I know that this is not supposed to be a political blog, but my story is really about the ways in which my life as a mother, a teacher, and a progressive political thinker all came together one cold December afternoon. My story is about my own personal, up-close encounter with the man who would be President.
This is the story of me and Mitt.
Because I was traveling in Texas over the weekend, I didn't see Bill Moyers' report on ALEC. I watched it last night, and I hope you will too.
If you want to understand how we are losing our democracy, watch this program.
If you want to know why so many states are passing copycat legislation to suppress voters' rights, to eliminate collective bargaining, to encourage online schooling, to privatize public education, watch this program.
How interesting–and ironic–that in the postmodern age that purports celebration of difference, we have instituted the perfect contrivance of homogenized sameness: No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Also ironic is the grim fact that NCLB–the one-size-fits-all, putative leveling tool of the disparate poor and affluent educational playing fields–has merely ended in ghettoizing the most vulnerable children in failing, war-torn schools, hemorrhaging with the bloodied and shell-shocked teachers who’ve seen one too many tours of duty. And, in yet another bitter irony, America’s first black president, along with many other minority leaders, can’t seem to find his voice on this critical matter–even as angry teachers spill into the streets, protesting its manifest social injustices. While one can hardly fault minority leaders for feeling desperation—yes, the sky IS falling–such desperation ALWAYS misses the subtext, the fine print if you will. Perhaps the kindest thing I can say about NCLB is that desperation drove us to it; however, only level-headed policy development will get us out of it. But first there must be open acknowledgement of what NCLB is, but pretends not to be.
Behind the text of No Child Left Behind lurks the conservative fear of unscripted teachers, spreading the godless good news of Renaissance Humanism, that cornerstone of Western thought and culture from whence such godless, human-centered ideas like democracy—and public education—were born. Eventually, the silencing of teachers was conflated with the silencing of public education itself, godless tool of a godless state that it is.
Beware! As NCLB scripts away teachers’ dangerous individuality (yet another godless construct of the Renaissance, Humanist, and Enlightenment continuum) with forced compliance to homogenized, test-driven curricula, don’t miss the fact that it desires nothing less than the quantification, exposure, and politicization of public education’s empirical failure. How brilliant is the use of the empirical data championed by the Enlightenment to silence one of the most egalitarian extensions of the Enlightenment—public education? This NCLB-expedited failure is good news to conservatives, excited as they must be to witness the final death throes of that nasty proponent of freethinking, public education. Simply fill the gaping void with private, parochial-school recipients of public tax dollars and, voila—the playing field has finally been leveled! Or is that flat lined? All but an elite few can now be factored into the fastest growing lowest common denominator in American history: brainless, anti-science ideologues and/or clueless pregnant teens bearing the sacred seed of a fearless leader on a Waco compound. Paging Janet Reno. Janet…Reno. However, without intervention from Janet Reno and her National Guard, what are we to do?
Bad news! Barring some epiphany on the part of our ruling class (and/or a sudden aptitude for predicting basic cause-and-effect reality), the desired end is in sight: privatization of the public domain. Will privatization herald in a new age of postmodern celebration of difference and radical otherness? Hardly! More like a reversion to pre-modern, divine right of the new kings in town: big business and the religious right. Spanish Inquisition – 1; Galileo – 0. Remember, it is NEVER EVER about the children. It’s ALWAYS about the pre-modern ideologies with which the children must be indoctrinated! The Enlightenment’s call to arms is inverted in this anti-democratic revolution of our new Corporate and Christian Kings: “Back on with their heads! Le jour de gloire est reversez!”
And while one has to appreciate the sheer brilliance of employing empirical, data-driven teaching to destroy the empirical, data-driven Enlightenment ideology itself—or what some of us like to call the foundation of Western thought and culture–one might be tempted to predict yet another ironic reversal.
