Teachers occupy a pivotal position in a society
The first is about the death of my best friend's brother, Tom. He was 55 when he died. Working on a newly purchased graceful cabin in Michigan's north woods, he told his wife he was in great pain, collapsed, and probably died awaiting the ambulance. He was a top executive of one of the auto companies. My friend asked me to attend the funeral. Tom once taught me to ride a bike, patiently, cheerfully. I knew I would miss him.
I drove to the funeral in my small Toyota. The funeral home was a fine mansion set under evergreen trees in one of Detroit's most lovely suburbs. I was early. A suited fellow at the parking lot entrance directed me to park in the street. The main room of the funeral home was Tom's, his body lying in a brass coffin in the front, surrounded by flowers and the smell of their rich summer bloom. Not one to view the dead, I took a seat three rows from the front, leaving seating for the large family. I always carry a book, this time Hinton's "Fanshen." I opened it.
Two stylish middle aged men scented with the latest men's fashion came in and sat down directly behind me. When I heard them begin to talk, I made notes in my calendar book. This is a transcription of their conversation.
"Sure makes you think about mortality."
"Yeah (long hesitation)... I got everything I have in the company's stock."
"You're gonna win, win , win big this year. But the company is going to pay Uncle Sam up the butt."
"Yeah. Well, this funeral bit makes you think about what you want to do with yourself. The company has been good to me."
"Yeah, me too. I just had my thirtieth. Thirty years with the company. More of us are getting to that. Makes you think about what you want to do with yourself, like you said."
"Yup, the money is going to be good this year, as good as ever. Well, at least as good or better than last year."
"You accountant guys do wondrous things (chuckle). Slow down those payables guys."
"I hear he was up north, in that new cabin."
"They had a nice article about him in the (company paper). He launched that new little car. He was a manufacturing guy, right?"
"Yeah, I think so. He was general manager of a big plant, then moved up. He was always moving up. Gave it all for the company."
"The car radios in that little car are terrible."
"The CD's jam. I had to replace my own, and the one for the girl who is my secretary."
"Did you tell Jack?"
"No, you know how Jack is. I'm not going to be the one who tells him. It will take the system a long time to catch up."
"I have a real stack of CD's now, a real stack--one of those portable holders to carry'em. Would want a good car player for those."
"Yeah. You gotta have that."
"How many kids did he have?"
I dunno. A bunch. Couple of marriages, lotta kids. Maybe more than five. He did go home a lot."
"Look around. Now it's like a manufacturing reunion."
"Yeah (pause) makes you think about mortality doesn't it?"
"Yeah (long hesitation), I wonder what to do about my cd's. Will you talk to Jack?"
At this point the service began. At the close, the pastor asked if anyone wanted to comment. Several family members did, giving moving speeches about specific instances of Tom's kindness and concern about his family.
Then a young man in a plaid jacket came forward.
"I didn't really know Tom. But I know that he would have told me to read Taylor, and Henry Ford, as he did so many others, and that would be the key to good management and my success. Well, I did read that, and now I am moving up. I mean, I have moved already. And I think I can trace some of my success to the atmosphere that Tom set up in my division. Anyway, I think I can say that Tom made my future. For that I thank his family today."
From my back, "That kid, a comer, you know?"
"Yeah, don't know him, but he has moves."
"What are you going to do about the cd players? We need to fix that somehow."
" I don't know."
"Well, makes you wonder about all this dying."
"Yeah, thirty years to the company. It was good. Hope that kid does as well."
The second story is set outside a large ballroom in the Washington Hyatt Hotel, located close to the FBI building, not far from the Smithsonian Buildings on the Mall in D.C. I was attending a meeting of the National Coalition of Education Activists, a group of parents, professors, teachers, and students trying hard to find good ways to do what its name suggests. NCEA did the conference well. One thing done especially well was food. There were piles of good food for lunch, buffet style, just outside the meeting room doors. People lined up, chose from meat and fish and lovely fresh veggies, and sat near whoever had found a chair and a table. That led to matchless conversations about the sessions--with people you usually had not seen, strangers.
In my sport coat and professorial tie, I made a fine pile of savory cake, carrots, and sprouts. I sat down next to a young tattooed, pierced, spiked-haired woman with, it appeared, two little kids, a girl about 11 and a boy about 9. He turned and walked up to my cake.
"Hi. My name is Kenneth."
"Hey, Kenneth. My name is Rich."
"Are you going to eat all that cake?"
"Yeah, but there is some on that table right behind you."
"Will you give me that?" (Mine)
"Thanks." (Takes a handful and eats it, smiling). Then, "My Daddy's in jail."
Mom, her back to me, whirls in her chair and looks me in the eye.
"Well, Kenneth, my best friend is in jail."
Mom is surprised.
"Yeah, a really lot of people are in jail."
"Sure are, Kenneth."
"Why is your friend in jail?"
"My Daddy, too. Mom says he will get out in 4 years. That is a long time."
"Sure is. My friend will get out about the same time."
"My Daddy is really not bad."
"Neither is my friend, Kenneth."
"Do you have a lot of friends in jail?"
"Well, actually, yes."
"Eighteen, including my friend. The others are in Grenada. They are in jail because they made mistakes when they tried to build a better government. They have been in jail since 1983."
