Diane Ravitch's blog



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. A full transcript is below. If used, mandatory credit “NBC News / Education Nation.” Video will be available online at TODAY.com, NBCNews.com and EducationNation.com.

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MANDATORY CREDIT: NBC News / Education Nation

Mr. President, thank you for being with us for Education Nation. We really appreciate it.

It’s great to be here.

Well, they say all politics is local. But sometimes local politics turn national. So I want to ask you about the strike in Chicago. There was…

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F Washington Irving for Destroying Public Education: A Tribute To Striking Teachers In Chicago


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.”

Dress-Code Demerit Prepares Floyd For Life At Chicken-Processing Plant


Floyd, a chunky twelve-year-old blubbering inconsolably over the shame of being sent to in-school suspension, was sputtering an excuse through tell-tale grammatical indicators of blue collar-dom. Caught and incarcerated for the crime of no belt, he desperately needed to air his side of the story.

The morning had been chaotic as his father had “overslept for work and was in a big hurry because this is his fourth demerit.”  I thought Floyd was headed into a complex cause-and-effect relationship: a description of how his father’s hasty departure for work affected his ability to put on a belt. But the causal chain abruptly snapped, and Floyd suddenly began to track the intricacies of his father’s work at a chicken processing plant.

His father had done little to shield his family from the dire consequences of the dread chicken plant demerit system:  at seven demerits he would be required to meet with the plant manager to “discuss his employment future.”  Floyd knew disturbing stories of people “let go” during such meetings.

Unsure of his twelve-year-old narrative powers, Floyd seemed anxious that I fully grasp the import of these harsh disclosures.  He decided to add some needed details.   His father made “only $14.50 per hour” and his stepmom was only able to supplement this with an additional $700.00 a month, a sum instantly consumed by a seven-hundred-dollar-a-month duplex rental.

The more Floyd verbally controlled the facts and figures of the family economy, the calmer he became.  I let him ramble on.  He wiped away his tears with a chubby little paw and snuffled and choked his way through a rather tedious inventory of the food currently available in the seven-hundred-a-month duplex’s cupboards.  Right then they had “mostly canned stuff and noodles…and chicken”…of course.

These revelations about food prompted other important memories about tenuous parental and step-parental employment and, more importantly, its immediate effects on the quality and quantity of food he would soon be eating.  One particularly chilling story involved the sudden firing of a close family friend caught stealing chicken from the plant. Floyd’s defense of this fellow seemed a little too practiced: “But it was because his family didn’t have nothin’ to eat for a while and he only done it once or twict.”  Or, so I thought I heard him say.  My head was starting to spin. What was he in here for?  Oh, yeah, the f’in belt.

Floyd intuited how drawn I was to his narrative abilities and launched into the genre reserved for moments requiring major audience impact:  juicy, gory industrial accident stories.  Nothing could eclipse the time-tested Dickensian dismemberment and industrial snuff story.  Unfortunately, omissions of important details contributing to rising action and denouement hinted at overfamiliarity with his subject.   Floyd rushed the narrative of the extra skinny construction worker sent into the tight place, the ominous jammed dozer scooper.  (Oh, no!  What’s going to happen?)  He tripped the scooper-support levers, was crushed, but survived.  “Good thang he war so skinny,” Floyd grinned upon the hasty delivery of the O. Henry-esque punch line that no-one could have anticipated.

I was in love with this kid and had to hear more—even if in doing so I jeopardized the proper execution of my own somber job, a job which involves its own cruel little system of demerits, strictly enforced silence and isolation which, when violated, land kids in full, boot-in-the-arse suspension. I was this school’s version of getting fired from the chicken plant. The creepy similarity between chicken factory and school flittered briefly across my mind, but I quickly repressed the evil thought so I could attend more fully to Floyd’s endless disclosures.  With no prompting, he returned to his detailed report of the grim economic situation at home, a tedious comparative accounting of the contents of cupboards relative to the employment status of parents.  I drifted off.   I tried to remember if I had been this conscious of the nuances of family finances at age twelve…or any age for that matter.

