Why Care About Other People’s Children

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As a vocal critic of charter and voucher schools, one of the most frequent questions I get from readers is this:

“Why should I care about other people’s children?”

One reader put it this way:

“Why should my child’s education and safety have to suffer because of difficult and violent students? …it isn’t my responsibility to pay for a miscreant’s education.”

The question says more than any answer could.

It shows quite clearly that school choice is an essentially selfish position.

That’s why some folks champion privatized education – they only care about their own children. In effect, when a parent sends their children to a charter or voucher school, they are telling the community that they don’t care what happens to any one else’s kids so long as their kids are properly cared for and educated.

It is the root cause of most of our problems in education today and has nothing to do with children. It’s all about adults – adults lacking empathy.

On the one hand, I get it. As a parent, you can’t help but love your child more than anyone else’s. You would beg, cheat and steal to make sure your child has enough to eat, is clothed and sheltered, has everything she needs to succeed in this world.

That’s a position for which few would show any embarrassment. It’s just being human.

But it shouldn’t also mean that you don’t care at all for other children.

I’d like to pose a radical thought – loving my child does not mean I’m indifferent to yours.

Children are innocent. They haven’t done anything to earn the hate or enmity of the world. They see everything with fresh eyes. Many of them haven’t even learned the prejudices and ignorance of their parents. And even where they have, it is so new it can be changed.

When you look at a babe in arms do you feel the same indifference? I don’t.

Perhaps it’s just the way we’re built. I feel an immediate nurturing instinct. I want to protect and provide for children – any children – even if they’re not mine.

If you saw a baby all alone crying on the side of the road, would you stop to help her? I would. I couldn’t help it. I can do no other.

If I saw a toddler in distress, a tween, even an unruly teenager in need, I would try to help. And I think most of us would do the same.

Doing so wouldn’t hurt my child. In fact, it would show her how a decent person acts towards others. It would teach her empathy, kindness, caring. It would demonstrate the values I try to instill in her – that we’re all in this together and we owe certain things to the other beings with which we share this world.

Why would you not want to do that?

We do not live in a world where you have to choose between your child and all others. There is a middle course. We can do for all society’s children without unduly sacrificing our own.

And if we can, why wouldn’t we?

Public school is essentially a community endeavor. It is an attempt to give everyone in your neighborhood the same start, the same opportunity, the same advantages.

It means allowing all children who live in the community the ability to attend the community school. That’s better than selecting the best and brightest and to Hell with the rest.

It means the community pooling its wealth to help all students. That’s better than dividing that pool up and pitting one group against another so that some get what they need and others don’t.

It means having an elected school board who holds public meetings, deliberates in the open and has to offer almost all documents to the light of day. That’s just better than an appointed board of directors who hold private meetings behind closed doors and who aren’t compelled to show any documentation for how they’re spending public tax money.

When you send your child to school – any school – she will have to deal with other students. She will meet children who are mean, unkind, unruly and a bad influence. But this is true at all schools – public and private, voucher or charter, secular or parochial. The biggest difference is racial and economic.

Our educational institutions today have become so segregated by class and race that even our public schools offer white middle class and wealthy students the opportunity to learn in an environment nearly devoid of children of color or children who live in poverty. This divide is drastically widened by charter, private and parochial schools.

So when people complain about the class of children they want to keep separate from their progeny, it is always imbued with a racist and classist subtext.

What they mean is: I don’t want my child to have to put up with all those black students, all those brown children, all those unwashed masses of impoverished humanity.

I proudly send my daughter to public school for the same reasons that many withhold their children from it. I want her to experience a wide variety of humanity. I want her to know people unlike her, and to realize that they aren’t as different as they might first appear. I want her to know the full range of what it means to be human. I want her to be exposed to different cultures, religions, nationalities, world views, thoughts and ideas.

And I want it not just because it’s better for my community – I want it because it’s better for her, too.

I want my daughter and I to both live in a world populated by educated citizens. I want us both to live in a society that treats people fairly, and where people of all types can come together and talk and reason and enjoy each other’s company.

Only under the most extreme circumstances would I ever subject her to charter, private or parochial schooling. And things would have to come to a pretty pass for me to home school her.

Imagine! Thinking I could offer my child all the richness of a public school experience, all the knowledge of a district’s worth of teachers, all the variety of social contact – how vain I would need to be to think I could do all that, myself!

