Why I’m So Pissed About DeVos

I’m probably preaching to the choir here. The people who will read this already know it, and those who don’t want to hear it will make up a reason to ignore it. Here it is, anyway.

Last night I was at a board of operations meeting for my local teachers’ union where another member of the board broke into tears, and before long, tears flowed down a number of our faces. We were talking about school closures, and this teacher talked about a family she has taught for years. There are nine kids in the family, and as the elementary music teacher, she has taught them all. The love she feels for them was in her wet eyes and all over her tear-stained face.

She wasn’t pleading to keep the school open for the sake of her job. Let’s face it; if for some reason her job disappears, as a highly effective teacher she will find another position, possibly for more money than Jeffco pays. What she pled for was an end to the uncertainty of whether or not the school would close. Close it, if close it the district must, but don’t string along families like this one who rely upon all the support that is supplied by a Title I school (predominately low-income children) such as her school. She was worried about what would happen to the children. Would they be spread out among higher income schools and cut off from these resources?

This is not about closing schools or not closing them. That is a business decision that requires a greater understanding of the whole district than any one average teacher has. This is about what teachers’ union members talk about when it’s just us. It’s about the way our hearts and souls are with our kids. Always.

So when I post on Facebook that I am frustrated that our new secretary of education has no experience with or knowledge of public schools, and people rebut that by saying the best thing about her is that she will “take on” teachers’ unions, I take umbrage. I really do. What the fuck do people think teachers’ unions want? Geeze. Do they really think we get together at board meetings and talk about how we can best keep shitty teachers in classrooms? The vast majority of the time our own children attend public schools! Mine did.

I belong to a union whose members have taken voluntary pay cuts and pay freezes to keep budget cuts out of the classroom. I belong to a union of people who spend out of pocket every year, again to keep budget cuts out of classrooms. I belong to a union of educators who spend every day of their lives in schools with kids. I’m tired of being blown off every time my colleagues and I voice our concerns about education because we’re teachers. For Pete’s sake, who would have a better understanding of schools and education than the people who work in them every day?

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: I have a front row seat to this shit show. I do not read about schools and form my opinions based on that. I don’t even base my opinions on the very limited experience of my two children. I live this. I have taught thousands of kids over decades. In recent years, I have seen us make our children cynical about what we teach and why we teach it by placing so much emphasis on tests. I have seen our school-based (not union hall) conversations move from how to ignite passion in kids to how to gain more market share, how to market, how to make ourselves look shinier than the other neighborhood schools, because that’s what “competition” is all about.

Do you know what my ideology is when it comes to public education? I think every kid deserves a high quality neighborhood school. I don’t think any kid should have to go school shopping because his own school is terrible, nor do I think a family should choose a school because it has a better veneer of technology or facilities or because the staff puts on a better dog-and-pony show. I think kids should feel a community connection to their school, a personal connection to the educators that run it, and a creative and intellectual connection to the curriculum.

I don’t have a “conservative” or “liberal” ideology about schools unless you think that critical thinking skills and equal access to quality are political ideologies. If your politics opposes those things for children, or even some children, then you are a horrible excuse for a citizen. If you care about all kids, too, but are worried about low-performing public schools, work with teachers to improve them. Don’t disparage the people in there doing the job.

I get the fact that some people think the free market, applied to schools, will best achieve these things. I will tell you that, as one who works in schools, I think they’re wrong. I simply don’t see competition creating better schools. I just see the kids whose families can’t access “choices” getting left behind in schools with dwindling resources. Being wrong isn’t a sin, but blowing off the informed, expert opinions of educators is irresponsible.

Here’s the thing about DeVos: She is driven purely by political and economic ideology. For her it’s free market ideology first and children last, if at all. This is evident in the fact that she can’t be bothered to learn basic federal laws about educating children with disabilities or to understand the different ways test data are interpreted. It’s also evident in her absolute refusal to commit to equal accountability. She seems to think if a school provides a free education, accountability should be high, but if a school is for-profit and it makes a profit, well, that school is doing its job, regardless of student achievement. Her ideology is about free market schools making money. Period.

I have a big, fat, frickin’ problem with that, and I have another big, fat frickin’ problem with having teachers’ unions—peopled entirely by people who know schools, who know education, and more importantly know thousands of kids whom we love with all our hearts—being blown off for purely ideological reasons. Maybe you don’t like collective bargaining for compensation. Fine. Oppose that, if you must. But when it comes to the nuts and bolts of how schools run—funding them so ALL kids have access to good schools, not just rich kids; regulating and monitoring schools so kids get what they need; keeping the focus on kids, not marketing and market share—for God’s sake, try listening to educators! Maybe even be grateful for the money our unions donate to politicians, because we put that money toward people who pledge to support public schools and the kids who attend them.

At the very least, have a little common sense and stop buying the bill of goods about teachers’ unions wanting anything but high quality schools in which to work.

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On Twice Looking Into Orwell’s 1984

Last Saturday afternoon, my husband and I sat curled up side by side on the couch with a fire in the fireplace as we both reread George Orwell’s 1984. It is not a comfortable read, especially given the events unfolding around us in the country—the world, really, as a result of our country’s actions. Nonetheless, I was comfortable. The dogs were with us, and we were warm, still happy from a morning of taking tons of food from my union hall to a local food bank to feed homeless teenagers.

