Archive for the ‘Public Education’ Category

5 December, 2011

A Fight in Good Hands

srilanka08-789_2I say what I think. Perhaps that’s a bit of an understatement. I say what I think about a multitude of things and often when I’m saying what I think I am in direct conflict with what a majority of people may be thinking about the same thing, or I am at odds with a more comfortable point of view. For people who don’t know me personally it may seem as though I am constantly in the thick of one sort of battle or another, usually against forces far greater than any I could muster, often against those who are going to cream me in the long run. srilanka08-1122_2 I learned from the best: my father is now in retirement and lives as he does because he stuck to his guns through decades of service to multiple governments, my late mother was – and, in memory, remains – beloved precisely for her willingess to tell it like it is. My brothers and I carry the torch. (Only one of us, the oldest, is able to let some things go unsaid and I attribute that to his deeper involvement in scripture and his renunciation of much of the noise produced by politics).

What sustains me is what sustained and sustains them: a belief that, if I do not shy away from doing my small part, in the end, good will prevail for us all. To paraphrase the Pink Floyd song, I guess img_3871the “walk on part in the war” has always seemed more preferable to the people in my family than the “lead role in a cage.” And though my mother, in particular, often worried about our fate, and sometimes tried to tell us how hard the fall is from the edge of that limb up high in the sky, or how bare our necks looked exposed as they were, what could we do but do as she did, do as our father did: keep climbing, keep sticking our necks out.

People who do know me know that – whatever it looks like from the outside – I try to live a peaceable, compassionate life, attending just as much to moments of grace as I do to the social/injustices that plague us. And, as a rule (okay, with the exception of the fool who turns on the left turn signal after we are already at the stop-light), I tend to take people at their word, to accept that they are who them say they are, to believe that they are well-intentioned until proven otherwise. When I do find something that gets under my skin, more often than not, what I can bring to a cause is my voice. If I have been given the gift of words, then it stands to reason that I should use it to honor the gift-giver by using it to the best of my abilities. But passion and words are both double-edged swords.

This weekend, I fell into conversation with a neighbor. We had both been concerned about the misuse of authority on the part of an individual employed by this school district and we had talked about bringing our concerns to the relevant people. Although he had decided, in consultation with his wife, that it would be better not to become involved, I have no doubt that, after our conversation, they will decide to do so. But it was what he said that gave me pause. Touching my shoulder in genuine reassurance, he said, we know the fight is in good hands. i.e, mine.

Like I said, I learned from the best. I learned to speak up. But I also learned that nobody gets anything done by themselves. Audre Lorde said the following words: “there are no single issue struggles because we do not live single issue lives.” img_3338The Occupy Wall Street movement is a perfect example of what Lorde was talking about, despite the fact that so many seem not to understand the reason for its seeming “chaos.” But we also do not fight our battles alone. The boy with his finger in the dyke may have prevented the town from being inundated and countless human beings from drowning, but he suffered greatly while doing it. I do not imagine that I am that important, or that anything I do is comparable to that story, but I do know that standing alone is, well, lonely, often futile and usually fatal to ones wellbeing.

Long ago – it seems – in the months after I had returned to the US after a long period back home, when I was still looking for work and spent my time watching the Senate hearings on TV, hour by endless hour, I went to Newark, NJ to stand on a street-corner to protest the attacks against Bill Clinton in the throes of the Lewinsky scandal. It was an event organized by a relatively small group called Censure and Move On, a group which has since become a behemoth power in politics. As we drove up we saw that, on a grey and rainy afternoon, there were two people standing on the corner with umbrellas. My companion – whose constant charge has been to save me from myself – surveying the embarassing scene from a fair distance said: “Ru, don’t be nuts. Let’s not make fools of ourselves standing in the rain with two people.” The words that sprang to my lips came not from me but from generations of people who had felt the same way I did right then: “That’s when it is important to stand out there,” I said. “What is the use of joining something when there are a thousand people there? This, when it is difficult and uncomfortable, this is when it counts.” With that I stormed off and, as he often does, my husband soon followed even though this type of shenanigan is not his thing, it has never been; it will always be difficult for him but, to his everlasting credit – much more than I deserve because, hard though it may be, I grew up learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable – he has always done it when it counts.

