Fear: a Journal Entry

13 Feb

Ever since I was a kid I have had an irrational, and quite frankly, debilitating fear of dying. I can recall being no more than a toddler: lying on a couch in the living room of my childhood home, literally paralyzed with fear as I would cry, my chest would tighten, and I would follow my mind down this rabbit hole. The first fear was death, other people dying, the ones who logically might, any time soon. Grandparents, older relatives and friends. Following this, I would think about the inevitable truth that everyone close to me would eventually be gone as well…maybe not in my life, but with virtual certainty, every life I knew and would come into contact with would terminate. Then my own death, the unstoppable nature of it, the fact that just like everyone else’s death, I would likely have no prediction of where, how, or when it would happen. And then, as if I hadn’t tortured myself enough, I would begin to think about the fact that even after I am gone, the world will still be here, me in the ground, for who knows how long, before–wouldn’t you know it?–even the earth would cease to be. I literally remember being like 5 years old, and curled up (usually on a Sunday evening in winter) thinking about this. What a weird kid.

These days, ironically, though each level of this spiral certainly cycles closer, I think an awful lot less about death as a simple matter. I certainly don’t get anxious to the point of immobility about it. The last time I was in a fetal position like that it was because I ate a bum tuna sandwich at a professional development. But in a very real, I suppose more mature way, I spend a lot of time wondering about the end of it all, and more than anything…”legacy.” What am I going to leave behind, and what will I have contributed that will really matter? I guess it is thoughts like these that make a lot of people turn to religion, or commit themselves to major civic undertakings, or quit their jobs and start scratching off a bucket list. I don’t know: am I too young for a midlife crisis?

I thought for almost all of my young adult life I would actually make it in this world as a writer of some import (let’s guesstimate age 14 or so until very recently, though I have been writing “stories” and “poems” since I could form a sentence.) I guess I just sort of woke up one day realizing I had completed a Masters in Education, an MFA in writing, and measuring my qualifications in each of the field: a smattering of small-time publications, a degree with no admitted financial value; vs. 5 years of teaching in a niche of urban public schools, having made some professional strides therein. I realized, I had pretty much slept-walked my way into a living aphorism: “Those who can do. Those who can’t teach.” Mind you, I don’t really agree with the tone or meaning of the aphorism…it is incredibly demeaning to teaching as a profession. But I certainly never “made it” as a writer, either because I wasn’t good enough, didn’t try hard enough, or didn’t want to make the sacrifices in life I would likely have to make to accomplish that particular dream. It’s hard to walk away from a decent salary and a marriage to go find some cabin in the woods in which to write…no matter how tempting the idea may have been.

It’s always the doldrums of winter–this wretched misleadingly “short” month of February that makes me feel some malaise that isn’t quite remorse or regret, but is definitely bred of curiosity, and makes me wonder if I couldn’t do better. Is there still some move to make or some “dream” to follow? Would I have what it takes if there was? Will I end up a 50+ year old teacher in a school I don’t deeply believe in? Will I just get by, and maybe, when I retire there will be great things? Will my legacy be “a darn good teacher” and if it is, is that good enough? I tell myself, “It’s only February,” but then I wonder if I just say this to placate myself, or justify my role in a system that I do not believe is fair, or decent. “If you’re not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” And do I want to wake up one morning living out that aphorism as well?

The dream of writing for me was just that–a dream. I wanted it, and would work on it in fits. But I never made enough sacrifices for that dream to come to fruition. I wasn’t diligent or disciplined enough about it. I would make schedules I was determined to keep, only to make it a couple days before some other interest or responsibility would wrest the time from my hands. I would begin stories, or outlines, or draft lines that I was certain were the perfect and beautiful beginnings of something wonderful. And then they would sit on a desk untouched for days or weeks or months, until the idea itself was gone, or seemed unimportant. They turned into literally nothing. I don’t really know that I am ashamed of that, or disappointed in myself, because often the sacrifices were for things that seem to me to be worthwhile: becoming a teacher who was proud of his contributions in the classroom; growing professionally; working in a school where I could spend extra hours helping a hard-working student complete a college application essay, or prepare for a regents test he had previously failed; joining the staff of a new charter school, as a founding teacher, where maybe, finally my voice and ideas would be heard by people with the power to change.