Some people want their children to become little versions of themselves. They want to create a generation of mini-me’s who’ll carry on their way of thinking into the future.

That’s not my goal at all.

I want my daughter to share my core values, I want her to learn from my experiences, but I don’t want her to think like me at all. I want her to be a new person, special and unique.

I want her to be her.

If you stop and think about it, that’s what most of us want for our children.

It’s a common goal that can be achieved with a common mechanism.

So why should we care about other people’s children?

Because it’s better for ours. Because doing so makes us better people. Because all children are ends in themselves. Because they’re beautiful, unique sparks of light in a dark universe.

If those aren’t reasons enough, I can’t help you.

I May Have Just Been Murdered By House Republicans

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I may be dead already.

 

And House Republicans may be the ones who killed me.

 

With the passage of a healthcare bill they, themselves, haven’t read – haven’t studied – haven’t thoughtfully considered in any way – it seems they’ve opened the door for insurance companies to deny people coverage due to pre-existing conditions.

 

I have one.

 

I’ve had two small heart attacks this year.

 

So I sit here stunned at the news on my computer feeling very much at a loss.

 

People have legitimate political differences, but this… it’s just beyond anything I’ve ever experienced personally.

 

There are people who count on me – my daughter, my wife, my students. I’m not so vain as to imagine that they can’t get along without me, but my loss will hurt them. I think at the very least they’ll miss me.

 

I’m 43-years-old. I’ve lived a good life. I just never expected to be abandoned in such a way by a society I’d always thought was more humane.

 

But if this legislation becomes the law of the land, what will I do?

 

I take six or seven pills a day to control my cholesterol, keep the stints in my heart clean, control my blood pressure, slow my heartbeat, etc. Without them, I almost certainly will have another heart attack. Yet I have no idea how I could possibly afford to take them without insurance.

 

And if I get sick, I won’t be able to work. I’ll bring in even less money. I won’t be able to help support my family. I’ll end up being a liability, a burden.

 

House Republicans have to know there are people out there like me. There have to be a lot of people in even worse shape than I am.

 

Are they really going to just let all of us die?

 

I had hoped to see my daughter grow up. She’s only 8-years-old, the most precious person in my life. No one is more full of energy, more vivacious and joyful. She loves to draw and write short stories. She pretends to be a teacher just like her father and gives her stuffed animals assignments.

 

I guess I’ll never get to see the person she becomes. I’ll never find out if she goes to college, if she finds love, if she has children of her own.

 

Can it really all come down to this?

 

My wife and I have been through a lot together. We met back in high school. Before I became a public school teacher, we worked together at various local newspapers. She supports me when I can’t go on. I hope I am able to give her back even a fraction of the strength she lends me.

 

Does this mean we’ll have to say goodbye, and so much sooner than I ever imagined?

 

My middle school students and I just finished reading “The Diary of Anne Frank.” When we closed the book, there were some tears shed. I passed around the tissues, and we discussed how we felt. Many of them expressed anger that some people could hold others’ lives so cheaply as the Nazis did Anne and her family. Are House Republicans guilty of a similar crime? They aren’t rounding anyone up to send to death camps, but they’re apparently content to let many of us just die.

 

The pundits tell me I have nothing to worry about. The bill won’t pass the Senate, they say. And even if it does, the President would be breaking every campaign promise he ever made, if he signs it.

 

So what else is new?

 

This is the world we live in now.

 

It’s not the country I was born into. It’s a cold place. A heartless reality.

 

Perhaps tomorrow I’ll gather the strength to resist, to call my Congressperson again, to protest, to organize.

 

But as for today…

 

I can’t even.

 

So I’ll head home, and give my family a big hug, spend whatever time I can with them.

 

Because if my life now depends on the compassion of Republican lawmakers, I may not have much of it left.

 

 

 

 

 

I am a Public School Teacher. Give Me All the Refugees You’ve Got!

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Come into my classroom any day of the week and you’ll see refugees.

That little Iraqi boy slumped over a book written in Arabic while the rest of the class reads the same story in English. Those twin girls blinking back memories of the Bosnian War as they try to underline possessive nouns on an English worksheet. That brown-skinned boy compulsively rocking back-and-forth in his seat fighting back tears wondering when his dad is going to come home from prison.

