Saturday, March 29, 2008

Lessons that last, and that matter

I covered a school board meeting this past week at the more rural of our two major districts. They're facing some serious budget cuts, having lost about $750,000 from state and federal support and the local economy not being at a level where they can simply pass the costs on to local taxpayers.

It's all well and good to play the "small government" card, but I don't think these folks who talk about local decision making understand that we don't all live in suburban communities where we can sigh and decide against funding the lighted tennis courts in order to preserve academic programs, and then simply turn around and hold a fundraiser to light the tennis courts anyway.

People living on $14,000 a year can't take another hit on their property taxes, and I wish the legislators at both state and federal level would look back to what education was like in poor, rural places like Appalachia and the Deep South before the federal government decided it had to step in and even up the scales.

The district really does care about its kids. One of its successes has been an ID card program, because, while it's pretty obvious when you have a stranger in a district with only 1,000 students, you still need to have a checkout system at the library anyway, and by having the kids also swipe their ID cards at the cafeteria instead of paying cash, there's no way for onlookers to know who is paying for lunch and who is receiving a free-or-reduced-rate meal. About half the kids qualify for the latter, but more of them will eat it if they don't have to be stigmatized in front of their peers.

Speaking of checking out books, there is one certified librarian in the district, which has four tiny elementary schools scattered around its 500 square miles. She's at the high school; the elementary school libraries are staffed with aides. And they're going to have to cut her back to half-time.

But it was when they began to talk about the cuts in the music program that the pain really showed. The district just lost an unforgettable music teacher to cancer this past summer, a woman who had re-established their instrumental music program after several years of no program at all. They will not touch that program, the board president promised, because they know how hard it was for her to get it up and running again.

However, general music instruction for kindergarten through fourth grade will now be conducted by building principals or other staff members, because they can't afford a real elementary music teacher anymore. Nobody is happy about it, but there doesn't seem to be a solution. You do what you have to in hard times, and these are hard times.

It made me think of the Langley Schools Music Project, which was an album released about seven years ago. Someone came across an odd album at a secondhand store, a recording of a school concert from a rural school in British Columbia in the mid-70s. A music teacher had applied theory to a program in which he had little kids sing pop songs, and the album was simply a keepsake for the community, not an artistic statement. However, after it was discovered in the secondhand LP bin, it was reissued as a CD and became a quiet cult phenomenon, particularly in Canada, where one of the documentary shows -- probably "The Fifth Estate" -- reunited the children and let them talk about how much this music class had meant to them, and continued to mean to them in their adult lives.

It's a powerful album and a powerful statement about the impact of inspired, well-grounded teaching.

I put it on at odd times during the day, tuning it in and out, sometimes wincing as the singers hit a strange note, then shaking my head in puzzled wonder when the music suddenly, and against all odds, transcends the kitsch limitations that seem designed to keep it earthbound and soars off into the realm of true art. It flies -- crooked as a butterfly's flight, but it still flies. I wish every school taught music like this. I wish every piece of music recorded in a school gymnasium were this haunting... and then I suspect that, if I listened to them right, maybe they would be." -- Neil Gaiman, quoted on the Wikipedia article.

I wanted to find a full clip but could only find this snippet of the song that became the most commented on album cut, in which a nine-year-old sings what remains my favorite cover of the much-covered Eagles' song, Desperado. The cover inspired a scene in the movie "In America" in which a somewhat older girl sings the song, but it's impossible to improve on the spontaneity of this heart-breaking rendition.

There are other similar cuts on this web site, and you can find the album if you'd like to add something amazing to your collection.

I don't know where you find such amazing educators in a nation that would rather spend its money on other things.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

"Now I ain't so sure I wanna get educated"

Angry truth

So Barack Obama made a great speech. I've linked it here from his campaign site, though I actually read it off the CNN site, because I'm concerned that CNN might take it down at some point. But that link also has the video of its delivery, which you can play while you do some dishes or something else, if you don't want to sit and read the whole thing.

But the few people visiting this site won't make much difference, and what troubles me is that the various commentators and bloviators who are talking about this speech, and replaying the clips of Rev. Wright, do not appear to have read, or heard, the entire thing. Nor do they seem interested in doing so. And we will go off towards November with no new context added to the noise in the echo chamber, just more noise, more division, more falsehoods, distortions and unintended misunderstandings.

My grandfather used to chuckle when we'd ask for advice, once we were adults and he could be this frank. He'd say that people ask advice and then go do whatever the hell they wanted to do in the first place, that they weren't really asking for advice so much as they were looking for backup.

And I think the people who want to believe in Obama will find backup for their support of him in snippets of his speech, and those who want to disbelieve in him will find reinforcement for that course as well, in snippets of his speech. And, just as few people ask your opinion because they might change direction based on what you tell them, damn few people now are going to sit down, absorb this speech and then decide what they really think about it all and maybe change their minds.

Well, it didn't change my mind, but it helped me clarify some things that have been buzzing around my brain, looking to take form. Here's what it made me think of:

It made me think of the African-American cartoonist Ollie Harrington, and how angry his cartoons were, and how deeply embraced they were in the private world of the readers of the black press, a half century ago. While cartoonists in the mainstream press were creating metaphorical cartoons of cute little black kids being shut out of schools, he drew the one that illustrates this post, and it is funny, but only if you accept a very angry, bitter view of what was going on.

It is a legacy that Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor built on in their humor, and that Jim Brown and Muhammed Ali embraced in their sports careers. It is the legacy of anger that makes "A Raisin in the Sun" matter. It is a legacy in which the stories of the Bible that resonate are those of the Israelites fleeing Egypt while their God rains down plagues on their oppressors, and in which a blinded and chained Samson, his strength and nobility and dignity stripped from him, becomes the subject of a blues song that says "If I had my way in this godamighty world, I would tear this building down!"

