding why work doesn't get done, why they behave a certain way, and so-on. Despite what education attackers want as the overriding narrative to explain student struggles (failing schools, overpaid/overprotected teachers, unions...)-poverty and school funding inequities (the real "status quo") prevail as the most correlative factors. But after I mentally slap myself for making that mental diagnosis-I stop and do an assessment of my childhood, and it goes something like this:
1) My mother was a sixteen year old high school girl when I was born.
2) My father was twenty, from the same high school, recently graduated and enlisted in the military during the Vietnam War (it was 1967). I was born on a military base in Georgia, far away from our home state of New York.
3) I was born full-term in October, at a healthy 8lbs 11oz. If I do the mental math and count nine months backwards past my dad's birthday in June, and my mom's birthday in February-I figure my dad was 19 and probably breaking some kind of law with my mother.
4) While there are pictures of my dad, in uniform, holding me as a baby-I cannot remember a day when my parents were "together" living as a couple.
5) When I was little, my dad would pick me up for the weekend, or have me for some extra time on holidays and summer vacations, and we would often hit several bars or visit with his friends where I saw and did stuff that kids shouldn't see and do. Today, as a teacher, if I suspected a student was involved in or exposed to the same-I would be obligated to make a "hotline" call.
So how is it I stayed out of trouble, got good grades, didn't have whatever served as child protective services investigating my situation, basically turned out okay with a beautiful family and what I would call (despite my wife's objections) a pretty good head on my shoulders...?
I had and have incredible people in my family, with a combination of depth in character and experiences not often found in this world-especially in this day and age. While I don't remember my parents together, my dad was always there. Calling during the week, picking me up on weekends and whenever he could. To this day my parents come together at my family events and talk, joke, laugh. I have never once seen them be unkind to each other-ever. He has always been the most generous and gentle soul I know, with the funniest, raunchiest sense of humor. To this day, anyone who has ever known him or worked with him can't stop describing what a great guy he is and I always agree: he's the best man I know. That's why he was the best man at my wedding. Everyone should have a dad like mine. His father (my grandfather) was no different, and I recall stories he told of his childhood and youth that serve to illustrate how much this world has changed in a relatively small amount of time. They also serve as the foundation of character I had and try to create for my family.
Character meant so much more in those days, more than what you owned and who you knew. My great grandmother (grandpa's mother) taught in a one room common schoolhouse in Summerhill, NY, and my grandfather attended the Cortland Normal School located in a building called Old Main on the campus of SUNY Cortland College. In those days there was an honest-to-goodness constable who patrolled the county on horseback, staying with host families as he made his rounds through towns and villages and on the country roads through state forests. Gramp told of how the constable stayed with our family and how he would drop a scoop of wood stove ash into the constable's boots as a joke, and how the constable caught him out skipping school to pheasant hunt one day. Emerging from the woods onto the secluded dirt road, my grandfather found the constable there on his horse. The constable traded silence for one of Gramp's pheasants and Gramp's word that their meeting would be a shared secret. It was the same constable who years later would meet my grandfather at the train station when he returned from World War II. Having traded up the horse for a car, the constable took my grandfather out for a couple welcome home drinks.
Of his time as a soldier in Europe, one story stands out. It was a story of the German prisoners being held near the end of the war, some of whom my grandfather was in charge of guarding. The officers, he said, were arrogant-believing themselves above even their captors (while likely feeling grateful they weren't being held on the eastern front in Russian camps where the Red Cross wasn't allowed in that often and Geneva Conventions weren't binding principles). The regular soldiers, on the other hand, were happy to have been captured for the most part. Most having been in miserable conditions and often not agreeing with the Nazi agenda, they found themselves better cared for and fed at the hands of the Allies. My grandfather's charges liked being assigned to him very much, for whatever reason, and he could often grab a quick nap-the German prisoners waking him quickly if a superior officer approached. Gramp said when it came time for duty assignment and those German soldiers would practically run to his side he had to tell them to "cool it" or the jig would be up. My grandfather was that kind of guy.
