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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

What's in a name?

When my twin sons reached fifth grade, they started telling me about something that was new in their lives: the way kids tease each other at school. Their peers had started going through that phase where kids try to enhance their own status by humiliating others.
That came as no surprise. But what struck me as really weird were the two insults my kids told me their peers used most often: “racist” and “gay.”
Think about that a minute. When you use “racist” as an epithet, you’re putting someone down for showing intolerance toward people who are different.  When you use “gay” as an epithet, you’re putting someone down for actually being different. They are, in a sense, opposites. How could those two insults coexist in the same schoolyard among the same group of kids? Was it that the kids could believe two contradictory things at once, or did the words simply have no meaning to them at all?
The answer, I think, is a little of each.
There is a constant tension between the outward forms we use - the language and symbols we employ to represent things - and the core beliefs we have actually internalized. The white kid who uses “racist” as an epithet is not necessarily free of racism himself, but he’s internalized the taboo against appearing racist - he’s been raised in a culture of political correctness where he’s been carefully socialized to believe that the outward signs of racism - like using the “n” word - is to be avoided at all costs.  This, despite the fact that, if his lunch money disappears, he may suspect a black classmate first.
Meanwhile, the kid who uses “gay” as an epithet does not necessarily think about the morality of same-sex relationships - in fact, in fifth grade he may have only the haziest idea of what homosexuality is - but he’s internalized the taboo against behaviors culturally associated with homosexuality or, more generally, a lack of masculinity. 
In other words, the kids don’t fully understand the epithets, but they have a very clear idea about the words’ social implications. 
So what does that translate to in fifth-grade culture? For one thing, anyone who shows any awareness of the existence of race - for example, identifying someone as a “black kid” or a “white kid,” or for that matter using the words “black” or “white” in any context whatsoever (no, I’m not exaggerating) is liable to be called “racist.” And any kid who sets a toe outside the tight boundaries established for masculinity - the boy who is studious, artistic, or simply uninterested in sports - is liable to be called “gay.” 
For an epithet to be effective, it doesn’t have to be true or even probable. It just has to do one thing successfully: push the shame button and humiliate the victim. Successful insults rely on shared cultural cues about what is shameful. TV, movies, peers - they’re all important sources of those cues, but most important are parents.  That doesn’t necessarily mean parents are tossing these words around at the dinner table; it means that they’re sending cues which kids, like the intelligent, imitative primates they are, learn to interpret at a very young age. And kids have exquisitely finely tuned sensors for what embarrasses their parents. Pointing out someone’s skin color in a public place? Embarrassing. Seeing junior dress up in tutu and tiara? Cringeworthy.
Flash forward a few years, when the child reaches the stage where he believes that humiliating others enhances his own status, and “racist” and “gay” make perfect sense in the same schoolyard, among the same kids, because they both have the same effect - they call up a visceral shame.
For a while, anyway. Over time, one of those epithets seems to fade away, while the other becomes more common, and more cruel.
When puberty hits and the entire topic of sexuality becomes an intense, hot-button issue strewn with all kinds of personal and social land mines, a kid’s social life begins to revolve around one urgent need: to avoid embarrassment by seeming normal, with normal very clearly defined as heterosexual. And voila, “gay” becomes the epithet of choice,  because it becomes the word with the most power to do harm.
My boys are in seventh grade now. I never hear anymore about people being called “racist,” but “gay” is bigger than ever. And now, there’s a dawning understanding among their friends of what the word means beyond a general lack of masculinity. Seventh graders have, to varying degrees, begun to learn what sex is, and they’ve begun to be interested in it themselves. It’s that age when sex is simultaneously the most fascinating topic in the world and also the most excruciatingly embarrassing; the need to fit neatly inside the boundaries of what your peers see as normal is intense.
All of a sudden, the epithet “gay,” which was bad enough before, is now brutally distressing, whether or not it’s accurate. Just knowing that your sexuality is being disparaged can be devastating. Sadly, recent media coverage of teen suicides has been a shocking reminder of just how devastating.
So if parental and social cues serve to teach kids how to embarrass each other,  you have to wonder exactly what cues all those kids are getting on homosexuality. Many, no doubt, hear explicitly anti-gay statements at home. But even among those who don't, the message comes through loud and clear. At best, they may sense some grudging tolerance - a kind of awkward, bare-bones acknowledgment that gay people exist - they're out there, but we don't like thinking about it. To the average 12- or 13-year-old boy, the translation is: "Don't act like one, don’t hang around them, and for God’s sake, don’t EVER become one."