I may have the words to write persuasively about my case, and those words probably give the impression that the “fight” whatever it is, can be successfully won by me. I may speak with passion for my candidate, my cause, my peeve, and that passion probably makes people believe that I’m “passionate enough for the both of us.” srilanka08two-773_2Neither is true. Nothing, absolutely nothing, except for love for another and enlightenment of the soul, can be accomplished alone. No matter how strong the words, no matter how great the passion. Everything takes a village. And then many villages. And entire regions. And a country. And many countries. But mostly, it takes more than one. The fight is not in good hands if it remains in the hands of a single person because that is usually a fight that is going to be lost. So if you ever wonder if it is really necessary to raise your hand and be counted when somebody else seems to have it covered, or if it seems a little out of your comfort zone – even though you are invested in the outcome – or if you are worried about what this one or that one might think of you – even though you really hope the fight will be won – rest assured, it is. It is always necessary. Unless you are equally invested, equally hopeful that the fight is going to be lost. If that is the case, by all means, remain silent.


7 November, 2011

Who Takes Care of the Student Athlete?

img_9544Two days ago the vast state of Pennsylvania woke up to news of a fresh scandal involving allegations that a coach at Penn State University sexually assaulted and abused at least eight student-athletes in his care. You can read more about the case here. Below, a few snippets form the case:

Sandusky, 67, faces 40 abuse charges, including 21 felonies. Sandusky, released on $100,000 bail, is charged with abusing eight boys between 1994 and 2009, with some incidents said to have taken place in a Penn State athletics building. He retired from Paterno’s staff in 1999.

Athletics director Tim Curley is going on administrative leave at his request, according to a statement from the school board of trustees late Sunday. Senior vice president for business and finance Gary Schultz will step down and go back into retirement. The two face charges they perjured themselves before a grand jury and failed to notify law enforcement authorities of child sexual abuse allegations against Jerry Sandusky.

A student athlete is defined as “a participant in an organized competitive sport sponsored by the educational institution in which he or she is enrolled. The term student-athlete is used to describe the direct balance of a full-time student and a full-time athlete.” The NCAA has clear guidelines (sometimes observed in the breach), regarding the management of the student (who is also an athlete), and the degree to which a coach can and cannot be involved in the conduct of the student’s life outside the time allocated to coaching that student in a sport and the playing of that sport.

I had reason to look into those guidelines with regard to the management of high school athletic programs here in the Lower Merion School District and I was shocked to discover that many of the laws governing that relationship between coach and student at the NCAA level were being violated by one of the coaches at the high school. Agreed, the NCAA guidelines do not cover high school athletes, however, it stands to reason that whatever limitations are places upon college coaches who are dealing for the most part with adults, ought to be far less severe than guidelines in place at high schools for coaches dealing with minors, particularly those coaches who are working with children of the opposite sex, even more so if the child’s health is at risk.

How is it possible, for instance, that there are clear guidelines for teachers who see students perhaps once a day for an hour – and never img_5691send them emails using a personal email address not associated with the district whether school is in session or not, or invite them to dinner in their homes or make mixed CDs for them, or abuse their parents, or demand that they do not participate in other school sanctioned activities, or bully them one at a time into agreeing to continue participating in a class of the teacher’s choice – but none for coaches who spend several hours with students within and outside the school environment? In all fairness, this particular school district (Lower Merion), is taking this discrepency very seriously. After all, we live in an area where you can’t sneeze without a gesundheit from a trigger-happy lawyer.

11/10/11 – Addendum:The documents released by the grand jury in the case against Sandusky describes the testimony of Steven Turchetta, the assistant principal and the head football coach at the high school that Victim 1 attended:

Turchetta characterized Sandusky as very needy within the mentoring relationship he established with Second Mile students. Sandusky would often want a greater time commitment than the teenagers were willing to give and Sandusky would have “shouting matches” with various youth in which Turchetta would sometimes be the mediator. Turchetta would also end up being Sandusky’s point of contact for a youth he had been unable to reach by phone the previous evening. Turchetta testified that Sandusky would be “clingy” and even “needy” when a young man broke off the relationship he had established with him and called the behavior “suspicious.”

