I don’t know what you see when you drive up to your job on a Monday morning, but here’s what I saw this week as I drove up to my usual parking spot: a posse of toothless, camouflage-capped, flanneled teenage boys doing their damnedest to emulate the bad guys out of Deliverance. Not only had they dressed like those rural river bullies, but also they stormed the quad brandishing a confederate flag the size of a whitewater raft. I put my aching head on the steering wheel. Fucking Homecoming Week.
I took my bags to my door and started to unlock it. A sweet girl came bopping up in a straw hat, freckles painted on. “Hi! Ms. __________,” she chirped. “Are you going to be a hick today?” I laughed and said “Today and every day.” I escaped into my room. What fresh hell do we have this week? I checked the schedule. Okay…
Every day we have an altered schedule. Every day we lose class time to activities. I added up the minutes. 200 minutes this week out of instruction. Why can’t Johnny read indeed?
Monday. Hick Day (Well that explains a lot.)
Tuesday. Pink Day (To raise awareness for breast cancer.) How cool is that? Wow!
Wednesday. Good and Evil Day (Could be fun.)
Thursday. Class Struggle Day Wait a minute! Did I just read that? Do they mean freshmen sophomores, juniors, and seniors? Or are we talking social classes?
I went into the office for clarification. Is Thursday really to be interpreted as social class? “Yes, can you believe it?” the administrative assistant responded. She shook her head in disbelief and disgust.
“So this really means social classes?” I still couldn’t believe it. Surely there had to be
a mistake. After all, we’re a liberal high school in a liberal, progressive community. We have an Amnesty International chapter and a Gay Straight Alliance for Christ’s sakes! I looked around for an administrator to talk to, but of course, there were none. Both were out of the office at the same time, again. I went back to my room in a huff.
I sat at my desk and tried to think rationally. I knew the kids at the helm of the Associated Student Body. These are great kids. Some of the best student leaders we’ve had in years. These are culturally sensitive, thoughtful students. What had caused them to come up with such a plan? And then it dawned on me. Their theme for the homecoming dance was Titanic (the film). Rich girl meets poor boy and their love lasts forever—or at least until the boat sinks. A ‘first class v. steerage’ kind of theme. Thursday must have been some kind of way to advertise for their dance.
The kids were right to pick up on class struggle associated with the Titanic disaster. After all, if you were wealthy and a woman in first class, you almost certainly survived the disaster. So too did your children. But if you were a mother in steerage, the chances that your child got into one of those lifeboats was less than one in three. And that went for men as well. Fifty-five of the 174 first class male passengers survived. But of 440 men in steerage, only 59 got onto lifeboats. Demographics of the Passengers on the Titanic
That should ring familiar given our current socio-economic structure. Our public education lifeboats have been and continue to be deflated so fewer and fewer of those in steerage can climb aboard. Only those with the ability to afford a first-class education, even in our land grant colleges, are promised the cold, dark ride to something better. And as we know from watching Occupy Wall Street http://occupywallst.org (okay not on mainstream media…they’re too busy sniffing faux asses like Palin’s big no duh report that she’s not running—no shit), kids who went to those land grant colleges are now standing with diplomas in one hand and 70K worth of bank notes in the other. And all in an economy dismantled by those who got to ride in a Rolls-Royce Phantom, sip Perrier-Jouet Champagne, and then step into a bailout raft while the rest of us were playing "Nearer My God To Thee."
But I digress…
Back to the kids and teaching, yada yada yada….
I had about 10 minutes before the students came into class and decided the whole thing needed to be solved by them. After all, they’d just had a hands-on lesson about power and influence when a wealthy member of our community had single handedly pressed Lord Lickspittle (our superintendent) to change the date of the homecoming dance because it conflicted with Yom Kippur. This all occurring a week and a half prior to the dance. Oh, yes, I suppose this is a subplot worth telling.
Context is everything, as I always tell my students, and the context to this story is one of a school district in the throes of financial despair saved by a supportive suburban community. Follow the trajectory of events boys and girls. This is truly a lesson in trickle down economics:
1. Large moneyed interests got scores of deregulatory measures passed in the late 1990s and 2000s. Among these was Clinton and his cohorts getting rid of part of that pesky Glass-Steagall Act from 1933, making it hence okay for commercial banks and investment firms to have nearly unfettered love sandwiches.
2. Wall Street taps sweet, seductive derivatives, and credit default swaps in the US alone in 2008 were worth about 58 trillion. But of course, that wasn’t backed up by anything but Monopoly money, so when the entire thing tumbled, the only institution big enough to bail out the banks that the government allowed to get too big to fail was, the government.
3. Economic recession ensues. Political parties bicker, and stimulus packages are passed, but not enough is done to jump-start the economy, especially when one party’s main goal is not to renew the economy but to bring down the president.