As long as people, especially parents continue to cringe at what they perceive as homosexual or unmasculine behavior, kids will continue to use “gay” as a weapon to wound. Schools can and should adopt anti-bullying policies; they can and should discipline kids who harass others in any way. But does anyone really believe that schools can make this problem go away on their own?
Every time a kid loses his life to the unbearable humiliation of being called “gay,” every parent should ask  him or herself, “What have I done to give that word its power to wound - and what can I do to take it away?”

Friday, October 15, 2010

This could kill me

You have to feel sorry for kids with parents of my generation. Well, a certain kind of parents, anyway. Our kids have it way harder than we did.
When I was a teenager in the ‘70s, it wasn’t terribly difficult for a kid to shock her parents. Our parents were products of the ‘50s, and even though they’d lived through the ‘60s, they still cringed at acid-soaked, psychedelic music. They knew with the certainty you only get from watching network specials about the drug problem in America that pot leads to hard drugs as surely as Mary Tyler Moore leads to Bob Newhart. When they walked past the midnight show of Rocky Horror, saw the boys in line dressed in corsets and fishnet stockings, and realized where we’d been going all those Saturday nights, their faces took on a really satisfying look of revulsion. And when punk rock came in - well, we were like kids in a candy shop of horrors.
Since then, we’ve been through everything from slam dancing to Beavis and Butthead, goth to South Park, grunge to David Lynch. By now, we’re jaded old folks who just can’t work ourselves into a froth over Lady Gaga’s bondage videos, celebrity beaver shots on the Internet, mindlessly misogynistic rap music, or Jackass 3D. We may not like it, but we’re not delivering that deliciously clueless, self-righteous rage that teenagers naturally crave. Sure, there’s politics to get worked up about, but despite its name, the Tea Party is not THAT kind of party and holds very little appeal to the average teen.
Which is why, a while back, my kids and I found ourselves brainstorming a new pop trend that would actually drive parents of my generation completely insane; something that we simply would not be able to tolerate with equanimity. I don’t know which of them came up with it, but here it is:
Imagine this: Your kid latches onto the latest music/fashion/pop culture trend. One day, she comes home from the mall wearing a purple, green, orange, and black patchwork top with a giant red ruff around the neck; “matching” baggy pants held up with wide red suspenders; and fat black shoes twice as long as her feet. Her face is covered in white greasepaint, with a wide red grin painted around her mouth. Her head is shaved down the middle, with two enormous tufts of frizzy hair sticking out on either side, dyed fire-engine red, a tiny hat with a plastic flower perched on top.
And then there’s the music, because every youth trend has to have a soundtrack. Imagine Clown has become a genre on the charts, just like rock, pop, and rap. It consists of loud, raucous circus music played in power chords on electric guitars, with the addition of a newly popularized instrument - the electric hurdy-gurdy. The vocalists all sound like Krusty on meth, and the lyrics are about lions biting the heads off tamers and the Flying Wallendas plunging to their deaths.*
The possibilities are endless. Dance style? Tripping over your gigantic shoes. Club decor? Circus tents filled with sawdust and elephant poop. Catchphrase? “Hi, boys and girls!”
And think of the subgenres that will give Clown kids that important opportunity to split up into high school cliques, each convinced that their version is the one, true Clown: Hobo; Pierrot; Rodeo; Harlequin; Mime; Jester. Each will see the others as commercialized sellouts. 
Before long, Old Navy and Target will be selling sanitized, middle school-sized versions of Clown fashion, complete with T-shirts bearing phrases such as:  “Downtown Clown;”  “Jester’s Best;” “Hoboner;” “Mime Time;” and the ever-popular, “Bozo for President.”
Yup, Clown might just about do me in and turn me into my mother. I might even find myself at the breakfast table snapping, “Get a haircut!” or “Go upstairs and change right this minute!” When the kids come home late, I’ll be checking them over carefully for stray streaks of greasepaint and searching their pockets for red rubber noses. Next thing you know, I’m in a pink sweater set and pearls, speaking at schools and churches about the moral decay of our youth.
Come to think of it, please don’t show your kids this blog.


*Note: After I finished writing this, I did a little extra Googling and discovered that the Drive-By Truckers actually have a song called The Flying Wallendas (video here and lyrics here). Only it sounds more like the Grateful Dead than the Dead Kennedys, so some Clown band will have to do a hardcore cover.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

You know what they say about absolute power? Yeah, that.

