A number of conversations and presentations have been accumulating over the last couple of weeks, brewing into something—writing, action, commitments.
A colleague and I were talking about how we feel at things like war memorials and sites of battles past. She mentioned going to Pearl Harbor and feeling humbled by the sacrifices made by those men. I told her I didn’t feel humbled. I felt indebted, obligated. I stand at Arlington or read history, and I wonder what commitments, what sacrifices I will be called to make, and will I have what it takes to answer the call?
I went to a cadre-organizing meeting, and we talked about why we have chosen to make the commitment to be organizers. We all talked about the passion we have for public education. We believe it is the foundation of equity, the framework of the economy, the shelter of justice. We believe that public schools are utterly vital to democracy. In short, they are worth our time, our talents, our treasure. We talked about how important it is to share our testimony as teachers.
Today’s sermon at church was built around one of my all-time favorite poems, “Hope Is the Thing with Feathers.” Our minister, Wendy, talked about hope vs. cynicism, which has been one of the biggest battles for me as an organizer—getting my colleagues past their cynicism so they can dare to hope.
I have said before and will say a thousand times, I became a teacher to change the world. I believe (because I have been told) that I have made a difference in people’s lives, and as my sophomores and I learned this year reading Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, if you move a grain of sand in the Sahara, you change the world.
I’ve taught every kind of kid, and I have loved every kind of kid. I coached forensics for 17 years. I’ve had students go on to work for the U.S. Senate, practice law for the Department of Justice, become college professors, and yes, even go on to teach high school. Some coach their own Forensics teams. I’ve taught modified classes for kids who want to succeed in school but struggle with learning disabilities and other challenges. I’ve seen those kids graduate and go to college. I’ve taught at-risk students who walk through school doors with the weight of a thousand non-school-related problems on their backs. Some go to college, even so far as to get doctorates. Some work on your cars or carefully clean your grandparents’ rooms in nursing homes, stopping a moment to ask about a child in a new picture on the dresser. Some struggle still with addiction and mental illness. I have loved them all, not because I’m so great, but because they are loveable, every one of them.
The residents of Jefferson County were asked what our district’s priorities should be, and we placed neighborhood schools far above charters. The new school board majority has chosen to ignore that directive and make “choice” their pet project.
Those kids I just mentioned, every one of them, from the most motivated to most reluctant, came to me in classrooms in a neighborhood school. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not entirely anti-charter. But here’s what I know: If there were no good neighborhood schools, my wealthier, often higher achieving students would have gone to a good charter. (Not all charters are good, by any means.) Their parents would have moved heaven and earth to get them there. My free-and-reduced-lunch students would have stayed in a school with less funding and higher needs. Many of these kids live in families with one car, and whether or not it even runs is a crapshoot. (At least right now, none of my students’ families live in their cars, but that’s a reality for many kids in Jeffco, too.) I’ve had students for whom even bus fare is a financial burden. Some have to get to and from school quickly because they take care of younger siblings while single parents work two jobs or jobs with odd hours. Some go home to alcohol- or drug-addicted parents who sure as hell don’t care how their child gets to and from school. Some live with grandparents as they wait for their own parents to get out of prison. What good does expanding “school choice” do for them? They have no choice. And if the people who do have choices abandon neighborhood schools, what’s left?
Charters are fine as laboratories for innovation. That’s what they were intended to be. But as ways to abandon neighborhood schools? The school for our neighborhood struggles; the socioeconomics are changing. My kids, both bright and motivated with parents who are very invested in their educations, went there anyway, though some of their friends open enrolled in higher-performing schools. Our neighborhood school needed kids like these. The school needed their test scores. Their classmates needed them as friends and role models. My kids needed to learn to function in a diverse world, and they got it at their school. Their friends lived in big houses with swimming pools and tiny rentals. Some went to college and graduated. Some started college and dropped out. Some never went to college at all. Because my kids have known all these kinds of people, they continue to see the humanity in all kinds of people. They have also both done very well in college, so they didn’t seem to be held back academically by staying in the neighborhood.
