The happiest day of my life was the day I was the filthiest and the cleanest tired.  I woke up jittery on the floor of a Mexican church, and pulled on overalls.  All day we nailed two-by-fours and I drank gallons of water without ever having to pee.  In the desert, you don’t pee or sweat.  This was kind of a shame because the toilet at the work site adjoined a pig pen, and everyone who visited remarked on the novelty of hearing porcine grunts while doing their business.

The group I worked with built a small house– a shed by American standards– for a family on the outskirts of Juarez.  I was more physically tired than I had ever been in my life.  But my mind was clear, and my heart was full.  Their old house was flapping cardboard.  Their new house was strong wood.

On Friday, three of my students came up to me to contest their quiz grades.  “Uh, didn’t I get this right?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Sorry.”  I had written a big angry red “G” next to the student’s neatly penciled “G.”  Yes, indeed, the answer was “G.”  Yeah, a quality of a tragic hero is “noble.”  Yeah, that is an “e.”

“I’m really not out to get you or anything,” I said.

“Uh-huh,” they said.  At the end of the school year, I make mistakes, constantly lose things, and can’t ever get enough sleep.  This frustrates me, just like when I have a long bout of the flu.  I’m mad at my brain for its dullness, and I’m mad at my body for its slowness.

Sunday morning, I turned on the radio when I woke up.  I often turn on NPR and then fall back asleep, which results in a lot of strange dreams about politicians.  I didn’t dream this week, though.  I heard President Obama praising a school board for firing the faculty and staff at an “underperforming” school.  This was a sign of “accountability.”

I was so angry that instead of falling back to sleep, I yelled at the radio.  I struggle at the end of the year to forgive myself.  Forgive myself for being so slow and fuzzy-headed.  Stop worrying about what I didn’t teach, what went badly.  Try to let go of the students who never got it together, didn’t learn, flunked both semesters.  Was there something else I could have done?  The president confirms it: teachers, when the kids don’t succeed, you’ve screwed up.  If you had done better, those kids would be fine.

Some teachers should be fired, sure.  But that’s so they can move on to jobs they are better suited for.  Don’t encourage the delusions of the ones who remain: teachers can’t do the work for the students, and without administrative support, teachers can’t make a bad school good.

The reason I was happy in my sleeping bag on the floor of the Mexican church, even as the swamp cooler gurgled uselessly and my right hand shook with fatigue, was because I knew I had done what I could.

The family we built for may have fled from Juarez.  Many people have.  The intensifying violence of the drug business has turned their city into an unliveable place.  Maybe that house is abandoned now.  Maybe dogs live in it.  I still know those were good days.  I know I did what I could.

I Used To Feel So Uninspired

Barack Obama makes me feel like a natural woman.  Especially this morning.

I’ve been preaching for years that education funding should not be locally funded.  If our goal in education is to equalize opportunity, it makes no sense to let poor kids in poor areas go to poorly funded schools and rich kids in rich areas go to lavishly funded schools.  (I say this, ruefully, as a child of one of the richest counties in America.  People there were willing and able to tax themselves like crazy to give me a great education.)  This additional federal funding is one more step toward equalizing some shocking gaps.  If it comes with additional federal oversight, I have faith that  it could be worth the annoyance.

And adding funding to Pell Grants?  I can’t imagine a better investment in our country.  Of course we should fund the college education of people with drive and skills but no money!  My fear about educational inequality is that some kid somewhere is born with the brains and creativity to cure cancer, and instead of going to med school, the kid is changing my oil at Jiffy Lube.  (Yes, very honorable work, but inappropriate.) 

Equal opportunity is not about compassion, or fairness, or any touchy-feely stuff like that.  It’s about cultivating the knowledge and talent we have in our country.  We’ve got to build up what we have.  (And incidentally, I don’t think anyone’s going to reject that cancer cure if the lead researcher was an illegal immigrant’s kid.) 

People from all over the world still come to the U.S. seeking education.  The fluidity and creativity cultivated by our educational system are unrivaled.  (To those people who felt stifled by their American education, I have to say: at least you weren’t born in Europe.  Or Asia.  Or Africa.)  The government here doesn’t control your major or your track in high school, and your studies here aren’t all about memorization and obeying authority.  That’s our weakness, but it’s also an incredible strength. 

Americans are a wildly creative bunch.  We might lag in math and science right-and-wrong tests, but we invent things like nobody’s business, gobble up and regurgitate everyone else’s languages, and mix cultures without killing each other a whole lot of the time.  Also, we’re good dancers.  That’s just my opinion.

Finally, merely because I have been brainwashed to think in threes: does Obama’s election really change anything?  Could having a black president really influence ideas of race in a meaningful way?  If I hadn’t seen these researchers’ theories in action myself, I would think they were silly.  Here’s what they found: the black-white achievement gap disappeared in two sets of tests that was administered before and after Obama’s election.  I know.  It sounds nutty.   Again, touchy-feely, self-esteem worksheet crap.  Still, on my final exams, I always have students (all of mine are African-American) write something positive about themselves before they start the questions.  How silly.  Or maybe not.