Louis Black’s education rant on the Daily Show last night included this: “Some cities are trying charter schools, which offer a better education, but only accept a few kids, a process highlighted in the new documentary, Waiting for Superman. And I'm all for it - so long as we make the selection process as public and cruel as humanly possible."
Leaving aside his assertion that charter schools “offer a better education” (he obviously didn’t do his homework on that topic), Black points out a glaring question raised by the film: Why the hell would you design a selection process to be “as public and cruel as humanly possible?” (The film follows several children who must sit through an excruciating public lottery that determines whether they’ll be admitted to a charter school. The emotional impact of the film, or so I’ve read, because I haven’t seen it, derives from the anguish of these kids and their families as they pin all their future hopes on this process, which, they are led to believe, will rescue them from the fate of a lousy public school education.) 
Couldn’t they do the number-picking in a private setting and then just send people letters with the results? You know, the way they do it when you enter a contest or get chosen for an audit by the IRS?
One possible explanation comes to mind: In such a high-stakes situation, perhaps they want to make the process as public as possible in order to reassure people that it is being done fairly; that the people in charge - public officials and school administrators - aren’t rigging the results in some way, like, say, admitting students based on race, socioeconomic class, political affiliation, or even personal connections.
You know, the same kind of unfair practices that teachers’ unions were created to protect teachers from. The reason why tenure, with its due-process guarantees, was instituted - so that teachers couldn’t be fired arbitrarily or unfairly. And the reason why unions negotiate contracts that establish standards for evaluation, pay scale, benefits, work conditions, grievance procedures, hiring, and firing, rather than just leaving it all up to management to decide based on their good will.
Yeah, maybe the charter school lottery needs some rethinking, as do union contracts. But there’s a fundamental truth underlying the need for both: Power, when it is all on one side and it is wielded without transparency, is not to be trusted. Things like transparent, public processes and collective bargaining are designed to level the playing field and serve as checks against the kind of power wielded by administrators and officials. Sometimes those checks create unintended consequences and need to be re-examined, as when families are subjected to undue stress by an admission lottery, or when collective-bargaining agreements create fiscal difficulties because of an unexpected economic downturn.
Maybe, instead of making kids run a gauntlet for school admission, the charter schools could hold a lottery with a small, representative group of parents in attendance to ensure a fair process; maybe teachers need to renegotiate their contracts to bring them in line with the tighter budgets necessitated by a bad economy.  But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water, as the anti-union charter movement aims to do when it touts the benefits of a non-union teaching staff. Will our schools be better learning environments when, without the benefits of collective bargaining, underpaid teachers with no job security walk into the classrooms? When teachers with more experience and higher pay are fired because it’s cheaper to bring in a younger person willing to work for less? When teachers feel pressured to present to their students only material deemed acceptable to their bosses? Will our kids get a better education when the tenor of the school is determined entirely by the personality of the administrator running it, because he or she has absolute, unchecked authority? And in the case of charter schools, which are not subject to the same oversight as public schools to begin with, what will happen when administrators are responsible not only to produce high test scores, but also a profitable bottom line?
Think I'm exaggerating what might happen if we were to allow an institution so central to the well-being of our society to be run autocratically, with no external checks? Imagine if you will what would happen if, say, regulators told the investment banks, which control most of the nation’s wealth, that they could go ahead and regulate themselves instead of being subject to the checks of a transparent, robust regulatory system in which the interests of all parties were protected.
Oh, wait. We tried that. Never mind.

(NB - I am not a teacher. I am not in a union. I’ve never been in a union. But my parents were both in the AFT, and my grandma was in the ILGWU, and my family certainly owes a lot to the union movement. Oh, and I’m not planning to see Waiting for Superman.)
(For an interesting read about the ups and downs of organized labor in American public education, check out “The Consequences of NCLB:  The Demise of Labor-Management Partnerships for Reform and Hopes for Renewal,” published in the journal Perspectives on Work.)

Monday, October 4, 2010

Waiting for Superman: Not the movie. The poster.

A whole lot has been written about the education documentary Waiting for Superman and the debate it’s engendered. I won’t try to restate it all, but for those who just came out from under a rock, here are a few links to bring you up to date.
You can watch the film’s trailer here.

There were lots of glowing reviews, like this one from USA Today, which says, “It's hard to deny the power of Guggenheim's lingering shots on these children, waiting on a superhero who isn't going to come.

