Dear Mr. Romney, I’m So Glad You Asked

Today you announced that you are ready to fix American education.  I’m happy for you.

What I find confusing is your view of the problem, and the goal of public education.  Then there’s your solutions, which, at least in my neck of the woods, seemed designed to create options that most people can’t or won’t take advantage of, solutions that don’t get anywhere near the root of the problem.

The basic problem you have right: poor and minority kids don’t get as good an education as other kids.  Yep.  For the most part, it’s been that way since public schools opened up, more than a hundred years ago.  They tend to have less funding, less experienced teachers, and much less support from families.  Yep.

But you seem to think that public education’s purpose is to give every parent the opportunity to send his kid to an effective school.  That is not the purpose.

Public education is supposed to give every child a solid education, regardless of whether the parents are in jail, on drugs, mentally ill, physically disabled, muddling through terrible poverty, dead, or just plain bad at parenting.  You don’t get to choose your parents.  And you shouldn’t have to rely on your parents being smart enough to choose a good school for you.  When you have messed up parents, your life is hard enough as it is.

If you focus on the rights of parents instead of the rights of children, only children with the savviest parents will get a good education.

In my city, I doubt vouchers would have much effect.  Private schools don’t have the capacity to serve students in our large, dysfunctional public district.  And I’m not sure they have an interest in developing that capacity, frankly.  It would be a huge change of mission for them.  Not to mention, they have a right to serve whomever they want.

The only parents who would navigate the voucher bureaucracy are the parents who have the time and knowledge and energy to do so.  At this point, most of the more functional parents have already pulled their kids out of the district anyway.  They’re in charter schools, like the one where I work, or they’re already in private school.

I also hate to mention, lest I sound selfish, but as a teacher, I’m aware that many private schools pay so little that you have to be married to work there.  And I’m not even dating anyone.

Yeah, I get that people who don’t want their kids to have sex ed or detention or learn about evolution will be thrilled.  I get that a few parents who live in crummy school districts will happily get the bump they need to send their kid to a nice private school.  That’s good for them, but suggesting vouchers as an improvement to our public education system won’t touch the needs of poor students.  They need more experienced teachers, more funding than other schools, not less, and fully funded before and after school programs to do the kind of enriching activities that wealthier students do on their parents’ dime.

Peace out,

Ms Elizabeth Schurman (AKA Schur-Schur; Schur-worm; Ms uh, uh, uh)

P.S. Every day I don’t get a lunch break, I sigh because I know if I could be in a union, I’d have time to heat up my lunch and go to the bathroom in peace.