It turns out that few of the best private schools feel all that compelled to script teachers in the ways NCLB has, opting instead to give educators an individual buy in, a personal investment, a stock option—to use the language of our new corporate bosses. The most successful (and costly) college-prep, private schools—as distinct from jack-leg private schools anxious over the doings of Al Gore and Jane Fonda–encourage educators to personally invest in their teaching in much the same way colleges do: by granting creative license to write and implement curriculum grounded in advanced degrees attained in their subject areas.
Those of us laboring away in public schools, where people with degrees in educational leadership are leading other people with degrees in educational leadership, find this private-school teacher empowerment intriguing. In fact, academic independence, a freedom that values the creative intellectual inquiry of well-educated teachers, goes a long way toward explaining why many public-school teachers, with actual advanced degrees in their subject areas, take the inevitable cut in pay and benefits to teach in private institutions. Little wonder these schools produce some of the freest and most creative intellects our nation has to offer. Their product is qualitatively different from the NCLB test-driven, public-school puppy mills. And I’d willingly celebrate this difference if 99% of our nation’s youth were not ALWAYS and FOREVER excluded from it by virtue of its expense. Sorry, but meanwhile, back on planet Earth, we’re still faced with fixing public education.
That’s right. Were it not for pesky issues of exclusivity, pseudo-science and control of women’s bodies, I’d be first in line for the party celebrating all the difference my redistributed voucher tax dollars could buy. However, I prefer to direct my tax dollars towards Enlightenment-based education, grounded in rigorous questioning of everything… including the value of the Enlightenment, itself. Thanks to just such rigorous questioning, many have discerned the dreaded clues of its opposite beneath the text of NCLB: the tired old sameness of one nation, under God, with religious indoctrination and anti-science prejudice for all. Let’s all pause for our moment of silencing…of public education.
So, is it ironic or intentional that America, seemingly terrified of encounters with un-homogenized classroom space, has created the conditions for insuring that this is ALL children will have available in the very near future? Let me resolve this conundrum for you. The proliferation of private educational space will not usher in a glorious, postmodern age, celebrating diversity of intellect and idea but, rather, an increased policing of difference through the unifying and homogenizing forces of pre-modern paternalism, non-critical God-‘n-country patriotism, Phyllis-Schlafly feminism, and Pat-Robertson Christianity. No thanks. Celebration of difference is what Reality TV is for, stupid. I’ll stick to my private celebrations of difference, like watching NatGeo’s The Hutterites, Breaking Amish, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, or Real Housewives of Utterly Commoditized, Bourgeois-Prostitute County.
I certainly WILL NOT be celebrating sheep-fleeced difference, disguising the
conservative wolf’s anti-intellectual, anti-science and anti-women crusade. Oh, and to those of the religious right who hope to further these crusades with the help of my tax dollars, listen carefully: OVER… MY… DEAD… BODY! Like the Enlightenment ideologues of old, who separated church from state for just such occasions as this, I remain vigilant of the other ideologues–in particular, ones seeking representation without church taxation. To those already wallowing in the seminal primacy of everything founding father, I simply say love it or leave it: love our Enlightenment heritage or find a new place to worship your God…without the help of my money! (Oh yeah…and words cannot capture how much I love commandeering the worn out expression “love it or leave it,” reviving and appropriating it to the Humanist argument where it has always belonged–as opposed leaving it to the back of a Certified Civil War Re-enactor’s truck somewhere near Bomb Hanoi, Jane Fonda is a Commie, and I’d Rather be Shooting Yankees.)
What repressive social and political environment terrified Americans into adopting such a repressive national education policy? Well… let’s see. What is lost as students are mercilessly drilled for multiple-choice, standardized tests with practice multiple-choice worksheets? If you answered “trees,” you are only partially correct. Clearly, what America fears most are intellectual teachers, namely the ones who recklessly veer from so-called objective, worksheet knowledge into subjective and potentially godless labyrinths of critical thinking. But… why now? Couldn’t this massive dumbing down have been achieved…earlier?
