Oops, I did it again.

…we have a deeply held anti-intellectual strain in our culture. It’s OK for schools to teach the basics or, even, vocational skills that lead directly to jobs. But studying history, literature or philosophy has always been suspect. Why would anyone want to study such subjects, goes thisunconscious logic, if not just to feel superior. They are not practical, not good for anything other than providing a sense of entitlement and elevation above the mob—except when they actually do train students to take places in the finance industry or advanced technology or any other area that promises immense financial gain. 

If you Google schools are failing you will get “about 49,300,000 results [in] (0.21 seconds)”. So, with all apologies to Britney Jean, here I am writing about work again. Oops. I cannot stop thinking about it – even on my vacation. And I don’t need to be thinking about it right now because I worked 16+ hour days for the three weeks heading up to vacation to ensure that I would not have work to do over this vacation. But it doesn’t really matter because as long as there is school to return to in January, even if I don’t have papers to grade, I certainly have work to do. It never really goes away…. even in summer, and oh, I love  hearing people talk about teachers and their summer vacations as they wax poetic about how nice it must be to have so much time off. Yeah. It takes about three and a half weeks to lift your head up again after the mad dash to the end of the year, and then when you are able to focus on the fact that you are not responsible for day-to-day presence at school it is time to revisit the entire last year and start making lists: what worked, what did not work, what you need to do better, what adjustments to be made, what materials will be required, what new books and articles you should read, what re-certification work needs to be done, what conferences to attend… Ahhh…. summer. And then school starts. And by the way, it starts in the summer. 

So, it is not that strange that as I sit and try to figure out the best way to help launch our brand new Interdisciplinary Project, one of the cornerstones of our Small School (within the large school) that combines the students English, Anatomy, and History classes for three weeks as they complete a major research project represented by a gallery worthy art installation, that I feel frustrated by the reality that no matter how hard I work, or how amazing the project that the group of people I am working with comes up with – we are still labeled as failing.

Failures.

That is so inspiring.

Right?

If schools are failing, there are a few painfully obvious questions that come to mind. 1) What does success look like in terms of our schools? 2) What does it actually mean when we hear and say that schools are failing? 3) Why are schools failing?

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Wow, didn’t I just get told. [Yeah, not really.]

Question: If someone from the 1950’s suddenly appeared, what would be the most difficult thing to explain to them about life today?

Answer: I posses a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man and I use it to look at pictures of cats and get into arguments with strangers.

My Twitter is public right now, but that is gonna end in a hot minute. (It is only public while Le Tour de France is going because it is fun to engage with les fanaticals de tour.) Since it has been public, I have had the “opportunity” to be interacted with (awkward semantics are intentional) by a variety of people, which in turn has cause me to really consider the purpose of such discourse. Because really, people rarely hear what they do not want to hear, and the chance for people to hear you when the exchange takes place in a series of 140-character quips on line I think is even more unlikely. And honestly, I would much rather look at pictures of cats than argue with complete strangers (it is hard enough to avoid arguments with people we know and care about!)

Anyhow, I felt compelled to reply to a specific “interactor” last night, but realized that articulate, logical argument was going to be lost on her (not to mention would take more “tweets” than should ever be allowed on a single subject) because she already knows everything. So, I watched some Tour de France recaps and went to bed. Unfortunately, I woke up thinking about it, and so I told myself that if, after yoga and a shower, I was still thinking about this, I would write it out. I was. So I am.

Here is what happened.

As has been well-documented, the verdict in the Zimmerman trial exonerated the accused of all wrongdoing in the shooting death of the unarmed minor, Trayvon Martin. As has also been documented I was both unsurprised and terribly saddened by this verdict. In fact, the only remotely hopeful things I have seen come out of the whole situation came from the victim’s parents who clearly, and repeatedly, said that they would now turn to their faith because they felt that things were out of their hands. Their faith. Not black masks, bricks, spray paint and hammers…. but I am getting ahead of myself. Trayvon’s mother Sybrina Fulton, in response to people saying that the verdict was the worst thing to ever happen to her said, “No, the worst thing happened on February 26, 2012.” Her attorney added, “Last night was a decision made by six people on a jury, but that does not define her son, Trayvon Martin, and they’re going to define the legacy of their child.” Following the verdict, as many predicted, a variety of protests have broken out, and as I live in the Bay Area, the focus has been on Oakland, even though there have been daily rallies in San Francisco and other cities in the area, and in Los Angeles protestors managed to shut down the Santa Monica Freeway for a brief period of time.

The next thing that happened in Oakland was that the protests became destructive and violent. I feel that it is important to say here that I was raised by people who took part in more protests and rallies than most young people today could even imagine; and that I too participate(d) in protests (hey, we closed the 5 down in San Diego following the Rodney King trial); and I support the right to protest, to free speech, and protect one’s self from harm. Having said that, I also have to admit that I have not come all the way over to Malcolm X’s position of only being non-violent with those who are non-violent towards me, and I acknowledge that holding this position comes from a certain place of privilege. Still, I am not comfortable with proximity to violence of any sort and I know this about myself.

