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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Small world

You know how your parents tell you stories, and you grow up believing them, but then as an adult you find out that some of them were greatly exaggerated, so then you wonder if any of those stories were true? This morning, I was able to confirm that one of my family legends was true -- or quite likely, anyway. It’s not much of a story, mind you, but it’s a neat little bit of my family’s history that has a connection to the bigger history of the nation.

I was watching Face the Nation -- the topic was the anniversary of the March on Washington -- and Colin Powell was on. I was reminded of something my mother, who died four years ago, used to tell me: that as a teenager, Powell had worked in a baby furniture store next door to my grandfather’s grocery store in the Jewish Bronx neighborhood where my mother grew up. I always thought that seemed mighty unlikely, but out of idle curiosity, I Googled.

Sure enough, Snopes says the story about Powell working in a Bronx baby furniture store in the 1950s is true -- in fact, he apparently learned some Yiddish from the store’s Jewish owners. Even better, the source Snopes cited gives the location of the store: corner of Westchester and Fox.

Turning to Google maps, I quickly found the corner of Fox Street and Westchester Avenue -- and saw that the next street over from Fox was Tiffany, which I remembered my mother telling me was the street where she lived.

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So now the story was looking way more likely than it had seemed at first. But was my grandfather’s grocery really next door to the baby furniture store, or was it just in the same neighborhood, another example of an exaggerated family legend? Just as I was mulling that question, the phone rang. It was my father.

After chatting for a few minutes (he, checking up on my cold; I, checking up on his sore leg -- such is the scintillating conversation at our stage of life), I said, “Dad, do you happen to remember what street Grandpa’s store was on in the Bronx?”

“Fox Street,” he answered without hesitation. “Funny how I remember that. I haven’t thought of it in years.” (Truth be told, he remembers things he was told half a century ago far better than he remembers what he was told ten minutes ago.)

So there it was. Mom’s story was probably true. Young Colin Powell did work in the store next door to Grandpa’s, or at least, very close by. And here I was, some six decades later, listening to him, now a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State, speaking on Face the Nation about the state of race relations in America. That was kind of neat.

Of course, I’d like to believe that, if Powell had ever had any contact with my family all those years ago (which now seems very possible), it was a positive experience that contributed to his optimism about race relations. I’d like to believe that, but it really depends a lot on whom he talked to. My grandpa was a sweet-natured man who, I believe, would have treated everyone with kindness. My grandma -- not so much. Of course, I knew her in her later years, but from what my mother always told me, the peppery personality I called Grandma was not a late development. How peppery? I never quite recovered from one particular day, maybe 15 years ago now, when I was riding the crosstown bus with her. We were sitting in more or less companionable silence when she blurted out, for no apparent reason and at the kind of volume only achieved by the hard-of-hearing elderly, “I read that Jews are marrying schvartzes! It’s terrible!”

This is what Colin Powell said on Face the Nation: “This country’s come so far....I think we should be very proud of what we’ve accomplished, but we should not say, ‘All done.’”

I’d say that sounds about right.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

On education, money, and feeling like a total asshole

How do you talk about the differences between pricey private school and public school without sounding like a total asshole?

In 1991, very soon after the fall of the Communist governments of the former Soviet bloc, my husband and I spent nine months in Romania, he as a physician working in the infamous orphanages, I as a freelance reporter and all-around logistical support. (Bear with me. This is relevant to my original question, I promise.) The culture shock we experienced was profound. Some of the weirdness could be chalked up to developments during Romania’s Communist years; the rest was just part and parcel of the Romanian national character.

“How much money do you make?”

That question was asked of us repeatedly, from the moment we arrived. As Americans, we were taken aback. It was rude. It was shocking. It was, more than anything else, unanswerable. Ask yourself: Could YOU bring yourself to tell someone who probably makes $45 a month what you make?

