Time to act like a kid

So I must admit, I’m a little bit scared about tomorrow.

Its election day at last (cue the trumpets and confetti: no more political ads!!  Huzzah!). We will finally have a chance to cast our votes and choose the next President of these barely United States.

Of course,  I’ve been through this whole thing more than a few times now.  The first time I voted, it was for Jimmy Carter.  I’ve seen the swings from left to right and back again.

This time, though, its making me feel more than a little nervous.

This time, the country seems to be absolutely divided between the two choices.  Each of the main candidates is polling at just barely under 50%.  We are caught in a perfect tug o’ war between the reds and the blues.

And this time, the level of anger, bitterness and hatred between the two camps seems to me to be sharper than I remember from the past.  The language is more vitriolic and less measured.  People seem to really, truly hate those who disagree with them.

Now, bear in mind, I was totally caught up in the election of 2002, when my candidate won the popular vote, but lost the election.  That was upsetting, for damn sure, but I don’t remember feeling the same level of frustration that I sense out there now.


I’m a little scared about what is to come in the next few weeks or months.  There is a sense of danger in the air, made worse by super storms and unexpected infrastructure collapses.  There is a sense of powerlessness and rage that briefly found its voice in popular movements like the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement.  There is a power and a restless energy that is simmering just below the surface of our everyday lives, and it has been fed and nurtured by the countless months of attack ads from both sides.

We feel assaulted and endangered.  We fear for our children and our futures and our freedoms.  We are not sure just who is to blame, so we latch onto the rhetoric spewed forth by our leaders, and we turn on each other and we believe in the names being called and the lies being told.

We are ready to vote, and we are ready to be outraged by the outcome of that voting.

If we continue to hold onto our personal grudges and our intensely partisan fighting, I fear that our union may not hold.  I fear that we will turn on each other and come to violence.

I can only hope that after all of the votes are finally counted, we can reach deep inside of ourselves and act like children.

Children know how to be inclusive. They know how to recognize unfairness when they see it.  They see “mean” for what it is, and they know enough to reject it.  Children seek honesty and they seek a way to be “nice” even when they are mad.

So tonight, on this last night before the election of 2012, when voices are screaming for the downfall of the black Muslim socialist, and voices are screaming for the end of the rich white Mormon, I am hoping and praying that a majority of us will find a way to see this all for exactly what it is: just one more election in a long string of elections. It won’t save us, and it won’t ruin us.  It’s just another election.  In barely two years time, we’ll be on our way to another one.

Please, my fellow citizens, please try to act like children when the results come in tomorrow night.  You might be happy, but please don’t gloat.  You might be upset, but please don’t turn on your neighbors.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Abraham Lincoln

Meeting Mitt.

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.

A letter to the Man Who Would Be King

I am going to try my best to write this post, but I make no promises about either my clarity or my fluency. My fury may run away with me and the shaking in my hands will likely cause some serious spelling mistakes. I’ve been fuming for two hours, trying to corral my thoughts as I flew through my Saturday morning chores.

I have been debating whether to write my rage out here, or on the blog that is supposed to be all about teaching.  Hell, maybe I’ll post it in both places.  If it comes out even partially lucid, I may put it in an envelope and send it off to Mitt Romney, all marked up with red ink and exclamation points.

I was on my way downtown a couple of hours ago, doing my usual Saturday morning food shopping.  I had my radio tuned to a political station, and heard an interview with the candidate.  He was asked what he would do to end poverty in struggling communities, and he answered at first with typical conservative ideas. He would, of course, take money out of federal anti-poverty programs and send it to the communities themselves. He would let them solve their own problems, rather than trying to adhere to federal mandates. Not surprising, not outrageous, no big deal.

But then he said this, more or less.  He said that he would improve the economic life of poor communities by improving education. (OK, I’m with him so far).  “See, the thing is,” said the ex-Governor, “It’s time to put the focus of education on the needs of the children, instead of trying to meet the demands of the teachers and the teachers union.”


The Mittster went on to explain that in rich and middle class towns, parents can move around from place to place, settling where there are good schools.  Or they can “go to parochial or private schools, and pay that tuition.” (Oh, sure. That’s so easy to do.) ” That’s not true for poor people!  When you’re poor, you can’t move to a place where there are better schools. So we have to improve public schools in low economic communities.”

That was the moment when I felt the flush come over my face, and I had visions of a blood pressure cuff exploding on my arm.  I tried to keep my eyes on the road, but all I could think was “You mean, inner city schools are failing because the teacher’s are too demanding, and get too many perks?? It’s not because the buildings are falling down, there’s no money for books, the lights are dim, there are no extracurriculars and the home lives of the kids are in total chaos?  REALLY? It’s all because teacher’s want health insurance?”