It is not the legacy in which America offers opportunity only for those who are willing to adopt the worldview of the majority, the legacy in which a woman can succeed if she puts on a blue suit jacket and skirt, dons a string tie and acts and reacts like a man, and in which a minority can succeed as long as he keeps his cultural identity confined to a few delicious recipes at the company pot luck and a flashy tie on Cinco de Mayo. In that legacy, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn's daughter brings home Sidney Poitier, a wealthy, successful, clean-cut doctor with impeccable diction.

And in that legacy -- let us be clear as Obama was clear -- there is no room for white people who have some legitimate resentments themselves, and who aren't eager to have different peoples of different cultures come into their world. It is a Wonder Bread world in which everyone smiles and gets along wonderfully, and anyone, from any cultural community, who voices anger, fear or resentment is to be shunned, condemned and mocked for their backward ignorance.

When I was first in college, I used to hang around with the black students, because they celebrated their blue collar heritage, while the majority of white students adopted a preppy tone even if they hadn't grown up that way. The black enclave was where I could find jokes and laughter and where nobody was concerned about "maintaining their cool" -- a clown was as well appreciated as a prince, each for their own contribution to the moment.

But it was the late 60s, and as the times shifted and resentment and separatism grew in the black community, I wasn't really able to hang out with the black students as a group. Too many of them had an anger in them that made it not-okay for me to be there. I regretted it, I resented it, I accepted it. Those who were my friends continued to be my friends, but we ran into each other in other contexts and not that one. Fair enough.

Maybe that experience makes me more comfortable with this whole issue of Jeremiah Wright's preaching, and of Barack Obama's explanation. I know there's anger out there. I wish there weren't.

But it won't go away simply by our declaring that it ought not to exist. And it certainly won't go away by our shunning and condemning angry people.

One of the stops on my morning on-line constitutional these days is "The Daily Voice," a relatively new site that gathers news and commentary for an African-American readership. I added it in anticipation of the current campaign and it's been quite thought-provoking. This morning, they added an excerpt from a book called " The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What's So Good About The Good News?" by Rev. Peter Gomes, a professor of Christian Morals at Harvard University.

Gomes writes:

If the focus is nearly always on the man for others who in the short term loses but who one of these days will return in triumph to win, then it is no wonder that so much of the Christian faith is either obsessed by the past or seduced by the prospects of a glorious future. In the meantime, things continue in their bad old way, and we live as realists in a world in which reality is nearly always the worst-case scenario.

The last thing the faithful wish for is to be disturbed. Thus it is easy to favor the Bible over the gospel, because the gospel can somehow be seen as those nice, even compelling, stories about Jesus that have next to nothing to do with us "until he comes."

But that's only an excerpt of an excerpt. Which brings us full circle.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

"Many fear that we will descend into a situation in which it is open season on people with no pants on and that, as a result, streaking will be forced underground, where it can't be policed. Alternatively, streakers may feel that they have no option but to start padding up for their own protection. And call me old-fashioned, but that's going to defeat the point somewhat."
-- Giles Smith, the Times on Line
Read the entire article here

This is apparently not the first time Andrew Symonds has found himself in the middle of a row, and the hapless streaker could have chosen a better moment for his run. As the commentator notes, Symonds also works out with a professional rugby team and, as he doesn't note, has a reputation for being, well, kind of a jock.

If you've had a view of cricket as a genteel game played by some la-di-da chaps in white outfits, this moment seems terribly out of place, but there seems to be a sort of no-holds-barred attitude towards sport among athletes whose nations abut the Indian Ocean. As at least one of my sons saw at an international field hockey tournament, it's possible to play that sport in much the same spirit as rugby, too (I think the team noted there was from Kenya), while I knew a tennis player from the Punjab in college who -- even separated from his opponent by a net -- managed to turn his chosen sport into a theater for physical intimidation.

Anyway, nobody on either team seems terribly surprised by what befalls this unlucky prat, while I thought the utter cluelessness of the announcers and the write-up by the columnist made it all worth sharing.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Clinton settles on runningmate

"He's the kind of guy I'm comfortable with,"
candidate declares.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

The death of civil disagreement

I don't have much to say about William F. Buckley, Jr., except that his death happens to come at a moment when I am truly dreading the next few months. The ability of people to disagree in an intelligent and productive manner seems to have disappeared, and I don't think it's entirely because of the empowerment that anonymous true believers with low reasoning powers and high talents for invective find on the Internet.

There has also sprung up a culture of abuse that is in stark contrast to the very civil manner in which Buckley would ponder, examine and occasionally eviscerate his guests. I was in the outer office of an elementary school principal one day and she had three fifth-grade girls in there, door open, resolving some sort of conflict. Their tone of voice, verbal inflection and accompanying hand gestures made it clear that they had learned to express conflict from watching Jerry Springer, and I don't think this is limited to 10-year-olds. We've got plenty of adults now who have learned to argue from the shout-fests in which stunning a person with threats and invective is considered victory.

That development then combines with the aforementioned anonymity to create something really toxic. You have only to check the comments on any on-line story about Clinton and Obama to see exactly what I mean -- it's not obscene, racist or sexist. It's just vulgar and common and degrading and utterly unproductive. Given the tone of the intra-party process, God knows what it will become when the campaign shifts to Republican vs. Democrat.

Anyway, this appreciation of Buckley from the NYTimes is not to be missed. And he already is.