So, where am I going with this? Here is where I am going. “Protestors” in Oakland took it upon themselves to randomly destroy businesses in downtown, and in one restaurant, they took a hammer to a waiter’s head. Now, it just so happens that I know the family that owns the restaurant, I teach both of their daughters, and this is a family deeply involved in the Oakland and Berkeley communities and definitely in support of the position that another terrible injustice has been done by the Zimmerman verdict. This family owns several restaurants in addition to Flora (Doña Tomas, Tacayuba, Xolo) and they contribute a tremendous amount to the local area in myriad ways. And of course, knowing them makes this much more personal to me. They are a working family with several kids, why should they be targeted even if it was just collateral damage, or symbolic destruction of the “system” as these wannabe anarchists would have you believe? And hitting a waiter in the head with a hammer? Right here I am just going to have to say GTFO of here.

Alright, so that is the context. Now here is the part where I allowed myself to be fished in to a discussion with an individual whose life experience I should have accounted for: it is minimal. It went like this:

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I’m old.

It’s empty in the valley of your heart
The sun, it rises slowly as you walk
Away from all the fears
And all the faults you’ve left behind

I say I am old a lot. Mostly because I teach teenagers, who keep me young (at least at heart) and because I find it personally ironic since I do not actually feel old. But on days like today I recognize that I am old.

I am old because I watched Fred Rogers in his time and his lessons were reinforced in my daily life. And this was in the 70s when things we like to blame for the hideous shit we see in the news (the economy, world strife, unemployment, resource shortages, racial tension, social inequity) were daily realities just like they are today. Mr. Rogers may have been an easy target for mockery, and I would suggest that these days kindness is far more often mocked than it is revered. One need not look to far to see examples of the nice kids at school being called “pussies” or “fags,” or the President of the United States being denigrated for NOT being a bumptious, belligerent, bully in a national debate, or the metaphoric high-road being that of the weak, ignorant, losers.

The harvest left no food for you to eat
You cannibal, you meat-eater, you see
But I have seen the same
I know the shame in your defeat

I am old because I remember when school was the safest place to be. I do not remember a day that I went to school afraid of anything more than the sometimes awkwardness of growing up. Perhaps that was a gift of the times, the places, or the people I was around. But I do not think that this should be a gift. It is a right. “Freedom from fear,” FDR told us was one of the four essential human freedoms. I remember being bussed into a middle school in the heart of one of San Diego’s most notorious neighborhoods, El Barrio Logan, and the school was the safe haven. It was where my peers came to get away from the madness that was their lives, the sort of which I had never seen before with my inquisitive suburban eyes. Francisco came to school because no one would mess with him there, even though he certainly faced danger on his walk to and from the gates of Memorial Junior High.

So tie me to a post and block my ears
I can see widows and orphans through my tears
I know my call despite my faults
And despite my growing fears

I am old because I come from a time when no one would have ever even considered suggesting that the tragedy that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut would have been prevented if the people in the school had been armed. This sentiment is so totally incomprehensible to me I can barely articulate it aloud.

So come out of your cave walking on your hands
And see the world hanging upside down
You can understand dependence
When you know the maker’s land

I am old because I remember when no one believed the news they were hearing out of Columbine, Colorado. The stories were met with disbelief rather than resignation. We promised that we never let something like this happen again. Now I can count, and recall, more school shootings in my professional lifetime than people in most nations would in multiple lifetimes. I am old because I can see how the instinctive need to protect our own – not only our families, or our friends, or our communities – but our species, and especially the youngest of our kind, who turn to us to model for them what it means to be a part of something bigger than themselves, a society, is being lost.

So make your siren’s call
And sing all you want
I will not hear what you have to say

I am old because I have had the chance to travel the world and been in the company of people who have survived unspeakable horrors and still are more frightened of the United States than any place on earth. How can I explain the struggle to understand a young man in Siem Reap who played music outside the night market and had lost both his legs to a land-mine, who on discovering where I was from, asked me if I thought living in America was scary. America scary? I repeated, sure I must be misunderstanding. He shook his head at me and laughed and said, Yes, are you scared of America?

I am old because I remember talking with my college bound students in Hong Kong, the very sophisticated, world-traveling, children of privilege, who had seen so much, and seemed so Western, but were consistently contemplating how they would maintian their personal safety in America. What do you mean? I asked. I think you watch too many movies, I said. No, they said. There are so many guns in America, it is very dangerous there. I shook my head. Today I shake me head in a different way. And I shake from the inside for the children I don’t have but take care of everyday. What could I do for them in the face of this?

Cause I need freedom now
And I need to know how
To live my life as it’s meant to be

But most importantly, I am old because I have had the chance, the privilege, to be allowed to get old. We are failing our children today. “What children need to hear most from adults is that they can talk with us about anything, and that we will do all we can to keep them safe.” We are failing to uphold the social contract, and we are perpetuating a society that will make the Assyrians, the Huns, and all the warring tribes of the past seem docile in a historical comparison.

But I will hold on hope
And I won’t let you choke
On the noose around your neck

My heart is broken tonight, for a country that has lost its way. We are good people. Mr. Rogers knew this. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” We can do better than this.

And I’ll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I’ll know my name as it’s called again

Peace be with you, Newtown, Connecticut.