No doubt there were moments when things were tight– with seven mouths to feed on a preacher’s pay.   As an adult, I once asked my mother how she prepared one of my favorite meals, jarred chip beef in flour gravy on toast.  Instead of giving me the recipe, Mother rather bitterly explained that it was what she had made to fill seven hungry mouths when the cupboards were bare.  She had only made such a big deal over what a special meal it was to disguise the desperation hovering at the edges of this meal’s marginally nutritious value. It was a recipe that came from her arsenal of poor-Appalachian, depression-era, filler meals.   She saw this particular meal as an indictment of her budgeting abilities.  My father, having grown up on a prosperous livestock farm, where freshly butchered meat was always on the table, was particularly insulted when jarred beef appeared on his dinner plate.  The insult was compounded by the fact that chipped beef jars made great juice glasses, the previous evening’s indictment of his provider abilities materializing as veiled threat at the breakfast table.  Thankfully, I was blithely unaware of all of this as a child…and felt a little pang of resentment at Mother troubling me with this information at this late date.

Fascinated at the proficiency with which Floyd inventoried the meat selections currently available in his seven-hundred-a-month duplex, I thought I detected special anxieties around the subject of chicken.   They ate a lot of chicken.  I guessed that chicken had become a reliable source of family protein for reasons that transcended its relative cheapness to other meats.

Little wonder this child had such an alarming over-reaction to the demerit he had received today at school.  Amassing demerits spelled certain disaster in Floyd’s world.  Demerits meant a dangerous focus on his father’s work behaviors.  Demerits spelled the end to a suspiciously dependable source of protein: Chicken.

I shifted uncomfortably as it dawned on me that I had ineluctably become part of the demerit-system reality that was preparing this kid for his future chicken-plant destiny. While I can’t really blame his parents for sucking Floyd into their mundane, quotidienne struggle for survival, I felt guilty complicity in priming him to fulfill Plato’s f’d up version of ideal Justice, knowing one’s proper place in society.  Apropos of nothing, it occurred to me that I had not been fully cognizant of how laundry got done until I was in my late twenties.  Suddenly I remembered recent hard times when understanding how to budget a meager income might have come in handy.

Why, then, had my depression-era parents so thoroughly shielded five children from the economic realities of life?  Was this a conscious, child-rearing decision, collaborated upon and jointly reinforced? Or, was it an unconscious banishment of worries they’d endured during lean depression years?  Only in my late twenties, when it appeared that I might be a hopeless dumbass, did my mother encourage me to acquire some job skills.   Until then, I had lived with the utterly confusing belief that I could achieve absolute success in virtually anything to which I set my mind.  I dabbled in philosophy, my father’s college major, and then acquired a master’s in English literature, my mother’s first love– year upon wonderful year spent wallowing around in abstract la-la land with nary a chicken concern on my mind.

Mystified by Floyd’s near hysteria over a missing belt, I began to look at the catalogue of fears his dress-code demerit point had triggered: fears of industrial accidents; fears of parental unemployment; fears over tenuous step-mom incomes; and, most importantly, fears over the suspicious frequency of chicken on the family menu.  Floyd’s ability to index the intricacies of this worrisome household economy both amazed and depressed me. What a mind for fact and figures he had.  What a waste of intellectual capital.  What a luxury to have had parents who shut down the noise about basic survival so that their five children could focus on the utterly useless, but intensely interesting abstractions of philosophy and literature.

I was heartbroken when my vice-principal arrived with a belt.  I’d fallen hard for this kid.  Without so much as a goodbye, he raced breathlessly after the VP because, even after two weeks of school, he had no clue how to find his classroom. As his noisy presence drifted off down the hallway, I drifted off into utterly useless philosophic abstractions: to Plato’s social “hive,” the Republic, replete with drones for whom ideal justice constitutes knowing one’s proper place in the social system; to thoughts of my complicity in an education system that shapes children for ineluctable, inescapable servitude; to my favorite J. Krishnamurti quote, “where there is fear there is no intelligence.”

And while I may have sometimes cursed my parents for leaving me so unprepared for the realities of existence, I felt sudden warmth in my heart that chipped beef on toast was so celebrated in my household.   It was a special meal for special occasions when special people were special enough to enjoy special poor-people food.   I also felt a growing appreciation that I had never once suspected my parents of risking unemployment by stealing chickens.