——

It is 11pm a week ago Monday, and I am sitting on the couch in my apartment, my beautiful new wife having fallen asleep beside me. I am contemplating going to bed because the funny part (read: the first 15 minutes) of The Daily Show is over, but then Jon Stewart announces tonight’s guest. It is Michelle Rhee. I am at the end of a long and frustrating Monday, one spent experiencing first hand the deficits in social and academic norms that are the result of this system of American schools that Rhee and I both believe is unfair and broken (though our visions of how to improve it couldn’t be more vastly different.) I am tired, and I know that it will upset me to watch, because I have heard too many times the same rant from Rhee and others of her camp (many of whom are really not bad people, and certainly more genuine in their interest in education than Rhee herself.) But I watch. I don’t know why but I do. And I sit there, as this woman, who is pitching her book (which will certainly make some good hay) talks to me in the audience about why she is ok with “being considered a radical” for doing “common sense” things like closing low-performing schools and firing ineffective teachers. I listen as Stewart’s supposedly enlightened liberal audience erupts in applause, wondering how many of them have ever heard of Rhee, or paid any attention to her career. I listen as she then dodges a question from Stewart about the ineffective methods of evaluating teacher and school “effectiveness” (essentially the now-proven meaninglessness of evaluations based on standardize testing.) She does so with the age-old “I’m-not-racist-I-have-black-friends” routine, by mentioning she LOVES teachers because her aunt and sister-in-law, and perhaps a third uncle twice removed were all teachers. I listen as she talks about a balance between testing, principal observations, and “fairness”. She talks about how she and other “reformers” want to look at a balance of test scores, grades, observations, and parent and student surveys to evaluate teacher quality. But if every “reformer” (which is really just a buzz-word for policy maker who hardly ever steps foot in a real classroom) is saying this, how exactly is she a “radical,” I wonder. I listen as John Stewart asks a very keen question about whether or not throwing around “reform” and changing expectations and practices every three years isn’t indeed detrimental to teaching and learning. Rhee responds with an anecdote that somewhat confirms Stewart’s statement, but then connects that somehow to why her idea of reform needs to be adopted….I hear: “so, yes, it is messed up that we keep throwing different spices in the pot, so we should throw the spice I am selling in the pot.” And I listen as Stewart makes another great point about the fact that schools no longer reflect the real-world. That what we are teaching and learning in schools is no longer applicable to the workforce and society; to which Rhee responds that “this is why we need great teachers” another connection that fits her argument nicely but doesn’t really respond to a damn good question. And I listen as another interview with the radical “rockstar” of education reform ends with little or no conversation about kids and learning…but a whole lot more about teachers, and the best ways to evaluate them. And I go to bed on a cold February night, looking up at the ceiling, and wondering again…why do it?

————

In the second part of the interview with Rhee, which can only be found online, Stewart closes the segment by using the word “chronic” and then joking he doesn’t mean “The Chronic like that…which is street for ‘pot.'”

Rhee responds, “I don’t know what that means.”

This leads to an incredulous Stewart asking, “You worked in DC for three years, and you don’t know what ‘the chronic’ means?”

This, believe it or not, is exactly the problem. Rhee worked in DC public schools for three years the same way David Stern has been in the NBA for almost 20 years. Which is to say, she did not. She never has and she never will.

Neither has Arne Duncan, Dennis Walcott, Mayor Bloomberg, or so very many (most) of the self-proclaimed reformers. If you don’t know what “the chronic” means (or piff, sour, loud, Molly, “soo woop”, or anything else that is culturally relevant to the students you proclaim to want to put first) then you don’t understand the complexity of the universe you are trying to ‘fix.’ It sure sounds well and good to say “Every kid deserves a great teacher” because even the cynical audience at the daily show is going to root for that. It even sounds nice in theory to say every parent should have the right to send their child to a great school, never mind that this ignores the sad reality that students who suffer in the failing schools I have seen rarely have parents whose phone lines can be reached, and have parent teacher conference attendance below 20%. “Failing schools,” by a vast majority exist in areas of social and economic disarray. They are designed, often paradoxically, to serve a population where the academic good life is not valued. In class surveys I have given at the beginning of each semester (all at schools designed to serve the population Rhee wants so badly to target) I ask a simple question: “What is one thing you want from your education?” The answers invariably run in 4 ranges.