Skipping and Fighting: Frequently Asked Questions

Why do city kids fight all the time, especially at graduation?
First of all, some of them don’t have much to lose.  If you have no hope of going to college (school district unaccredited, for example), and unemployment has hit your community the hardest of any, during terrible times (black unemployment has been double that of unemployment for whites), and if you already live in one of the most violent places in America, what is there to lose?  A child born into poverty has a 1.3% of rising into wealth, and a child born into wealth has a 30% chance of staying there.  Bad odds.
In prison, at least you get fed.  Plus, then you’ll have prison stories to swap with your elders.  You’ll be part of the club.
When you grow up in a violent area, you’re probably going to have some PTSD.  Sudden fright will push you to violence, and wounds from previous insults or disappointments may be raw.  You may not learn strategies for dealing with conflict other than physical methods.  And frankly, if most people around you use violence, giving a powerful speech or walking away is just going to get you beat up sooner, faster, harder, and more often.
High school graduation is a big deal in the city because a lot of people don’t graduate from anything much.  For a lot of people, it’s the only big ceremony they’ll have.  There are few college graduations, of course, but also few weddings.  The tension involved in a big life event causes family friction, as we all know, and in the city, that often leads to violence instead of just a lot of yelling and slammed doors.
It’s really scary to graduate from high school if you’re a city kid.  There is no natural progression to college.  You’ve probably spent 12 years getting lunch, discipline, education, and structure from a public institution, and the rug is suddenly pulled out at the end.
The school where I teach does everything but drive the kids to college.  We require the ACT.  We require application to college, and completion of a FAFSA.  We require scholarship applications.  We give them care packages of sheets and towels when they bring their college enrollment in.  That’s what it takes to get kids from dysfunctional neighborhoods and/or families into college, and it costs more than shaking hands with middle class kids and sending them on their way.  We don’t give city schools more money, though.  We generally give them less.
Sorry, we’re all off topic now.  Better move on to our other question that you didn’t ask.
Why do city kids miss so much school?
Some of them, sure, don’t see the value of an education.  And some of them are right.  Working hard and doing the paltry amount of work their schools require won’t do them much good.  Furthermore, right now, looking to college graduates for inspiration to continue in school is not a great idea: college graduates are leaving campuses with record amounts of debt and a daunting lack of employment opportunities.  Let’s set all that aside, though.  There are other reasons kids miss school.
There’s a significant contingent of kids who are home taking care of family members.  Students miss school to care for grandparents, parents, nieces and nephews.
In a middle class family, these duties would probably be done by medical professionals, or by a family member who doesn’t need to work.  The family might put grandma in a nursing home, and children might stay home with a parent.
The families of students I have worked with may be unwilling to use medical professionals because they are concerned about the level of care (quite reasonably, I think).  Or they may be unable to navigate a complex bureaucracy to get their needs met, from a lack of money, time, or understanding.  Also, the parents of our students are more likely to have jobs that are hourly, and do not offer paid sick days or vacation.  If not working means not getting paid, and not getting paid means not making rent, having your high school kid stay home makes a lot of sense.
I’ve worked with many students whose primary problem in school has been a simple lack of time.  The loyalty to family that is reinforced by an unstable community produces may positive results, but also some negative ones.  For my students, cutting off family ties is often part of the process of going off to college.  A shaky 18-year-old can’t bear the burdens of his family while maintaining grades and adjusting to college responsibilities.  On the other hand, cutting off family means that the student has to build trust with new people, in a new place, and that’s a challenge for any young person.

Ladies

The day after the art opening, I liked Patti Smith.  I loved Smith’s book, Just Kids.  I read most of it on the beach in Corpus Christi, Texas, in between minor adventures (like meeting a guy with the most interesting accent of all time, India Indian crossed with Alabama).  My head was in crunched together, dirty 1970s New York City (dirtiness being one of my favorite things about New York, don’t get me wrong), and my bare feet dug in the sand, the water of the gulf, rather recently de-oiled, doing its usual push-pull job, and our umbrella boy (not Alabama, but he did exist) occasionally shifting the shade so that it covered me.

Why did I suddenly like Patti Smith’s music?  I have found her lyrics too sweet, and her voice too wavy.  I read her biography on Pandora, and it mentioned, along with the men she worked with, one additional bit of information: if they were her lovers.  Gee.  I didn’t care who she slept with, but you know, we can’t understand a woman unless we know if she is wholesome, frigid, or a slut.

I thought maybe I could be like Gertrude Stein (this was suggested to me).  Not, like, a bad dresser, or chunky, or a lesbian, but a bossy art boss with good taste.  I did a little research, and it turns out she grew up with money, and always had money.  So I can’t quite be that kind.  These patron types, they don’t have 40 hours of work a week to pay the bills, or, you know, “careers.”

I went back to some Stein, anyway, her wackiest writings.  I can hardly stand her insanity except that I like how it smooths my brain down because there’s nothing to snag on.  And I started The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, something I should have already read.  If I can distract myself from its two depressing notes (one: I did not live in Paris in the 1920s; two: I have no One who inspires and supports me and I couldn’t do without), then I’ll enjoy it.

I watched a documentary on a burlesque class.  It makes me angry that women have to take their clothes off to be in front of people and get attention.  I have a hard time getting past that.  I’ve always thought it was foolish to get naked in front of anyone who didn’t love you.  As a woman, your body is important to who you are, it is closer to your soul than a man’s is, and you have to protect it.  Yes, it’s women who photograph themselves and post it all over the internet so they can be seen, looking this way.  (I’ve done it myself.)  Is that troubling?  Is that cultural or natural?  Is that a disadvantage or an advantage?  Who knows.  Setting that aside for now.