Perhaps the recent death of the Cold War accounts for at least some of this escalating war on academic freedom. As history uncovers the massive human and economic waste at the hands of Cold War policy, the religious right becomes increasingly edgy…nervous. As Susan Jacoby writes in her work Freethinkers, any “thorough postmortem” of the Cold War must examine the fact that it was underwritten by the religious right… from its inception. Now, this most effective propaganda machine of the religious right has come under some much needed scrutiny. Suddenly at risk of losing control of writing American history, a task that was much easier during the pre-internet innocence of the 1950’s, the right must act quickly to secure breached borders. Now quaint (except to Mitt Romney) Cold War propaganda–always inadequate to the rational juggernaut of the Enlightenment, pursuing its logical extensions into labor organization and—gasp–European-style Socialism–must be replaced with new forms of social control. The galloping steeds (rational juggernaut steeds) of the Enlightenment must be headed off at the educational pass.
As control of information has become more sophisticated, so must the policies of the right. Forcing children to crouch under desks, fearfully preparing for invisible nuclear threats from the godless, anti-capitalist enemy abroad, seems primitive when one can determine what children know, or don’t know, by simply determining the number of multiple-choice worksheets they will encounter? This number is, of course, a factor of race and class, the poor and marginalized, of course, receiving the most. But let’s call it something other than American anti-intellectualism or greedy capitalism, insuring endless supplies of God-fearing cheap labor; let’s call it something positive like No Child Left Behind. Oh, and we’ll need several hundred thousand people with degrees in educational leadership to implement it. The how having replaced the what of education years ago, plenty should be available.
The history of American anti-intellectualism culminates in, but is not exclusive to our much-celebrated “Maverick” who SEEMS to value individualism in much the same way that NCLB SEEMS to value offering impoverished children a leg up. Mavericks seek to privatize everything because they commit the classic error of most historians: conflation of individualistic capitalism (laissez-faire greed) with Romantic individualism and Humanistic individualism. However, only the latter two are worthy of consideration when designing the framework of a national education policy. If there is anything maverick about the Mavericks, it is that they’ve finally found a seemingly foolproof way to lead the sheep to the slaughterhouse of privatization: NCLB. Suffice it to say, if there is an accelerated disparity between private and public education, it is because of NCLB: yes, the prescribed cure is the disease…and in its advanced stages, no less! And while the disease has certainly metastasized under NCLB, it is a disease that found a friendly host in American anti-intellectual culture long before pseudo-Mavericks took the reins, and maybe even before legendary town jock, Brom Bones, chased that scrawny-assed, public-school teacher out o’ town.
However, as long as the apotheosis of private education is upon us, let’s talk briefly about why it might or might not be deserving of canonization. Just as private school teachers are entrusted with much greater freedom in their creative, intellectual journeys than their NCLB-scripted, public-school counterparts, so, too, are their students. Huge disparities exist between range and creativity of intellect in my public-school educated students and the many private-school students I have known. Quelle surprise! Mass-produced teaching to a test in huge, mega-school warehouses produces different results than Socratic circles on wooded campuses, with distant students oaring slivers of boats in gentle morning mists.
The most alarming disparities are in the form of independent thinking and living, what I call the entrepreneurial sense. While I’ve had plenty of public school students go on to become doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs, I’ve had relatively few go on to orchestrate start-up businesses; and yet I’ve observed this phenomenon time and time again with their private-school counterparts. In all fairness, this may have more to do with the semi-independent living of private school campuses than a difference in instruction. Generally speaking, private schools operate more like college campuses than high-security prisons and, hence, produce autonomous individuals instead of Matrix, slime-pod inhabitants.