I tuned back into the radio, trying to hear over the sound of my galloping heart.

“We have research on this! We know how to do this!”, Mitt crowed. “We’ve studied places where education is more successful, like Finland and Denmark!”  He explained that studies have shown that when the most successful schools are studied, it is not the amount of money spent that matters, or the size of the classes.  Surprise!  Research shows that class size is not at all related to educational success, says Mr. Out of Touch with Reality.  No, you silly people!  What matters is the achievement level of the teacher in front of the class.  And it seems that in the aforementioned countries, teachers are often drawn from the top 5% of college graduates, whereas here (again, this is the world according to Mitt), here we “often draw from the bottom 5%.”

This was the part where I had to pull over because I had started to cry.  I parked near our old town common, put my hands over my face, and just cried.

If you know me, or have read some of this week’s other posts, you know what a long and challenging week of teaching I have had.  I am not complaining: this is what teachers do.  But to have given 60 hours, my heart, my soul, my sleep and every ounce of my energy, only to hear that my colleagues and I are perceived to have been “drawn from the bottom”, was simply more than I could take.

The Man Who Would Be President then went on to prove his utter  lack of understanding of the free market. He  explained that his plan to draw the “best and brightest” to the field of education would be to increase starting salaries for teachers.  That, I believe, IS a great idea.  In order to afford this, however, Mitt claims that money would have to be drawn away from retirement plans, pensions and health insurance packages. In other words, we have to bust the demands of the unions, which work to protect the retirement rights of teachers. Are. You. Kidding.

I wiped my face, took a deep breath, and finished my shopping.  But I have been crafting a letter ever since.  This is what I have to say to Mr. Romney, and to all those in leadership positions who agree with him.

Dear Mr. Romney, et al

I write this letter to challenge your positions on the best way to improve public education, a goal which I support with every ounce of my strength, every single day , as I face the challenges of classroom teaching.  

I write this letter because you have no idea what you are talking about; I seriously doubt that  you have spent more than twenty minutes in a real live, unscripted classroom in the past thirty years.  Did you ever even attend public school?

Classroom size absolutely matters.  You probably don’t know this, but teachers are expected to “differentiate” every lesson to meet the needs of every individual child. We are expected to, and we should, speak with each and every child every single day.  We want to have a private conference with each child each week to edit writing, to improve reading fluency and to check on math progress.  You tell me that doing all of those things with 30 kids is the same as doing it with 18.  I can promise you that I do not reach every child effectively when class sizes go over 20.  Over 25? Forget about it.

You want to draw “the best and the brightest” to our profession?  Here’s a clue for you: you’re going to have to offer BOTH a reasonable salary and the assurance of some kind of retirement security.  If you’re going to compete with the business world, the medical world, and the technology world for the services of that top 5%,  you damn well better offer  a decent salary package, including benefits and retirement security.   That’s not unreasonable, its the “free market”.  Aren’t you supposed to be the guy who is the expert in this stuff?

Exactly what is it that you believe the unions have gotten for us that is taking money away from starting salaries?  What are these luxuries that we should forgo?  We pay for our own continuing education.  We receive no bonuses.  Unlike professionals in other fields, we don’t get business trips, free lunches, cell phones, vehicles, credit cards for business expenses or free samples of anything.  For God’s sake, we buy our own classroom tissues half the time!  When we retire, we get back the money we have paid in to the system, plus some money from our employers. We don’t get Social Security.  Did you even know that?

Mr. Romney, I am the mother of a young teacher.  Would you like to hear how many of my colleagues asked me whether I tried to discourage her from becoming an educator?  It wasn’t because they think the job is too hard, or because they think we don’t get paid enough. It wasn’t because they don’t like children.  It was because they know that the leadership of this nation looks down on our profession and constantly denigrates those who practice it.

May I suggest, Sir, that if you really want to improve education in all American communities, you stop hating teachers and start showing us the respect that we deserve.  

The truth is, you see, you really can’t value education and despise educators at the same time.  

I have to wonder how often  Danish and Finnish leaders demand that teachers be held accountable for “our broken educational system” or “our failing schools”.  How often do teachers in those countries find themselves the target of political posturing by those in charge?  And it must be pointed out, Mr. Romney, that in those countries, education is federally funded.  Schools in poorer towns are not struggling to pay teacher salaries and buy basic supplies. In those largely socialist nations,  retirement benefits for all workers, including teachers, are both generous and provided by the federal government.  

Maybe you’re right in one thing; maybe we should try to learn from those stories of success.


A deeply discouraged and demoralized American teacher