Every day, every hour, every minute our public schools are places of refuge for children seeking asylum, fugitives, emigres, exiles, the lost, the displaced, dear hearts seeking a kind word and a caring glance.

Some may shudder or sneer at the prospect of giving shelter to people in need, but that is the reality in our public schools. In the lives of many, many children we provide the only stability, the only safety, the only love they get all day.

And, yes, I do mean love. I love my students. Each and every one of them. Sometimes they are far from lovable. Sometimes they look at me with distrust. They bristle at assignments. They jump when redirected. But those are the ones I try to love the most, because they are the ones most in need.

I told a friend once that I had a student who had escaped from Iraq. His parents had collaborated with the U.S. military and received death threats for their efforts. So he and his family fled to my hometown so far away from his humid desert heartland.

I told her how difficult it was trying to communicate with a student who spoke hardly any English. I complained about budget cuts that made it next to impossible to get an English Language Learner (ELL) instructor to help me more than once a week. And her response was, “Do you feel safe teaching this kid?”

Do I feel safe? The question had never occurred to me. Why wouldn’t I feel safe? I don’t expect ISIS to track him down across the Atlantic Ocean to my class. Nor do I expect this sweet little guy is going to do anything to me except practice his English.

In one of my first classrooms, I had a dozen refugees from Yugoslavia. They had escaped from Slobadan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing. Yet you’d never know unless they told you. They were some of the most well-behaved, thoughtful, intelligent children I’ve had the pleasure to teach. They were always smiling, so happy to be here. They approached every assignment with a seriousness well beyond their years.

But sometimes you’d see a shadow cross their faces. Rarely you’d hear them whispering among themselves. I was so new I didn’t know any better but to come down on them. But later they told me what they had been talking about, what they had been thinking about – how Henry V’s military campaign brought back memories. They taught me that day. Every year I learn so much from my children.

My high poverty school doesn’t get a lot of refugees from overseas these days. But we’re overwhelmed with exiles from our own neighborhood. I can’t tell you how many children I’ve had in class who start off the year at one house and then move to another. I can’t tell you how many come to school bruised and beaten. I can’t tell you how many ask a moment of my time between classes, during my planning period or after school just to talk.

Last week one of my students walked up to me and said, “I’m having a nervous breakdown.”

Class had just been dismissed. I had a desk filled to the ceiling with ungraded essays. I still had to make copies for tomorrow’s parent-teacher conferences. I had gotten to none of it earlier because I had to cover another class during my planning period. But I pushed all of that aside and talked with my student for over an hour.

And I’m not alone. On those few days I get to leave close to on time, I see other teachers doing just like me conferencing and tutoring kids after school.

It was a hard conversation. I had to show him he was worth something. I had to make him feel that he was important to other people, that people cared about him. I hope I was successful. He left with a handshake and a smile.

He may not be from far away climes, but he’s a refugee, too. He’s seeking a safe place, a willing ear, a kind word.

So you’ll forgive me if I sigh impatiently when some in the media and in the government complain about the United States accepting more refugees. What a bunch of cowards!

They act as if it’s a burden. They couldn’t be farther from the truth. It’s a privilege.

When I see that iconic picture of three-year-old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi drowned in Turkey as his family tried to escape the conflict, I find it impossible that anyone could actually refuse these people help. Just imagine! There are a host of others just like this family seeking asylum and we can give it! We have a chance to raise them up, to provide them a place to live, to shelter them from the storm. What an honor! What a privilege! What a chance to be a beacon of light on a day of dark skies!

I’m an American middle class white male. My life hasn’t been trouble free, but I know that I’ve won the lottery of circumstances. Through none of my own doing, I sit atop the social ladder. It is my responsibility to offer a helping hand in every way I can to those on the lower rungs. It is my joy to be able to do it.

It’s what I do everyday at school. When I trudge to my car in the evening dark, I’m exhausted to the marrow of my bones. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

It’s not uncommon for a student or two to see me on the way to my car, shout out my name with glee and give me an impromptu hug. At the end of the day, I know I’ve made a difference. I love being a teacher.

So if we’re considering letting in more refugees, don’t worry about me. Send them all my way. I’ll take all you’ve got. That’s what public schools do.


NOTE: This article also was published in Everyday Feminism, the LA Progressive and on the Badass Teachers Association blog. It was also quoted extensively in an interview the National Education Association did with the author.