Of course, one must temper blanket “scientific” assertions about the benefits of private education with a control for the empowering cultural experiences granted the wealthy and privileged in general, with or without the diploma from Andover. Moreover, it’s all but impossible to conduct controlled experiments in which culturally and economically impoverished children are closely monitored for miraculous academic strides forward upon surprise, pre-dawn vertical insertions into Eaton. However, I am a teacher in an extraordinarily wealthy public school, where the fortuitous children of the Fortune 500 are sent, as if on one of those modern mission-trips for the wealthy, to get a taste of plebian public education before being spirited off to their rightful place in the Ivy League. Hence, I have the unique vantage point for making at least a few noteworthy, albeit scientifically questionable distinctions between this set of culturally enriched students and the equally enriched private student. In a surprising inverse twist on the parent-choice debate, many of my students tell me public school is a parental choice, in this case a choice which has more to do with desired exposure to all-American experiences like football, cheerleading, dance team and drunken senior trips to Aruba than the result of any bitter economic necessity. Hence, comparisons between private and public educational outcomes are only possible because I can dispense with the usual problematic skewing factor of superior cultural enrichment through travel, sailing, skiing, rowing, summer camp, music, theater, musical theater…and designer drugs pilfered from a trophy-stepmom’s medicine cabinet as she vainly attempts to cope with the downside of being a sex slave with a Louis Viton handbag. Both student populations have access to all of the above, plus the upper-class panacea of two, college-educated parents at home–often working in spite of the bountiful trust fund awaiting them upon successfully kissing Grandpa’s ass for forty years. In this rare opportunity to control for cultural enrichment between test populations, subtle yet important differences between the private and public product are discerned.
First, with the exception of George W. Bush, I’ve known relatively few private-school students to run completely amok, becoming drunken, coked-up frat boys by winter of their freshman college year. The ones with half a brain have grasped that if one is to live long enough to come into the huge trust fund, some measure of self-preservation is required. Again, many private-school students learn self-discipline and personal responsibility from early experimentation with semi-independent living…and thinking. Often they’ve been given greater voice in designing core course work and electives—school choice within school choice, so to speak. Even my wealthy public school addresses this need for personal responsibility by providing kids with freedoms I never witnessed in my previous incarnation as Savior Teacher to the inner-city. My wealthy students are given an unusual run of the place, freedoms not possible in behemoth, public-school warehouses, where rigid, high-security protections from the inculcated violence of the streets becomes ironic preparation for the prison life that lies ahead. However, both situations stand in stark contrast with private-school students whose early exposure to self-discipline and personal responsibility spills over into a radical creativity that fosters entrepreneurialism.
Finally, private-school headmasters, as well as the vast majority of private-school teachers, have advanced degrees in something other than educational leadership, most notably in core content subject areas. Imagine if you will, a principal who has earned a PhD in some area of the Humanities and who directs shockingly avant-garde school plays in addition to his administrative duties…and you will have imagined the headmaster of the most prestigious private school in Birmingham. If you’ve ever seen a principal of a public school with that pedigree, I’d love to hear from you. As I discovered upon applying for, and not getting a job at Baylor, many have multiple advanced degrees and move around to different posts… as needed or desired. Fun…and challenging! Because schoolmasters, deans, and private-school professors are usually scholarly academics with PhDs in something other than education, they can more effectively model a lifelong love of learning.
On the other hand, public schools feed from the trough of undergraduate education majors, who, at least back in my day, took fewer courses in their subject area because they had to take classes in things like Educational Measurement and Evaluation—the how notably replacing the what of teaching, explaining the why, in my twenty-five years in public schools, I never once attended a professional-development workshop that explored content. Instead, I moved through endless summer workshops on clickers, beepers, computer programs, and, of course, the ever- popular how to frame student questioning to look more like that of the TEST. In short, as public education flounders around in educational theory and NCLB paperwork, spending ridiculous sums of money on the magic bullet that will solve its myriad problems, private schools gobble up most of the supremely well-educated academics and then make some small effort to get out of their f’in’ way.
Not so for the career-minded public-school servant. His or her rise to the top looks very different from that of the private-school employee. Thus, as Nietzsche might say, unfolds the “human, all-too human” career trajectory of the public high-school principal: the undergraduate degree in education with some sketchy content emphasis in history; five-to-six years in the classroom as the “popular, all-too popular” history teacher; extra-curricular coaching combined with “easy, all-too-easy” night-school degree in Educational Leadership; promotion to vice principal in charge of discipline; promotion to principal; and finally promotion to superintendent. Conversely, the private-school headmaster is a published academic with content mastery in at least one discipline valued highly by Western culture before it crumbled. No accident, then, that public schools focus all of their faculty professional-development time talking about HOW to teach, while private schools seem intent on addressing the ever-challenging WHAT to teach. After all, what else IS there to talk about with a degree in Educational Leadership?