4. States’ coffers dwindle. Federal revenues to states drop. States facing their own revenue shortfalls cut state employees, state programs and their state employees’ pensions.
5. Washington State, with $5 billion short for the 2011-13 budget cut damn near half of that from education, including a 1.9 pay cut for staff and educational support personnel.
6. Our local district finds itself short almost three-quarters of a million dollars and scrambles to keep programs running. Seeing public sources gone, the superintendent turns for the second year in a row to private sources to run the local district. And, in all fairness, while I have many differences with the man over how our schools are run, were I to own a car dealership, he’d be the first guy I’d hire for sales.
7. A supportive and affluent local community that cares about its public schools rallies together to raise the needed funds to make up at least a half million of the district’s shortfall. Tireless volunteers find donors, both large and small, to keep our schools and programs afloat. It really would take a damn mean dog to bark about that.
Well, Woof! Woof!
As the great and unfortunately late Molly Ivins used to say, “You got to dance with them what brung you.” And if there’s one thing superintendent Lord Lickspittle can do it’s dance.
And of all the policies we have in our district—and we even have one where we’re not supposed to help students one-on-one in our classrooms unless somebody actually can visually see us helping them—you can’t make this stuff up—the one policy in absentia is scheduling extra curricular activities with religious holidays in mind. And let me state for the record that I think there should be such a policy. Were I Jewish, I would be highly insulted if my child had to choose between spending time with her family during such an important and sacred holiday and attending a school event. I, too, would have been calling the school and demanding to know why we didn’t have a policy that was more inclusive of all religions.
But here’s the rub. I would hope I would support a change in policy, not just a change for my own religion. And, I know Lord Lickspittle wouldn’t listen to me because I’m not a big enough donor. And this little tap dance of Lickspittle’s—a last minute shifting of the Homecoming dance to the weekend prior to homecoming--was just one more example of pay-to-play politics in our district.
Right now in our high school, because of the cuts, we have huge class sizes. One of our college preparation senior English classes has 35 kids in it, so many students that they’re sitting on the drama make-up tables in the back. In contrast, because of a group of parents with money and a penchant for curriculum choreography who wanted to ensure their students would get special attention from a retired debate coach, they gave Lickspittle money for the debate program to ensure its survival during cuts. The caveat for the money was that the retired coach had to be rehired for that one class. We’ll call the debate coach the Grand Poobah. He’s truly a nationally recognized debate coach—amazing debate coach, but the guy gave up on teaching anything else a long time ago.
Now, because the principal has admitted that coach has no interest in teaching the younger kids in the room, she has a problem. To get the money for the program, Lord Lickspittle says she has to have him back. So she put two teachers in that classroom—two teachers teaching 26 kids. She’s calling it a “transition year.” Train the new guy. I kid you not! Nowhere in our staffing do we have this kind of luxury.
Obviously the second teacher shadowing the Grand Poobah would be better used to teach another section of English. I can tell you with certainty that none of us get to choose not to teach half of our classes. That’s repugnant, unethical, and cause for dismissal. But, our system has allowed a group of parents to carve out a specialty, privately funded class within our public high school. We’ve become so ravenous for cash that we look the other way when it negatively impacts the rest of the school or it violates basic educational ethics.
My husband challenged both Lord and Lady Lickspittle (our principal) on this arrangement. They scheduled a meeting with my husband; they listened to him, and then implored to know what he’d do next with his information and concerns. He said he wouldn’t go to the press but that it wouldn’t take much for the story to emerge from other sources. I told him I never made any such promises. And I was utterly disgusted with the arrangement. An arrangement that provides a more quality education within our public schools for children of wealthy patrons at the expense of the students sitting in those larger classes, many of whom come from families whose parents didn’t have the same capacity to donate. Class struggle? You God damn right!
So back to the kids coming into my room…to the teachable moment…to letting them solve the problem, if in fact they’d see it as a problem. We’d been talking about media and framing, so how the wording of what they were trying to convey was important. We’d studied Frank Luntz. I showed them this film. I asked them simply, would students end up dressing like these people? And if so, how did they feel about that? Poverty in America
The discussion was thoughtful, kind, and students decided that since it was intended to convey the theme of the film Titanic for the dance (a dance which admittedly was by then over since it had been moved to the weekend prior to homecoming week), that perhaps reinforcing the idea of First Class and Steerage would be more appropriate. Student government kids clarified that Thursday was to be a day to dress like they did in the film Titanic. On Thursday, students seem to have followed their advice. One small victory in the day in the life of a teacher during homecoming.
Going one step further to talk about rural poverty and the stereotyping of the rural poor on “hick day”…I’ll leave that for another day.