Friday, July 8, 2011

Why I'm Marching....

I was born and raised in Washington, DC.

In the summer the humidity settles down and the sky turns a sick, pale shade of yellow.  The swamp the city was built on seems to rise up and sit in the air just above the traffic lights.

When I was kid, before the miracle of air-conditioning, we mimicked the dogs that lay panting in the dust under the shade of a tree on the hottest afternoons.  Laying as still as possible in your bed at night while a fan pulled in the night air seemed the only way to escape the oppressive heat.  Our afternoons slowed to a crawl as we moved from shade to shade to popsicles to garden hoses to sitting by an oscillating fan reading a book.

We slowed down.

We drawled our way through the day Southern style.

In Washington, D.C., July is a beast, but August is worse.

So, why return to Washington, DC on July 30 to march from the ellipse to the White House at a time when experience dictates that one should really just be sitting very, very still?

I will be marching because I do not want to lose another thing I bring from my childhood: A public school education.

At the center of our democracy sits an institution that has lead the world in thinking about what nation building really means.  Our invention--education for all-- has been copied all over the world.  The world recognizes that a nation's worth lies in its people.  We invest in our nation by investing in our citizens, and we start with the children.

The school I went to modeled a life I wanted.  I was taught by strong, intelligent women (everyone should be taught by at least one, if not more, people who "look like me" and model the possibilities) Between the serious academic work learning was often fun with breaks for both free and structured play.  We celebrated at regular intervals throughout the year and benefitted from the museums and theaters in the nation's capitol.

The school was embedded in my working class neighborhood where I sat next to the children of refugees from Eastern Europe, escapees from World War II.  I learned about cultures I would have never known had I not been hearing and learning beside all these different voices.  Of course, I didn't know what gift I was being given at the time.  This was just the way it was.  These "different" people were my friends and so they were never really different at all.

A public school opens its arms to the "poor and huddled masses" and America has been innovative, creative, and unique because we have brought all Americans together in the common school.

My entire education--kindergarten to graduate school--occurred in a public school.  Though I had other options for my own children, I believed then--as I do now--in the importance of schooling America's children together.

All three children have been given an excellent education in Virginia's public schools, right on through the university system, and are giving back to their communities in substantive ways because of the investment made in them.  Their friends are white, gay, straight, African- American, wheelchair bound, and the children of Indians, Asians, Quakers, Sudanese--and more.

But now, the system of schooling that has produced innovation, new ideas, new ways of entertaining and communicating with others, is threatened.

After ten years of high stakes testing, the students I now teach are often what I would describe as "tolerantly polite."   Those who have not dropped out by the eleventh grade--often because they have disengaged from schooling long before--are fully aware of the importance of these tests which now cloud the classroom atmosphere as thickly as the humidity in Washington DC.

Remember Marshall McLuhan:  The medium is the message.   Well, the kids have gotten the message: the test is all that matters.  The intrinsic rewards of discovery, creativity, flow, spontaneous celebration, and feeling competent after working through something hard--not emphasized.

How this has perverted the teacher-student relationship is the real threat to our public schooling and Race to the Top--and the test makers themselves--promise to put more, not less, emphasis on testing, testing, and testing.

There are other threats: The division of our students into groups that may never interact with each other often in guise of "school choice."  The emphasis on solving a complicated problem by insisting on standardization rather than individualization. The inequity fostered and amplified by spending our resources on "outputs" rather than "inputs."  Money spent on testing is money not spent on infrastructure, including well-trained teachers as well as functioning, friendly places to come together.  Our promise to our children must include access to safe, engaging places to learn--for everyone.

I will be marching for all these reasons and more.

But I will also be marching for three very important, pressing reasons:

  • Granddaughter Ainsley starts kindergarten in 2013.
  • Grandson Aiden begins in 2014.
  • Grandson Eli--due to arrive July 30--goes to school in 2016.

I surely want these very special people to love school, to love kids of all colors and ethnic stripes, and to love America the way I loved my hot, steamy childhood.

1 comment:

  1. Mary,

    What an eloquent commentary on the value of our noble, historic national commitment to public schools. Thank you.

    Tim Gillespie