In the end, it’s a sad but interesting commentary on American culture that our most urgent educational concern is how to most efficiently homogenize the space of public education. Instead of insisting that teachers have advanced degrees in their subject area, we opt instead for the mindless scripting of their every word and gesture around tests that determine salary and future employment. In other words, instead of entrusting the future intellects of our youth to actual intellectuals, we’ve chosen the anti-intellectual route of efficiency and homogeneity. We back production over induction. We pass out the multiple-choice workbooks, shape the Socratic circle into a box, bubble it in and shove it through chattering Scantron machines. The Race to the Top is nothing more than a race to the dregs of homogenized sameness. Take a big swig because, hopefully, that well is almost dry.
In the final analysis, all Cold War conspiracy theories left behind, No Child Left Behind may just herald another be-careful-what-you-wish-for moment in the history of American education policy. Would that it were our only instance of failed national education policy due to naïve or wishful thinking…or, more aptly, the inability to follow a bouncing ball to its bitter cause-and-effect end. Education policy, national and local, is full of such moments…perhaps because it’s usually authored by non-teachers with an anti-intellectual axe to grind, terrified that students might encounter teachers who are different, i.e., who can think. Hence, virtually anyone with a high-school diploma believes herself qualified to weigh in on policy decisions affecting teachers and students. In my county system, the local hair dresser on the school board just lowered the educational job requirements and cast the deciding vote for the new non-Ph.D. superintendent; having mastered subject-verb agreement, she knows what it means to be an educated American as well as anyone. Never mind that racism and anti-intellectualism undergirds virtually every decision; damn it, that’s our Ichabod-Crane hating, anti-intellectual heritage! In the zeal to “level the playing field” through uniform, quantifiable, measurable, and excessively-tested standards, No Child Left Behind has left behind our most valuable resource in America—un-homogenized school spaces in which magic happens.
TRANSCRIPT: PRESIDENT OBAMA SITS DOWN WITH SAVANNAH GUTHRIE
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW FOR NBC NEWS’ "EDUCATION NATION"
September 25, 2012 -- As part of the NBC News 2012 "Education Nation" Summit this week, President Barack Obama sat down with NBC’s Savannah Guthrie to discuss his vision for the future of education in America.
The exclusive interview aired Tuesday on “TODAY” and this afternoon on MSNBC.
Parents in an affluent section of Nashville are exploring the possibility of using the state's "parent trigger" law to leave the school district and form their own charter. The councilwoman for the area is leading discussions.
This appears to signal the next phase of the charter movement. For years, as the charter movement grew, advocates utilized rhetoric about "saving" poor black and Hispanic children from their "failing" schools.
I worked in an English Department adjacent to the “crazy” drama teacher — eccentric, to those who grew up in the ‘60’s—who, along with her two genius daughters, saw men as useful for breeding purposes alone. Claiming to be an anarchist, she intentionally slept in a different place each night to avoid lapsing into dangerous, ritualized behaviors. Once past my initial shock over her houseful of homeschooled children with no man in sight, I grew into an uneasy appreciation of virtually everything this anarchic, matriarchal, drama queen had to say. Her burn-down-the-house tirades had cathartic benefits my first year as an educator in a failing, inner-city school. Yet, I felt ominous portent in her random, theater-of-the-absurd performances; they made me laugh the laugh that hints at something darker. She delighted in her power to reduce me to cathartic laughter, teetering on the edge of hysteria. (I’m sure she found me amusing, too, poised as I was to singlehandedly rescue inner-city Birmingham schools from imminent state takeover.) However, my unofficial mentor seemed to be guiding me, assuming anarchists can guide, toward something heretofore unacknowledged, something that needed outing, some essential understanding of this strange new futile job.