But in Romania, salary information is not treated as sacrosanct. I don’t know if this developed during the Communist years, when everyone earned more or less similar amounts (at least, on the books), or whether Romanian society has always had different ideas about money and privacy. Probably some combination of both. At any rate, we quickly took to answering the question with, “Sorry, in America we don’t talk about that.” This answer seemed to confuse Romanians and probably sounded as rude to them as their question sounded to us, but it did the trick, and the topic was generally dropped.

But it’s actually a damn good question -- not just good, but IMPORTANT. As we all know from personal experience, if you don’t know what other people make, you don’t know if you’re being underpaid, how much the company values you, or whether you’d be better off in another department, an entirely different industry, or for that matter, another country. The taboo about discussing salary is the employer’s ace in the hole; something he knows that you don’t. We all know our employers benefit from this power, and yet we all play along, because we are so deeply uncomfortable talking about what we make. If we earn more than the next guy, telling seems like boasting, or at least like very bad form; if we earn less, we don't want anyone to know because it makes us feel inferior, or at least vaguely embarrassed, or possibly just pissed off and resentful.

Ever since transferring my kids from public to private school, I’ve felt the same way talking about education (other than with a couple of very close friends). How do you tell public school parents that the smaller class sizes, absence of standardized testing, broad curriculum, and excellent facilities make this school a better learning environment than the one my kids had in public school without sounding like a total asshole, or at the very least like someone who is oblivious to issues of privilege? For that matter, how do you tell private school parents that, while the overall quality of teaching in private school is high, the best teachers in public school are better than the best teachers in the private school they're shelling out tens of thousands for?

It is absolutely true that the private school my kids now attend is expensive as hell, and many (though by no means all) of the kids who attend come from families who can afford to pay. And yes, the school accepts only about 30 percent of an already highly self-selected applicant pool. So, yes, many issues faced by public schools are simply absent in this privileged private school environment. And, while my kids’ private school can boast of diversity, it’s not the same all-comers-welcome diversity of which public schools are so rightly proud.

But if we can’t open a dialogue about differences between private and public education, don’t we parents hand politicians, school boards, boards of trustees, administrators, etc. an ace in the hole similar to the one employers get because of the taboo on salary discussion? If parents can’t compare their kids’ school experiences, aren’t we more likely to just accept whatever we’re handed, without even knowing what possibilities are out there?

Despite the obvious differences, some comparisons are valid and worth making; at least, some questions are worth asking. For example, is it best to focus on AP classes, or will high-achieving students get more out of independent study and research? Does arts education contribute to a student’s critical thinking skills? What role should physical education play at different stages of development? What’s the right balance between education theory and subject expertise in teacher training? How does class size affect learning?

In the past year, I have on numerous occasions bitten my tongue in conversations about such questions for fear that my, “Well, at my kids’ school...” will come out sounding like, “Well, at Fancy Shmancy Academy, the sun shines out of every teacher’s ass and there are unicorns and rainbows in every classroom; too bad for your kids that you can’t afford it.” (To be totally honest, I have met private school parents who, I swear, do think this way. It's pretty horrifying.)

And what about the other way around? What should Fancy Shmancy Academy be learning from its public school counterparts? What messages are not being heard by the private-school crowd because of false assumptions about public schools? Like, say, messages about job security and benefits that would allow teachers to make a go of teaching as a lifelong career, so kids can benefit from master teachers who have honed their art over a lifetime? Or how to prioritize spending to create opportunities for more kids rather than prestige opportunities for the institution? How do we get that dialogue going?

The plain fact is, in America, talking about money makes us queasy because of the fundamental tension between our shared democratic ideal and the obvious financial inequality among us. The public-vs-private education tension is a part of that. But if we don’t find a way to bridge that gap, we all miss out on valuable dialogue that can, over the long haul, create more equitable and effectively better school systems for all.