As the administration in general and principals and athletic directors in particular within the schools that belong to this district deal with these matters, they would be wise to reflect on the events unfolding in our own backyard at PSU. In the end, the adults in charge are to blame. In the end, the particular adult who broke the rules of engagement isn’t the only one to take the fall, and with good reason. The people who supervise the coaches and the people who supervise the people supervising the coaches are all culpable. Schultz and Curley are history and there are calls that the board of trustees fire Graham Spanier, the president. head coach, Joe Paterno and Graham Spanier have both been fired. Underlining all of this is a gigantic financial price tag that the university will have to fold into a budget that is supposed to deliver services to students. That’s usually the way things shake down. It would be a pity if this school district (which is beleaguered by people who rush to lawsuits before trying to get school staff and district administration to do the right thing), refuses to take the complaints of multiple parents seriously and ends up precipitating exactly the kind of negative publicity, financial burden and demoralizing school environment that are part and parcel of lawsuits.


22 February, 2011

Crouching Tigers, Raising Dragons

jovidushi-003There’s always enough blame to go around. There’s always a nice fat chunk of it that can be placed upon the sturdy shoulders of parents the world over. That’s in fact one of the undeniable contributions of parents to society – because you can’t blame the government for everything. Children are born perfect and destined for perfection except that between that first suck of air and that first utility bill, the darn parents get involved and everything goes haywire.

Or so they say. So lets go back to those previous posts on under-performing schools and over-performing students, both equally misguided and doomed. Assuming we all agree with Seliman’s paraphrasing of the Greeks, how do we teach children to lead a productive and purposeful life? The memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua (Penguin, January 2011), whose list of credits include a professorship at Yale Law, authorship of Day of Empire (Anchor, 2009), and World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (Doubleday, 2002) and mothership of two high-achieving daughters, has a few thoughts on that. You can read the excerpt over at the Wall Street Journal. Here are two snippets:

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America.

Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.

Chua’s book generated, among other things, a collection of rap songs spoofing her method of parenting. There has been criticism of her, testimonies of clawed-kids and bemoaning of the lives of her deprived children. There has even been defense of the American Way and at least one writer, Ayelet Waldman, graciously acknowledging that we all muster the best we have on behalf of our children. But while we are busy doing all this, we are still failing to examine what ails our own over-achieving (albeit sub-par compared to tiger cubs), children. Ours certainly excel at various games and classes. Some of them go to Olympic trials in their chosen sport, others graduate with academic distinction, and most of them do these things without ever once experiencing failure. Few if any of them achieve the same degree of success that a Hua kid might. Conversely, a Chua offspring is probably less able to separate herself and her own ambition from those of her parents than one of our daughters or sons are able to do. Yet somewhere between these two lies an ideal of contented childhood that could signify successful adulthood.

I decided to look closely at the choices I have made as a parent. My oldest daughter tried everything from ballet to tap to gymnastics to basketball to tennis to track to swimming…and she excelled at everything. Somewhere during those early years, I had the presence of mind (and the absence of confusion brought on by other children, not to mention the relatively normal environment in which I lived, in Maine), to recognize her bliss when she found it in running and swimming. Holding a prize for distinction in mathematics or earning good money for creative writing did not mean that she had to spend her summers delving deep into the mysteries of the universe as opposed to getting bored at home. I was able to say no thanks to the NJ State Ballet and the traveling gymnastics league in Madison, to the Bossov Ballet School and the basketball league in Maine as well as the glossy invitations to the plush programs run by Johns Hopkins for gifted children. Being good at various things did not necessitate filling up every waking moment with trying to become better at all of those things. In the same way that one best friend is a treasure beyond compare, one great sport could, truly, bring both comfort and joy to her.

Fast forward a few years and I find myself in an environment that makes it just short of impossible to divorce performance from worth. Having discovered that, no, just because I dance does not mean I can ice-skate, and, in fact, I look completely ludicrous and graceless as I lurch about the rink, I decided to enroll my younger daughters in a season of lessons. Everything went swimmingly well until I was handed, at the end of the session, a little booklet with blank pages listing all the many levels and skills-sets that awaited them during, presumably, years and years of skating. It wasn’t enough for my children to simply learn how to ice skate so they could do it with their friends, they had to be reeled into a program where some greater skill was waiting, always out of reach. And trying to achieve all of these skills in all the many sports/activities that our children may try does deprive them of the focus they may need to reach a level of perfection that is, for most people, only possible in one or two of them.