And this one from the New York Times, which says, “By showing how fiercely dedicated idealists are making a difference, it is a call to arms.”

And then there were a few negative reviews, like this one from the Village Voice, which says, “But Guggenheim's insistence on not engaging with the injustices that children of certain races and classes face outside of school makes his reiteration of the obvious—that ‘past all the noise and the debate, nothing will change without great teachers’—seem all the more willfully na├»ve.”

We saw Big Media jump on the “Waiting for Superman” bandwagon, including Oprah, who devoted two shows to the movie and its message, and NBC, which produced a weeklong “event” called Education Nation.

And of course there were lots of educators refuting many of the arguments presented in the film, as summarized in this Washington Post blog.

For the record, I fall solidly in the camp of those who are horrified by the way the film lays blame for all the failures in American public education at the feet of “bad teachers” and their unions while willfully glossing over the fact that, as a society, we have created shameful poverty, especially among urban minorities; we’ve refused to create a strong safety net for our most vulnerable citizens; and we’ve systematically pulled the plug on whatever shreds of a safety net used to exist - and then we pretend that all that has nothing to do with education. I also believe that the magic bullet proposed by the film - charter schools - reflects a vast right-wing conspiracy to undermine public education by privatizing it.
Also, I freely admit to you now, before anyone asks, that I didn’t see the film. I read a hell of a lot about it, but I didn’t see it, nor do I plan to. I’m sure if I did, I’d cry for the poor kids sitting through that hellish lottery - but it wouldn’t change my opinion.  A film can succeed at being emotionally manipulative without offering anything helpful or useful in the way of analysis or debate. It just means it’s good propaganda - in this case, propaganda for what Diane Ravitch calls The Billionaire Boys’ Club, a group of ultrarich white guys who want to throw their money at privatizing education without knowing anything about actual schools.
Those of you who feel the need at this point to vent their rage at my expressing an opinion about a movie I haven’t seen, please go right ahead. I’ll wait.
Done? Okay. Moving on.
There’s one aspect of Waiting for Superman that really disturbed me, about which I’ve seen little discussion: the poster. That’s what I really want to talk about here - and I’m qualified to do so because I did see the poster. And you can, too, right here.  Take a long, hard look. You can click on the image to make it bigger.