 

The Worst Sort of Violence Against Children

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She was smiling and laughing, but her eyes were terrified.

Sitting in class among her fellow middle school students, her words were all bravado. But her gestures were wild and frightened. Tears were close.

So as the morning bell rang and the conversation continued unabated, I held myself in check. I stopped the loud rebuke forming in my teacher’s throat and just listened.

“You know that shooting at Monroeville Mall Saturday night, Mr. Singer? I was there!”

I swallowed. “My gosh, Paulette. Are you okay?”

She acts street smart and unbreakable, but I can still see the little girl in her. She’s only 13.

She slowed down and told us what happened; a story framed as bragging but really a desperate plea for safety and love.

She went to the mall with her mother. When they separated so she could go to the restroom, the gunfire began. She ran out and Mom was gone. She was ushered into a nearby store where the customers were kept in lockdown. She stayed there until the police cleared the mall, and it was safe to find her mother and go home.

A 17-year-old boy had gunned down three people. One was his target. The others were bystanders – parents who had gotten in the way. Now they were all in the hospital, two in critical condition.

And my student – my beautiful, precious, pain-in-the-butt, braggadocious, darling little child – was stuck in the mix.

I could imagine how scared she must have been separated from her mother, hiding with strangers as police swept the shops, food court and children’s play center.

Here she was telling the class her story and getting more upset with each word.

I gave her a meaningful look and told her we’d talk more later. Then I began class.

But I kept my eye on her. Was that relief I saw as the talk turned from bullets and bloodshed to similes and metaphors? Did the flush leave her cheeks as we crafted multi-paragraph theses? I hope so.

I think I know her pretty well by now. She’s been mine for two years – in both 7th and 8th grades. I even taught her older brother when he was in middle school.

I know she’s rarely going to do her homework – and if she does, it will be finished in the last 20 minutes. I know she’d rather be out playing volleyball or cheerleading than in school writing or reading. I know when she’s secure and when she’s scared.

And I know that today’s lesson will be a breeze for her. So why not put her in her comfort zone, show her things haven’t changed, she’s still the same person, she can still do this – nothing is different?

At least, that was the plan.

As any experienced public school teacher knows, you have to satisfy a person’s basic needs before you have any chance at teaching them something new. Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is always at the back of mind.

Students must have their physical needs met first – be fed, have a full night’s rest, etc. Then they have to feel safe, loved, and esteemed before they can reach their potentials.

But meeting these needs is a daily challenge. Our students come to us with a wealth of traumas and we’re given a poverty of resources to deal with them.

How many times have I given a child breakfast or bought a lunch? How many kids were given second-hand clothes or books? How many hours have I spent before or after school just listening to a tearful child pour out his heart?

Let me be clear. I don’t mind.

Not one bit.

It’s one of the reasons I became a teacher. I WANT to be there for these kids. I want to be someone they can come to when they need help. It’s important to me.

But what I do mind is doing this alone. And then being blamed for not healing all the years of accumulated hurt.

Because that’s exactly what’s expected of teachers these days. Fix this insurmountable problem with few tools and if you can’t, it’s your fault.

I didn’t shoot up the mall. I didn’t pass the laws that make it so easy for kids to get a hold of a gun. I didn’t pass the laws that allow such rampant income inequality and the perpetuation of crippling poverty that more than half of our nation’s public school children live with every day. And I sure didn’t slash public school budgets while wealthy corporations got a tax holiday.

But when society’s evils are visited on our innocent children, I’m expected to handle it alone. And if I can’t solve it all by myself, I should be fired.

That is where I take umbrage.

The issue is violence but not all of it comes at the end of a gun.

Keeping public schools defunded and dysfunctional is also a form of violence. Promoting privatization and competition when kids really just need resources is also cruelty. Pretending that standardized curriculum and tests are a Civil Right is also savagery.

It’s called class warfare. Its most prominent victims are children. Its most active soldiers are teachers. And we’re on the front lines every day.

When the bell rang to end class, Paulette stopped by my desk.

I looked up at her ready to give whatever support I could. It was my lunch break, but I was willing to skip it and just talk. I’d get the guidance counselor. I’d call home. Whatever she needed.

But none of it was necessary.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“Yeah.” She gave me a big smile and a deep breath.

I returned it.