And that’s the thing we really have to remember: There is nothing magic about private school. Yes, resource levels vary between private and public schools, but they also vary among different private schools -- and, for that matter, among public school districts. Per pupil spending is a key issue, but not the only issue. How do we get the most out of the resources at our disposal? Which educational philosophy benefits kids most? How should schools be organized? Who should be making the decisions? We can find the right answers if we look at what works, but we can only do that if we talk -- and listen -- to each other.

Bonus track: Here's something that should be part of the dialogue about the intersection between money and education: Taylor Mali's brilliant "What Teachers Make."

Adding a related story of interest: Recently, actor Matt Damon has been attacked by the right as a hypocrite for sending his own kids to private school. Why? Because he has very publicly supported the anti-reformy public education movement -- those who are trying to stop so-called reformers who push high-stakes standardized testing, using student test scores to evaluate teachers and schools, abandonment of poverty-mitigating measures, and, yes, the mishmash of charters, vouchers and other privatizing measures commonly known as "school choice." The right's simplistic attack says, "So Matt Damon wants choice for his own kids, but not for poor kids." In fact, what Matt Damon and so many others are saying is that he wants progressive education for all kids, including his own. The kind of education reform that pushes testing, school closings, and privatization of public institutions is actually killing progressive public education by narrowing the curriculum, defunding public schools, demoralizing teachers, and increasing segregation. As a result, those who want progressive education must turn to private school to get it, if they can afford to. That's what we've done as well.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

On Peter Capaldi and my blue hair

So Peter Capaldi is the new Doctor. This reminds me of something I’ve been meaning to blog about:

Part of my hair is now bright blue. This is not the non sequitur it seems to be.

No sooner was the announcement made that the actor taking over the lead role on Doctor Who is 55 (four years older than I -- gasp!), than we started to get comments like this one from the website Den of Geek: “Having an older actor in the role arguably switches the focus of the show once again. That's not to say it won't still be frenetic and action packed, but Capaldi brings something different. It presumably cuts out the romantic hints and tinges between the Doctor and his companion for one, going back to the first appearance of the character as more of a father/grandfather figure....”

Because, y’know, the shift to a more sexualized Doctor couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with an overall relaxing of decency standards on British TV and a seismic shift in the culture since 1963. It’s all down to the actor’s age.

It’s a case of straightforward ageism. Fifty-five is old, and old is asexual. Old is grandfatherly. Old is icky. (If you think this overstates the case, just spend a few minutes searching Peter Capaldi on Tumblr or Twitter, if you dare. I assure you, “icky” is mild. Though to be fair, by now, most of what you'll find online is backlash against the ageist backlash.)

By the way, this is Peter Capaldi.

Which brings me to my blue hair. A few people have wondered why I did that, given the fact that I made a big deal about not dying my hair anymore. So, to explain:

I don’t object to dyed hair. I object to the notion that grey hair must be eradicated. There’s nothing wrong with choosing to color your grey hair, as long as it’s a choice. But as long as we live in a society that treats it as a requirement, it’s not a choice, and it won’t be a choice until enough people choose not to. I jumped on that train.

Part of battling assumptions about grey hair is pushing back on the terror of aging and concomitant youth worship that characterize our culture. In fact, we go to such lengths to hide our age that the whole topic makes us intensely uncomfortable -- hence the fact that very, very few people ever even commented on my grey, despite the obviousness of the change. You have to ask yourself, what are the subconscious assumptions people make when they see grey? Could it be, for example, the absence of sexuality? (Hello, Den of Geek and large swaths of Who fandom.) A lack of vigor? The death of fun?

So that’s what the blue hair is about. It's meant to signal that my sense of fun is not dead. My enjoyment of life is not over. Granted, it’s a pretty simplistic -- one might even say, juvenile -- response. As rebellions go, it's pretty weak. But it makes me happy, at least for now. It gives me a fairly obvious way to defy at least some of those offensive expectations. I don’t think I’ll keep it forever, though. It’ll probably be gone by the time Peter Capaldi hits my TV screen in Doctor Who. Or not. Time will tell.