These stories would sometimes be shared from the front seat between my grandfather and father, as me and my younger brother sat in the back seat driving the roads between Moravia, behind Fillmore Glenn State Park, and back to my grandparents house on Lake Como Road. It would be a warm summer Sunday after church, with a cheap twelve pack of Genny or Old Mil in back with us and empties back, refills up. My grandfather had worked for the state planting trees in some of those out of the way places and he knew exactly where the nudist colony was. Driving with his left elbow out the driver's side window and the can in his hand dangling out of view, his right hand holding the wheel and a well-chewed cigar. "Keep your eyes open boys, you might see something" he'd say.
When I think of my childhood, there is no regret, no shame. These rides happened after being sent to church with my grandmother where (as it goes in tiny little baptist churches) we learned how sinful we were and how to save ourselves. Some praying, a car ride, and some chicken barbeque usual had us whipped right into shape, and I kept good grades, good attendance, had a room full of books and weekends full of outdoor fun. When I had read all my books, I got into my mother's (a few of which were maybe too "mature" for me). I grew up listening to Joplin, Croce, Hendrix, and the best worst country music there is- staying out and up late doing things that I will publicly say kids should never do and privately say that this is part of what made me who I am.
For what my family has provided me with in the past, and what my family provides me with today I am most thankful. As I look at and listen to kids today I know that they have probably done less of the stuff most people would consider near-horrifying for children, but I know that their real struggles have less to do with failing schools and failing teachers. They are losing out on the economic, social, and moral stability this nation once provided. The so called "free market" has bled our nation of it and now it has turned it's sights upon our schools.
A Christmas Wish
I wish for more character in the leadership of our country, our state, and in the direction of "education reform". I wish for our our unions to step up and people to rise up. When NYSUT agreed to a flawed standards/curriculum/evaluation system here in New York-I understood: it was a necessity resulting from Governor Cuomo and the Obama administration's coercion. Had our unions not cooperated-federal funds would have been withheld and that would be political suicide. But our unions have, at times, been front and center in the call for better teachers first, dropping the ball on the call for honesty in the reform debate. When I have to choke down a Governor posing as a "lobbyist for the students", and his complaints about how much is spent on education, I spit back out the fact that evaluating teachers (not providing equity in student opportunity) has been his number one priority and that in New York, best funded schools spend about 80% more per students than worst-funded schools-and get double the proficiency rates on state tests. Disingenuousness isn't limited to where the governor lives with his girlfriend, though: it has infected the state education department. Here is NYSED's soon to be former Commissioner John King in January of this year:
"... They’re committed to the Common Core, they’re committed to the evaluation system; they have to explain why they think we should change the evaluation that we all agreed to that we all believed is in the interest of students.”
This quote, demonstrating the carefully parsed words of leaders undermining public education in the name of reform, and an honest look at the role teacher unions have played can be found in this excellent blog post from January of this year. But the bottom line is that this sort of politico-speak is running rampant over an endeavor that should have a foundation in honesty, credibility and character. Education should prepare students for truly critical thinking-the kind that enables capable citizens to tell the difference between shit and shinola. Only lately have unions started an attemp at honesty, but in the governor and the commissioner-I am having a hard time locating it. Coercion and agreeing are different things. Yes-to an extent teachers have been sold out by union leaders, but it was for survival (and they all know it). For the governor, the commissioner, NYSED...it seems to be business as usual.
So my Christmas wish is for an end of this abuse of democracy in the nation that is supposed to exemplify it (even spread it around the world), and a safe and hasty exit from policy-making for all who are making real education less possible for those needing it most. Uber-testing, evaluations and accountability are only going to further inequity because this approach will identify and further disempower those with the fewest resources-resources leaders are reluctant to provide. Same goes for what is being sold as "choice" in education. Market-izing public education is the same as selling out the public. It is wrong. Even our president avoids a competition to be more like developed countries where educational outcomes surpass our own, and chooses countries like India and China as our competion. The President of these united states! Driving us to compete with places where economies are growing because people are crushed and repurposed to serve a heartless market devalues humanity, worships wealth, and is unbecoming of a true leader.
My New Year's Resolution
My New Year's Resolution is to speak up, and speak out. Right now, though, my beautiful family needs my attention.