A few educator-run, community-instigated charters are fine. They really can foster innovation for all schools in a district. But this new school board is not ultimately about those charters. Witt, Newkirk, and Williams didn’t just pop in out of thin air. Their election, from the timing during an off year to the many thousands of dollars pouring in from outside the state, was part of a nation-wide plan. We’ve seen this agenda’s culmination in New Orleans, which no longer has public schools. It’s all about private, for-profit charters—schools in which the out-of-state campaign contributors I mentioned have substantial investments. (By the way, they also invest in the publishing companies that produce canned curriculum for many of these schools.) The law doesn’t allow the school district to run for-profit schools, but there’s nothing to stop them from contracting with national school franchises. These for-profit charter schools can and have played fast and loose with the rules in order to exclude kids with special needs.
As I’ve said, all kinds of kids, yours and mine, can actually see real benefits going to school together. I assure you, the vast majority of kids are loveable and good-hearted, their test scores and grades notwithstanding. But if that doesn’t sway you, remember this: Those struggling kids don’t disappear. If you abandon them now, you and your children will pay for it in prisons. Why, why, why would we pay for charter schools to put money in the pockets of already rich people, then pay those rich people even more for the private for-profit prisons they run? Isn’t it better to invest in all our community’s children while they’re young enough to save? We won’t save them all, but we’ll save more than we would if we don’t even try.
That’s part of the hope vs. cynicism thing. I know I can’t save every kid, but I try to save as many as I can, and I do succeed sometimes. They’ve told me so. They’ve hugged me after finals and at graduation and flat-out said, “I wouldn’t be here without you.” And I cry. I am moved, and yes, by that I am humbled, because they trusted me. They trusted me.
It’s been a hell of a career. There were some very, very hard years as we recovered from the shootings in 1999. I’ve struggled with PTSD. On a more ordinary note, I’ve spent more nights and weekends grading papers than I care to count. I’ve met with former students long after they graduated to keep loving them through illnesses, addictions, and depression. I’m working with one to help her tell her story in a book. It’s been worth every minute, every heartache and triumph. I wouldn’t trade my life for a hundred million dollars. But I’m winding down. Who will come after?
I don’t connect my work to the check that monthly makes its way into my bank account. I teach to change the world. The check just makes it possible for my family and me to survive while I do that. Of course, my checks are enough for me to do that. If they were not, no matter how much I love teaching, I’d have to do something else. If I talk about money for teachers at all, I talk about having enough for the teachers coming after me to teach and have a family. How honored I am, how hopeful for the future, when my students tell me they want to teach. But how can I encourage them to go into what is rapidly becoming a dead-end profession? Driven by the “corporate reform” model, there is a push to cap teacher salaries at 5 years. They begin at salaries that are great if you’re single, but impossible where they end if you have a family. I have been blessed to have a true vocation to which I could literally dedicate my life. Don’t we want those kinds of teachers anymore? Do we really want to relegate our children, our future, to people forced to teach only a short time, set up from the start to see it as a stepping stone, not a true calling?
It doesn’t have to be this way. I don’t want to hear that there’s too much momentum and this is unstoppable. I don’t want to hear about how much money the other side has. I don’t give a damn how hard it is. I can make a difference here. So can you. Cynicism is lazy. It is an abdication of responsibility. “It can’t be done” is just a bullshit excuse. Margaret Meade said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” People have sacrificed their lives for this country in battles that were lost in wars that were won. What are we called to sacrifice, to commit to? Are you going to answer the call?
I don’t want to hear anyone’s excuses. I want to see your sign at the rally at the Education Center in Golden on June 5th and your face at board meetings all year long. (I’m an English teacher. I know better than to use the word “you” when I just mean “people.” I mean you.) I want to hear your voice before the board. I want to see your letters to editors, so many letters that they cannot be ignored! Letters to the board must be publicly displayed at meetings. I want to see binder after binder after binder of them from everyone in the district: teachers, parents, taxpayers, business and property owners, alums and students old enough to understand the issues. I don’t want to hear any crap about partisan politics or unions or how busy you are. YOU CAN SAVE OUR COMMUNITY’S CHILDREN. STAND UP AND DO IT WITH ME!