Today would be alright. Tomorrow? We’ll meet that together.

But we sure could use some help.


NOTE: Names and other minor details may have been changed to preserve anonymity.

This Article was also published in The Progressive, Portside Navigator, Common Dreams, Public School Shakedown and the Badass Teachers Association blog.

An Exercise in Empathy

Eric Garner protests in Boston

I can’t breathe.

I can’t breathe.

I can’t…

I awoke abruptly from a troubled sleep and I literally could. Not. Breathe.

I stumbled out of bed and into the hall, banging into the walls, rushing to the bathroom commode.

I looked down into that porcelain abyss hoping and dreading the spasms that soon rocked my stomach.
It all came pouring out of me like I was a burst balloon.

After a brief eternity it was over.

My lungs sucked in air. My mind was awake.

I shivered realizing the video was still replaying in my head. The video of Eric Garner’s death.

I had watched that video with the same morbid curiosity as everyone else.

A heavyset black man choked to death by police as he screamed “I can’t breathe,” over and over again.

But now, merely a week after the police officer who killed Michael Brown was let free without so much as a criminal trial, the same thing happened to the cop who killed Eric Garner.

Death ruled a homicide by the medical examiner.

Officer using a banned choke hold.

No weapon, no resisting arrest.

All of it caught on video.

And No Trial.

That set it going again – the snuff film of Garner’s death might never stop playing itself over-and-over on the youtube screen behind my eye lids.

Why was this bothering me so much?

It was horrible, sure, but I’m a white man. This is unlikely to ever happen to me or mine.

When I see the police, the worst they’re liable to do to me is give me a ticket for speeding.

Black men – especially young black men – have it much worse. They’re 21 times more likely to be shot by police than their white contemporaries.

That’s frightening. Even if it probably wouldn’t happen to me.

The thing is – even though Eric Garner and I are very different, when I look at his picture, I see myself.

We’re both around the same age, same build, both have facial hair, both are fathers. There are more similarities than differences. The thing that separates us the most is the color of our skin.

When I look at him, I don’t see a danger to society. I see a guy who looked pretty friendly, a gentle giant – a guy whose house I’d have loved to visit for a cookout. I could see myself eating barbecued brisket on his porch sharing a joke and looking desperately for a napkin.

Many people don’t see that. When they look at his picture they see an OTHER, someone distinctly not like them, someone dangerous.

I don’t know really how you bridge that divide.

When I was a kid, I went to a very diverse public school. It taught me to get along with people who society labeled as different than me. It taught me that the label was a lie – we really weren’t all that dissimilar. I made lifelong friends of various races – people I probably would never have met otherwise.

The other day, I even got a strange instant message on Facebook from one of my black high school friends living out of state.

He said that he had been reading my blog and he was struck by how much I’d changed. He said I’d come a long way from the kid in high school who thought movies like “Boyz n the Hood” were exaggerated.

We talked for a while about it. I was surprised because I hadn’t noticed anything different at all, but he’s right.

I had clung to the notion that black grievances – though based in fact – were media contrivances to sell rap albums and movie tickets. I wanted to believe it so much. It was almost a mantra against news stories that seemed to indicate otherwise.

But at some point in the last few years I had given up that conceit, and I never even realized it.

I’m sure my job has a lot to do with it. I’m a public school teacher in a district much like the one I went to when I was growing up. My kids are mostly minorities.

You can’t go to work day in, day out and not come to empathize with the plight of people of color. You can’t see their miseries, fears, hopes and joys without sharing in them to some extent.

When Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown were killed, their deaths hit me hard, too. I saw them as my students, my kids.

But Eric Garner wasn’t like any of them. He was like their father. He was like me.

Perhaps if our schools still weren’t so segregated, more people would see it. Perhaps more of us would recognize our common humanity.

Too often we live separate lives in separate worlds. We don’t live in the same neighborhoods. We don’t work in the same jobs. We pass each other by uneasily because we don’t know each other beyond the grisly accounts on the TV news and police blotter.

So, yeah, we need to fix our broken justice system. We need independent prosecutors, body cameras, police training and a host of other things. But more than anything, we need an introduction to each other. We need to be a part of each others lives. Reducing school segregation may be a place to start.

Maybe then we could all breathe easier.


This article has also been published on the LA Progressive and Badass Teachers Association blog.