But I had to pigeonhole that knowledge for about twenty years so I could attend to my emerging control over the world of teaching: the stupid f’in’ engine that couldn’t.
I worried about the increasing hints of violence in her outbursts, especially when played out in front of less tolerant audiences, i.e., virtually every other teacher, administrator and student in this Bible- Belt public school. Not everyone enjoyed or approved of avant guard, epate le bourgeoisie, teachers’ lounge, performance art. Like Brom Bones’ driving from town of Ichabod Crane, I feared teachers would run her out of town all by themselves—with no assistance from town jock. This was a system in which once–I kid you not–the superintendent asked an entire stadium of teachers to stand if they believed in God. My high school principal routinely pulled gang bangers out of class for invitation-only tent revivals in the auditorium. Administrators seemed to be doing more than just talking about religion; they were acting on it. So, I worried over the drama teacher’s employment future, especially given the houseful of pregnant daughters and their children that she supported.
Nonetheless, I laughed with nervous delight when, one fine day in the teachers’ lounge, she did a dramatic re-enactment of herself chewing out some miscreant student earlier that morning. Drawing upon the high theatrics only a drama teacher could muster, she brought to life the whole, brutal upbraiding. She puffed up in righteous indignation as she unleashed her “word hoard’ on this poor child. “The beauty of it,” she trumpeted, “is that he seemed powerless to respond. At the end,” she concluded, “I was a little surprised to discover myself alone…naked…and in the shower. But it had seemed so real that I was momentarily disoriented.”
The lukewarm laughter that arose in the lounge may have been polite cover for a growing conviction that she needed drug testing…or worse. I suspected, however, that many present harbored silent concerns that they had experienced similar teacher moments: rage-filled lapses of consciousness. Yes, teachers are giving imaginary people the what for in their showers…and in their sleep, and –gasp– not all of them are students. I’d just experienced a particularly virulent parent conference that morning, while alone…in my car. To write off these outbursts of rage as a quirky, Mr. Chips-prepares-for-the-standardized-test-that-will-determine-his-future-salary moments would be to miss the point: teachers are imploding with time-and-space transporting, reality-bending rage. Barely beneath the surface of that corduroy jumper with large crayon-appliques, just beneath the insipid “it’s-all-about-the-children” pose—which, by the way, throws me into irrational paroxysms of rage—lies a teacher in need of on-going anger-management therapy. The startling revelation? It may NOT be “all about the children” at all; it may be about the angry-as-hell people who are teaching our children…stupid!
No degree in psychology is needed to ferret out the underlying causes of this epidemic teacher rage: a vast bureaucratic system expecting highly personalized service to a veritable sea of students, parents, state and local administrators, blah, blah, blah…. We’ve heard it all before. Now, hear this: Teachers are the new Postal worker, seething over strict adherence to myriad petty demands while serving the masses with the kind of smile that says, “You’re really important to me.” Caught between test-score-determined job security and a 150+ headcount that expects an impossible, individualized education plan (IEP for the untutored), most teachers teeter precariously on the verge of a nervous breakdown or its “saner” counterpart, abject rage. “Sure, I can get your at-best, average kid into an Ivy League school, but I’m afraid I’ll have to avail myself of new scientific developments in serotonin uptake inhibitors to stay as comfortably numb as possible while keeping your massively deluded train on schedule.” Or, more apt to the situation in Chicago, “Sure, I’ll be happy to single-handedly resolve the problem of urban poverty that’s plagued our nation for time immemorial—you know, by equalizing the playing field.” Then there’s this one: “Don’t worry yo’ pretty little heads over the conundrum that the tests you mandated mean I’ll be drilling the crap out of the urban kid with a worksheet while his suburban counterpart moves on to critical thinking and writing. It’s the new way we maintain a cheap labor force in this country, eager to give up union rights in a last ditch effort to save their jobs from Bain Capital.”