Annoying Gifted Students: Existential Inauthenticity of Romantic Posers


There sits this year’s most annoying student, Boy Genius, predictably located somewhere near the rear of class in the de rigueur, semi-reclined posture that communicates his self-conscious, petulant rebellion. His carefully choreographed, adolescent pose of indolence is instantly recognizable: another—deep teacher sigh– rebel-without-a-clue. He must be endured like slow-drip waterboarding throughout the long, tedious year ahead.  Consider his insolent body language a kind of smoke-signal harbinger of what will be text and subtext to all future Genius Boy communication: “F all y’all and the retarded horses you rode in on.”

Routinely teetering on the precipice of a 65 average, Boy Genius waits ‘til semester exams roll ‘round to finally coral his vast intelligence, at which time he passive aggressively pulls the only perfect score from his ass. This, as he has already mentally calculated, raises his barely passing semester average to a richly undeserved “C”—and, as he has also calculated, sends the teacher into paroxysms of abject rage.

Upon enduring his hostile takeover of her class for an entire year, she’ll get to see him only once more before graduation, when he briefly pops in the following year to rub her nose in a perfect SAT score or an acceptance letter to MIT.   He’ll be embarrassed at his uncontrollable urge to do something so pathetically obvious, but he just can’t stop himself. This sociopathic turd’s need to assert superiority eclipses the risky delayed gratification of letting you enjoy his undeserved success through… say… a school newspaper article.  You might miss it!  No amount of public recognition will abate the narcissism of his adolescent superego gone wild.  Long ago, his id discovered the backdoor accesses to socially appropriate expressions of violence, including Freud’s tour de force:  violence against himself. Rubbing everyone’s nose in his perfect SAT induces the inevitable self-loathing of the existentially inauthentic, psychological violence to others becoming violence to self.  May the circle be unbroken.

Stealing teachers’ thunder is yet another favorite passive-aggressive pastime for this little shit…that is, when not openly belittling slower classmates and, of course, the teacher for being something as pathetic as…a teacher.  One kid, who designed computer programs in his head, while not pretending to listen or participate in class, went out of his way to inform me that he already made twice my salary–not any great shakes, though damn good money for a high-school senior.   One arrogant punk liked to stand during group projects so he could better belittle his team members, lording his intelligence over kids who were later expected to do all the actual work.  Admittedly he had bigger fish to fry, like the upcoming gallery opening he had in NYC for his utterly amazing portraits.  Little Miss Brainiac, finding a way to explode my lesson with a pre-emptive drone strike, quoted from memory a stanza in the poem I’d read a week earlier– the very stanza I’d later planned to ask slower students to link to themes in our current readings.  She snorted with disgust when another kid excitedly offered, “That’s just like the poem we read!”

“That’s because it IS the poem we read,” was the brutally condescending reply.

I had to admit, furious though I was, that it was a brilliant double play: the teacher’s lesson-plan thunder stolen with a simultaneous shut down of all future contributions from the now blushing girl of mere better-than-average intelligence and shit-hot work ethic.

Thunder theft is usually a one-on-one, genius-teacher transaction:  a quick notification or warning of what might later be—should Genius Boy so choose– the source of ruin of your utterly facile lesson plans geared towards the middle performers. You’ll notice the smug grin and direct gaze that communicates “You’ve been served.” However, thunder theft, while satisfying to the genius, lacks the beauty of complete and total annihilation of classroom dialogue.  Getting the answer right before anyone even sees the question coming has usually lost its luster by about 9th grade, perhaps because it lacks the full-scale insurrection that silences the entire class.  The genius excels in shutting down class dialogue, especially in advanced classes in which at least a fourth of the students have been parent placed over the recommendations of teachers and another fourth are just plain ole run-of-the-mill hard workers.  The genius has the unfair advantage of having already earned a PH.D. –in making other kids feel like earthworms and teachers, pack mules of received knowledge.