1. The generic/heartwarming response students think an adult wants to hear: “Be the first in my family to go to college,” or “Graduate and make my mom proud.”
2. The selfish and defiant: “Just do me,” or “Make it in the NBA and stack my bills,” or “I don’t give a fuck.”
3. The scary and sad: “Make it out of my hood alive,” or “Live to be a father.”
4. No answer or “IDK

Now, I am not certain which of these is most frightening. In their own way they all are, I suppose. The bottom two reflect a hopelessness and despair that no teenager should already hold so deeply engrained that it becomes hard to believe that any teacher or any school can make a “good life” for them. The top two reflect a selfishness and commodification of ‘education’ that reflects not only skewed values but a complete corruption of what education and learning is for. But if you think about it, is the language that much different from the reformers like Rhee? What is being promoted in their language is individual success on tests, and “college” readiness. Though many strong educational minds, including the president of Harvard, remain unconvinced that the reformers methods are getting any of these students truly college ready. There is no talk of social responsibility, importance of democracy, or pursuit of community and personal intellectual growth.

The origins of education have become lost in a wilderness of test scores, evaluation, and teaching that is reflective of a type of knowledge applicable to neither students current lives and pursuits, nor the ones we should hope for them beyond HS graduation. Good teachers can persuade some impressionable minds, even in the most dire circumstances. But they cannot recreate values for every student who walks through their doors, not when schools place a premium on the kind of learning and teaching that is so irrelevant to them and to the world beyond.

We keep looking for the easy fix. Every three years as Jon Stewart claims. We point the fingers at teachers or talk about increased instruction time (let me tell you how that goes over!) or we give convolutions of the same instruction in block schedules. Rhee is right in her response that to say its unfair to the parents of kids in schools right now to say “give us five years” and it will get better. But it’s also unfair to skew numbers and make a hugely successful career talking about changing schools, while at the same time making little visible change; merely railing against the status quo by insisting your way is the only way towards change so others better get on board. But isn’t that what radicals do?

So I can hear you now Ms. Rhee: “What’s your solution, 1090?!”

Like you (I imagine) I stay up nights thinking about this. It terrorizes me the way thoughts of dying once did, the way leaving no legacy that will ever match your own often does. I spend my free hours (sparer and sparer these days) brainstorming ideas. And it comes to me that perhaps, like so many good lessons, curricula, schools, and even models for education, perhaps I needn’t rebuild the wheel.

A couple months back, during hurricane Sandy, with a few days off, my father sat down to take on a challenge. A high school teacher, administrator, and college trustee member who has worked in education longer than Ms Rhee or myself have been alive, my father wanted to respond to a call from the Chonicle of Higher Education to develop the ideal college for the 21st century. In less than 500 words. He did so. His entry was chosen by the editors as one of 5 finalists, and then by the general public as the winner. Here is my proposal in the form of a question: is an approach like this (one that allows students to inquire and learn about their own pursuits while also pursuing their role in a democratic society; a school where learning truly happens beyond a classroom and preparation for a test) an impossibility? Must every school look the same? Must we all be prepared for the same tests and why? When else in life is that really the case? Couldn’t a student and his family be given real choice? One like Ms Rhee’s ideal school where we prepare students for a test and “college readiness” at it is currently defined? One like my fathers proposal? One where a young man learns to be a small-business farmer? Is this so impossible? And why?

—————

Very near the end of Stewart’s interview of Rhee, he asks if she had the power (“draconian” he lets slip) to change any one thing about education, what would it be. “Make sure every classroom has a great teacher.”. I keep replaying this over and over. The woman whose organization is entitled “Students First” who taught for 3 years (2 of them under the guidance of a Veteran co-teacher) before fleeing to make a career in which she constantly focuses on teachers and not students or schools, has made a legacy for herself. Love her or hate her she is the woman who will have a legacy of being a “Radical.”

My father will not be on the Daily Show tonight. He will be at the University of Montana preparing for a speech he will give at a colloquium tomorrow before a few hundred students and professors.

I imagine if he ever had the chance to respond to Stewart’s question–if he ever had the audacity to imagine what one change he would make in the education system given the chance–my father’s answer, like his ideal school would revolve around the student. It would actually put the students first. Maybe something like this: “Create a community where we aren’t afraid to pursue a legacy that is less about us and more about that very community.” I don’t know for certain this is what my father would say, but I’m going to imagine it so. And if indeed it was, this is a legacy I would much rather live up to (and have my students live up to) than the one the reformers have sculpted for themselves and then imagined for my students.

Nothing short and sweet to say to sum it up. No revelations. It is another February Tuesday. After a day of more downs than ups and I am looking for an answer, and it’s not there. I should go home and just breathe. But it’s time to close the grade book, finish the “behavioral reports,” update the power standards database, and (I suppose) get a hair cut, if time allows. If time allows.

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