The disequilibrium (euphemism for insanity) of my former English Department colleagues became apparent when I tallied that 13 out of 18 were on mind-altering pharmaceuticals (mostly legal)—that is the 13 who admitted to it. Keep in mind, no teacher really wants it generally known she isn’t coping well with the huge pile of shit routinely thrown in her path. As if! As if equilibrium could be maintained by someone on stage all day, Michelle Pheifering some f’in’ amazing product from children who live in warzones, only to arrive home with that night’s spontaneously regenerating Russian novel to grade and annotate. As if equilibrium could be maintained in a job in which one’s own inadequacies are encrypted in the piece-of-shit paper that just exacerbated one’s TMJ… with the understanding, of course, that one will be grinding through the same crap for another 100 essays. Slowly reduced to obscenities as you grade, constructive margin notes are soon abbreviated to a huge, red “NO!”
What makes teacher rage so volatile is that there is no time to process the extreme anxiety and resulting anger that plagues the profession. As one clever colleague, who jumped ship to work in business, explains, “I never made more–or more instantaneous decisions of such major import as I did as a teacher. The sheer volume was mind boggling.” Her new luxury of having a few minutes to deliberate over important decisions had gone a long way toward soothing jangled teacher nerves. While delighted that someone from the outside understood, we all hated her because she had found a way out. No bile is as bitter as that which teachers cough up upon realizing public perception of them: lazy, civil-servant functionaries, stoking the furnaces of pre-fab, state-mandated curriculum materials while sneaking a bite of fried chicken wrapped in a greasy napkin in their desk drawer.
Providing time off for teachers to seek medical help for the psycho-somatic illnesses that erupt from repressed rage is both an inconvenient and unwelcome expense to school systems. One art teacher, angered at the indignity of having to explain to the principal the exact nature of a medical absence, snapped, “It was for irritable bowel syndrome. In fact, my doctor said he had so many teachers with this problem in his patient load, he’d re-named it ‘teacher bowel syndrome.’ We’re all oozing liquids from orifices and can’t even take a bathroom break for fear we’ll be sued when Johnny beats the crap out of little Ralph.” Her righteous pleasure at the way this angry outburst had silenced the shocked administrator was dutifully reinforced as we barked our approval with a laugh, or, rather, a cough of Baudelairean spleen.
So, why had we pulled the trigger, chosen the teaching profession? Though few can turn the noise down long enough to even remember, there were points of light that guided us out of the Platonic cave…and into…the chains of yet another shadowy area. Hidden deep within the collective unconscious of all teachers sleeps the ideal form of TEACHER, the Platonic form we envisioned when choosing the teaching profession over other important 21st century employment opportunities—like barista. Many envisioned glib professorial exchanges with like-minded intellectuals. Others anticipated the day they would become the crusty-but-beloved Mr. Chips cum leader of the Dead Poet’s Society, challenging young minds with endlessly inspired, student-generated Hegelian dialectics. But as all good Neo-Platonists know, the highest ideal is IDEAL JUSTICE, defined as knowing one’s proper place in the social hive. It may well be that America’s public schools have never been terribly interested in creating future philosopher kings, focused as they were on more pressing concerns…like teaching Honey Boo Boo how to read. Now we have even bigger fish to fry, like how to mold students into compliant middle-class citizens who pay the bills on time that support entitlement programs for the rich and the military. Of course, any close analysis of Platonic idealism must point to the fact that the concept of idealism itself is critical to keeping inhabitants of the Republic chasing those carrots on sticks– everything and everybody running, running, running…in place. Idealism fuels the whole operation, the most bitter and most ironic teacher pill to swallow of all. But, hey, don’t stop believing. It’s all about the children.