I would be remiss were I not to offer up the special shout out to all those colleges and universities that reinforce such shitty behavior by recruiting the worthless genius in spite of …EVERYTHING!  Congratulations for finding a way to invert such pedestrian fables as “The Tortoise and the Hare.” New Moral:   tortoise loses, hare wins, fuck you.  He wins precisely because he detected the absurd, futile activity designed to make him run: the putative race. He’ll NOT be jumping through hoops, over hurdles, or across finish lines set in place by those pedestrian thinkers called TEACHERS! That’s for damn sure!  Many colleges willingly risk the inevitable spike in dropout statistics to lure these obstreperous hares to their hallowed halls.  In the unwritten cost-benefit analysis, having Einstein or Jobs as alumnus outweighs the occasional hit to dropout stats that, after all, only form one part of the reports by which colleges are ranked.  Let’s all welcome Little Miss, Little Miss Couldn’t be Bothered with the C Average and perfect SATs.   In fact, give her a full ride so she can continue doing whatever she was already doing while not pretending to constructively participate in high school. Even the occasional Unabomber outweighs no Unabomber in the Kardashian, image-over-substance calculus of college-admission policies.

Guess that’s why I loved Dwight, the young gang-banger genius encountered early in my career, long before making the move to greener (i.e., whiter) suburban-school pastures. Sure, Dwight played the same dissimulating pranks as my suburban geniuses. Sure, he had the same ability to predict where I was heading so he could pull the rug out from under me, or pin me to the wall and watch me squirm.   Oh, hell yes, he was full of piss and vinegar–and the occasional Dionysian frenzy of gratuitous violence–but at least he never dreamed of being rewarded for his shitty performance.  It never occurred to him that a poverty stricken little turd in stolen Nikes, with both father and brother in prison, might actually be courted by colleges for merely pulling an amazing SAT score out of his ass. Even ITT Tech looked like a fool’s mirage.  Like I said, the kid wasn’t stupid—just terminally pissed at having so many closed doors that he’d never had the opportunity to arrogantly slam shut all by himself.

Turns out, burning everything to the ground is more a game for the privileged, bourgeois genius than one who has long endured a scorched earth policy that is his urban birthright. The organization of my advanced English class appealed less to the burn-down-the-house genius than, say, the OCD/ Asperger’s genius.   The class offered OCD-like categorical imperatives, regimenting experimentation with a variety of literary critical models—more appealing to Asperger Boy than young Dionysus.  To the bourgeois Dionysus, this ploddingly binary splicing and dicing of literary critical models into bite-sized chunks for the advanced high school student merited nothing less than a thorough razing.   True genius explodes rules before they’ve even been fully established; hence, the ongoing attempt to dynamite all that fearful, neo-Classical symmetry teachers seem hell bent on imposing on obviously random knowledge. Genius embraces the Romantic pose, dismantling any codified structures that might constrain free-ranging intellect.

The Romantic genius possesses almost instinctive radar for reductio-ad-absurdum exceptions to spurious systems or structures teachers gratuitously impose on information… in the service of those kids without a clue.  True genius, however, has Roderick Usher’s desire to bury his identical twin, Poe’s eerie symbol for the all-too-orderly Enlightenment Project and the bullshit neo-Classical aesthetic of symmetry that undergirds it.  True genius likes to attend ORDER’s muffled screams in some distant, sealed chamber while dabbling in the narcissistic and “wildly improvisational” inventions only those momentarily freed from rules can enjoy…or even understand. In fact, as Poe well knows, it is precisely the muffled screams of the twin which inspire the most fruitful improvisation.  Poe’s aesthetic is the Romantic genius’s aesthetic: tear down social convention so you can build something utterly new…and better.  Genius prefers Nietzsche’s precarious acrobatics on the tightrope between Apollonian order and Dionysian frenzy: one absurdly ordered and arbitrarily limited, the other bordering on what Poe calls “the kingdom of disorganization.” It’s a dangerous little Romantic game that often ends badly.  Just ask Poe and Nietzsche.

The fact that Dwight toyed with following father and brother to prison added a certain je ne sais quoi to his quickly fading attraction to the Dionysian genius’s posture of Romantic self-destruction: he grasped that playful prodding of the abyss had consequences far less inviting than finding oneself waitlisted at Yale.   Sure, he could wax as eloquent as the bourgeois genius on his love affair with Romantic ruin.  He writes, “I once was a man who cared about peace, but now I seek only war.  I want to feel the destruction and kill the construction, and tell the world I know not what for.  I want to see the dark and dim the lights so that the night will become me.  And pour out my vanity and my purity so that my body is left empty.”  However, Dwight’s affair with Romantic destruction was short lived.   His one-sentence analysis of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde recognizes the need for compromise lest the path of destruction prove calamitous:  “Neither id nor superego was willing to give up a piece of themselves. It was inevitable that both would be destroyed.”  For those who suffer under the delusion that “gang banger” and “genius” are mutually exclusive identities, I’m here to wake you from your dogmatic slumber.