I’m frankly amazed that more hasn’t been said about that poster and its messages, subliminal and overt. It’s a pretty impressive piece of visual propaganda, really, which packs a great, big emotional wallop. And, like a lot of great propaganda, it manages to suggest multiple ideas that are intellectually contradictory but serve a single agenda: to promote the notion that the educational apocalypse is at hand - but so is reformist salvation.
Let’s start with a point made by blogger Duane Campbell at Choosing Democracy: “Waiting for Superman promotes the idea that we are in a dire war for US dominance in the world. The poster advertising the film shows a nightmarish battlefield in stark grey, then a little white girl sitting at a desk is dropped in the midst of it. The text: ‘The fate of our country won't be decided on a battlefield. It will be determined in a classroom.’" Campbell goes on to ask some excellent questions, including: Who declared this war? And when did that fourth-grader become a soldier in it?
But those questions barely scratch the surface of this apocalyptic image.
Like, for example, what exactly IS that battlefield where the blonde-haired, blue-eyed cutie sits? On the one hand, as the poster’s blurb says, it represents education itself as an international battlefield on which we as a nation must struggle for world dominance, or for that matter, simple survival, lest the better-educated foreign hordes overrun us with all their lethal math scores and hostile multilingual communication skills. Lock ‘n load, kids. The Chinese are gunnin’ fer us.
On the other hand, that wasteland is, paradoxically, the blighted disaster zone of our own school system (note the chalkboard lying amid the rubble), an apocalypse of our own making to which we subject our precious, vulnerable children. You knew things at school were bad, but you didn’t realize how bad, did you? Think nuclear holocaust. In fact, think the end time, that vision of the biblical apocalypse that heralds the second coming which, in these bizarre times, drives the politics of so much of the Christian right, the same Christian right that would really love to make a public school system that clings tenaciously to the value of church-state separation. Reinforcing that subliminal end-time association, there’s even a ray of light descending from the heavens, a sign of the divine promise of educational salvation illuminating that sweet, innocent little white girl.
Which brings me to the next point. When we talk about blighted schools, we all know that we’re really talking about inner city schools in crime-ridden neighborhoods from which white people fled decades ago. You know, the kind with all the graffiti and broken windows and barbed wire and metal detectors. So what’s the poster girl for the Aryan Nation doing there? Why not just show us the population we’re really talking about here - black and Latino kids who are subjected to what we all agree is a pretty harsh educational environment (and who are, in fact, the primary subjects of the film)?
There’s the obvious answer: Show a white kid to draw a white audience. (And in pragmatic terms, you can’t really blame them; it works.)
But there’s a less-obvious and far more insidious answer: the implication that, if we don’t stop the blight in “their” (inner-city minority-populated) schools, it will soon spread to “our” (white suburban) schools. You know about “our” schools: the ones with the adorable, towheaded, freckle-faced schoolgirls, dressed in white button-down blouses with Peter Pan collars, pleated suspender skirts, white tights, and Mary Janes - escapees from 1950s TV shows that portrayed American families as they never were. But those idealized families - and the schools they attended - are entrenched in our communal unconscious as a nostalgic ideal, and it’s that ideal the little girl in the poster represents - and that ideal that is threatened by the creeping decay of urban blight.
The jarring juxtaposition of Norman Rockwell’s American childhood with that bleak, scarred wasteland is designed to make white, middle-class America feel directly endangered; to ratchet up the hysteria about the dire educational crisis; and to make it an issue that threatens the white majority. What a perfect (and emotionally manipulative) way to create a sense of urgency - even panic - that prepares the audience to accept whatever prescription the movie has to offer, without subjecting it to much critical thought. Privately run charter schools, made possible by the death of the bad-teacher-defending unions? Bring it on! The end is nigh!
Of course, there’s one little problem: Charter schools aren’t conventional public schools, and at the moment, our country is littered with old-fashioned community-based schools with names like “Woodrow Wilson” and “Springfield Elementary,” not “North Star” and “Promise Academy.” How do we pull off the switch? What to do, what to do?
The answer to that, too, lies in the poster. Those bad parts of the public school system are already a devastated wasteland; there’s really nothing left to salvage. When the Woodrow Wilsons and the Springfield Elementaries have been reduced to smoldering piles of rubble, we get to build them anew - start from scratch! Yes, ladies and gentleman, the free market sees an upside to everything! We’re all about the opportunity! And when we rebuild those schools as small, privately run charters, little blonde girls will be able to raise their hands in safety and security once again, assured that our supremacy over the big bad Asian hordes is guaranteed. 
Think that’s a little extreme? Consider this: As part of its Education Nation event, NBC announced a discussion panel entitled, “Does Education Need a Katrina?” The name recalls a remark made in January by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan: “I spent a lot of time in New Orleans, and this is a tough thing to say, but let me be really honest. I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster, and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that 'we have to do better.'” 
Yup, that’s right. Not only is wholesale destruction an opportunity - it’s actually a valuable tool for educational reform! Without Katrina, those ignorant black folk down in the Big Easy didn’t even realize they “have to do better!” Lucky them - a killer hurricane turned up just in time to show them the light.
Even after the Education Nation panel was renamed (because the network was deluged with protests about the insensitivity of that title), it still described the subject of the discussion as “the advantages to the New Orleans school district of starting over post-Katrina.” Are we really talking about the advantages of living through a (semi)natural disaster that caused suffering the magnitude of which we’d never before seen in this nation? An event that illustrated just how little we really care about poor, urban, minority communities? 
Yes, we sure are. As Nancy Flanagan says in her blog, Teacher in a Strange Land: “It strikes me that a lot of the Famous People who are ‘speaking out’ on education...are precisely the people who drive past public schools and other unpleasant realities on the way to their real lives. Pretty much the same way emergency rescue teams and Heckuvajob Brownie went right past the 20,000 miserable human beings huddled in the Superdome six years ago.”
Put yourself in the shoes of an African-American parent in New Orleans who’s been reading these comments about education “needing a Katrina.” You see this poster - a city in ruins, an educational system reduced to rubble, not unlike your own home and your kid’s school. And there, sitting unscathed, ready to pick up the torch of education, is - not your kid. Instead, there’s a picture-perfect little white girl, looking all smart and eager, lit by a ray of light shining down from the heavens, ready to soldier on in the battle for American educational supremacy.
Well, what would you think? At the very least, you’d be pretty damn sure that you are not the target audience of this film.
The Waiting for Superman poster serves up a noxious stew of fear-mongering and emotional blackmail designed to sell its agenda - the replacement of traditional public schools with a new, unproven, free-market education model. The one remaining question: Will America fall for it?