At least, I have to protect my body.  It’s not modesty or shame.  Just protection.  In any bar, people making music are almost always men, and people taking their clothes off (or working scantily clad) are almost always women.  The generally thoroughly feminist members of my generation have retained this gender division.  I don’t know why.  Maybe it’s just that deep.

I enjoy being a girl, though.  I think women have more choices, more flexibility, at this moment in history.  I can be weak without being shamed.  I can make very little money and have that look idealistic, rather than impractical.  It hits me harder, the gender thing, when thinking about other arts.  In writing, I’ve got George Eliot, Annie Dillard, and everyone in between.  In teaching, women abound.  I only know of one woman who runs an art gallery.  I can’t think of any visual artists I love who are women.

Patti Smith used her body most like a man.  Or she didn’t play the game, or something.  Or she is just one of those people who were so rooted, so deep down rooted in where they came from, that other people don’t make her anything different.  I don’t know.  I don’t know much about her.  I just read her book and liked her music for a little while.

I had a friend take my picture on the beach, in my swimsuit. I liked the way I looked.  My brain was in good shape, although unfortunately it didn’t show in the photo.  It was so good, that spring, to undress and have your skin out in the air again.  It was nice to be looked at.  It was still snowy back home, up north.

Out

Everyone is always coming out all the time, if they are creative and growing.  If you’re gay, and you do the big “coming out,” maybe you are a step ahead.  Everyone has to come out of one cocoon after another.  I feel quite grouchy about it just now, although I guess it’s beautiful and all.

I’ve been public lately, and I’m about to help hold another big (for me) public event.

It’s less that I feel exposed and more that I feel trapped.  Yer basic fear of commitment.  Like, what if I decide I want to do something else that night? What if I just don’t feel like it?  Could I just leave the door open and go back to my place and watch old episodes of “America’s Next Top Model” all evening?  At the end of the school year, the responsibility of my students has worn me down.  I’m especially sensitive to every responsibility, every weight right now.

The adolescence is coming out and making things and worrying, still, that the cool kids will see it, or won’t see it, or will disapprove.  Who the cool kids are is a flexible concept.  Usually for me being a cool kid is knowing me a little but not much, or appearing to have something that I think I want.  Like big boobs, or the ability to do the splits.

During adolescence, I noticed that Christmas wasn’t so special.  It was such a huge deal that it was hard to be there for it.  Was it really Christmas, like, now?  Now?

I check the guestlist on facebook compulsively.  A bigger number feeds my ego, and then it makes me want to hide under the bed.  What was I thinking?  What have I done?  Not really.  I hide on the bed.  Claustrophobia, remember.

I listened to the radio interview, and I didn’t hate the sound of my voice.  I just grimaced at how I laughed all the time, like I’m flighty or vapid.  Or it could be that I try to make other people comfortable by chuckling, and I don’t take myself seriously.  Fifteen years ago, no one was less able to laugh at herself.  I’ve made a lot of progress.

This is my second big event, and the first one, I was occasionally able to enjoy.  It was great to have a ton of people I love in one place, but it was a bummer that I hardly got to hang out with any of them.  Too busy.

Last night I tried to take a pill real quick, and it sat in my mouth a second while I looked for water, and it burned my tongue, and I washed it down with only a sliver of a drink, and my whole chest burned and my stomach screamed.  I tried to go to sleep.  Instead, dragged myself out to drugstore at midnight for drugs.  Tums helped a little.  But it took forever to sleep.  Discomfort puts you in the moment so neatly.

Usually my cure is finding the right thing to wear, the right song, the right thing to read, the right movie to watch, the right place to sit.  A strange and shallow cure?  Well.  It’s finding a way into the moment, to creating it along with time and stuff, to participating in it.  A tricky business.  How to come out not just to appear (good feminist) but to do, as well.  Be comfortable appearing and being looked at, as part of the whole human picture of seeing and being seen.