What separates Dwight from his wealthy, suburban-genius counterparts and, of course, his dumb-as-fuck gang banger peers, is the speed with which he sorted through all the possibilities for escape from, destruction of, oblivion to, or participation in received social structures.  His Romance with raging against the machine had been brought into critical focus by an abusive and criminal father.  One can’t help wondering if  Bourgeois Genius Boy might benefit from a similar beat down.

Unlike Dwight, Bourgeois Genius Boy luxuriates in cagey existential inauthenticity.  Escape, destruction and oblivion are merely  inauthentic rebellious pretenses to the bourgeois genius, whose real purposes ooze from the edges of his half-assed,  passive-aggressive obstruction of all efforts to keep him within striking distance of the unearned rewards he knows await him… for merely existing. In short, his pose of “dangerous” indifference comes with full awareness of the social safety net that wealth and privilege has in place to catch him, embrace him, and send him off to the Ivy League.  Again, he’s not stupid.  At times, he is frustrated … even enraged by his own inauthenticity.  But ultimately he embraces inauthenticity with a petulant shrug… and a latte from the college bookstore.

Dwight had already peered into Poe’s “kingdom of disorganization” and found it…lacking.  He both admired his brother’s willingness to fuck with chaos and fretted over the excessively ordered environment his brother’s Dionysian frenzies had earned him: PRISON TIME. In the following poetic summary, Dwight almost envies the structured life prison has finally imposed on his brother: “I remember me and my brother used to sleep a few feet from one another.  Now we sleep miles apart.  Some people say he’s on the inside and I’m on the outside, given that he’s in jail.  But, what if he’s got the good end of the stick, free from the worries of the world?  We used to steal clothes, shoes…just whatever.  We drank booze to lose the pain of a broken home, and smoked pot to breath out the smoke caused by the burning down of our hearts.”   Dwight had had plenty of time to evaluate the bitter-sweet prison problem. In an extended metaphor poem, he digs further into the conundrum, comparing prison life to death:

The music’s loud, my ears are ringing

I hear the angels singing.

They sing the same songs Devils do,

With slightly different tones.

Now dead in hell, confined by bars,

Told when to eat and sleep.

I see that life is death disguised,

In the form of a labyrinth.

Gee, I wish I could have written like that as a high school senior…or even now.

Dwight’s exploration of the Greek meaning of his name is particularly revealing:

My Name

In Greek my name is Dionysus,

The tyrant of Syracuse.

An Abusive, highly Intelligent man,

Who was known for being cruel.

                                 My father named me after him,

Continuing his legacy.

Now he’s smiling; I’m cursed like him,

And laughed at regularly.

Six demonic numbers create

That of my name.

My father’s work I can’t escape,

It’s driving me insane.

                           Dwight, Dwight, is what I’m always called.

I hate this name, and it hates me, too,

And both of us shall fall.

But poetic reverie is just that, a dreamscape in which one can safely explore possibilities…and then reject them. I watched as Dwight rejected the possibility of falling. Fully comprehending that there would be no safety net of wealth or privilege to cushion this fall, he simply willed not to fall.  Because, in Dwight’s chaotic world, to fall is…to fall. Fall into a high-school dropout–like 52% of your friends. Fall into a 20% homicide victim rate.  Fall into a 40% homicide perpetrator rate.  Fall into prison—like 32% of your literal and figurative brothers.  Fall into a BIG, DUMB STATISTIC.

No, Dwight had had his fill of his father’s name, opting instead for the Apollonian order his vast intelligence could create upon a whim.  He notes that “when surrounded by changing variables, you create a constant. I created within myself both father and mother, and continue to raise myself.”  Later, Dwight explores the physical abuse he endured for years at the hands of his tyrannical father, Dionysus, Sr.: “I’ve been beaten until pain felt like comfort. I’ve been scarred for life with bites from fights and scared to sleep when it turned night.  I thought he’d kill me or I’d kill him. His fist fit comfortably with my face. He hit me until I had different personalities, and some of them I hate.   Those days of torment made me into the man I am now:  strong, self-reliant, independent, ambitious, and destined for success.  Do I hate my father?  No. He was a confused man.  And even though he chose the wrong path of discipline, it was vital to make me into a person who cared about his future.”  La voila!  Therein lies the difference between the upper-middle class and urban-poor genius:  Bourgeois Genius Boy’s existentially inauthentic Romantic pose is jettisoned in favor of something akin to unabashed, Dale-Carnegie optimism. Dionysus be damned! Apollo be praised! Let the sun shine in.