Mom is puzzled. She turns, collects Kenneth by the arm, and says,
"He is always talking to strangers. Are you really a teacher? How do
you know people in jail?" Kenneth escapes, heads for the cake on the buffet
The third story: I visited the university for employees and franchise owners of the largest fast food chain in the world. It is a beautiful multi-cultural place. More than one-half of the students are from outside the United States. Immediate translation is provided, constantly, in at least four languages. This is not an English-only spot. No one fails at this university. Tests and papers are not got-cha exercises. What few tests that are given are constructed by the teachers and the students, using guides from the curriculum. Feedback is almost immediate. At this school, tests are important, not because the scores are needed to separate people but because the burgers and fries must be good, tasty. Testing, when there is any at all, is simply designed to build on student strengths.
So what is the meaning of these experiences?
When I was at Tom's funeral, during the minister's lengthy speech, I came upon this passage from "Fanshen," the story of life in Long Bow Village during the 1945-48 revolutionary period in China. The speaker is a peasant, a communist leader, addressing the collapsed morale of cadre who had done a good job, but at the same time had made significant mistakes which were sharply criticized by the people in the village. "Why do we live in this world? Is it just to eat and sleep and lead a worthless life? That is the landlord...point of view. They want to enjoy life, waste food and clothes and beget children. But a Communist works not only for his own life. He has offered everything to the service of his class. If he finds on poor brother still suffering from hunger and cold, he has not done his duty. Anyone who is concerned only with himself lacks the fundamental standards necessary for a Party member." Hinton, writing in 1997, said that today, in the midst of reform, which he suggests is the restoration of the rule of capital, 180 million people are unemployed in China. The minister finished his requiem and invited the mourners to view the body, in its sealed invulnerable bronze casket.
When I was talking to Kenneth, watching him eat my cake, I thought about my close friend, Tommie, the most resolute union organizer I have known. He is one of more than a million people in U.S. jails, more per capita than any other industrialized nation, most of them in jail because of violations of the counterfeit war on drugs. Kenneth's mom and I talked later. She came to the conference as a parent, at her own cost. She is ward attendant in a Boston nursing home, making $7.00 an hour. The hotel cost $99.00 a night plus taxes. She came because Kenneth, along with every other black child (even though Mom Is white and Dad is black, in the apartheid U.S., the one drop of blood rule is still in quiet force) in his school, is in some form of special education category. Kenneth failed all of his state's standardized tests last year. Her daughter, in another school, is classified as white and is in an accelerated program. She passed the tests in the top 10 percentile. Mom believes Kenneth is just as smart. When Mom found out a group of students, parents, and educators were going to D.C. to discuss alternative ways, she came.
She had a flyer with her. It just said this:
"Gaps in the academic performance of black and white students appear as early as age 9 and persist through age 17" (National Center for Education Statistics, "The Educational Progress of Black Students," 1995, p. 3).
"Approximately 13.6 million children under age 12 in the United States -29 percent - live in families that must cope with hunger or the risk of hunger during some part of one or more months of the previous year" (Community Childhood Hunger Identification Project).
- "33.1% of all African Americans, 30.6% of Latinos and 18.8% of other non-whites live in poverty, as compared to 9.9% of White residents" (Cynthia Taeber, The Statistical Handbook on Women in America, 1996, p.145).
- Hunger in the U.S. has increased by 50% since 1985 (Center on Hunger, Poverty and Nutrition Policy, Tufts University, 1993).
- Between 20 and 30 million Americans suffer from hunger (Congressional
Hunger Center, 1995).
Dewey called reflective teaching,"active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further consequences to which it leads." (How We Think, p9).
The auto executives learned how to balance ledgers, perhaps with passion, but little reflectivity. Kenneth's mom was on the track to discovering why it is her two kids get such different schooling--and what it is that underpins that inequity. The Burger-versity does everything well except to encourage people to wonder about why it is profitable to foist caffeinated colored sugar water, fried gristle and potatoes, on people--and just whose labor makes the billions-sold sign churn along. Most public schools follow the routes offered by the auto-men and the burger school, a superficial analysis of what appears to be, with nothing offered on how to understand the essence lying beneath.
Moreover, school children are now even more intensely segregated by class and race through geography, curricula choices, funding, teaching methods, tracking, and standardized exams. In the most exploited areas in the U.S., schools are Third World. While the best teachers swim against the stream, these schools serve as holding pens. The message to kids from many schools is clear: tamp down your expectations, stifle your analytical abilities, and get in line. Even for what was once known as the middle class, the signal from school is that you will not do as well as your parents--get used to it.
Teachers occupy a pivotal position in a society with a collapsed industrial base. Schools are now the center of communities, the sole organizing force in the lives of many citizens. Educators are the most unionized people in the U.S. The ideas and practices educators foster will have a vital impact on the construction of 21st century society.
What kind of community are we forging when the thoughts of a Chinese
Communist leader, which do hold some parallels to early necessities of
the American Revolution, seem like a pipe-dream? With the rise of the levels
of inequality that Kenneth's mom describes in her leaflet, coupled with
the rise of authoritarianism reflected in the boom of the prison industry
(where over-production is profitable), come reverberations in teaching
and learning. It is a dubious community that is being created when educational
leaders are committed to the pursuit of only the most superficial standardized
official analysis, and sell that to the citizenry on the promise that it
will magically promote desirable subjects, social equality--or rigorous
critique. I suggest that this is where my stories crash into to MEAP--
and where education workers may find a point for democratic action.