Little wonder that so many find themselves seething with rage as they cling pathetically to the beatific, Dangerous Minds vision of teaching. They hold it close and dear, even when forced to confront the fact that they are merely warehousing kids whose names they will be lucky to learn by Christmas. Even when moving pudgy, grain-fed, kids who just drank a Coke for breakfast through the mind-numbing drills that will determine their future employment, teachers cling to the ideal. Even when casting the losing vote against colleagues who want to adopt the Post-Modern excuse for a textbook, replete with huge pictures, bulleted chapter reviews embedded in the chapter itself, and fun-filled, cross-curricular activities for differently-abled learning styles, one clings to the ideal. Even when the not-so-subtle subtext of every department meeting answers the question “How can we make things easier on ourselves?” Even when looking at the placid, compliant, army of kids stoned on Adderall. Even when class is cut short for a pep rally that reinforces conventional gender roles in a grotesque ritual of premature sexuality that prepares kids for the oxy-condoned college date-rape scene… or the senior trip to Aruba. Even when overhearing the football coach, who makes six figures to your low five, telling his team to hit that rack of practice dummies “like it’s your girlfriend on Saturday night.” Even when every principal you’ve ever had harbors secret anti-intellectual beliefs that include teachers lightening the fuck up so kids can be as happy as they were in his do-nothing class before he saw the WAY OUT: school administration. And, yes, I know this paragraph is filled with sentence fragments so you can shitcan the “I thought you were an English teacher” remark. Yeah. Quel suprise. I’ve heard it before.
Yet, somehow, the ideal persists. In spite of every possible obstacle and roadblock, it roils and festers like all unattainable ideals. Or, to use that over-anthologized poem that ostensibly teaches kids what it feels like to be a completely disenfranchised African American—and, increasingly, an average Caucasian-American citizen–“like a dream deferred.” Let’s face it; we’re all trying to quell the rage of promises not kept, though teachers may especially feel the sting of being duped by a career in which Robin Williams and Michelle Pfeiffer so self-righteously excel.
To question whether the education system itself may be somehow thwarting one’s efforts to succeed is to tread into some particularly nasty, rage-inducing conundrums. Is there a systemic plan to destroy Public Education through test-driven curricula that fosters bored students, state takeovers, white flight, ghettoization of inner-city kids, and terminally pissed off teachers? Once that godless, Humanistic project, Public Education, has finally and irrevocably failed, it can be replaced by vouchers for religious education and homeschooling—if those are indeed distinct from one another. As much as I love conspiracy theories, it still seems farfetched that one would sacrifice generations of teachers and students just to put prayer back in school or, more aptly, teach young girls to be passive sperm receptacles. But, hey, people fly planes into buildings over this stuff. But surely those who detest Sharia Law can find a better way to impose Sharia Law on us all than watching teachers bloody their heads against the brick walls of a Sisyphus-like task, year after year.
Like a Washington Irving story, all cheer as the under-fed teacher is run out of town by the jock. We have become the amalgam of anti-intellectual, ethnic folklore Washington Irving hobbled together into stories that some literary critics claim are America’s first purely American literature.
Better still, maybe we can mercifully find a way to expedite the whole bloody trajectory of failure that is Public Education, ending teacher torture once and for all. The Savings and Loans pulled it off in half the time, though I suppose if Reagan had created more deregulated opportunities for corporate greed in education, we could have pulled it off, too, without this prolonged wailing and gnashing of teeth. I guess submitting teachers to slow torture feels like we have let the punishment fit the crime. Teachers get the karmic justice they deserve. To those raised on Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones, that deepest of our collective unconscious view of education, teachers have always been the enemy. So be it. I always wanted to hang something on Washington Irving besides utterly derivative, homogenized pabulum, pandering to the lowest common denominator. Here it is: F you, Washington Irving, for destroying public education.
Oh yeah, and that drama teacher? She moved on to a teaching position at her grandchildren’s school, a Montessori-like school on steroids. The kids made things by hand, and stayed with projects that interested them—gasp–for as long as productively engaged. The school jettisoned those fragmentary, snap-shot teaching methods and textbooks that pride themselves on reaching out to Game-Boy kids with zero attention span. The grandchildren of this matriarchal anarchist are now poised to be completely ill-equipped for the demands made in the treacherous, Post-modern world ahead–assuming Post-Modern worlds make demands other than the implied demand of “it’s all good.” But, to hell with educational anarchist hippies… who look weirdly like conservatives! “We back production; we shoot Coke-a-Cola…. One and one and one is three.”