     Ran into Dwight at the thrift store a couple of years back.  Always knew I’d see him again.  He had a little boy who was clever like his dad.  And, he was obviously a doting father, looking for used children’s books to read at night when he came home from classes at the local tech college where he studied computers.  May the circle be …broken.

Erykah Badu’s “Call Tyrone” Goes On a Fieldtrip to Romeo and Juliet

In all fairness, she’d have to  believe her own  “it’s-all-about-the -children” hot air to climb into this actual hot-air inferno:  an un air-conditioned,  Birmingham,  Alabama, cheese wagon , embarking on a four-hour ride with a bunch of raging inner-city ninth graders headed to an Alabama Shakespeare Festival performance of Romeo and Juliet.   Hence, I was surprised and grateful when a large, over-dressed black woman from the BOE agreed to serve as my emergency replacement chaperone, when the other adult who was scheduled to ride shotgun with me saw the light of Jesus and called in sick.  Sure, I’d rather not have had this degree of exposure to the authorities on this my first fieldtrip ever.  As the new teacher who seemed hell bent on making every mistake in the book, I had the vague suspicion that not all that could go wrong had yet gone wrong:  you know, like the non-stop singing of Eryakh Badu’s “Call Tyrone” as we bumped and jostled our way there… and back.

For those of you who failed to do your homework — memorizing the lyrics of the YouTube version of this fine song that I posted recently– I’ll sample the first stanza here:  “I’m getting’ tired of yo shit/ You don’t never buy me nothin’/ And every time you come around/ Ya gots ta bring Jim, John, Paul, and Tyrone/  Well I think ya better call Tyrone/  But you can’t  use my phone.”   Apparently, after all that utterly preposterous, family-feud defying, ideal love in Romeo and Juliet, the kids were eager to explore real love: the raw, economics of love symbolized in Tyrone’s tragically spurned homeboy… and soon-to-be roommate. The kids were making up for lost time, given the all-too-obvious dramatic possibilities Shakespeare had inexplicably left unexplored…like Juliet  getting all up in Romeo’s grill when he participated in a little gang banging with his homies or when that shit, Tybalt, took it all a little too far.

Clearly the sexual politics of “Call Tyrone” are of greater interest than Shakespeare’s oddly chaste lovers offing themselves over unrequited love.  Inviting one’s lover to permanently hang wit’ his homeboy Tyrone conveys the powerful and timeless missive: Guess who’s not going to be getting any?  You like hanging with Tyrone so much?  Well, I got an idea.  Why don’t you give him a call and go hang with him… on a permanent basis?  “But you can’t use my phone,“ is the coup de grace. In fact, take yo’ lazy, no-good ass down to the liquor store and see if your “friends” down there will let you mooch off of them long enough to “CA-ALL  TY-RO-ONE.”   Little hands rose high in the air above the bus seats in a spontaneous slow wave to the now multi-syllabic words of Badu’s timeless chorus.

Keisha, the queen bee in the middle of the bus, was happily orchestrating this amusing distraction from being stuck like napalm to molten plastic bus seats, listening carefully for any deviations from the lyrics and making everyone start completely over if they got something wrong.   I glanced over at the now sweating woman from the board who had not had enough advanced warning to dress appropriately for the occasion.   It was getting hard to tell if she looked hot ‘n bothered because she was stuffed into a polyester suit and hosiery or because our precious hope for the future were singing about being tired of a lover’s shit.   I had a grim foreboding it was the later.