I use ice-skating as my example, but take a look at any one of the activities that American parents in a school district like this could choose – soccer, basketball, swimming, running, fencing, dancing (in a multitude of styles), performing (theater and dance), playing tennis, rowing, playing the piano/fiddle/violin/cello/guitar, skating… Any time that a child signs up for one of these activities, that child is expected to continue that activity, the implication being that dropping out of something after having tried it for a season or a summer, implies a failure on the part of both child and parent. And, sadly, too many of us seem to agree.

While parents like Chua pick an activity or two for their children and then bully their children into excelling at those activities, most of us offer our children a range of activities and (a) do not encourage them to find the ones they truly love and (b) allow the underlying popular judgment (made by parents, coaches and team mates alike), that stopping equals “giving up” or “quitting” to go uncontested. Our children grow up with the sense that the only reason to participate in a sport/activity is if ribbons/medals/trophies are guaranteed by their dedication and performance. They are unable to identify the things that truly bring them joy because far too many of these activities force the acquisition of competencies unrelated to the enjoyment of the activity by the child. It’s a lose-lose. Often they are either winning at something they don’t truly care about, abandoning those they may actually enjoy but do not excel at, or they are turning their backs on joyless activities and feeling like losers for doing so.

No wonder so many of them end up in high school stressed out, unhappy, out of touch with their own souls while meticulously churning out those A’s and making it into those Honors classes. No wonder so many of them are terrified that the worst thing that could happen to them is a ‘B’ that they feel is waiting around the next corner to bite them in the arse. No wonder they make it through high school and enter college completely unprepared for the delight of exercising an unfettered mind while simultaneously expecting to attend Stanford, Brown or Yale.

The single truly self-reflecting article I saw on this topic was by Karen Heller of the Philadelphia Inquirer who, it happens, was at Penn Charter watching ‘Race to Nowhere’ at the same time I was and drawing similar conclusions:

Not all children are exceptional in every way. Nor should they be. They can’t all be in the top 10 percent.

And not every child will go to Harvard, though it’s not for lack of trying.

With a range of colleges and universities, how did so many students see themselves at Harvard? A record 35,000 students applied for the Class of 2015, a jump of 15 percent, despite a decline in high school graduates. This means one in 50 seniors wants to attend Harvard, even though the odds of getting in are lousy. The admittance rate last year was 6.9 percent.

So, yes, we’d better prepare our children for failure.

I don’t know whom, exactly, to blame for this. Surely, some of the blame belongs to parents – children cannot enroll in activities on their own, and their approach to school has as much to do with a parent/guardian’s views as it does with their own ideas. Some of it belongs to secondary schools that measure success by average GPAs and college admissions over the fostering of the thing that is the truest indicator of life-long success: a love of learning. And some of it belongs to colleges that fall back repeatedly on the letter grade, standardized test scores and GPA over the personal history and intellectual potential of a student. When a student is reduced to listing awards and grades, and that becomes the measure of her worth, something quintessential about education is lost.

I realize that I am speaking of a privileged group of kids, those who live within a middle or upper middle class income bracket, and I know full well that, like the two movies, they are separated by a considerable gulf from the problems that beset their poorer counter parts. The overall thrust of a culture, however, affects us all equally. The kid who is told that college will save him and the kid who is told that college is non-negotiable, both will, one day, find themselves in a similar if not identical college environment. And that environment will probably be wrong in how both of them are judged. There are some changes afoot here in my house. The youngest is not in the Challenge Program for advanced kids, the middle one has been asked to aim for a D or less so she can realize that the world still stands, and the oldest has been advised to drop her second language and take pottery or photography instead. There are mixed results. The notion that “not in Challenge” means that she is not “smart enough” still hovers in the presence of her older siblings, the ‘D’ remains elusive, and a concentrated effort is being made – on the part of the youngling – to replace that second language with Theology rather than clay. But it’s a start.


The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.