I know that this is not supposed to be a political blog, but my story is really about the ways in which my life as a mother, a teacher, and a progressive political thinker all came together one cold December afternoon. My story is about my own personal, up-close encounter with the man who would be President.
This is the story of me and Mitt.
It was back in December of 2003. I had been serving for three years on the School Committee in our small, rural town. As a mother and a teacher, I thought that I could bring some experience and insight into School Committee Policy.
I won’t try to write about the whole four year School Committee experience, because the task of processing all that happened should really fall to a well trained and very patient psychologist. Let me just say that by the end of my time on the Committee I was depressed, angry, demoralized and just plain worn down. It was four years of trying to hold back a tidal wave with a fly swatter. We got swamped.
One of the worst experiences was when the state of Massachusetts used the No-Child-Left-Behind law to label us as the very first “Underperforming District”. Our tiny little town was suddenly dragged into the spotlight of education reform and the fingers of every education official from Boston to Washington seemed to be pointing straight at us.
Now, we didn’t really need the state to point out that we were a struggling district: as a School Committee member, I had participated in many, many discussions with local and state officials asking for more help. We needed more staff, updated books and materials, more training. We knew that.
What we got wasn’t the help that we so desperately sought. What we got was a big old whopping public humiliation in the form of the “Underperforming” label and a visit from the Governor of Massachusetts; none other than Mitt “I didn’t even know Massachusetts went this far west” Romney. He came to speak to the students and parents and staff of the Winchendon Public Schools. We assumed that he came to offer support and encouragement. We were wrong. He came for the photo op.
The reason for this post is simple: as I watch Mr. Romney awkwardly and almost desperately trying to appear warm, compassionate and caring with the commoners, I can’t help but remember his visit to our small town. Way back in December of 2003, Governor Romney showed his true, patrician, elitist self in his complete misunderstanding of how every person in that packed gymnasium was feeling.
Mitt Romney stood before 800 students and lectured them about not smoking or using drugs. They had come to hear him explain how the state’s labeling of their school was going to improve their educations and their chances at college. They had come hoping to hear some words of encouragement.
What they got was an hour of being chastised and put down. Some of the more memorable parts of that speech come back to me all too clearly. There was the moment when he told the students to “Concentrate on academics, not sports. None of you are going to get to the Olympics.” Not exactly a “Reach for your dreams” comment. Then there was the moment when he warned them not to “ruin your lives and end your chances for success” by getting pregnant. Gee thanks for encouraging our teen parents and telling them you’ll help them to finish their educations! (Bristol Palin wasn’t in the news yet, so I guess he thought it was OK to look down his nose at all those “fallen” young women.)
The highlight came, though, when the Governor finished touting the benefits of standardized testing and one of the high school seniors stepped forward with her multiply handicapped friend, gently holding his hand and leading him to the podium. The young lady eloquently and sweetly introduced the student to the governor. She asked Mitt if he really thought it was fair to deny a diploma to students like her friend just because he would not be able to pass the state’s rigid standardized test. “What are these kids going to do? Where are these kids going to go to school?”, she asked. In an uncanny preview of recent interactions, the governor responded awkwardly, hesitantly shaking the boy’s hand and then trotting out tired old platitudes about how testing kids would show the “old men” who run education what they needed to do to make it better.
In other words, he completely failed to understand or answer the question. He failed to recognize the pain and frustration of the kids in the room, or to understand their fear of the future. How were they going to get into good colleges, they kept asking him, if they were graduates of the “Underperforming” district? Was he planning to help them?
His answer: Don’t try to reach for your dreams as athletes. Don’t smoke. Don’t drink. Don’t have sex. In other words, “You are all failures. And its your fault.” Sound familiar?
After lecturing the students, the Governor deigned to have a meeting with about 30 parents, teachers and town officials. He offered no help, no encouragement, no ideas. He just told us to take this “opportunity” to make changes. When a veteran kindergarten teacher began to speak about our desperate need to fund full-day kindergarten, the governor, to our horror and shock, rudely shushed the man and went on to tell us that we had to “make a plan”. He not only didn’t understand us, he wouldn’t even listen to us.
I remember feeling angry, and very sad. I remember feeling confused, and after two hours in the Great Presence, I remember wondering what the hell the purpose of the whole event had been.
I knew one thing for sure, though; it hadn’t been planned to benefit our struggling community in any way. It wasn’t for our benefit that the governor had taken the time to venture out to mingle with the riffraff.
Many thanks to the inestimable Julie Holly, who was present at both meetings, and whose memory of the day lead to this post. You are a warrior woman, my friend!
If you want to read about the events of the day as recorded by an actual journalist, click right here.