As she slowly rose, struggling to unstick her flesh from the bus seat, I could see my barely begun career passing before my eyes.  Her exasperation had already reached feverish pitch as she yelled, “Young ladies! Tyrone not the kinda man you EVUH want to call!”  She then launched into the sermon on the bus, a beautifully crafted, impromptu lecture in the “I Have A Dream” oratory tradition, lambasting her subdued audience on the pitfalls of associating with the Tyrone’s of this world. Her critical reading of the text was, of course, way off:  the point of the song is that long-term association with Tyrone is a condemnation.  Moreover, it is unlikely that Tyrone is going to service your sexual needs while paying your way.  At’s right! Tyrone is the kinda man you gon’ find yo’ se’f callin’ in a kind of punishment-fits-the-crime sentencing from a girlfriend who’s had ‘bout ‘nuf of the mother fucker hangin’ ‘round, cutting into her desire for greater intimacy.  Fortunately, I had enough sense to not to interject this into her piece of bus-chaperone performance art.

Within minutes of her resuming her seat, clearly proud of the way she had simultaneously taken the situation in hand while modeling disciplinary techniques to an obviously clueless first-year teacher, the little hands again rose in a feeble wave:  “ I think ya better Ca-all Ty-ro-o-ne.” Her self-congratulatory good thang had come to a premature end!

“Welcome to my world,” I thought.  It would take another ten years of teaching before I could do a convincing imitation of “the adult in the room” …and another ten before I could do it without laughing.  I remained frozen to my hot bus seat.  That night, I went out and bought the CD.

The brutal commodization of love—the tit for tat I’d already detected in the overt gender tensions in my impoverished classroom–is fuel for another ten blogs.  Wealth, power and class disguise much of this ugliness for upper-class white women—at least in the era before the Real Housewives of Orange County franchise lifted the veil on the upper-middle class prostitution rings we call suburbia.  As her “Tyrone” prompted slews of violent response songs from black, male rappers, Badu felt compelled to soften the blow, often offering apologies to the “brothers” before singing it on tour.

Don’t be fooled. Badu revels in controversy:  from a nude JFK assassination video, to an Allah tattoo, to dumping her baby’s daddy over the phone.   After public insults over her multiple babies out of wedlock, all with different fathers, Badu felt compelled to address her detractors in a direct web rant:

…the fathers of my children are my brothers and friends.

We have a great deal of respect for one another and always

will.  We love our children to no end.

What is marriage?

Who is the judge?

Would it look better to marry and divorce and marry

again?  Would that be morally correct?

Is it really “good” to stay in a relationship where both


ANOTHER DOWN as a result of improper training, creating



How many of you stay in unhealthy relationships for

fear of going to HELL?

How many out there … that have kids to get a payday?

How many people getting they ass kicked and are

forced to submit cause Mama got her ass kicked?  Then,

what is correct? [ …] Live how you want.  Follow which

ever pattern you like.  My children will […] not be slaves

to this society’s failing idea of morality.

If I lose you as a fan because I choose to continue to

have children then FUCK OFF…WHO NEEDS YOU…CALL


Four years later I was invited to a baby shower for one of my senior AP English students.  I felt proud to have reached this new, elevated position in my relationships with students.  The menu for the shower was Keisha’s favorite, beanie weenie. What the hell… it was making me pretty happy, too.  Represented at the shower were five generations of females, including Keisha’s beautiful baby girl, lavished with love by all.  I was surprised to discover that the eldest matriarch was only in her seventies.  I decided to try to do the math on this improbable biological feat later, instead losing myself in reveries about the history of my growing fondness for Keisha over the last four years.  When had I first become aware of her powerful presence?

On the bus!  She had been the queen bee, leading her peers in song while defying the pompous woman from the board.  I could still see her waiving arms during the chorus:  “Ca-all Ty-ro-one…but ya can’t use my phone.”

Just say no…to vouchers.

Diane Ravitch's blog

The Democrats Abroad platform unequivocally supports the strengthening of public education and the education profession. It opposes privatization of public education. It opposes charter schools and vouchers. It supports the use of tests for diagnostic purposes and opposes the use of tests to evaluate teachers and schools. It opposes the outsourcing of any aspect of educational leadership. It supports the right of education employees to bargain collectively and opposes efforts to curtail that right.

It is refreshing to see that Democrats abroad are in touch with the historic ideals of the Democratic party.



We applaud our Administration’s accomplishments and encourage greater efforts to ensure equality of opportunity through public support

1. Education, Arts and Sciences

Education is a basic human right according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a public responsibility. We must pro-actively develop a population that is globally aware, globally sensitive…

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