I looked up from my book at the fireplace and wondered if someday I would need this memory to sustain me somewhere cold with my husband’s whereabouts unknown to me. You see, we have both agreed that, should there come a day when Muslims are required to register with our government, we (I, a Unitarian Universalist, and he, an unaffiliated atheist) will place our names on that registry. We will do this having no idea what the long-term consequences will be. We are both well aware that the U.S. has interned its citizens in the past, and given the actions of our government over the past weekend, I have no confidence that history will not repeat itself.

I cannot believe I am having these thoughts! I cannot fathom what has happened to my country! The last time I read 1984, I was in my early 20s. Reagan was in the White House, and it was morning in America. This book was about the U.S.S.R., and Big Brother was Joseph Stalin. It had nothing to do with me, and it didn’t really stick with me.

This time, of course I recognize all the elements that are about old Soviet-style Communism, but doublethink and blackwhite, how can I read these and not have them resonate in my new world of “alternative facts”? Winston Smith changes the past for a living. How different is he from Kellyanne Conway or Sean Spicer?

Next Saturday I am attending a demonstration in support of Muslims in the U.S. Presumably, we will also be thinking of all the Syrian refugees who, like European Jews in the 1930s, are desperately seeking to save themselves and their families from unimaginable suffering and destruction and who, like European Jews in the 1930s, are being turned away by a callous, isolationist U.S. Their blood will stain the hem of Lady Liberty’s robes for a long time to come.

Do I consider the possibility that there will be violence, not on the part of peaceful protesters, but on the part of some unstable, inflamed supporter of authoritarianism, isolationism, and xenophobia? Yes. One does not work where I work (Columbine High School) and believe oneself immune to violence. “It can’t happen to me” is no longer part of my paradigm.

But how can I stay by my warm fire, reading 1984 and tut-tutting, without acting? Without risking something of myself?

In high school, I had a bit of an obsession with fascism. After all, it was not so far in the past to me. My grandparents’ generation had fought, and many died, eliminating fascism from Europe and making the world safe for democracy. I read accounts of and even watched 4 hours of interviews with average non-Jewish Germans talking about life in Nazi Germany. I will never forget the almost baffled looks on their faces as they grappled with their own complicity. They hadn’t gassed anyone. They just…well, everyone had been talking about how the Jews had ruined the economy for “real” Germans, how many Jews were actually Communists, all that. These non-Jewish Germans only wanted to make things better for their own children, and they had believed it when they were told that the Jews were to blame for all Germany’s woes. So when Jews were marched by the hundreds down the streets to rail stations and cattle cars, these other Germans went back inside their homes to finish cooking dinner or inside their offices to finish tasks at hand. Their lives, after all, were no different than they had been before, and they were dreaming of a Germany made great again…

I just can’t bear for that to be me someday, staring at an interviewer, stumbling over my words, trying to justify to him—but more so to myself—how I had gone back to my husband, my dogs, my book, and my fire.

Posted in Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | 2 Comments

Peace on Earth

It is the time of year to begin writing the annual Christmas letter, that missive which will detail the kids’ progress through college and announce upcoming nuptials.

It is also the time of year when we often enclose such letters within cards that express a simple wish: Peace on earth.

As if a pretty piece of cardboard could bring such a thing about. And I know that, while this is not the case for me, many believe only the second coming of Jesus will fulfill this wish. That’s all well and good, but honestly, if I were Jesus, I think I’d be looking at humanity right now and saying, “I’ll stay right where I am for the time being. You all seem to have forgotten that God helps those who help themselves.”

I think we have lost sight of some rather essential parts of peace on earth:

Peace requires courage. It requires the sort of courage which means even if a stranger looks very much like people who have committed gross acts of violence, unless there are immediate signs of danger, that stranger should be treated with goodwill. If this compels peacemakers to be vulnerable, well, the courageous are not those who believe themselves indestructible. The courageous rise above the fear that accompanies vulnerability.

Peace requires generosity, and true generosity requires sacrifice. It means we genuinely want for every child what we most cherish for children in our own families. We want our children and their children, our nieces and nephews to have adequate food and shelter, good health, and safety. Peace requires us to share these things, even if it means our own children have a little less, because let’s face it, all too often we give short-shrift to the children of others, not to protect our own children’s needs, but to fulfill our wants.

It doesn’t require us all to drop to subsistence-level existence. People who work hard can live in deserved comfort, even while providing for the most fragile and vulnerable among us. We just have to decide that peace on earth is worth a little sacrifice.

Peace requires honesty—the hardest kind. The kind that happens in the mirror. The kind where you recognize your own greed and prejudice. Honesty prevents anyone from uttering the phrase “I’m not a racist” or “I’m not sexist” or “I’ve earned everything I have.” No one is color-blind. No one escapes the external messages about gender that bombard us from the moment we are wrapped in a pink or blue blanket. No one’s life is without unearned blessings, if the word “privileges” is more than one can take.

When they are honest and generous, peacemakers know the cry of “reverse discrimination” is just a false claim. It says that when people look different from me, there is nothing that can be done to provide equity for them, but when they look like me, the courts, politicians, and everyone else had better come to our defense and get something done about it. There is nothing in this sentiment that can ever bring peace on earth. Peace on earth means that if an advantage is given to someone else to balance centuries of oppression, that is part of the generosity and sacrifice required to bring peace to this troubled world.

I am as flawed as anyone in this. I catch myself telling old jokes based upon out-dated ideas I should have evolved past by now. I am not without frustration when I realize that my children’s lack of “diversity” works against them in certain fields. After all, they seem pretty unique to me. Isn’t that diversity? But they have had so many other advantages. They can hold their own, even in a world that asks them to be generous and to make sacrifices. I am deeply proud of them for understanding this.

Not everyone will try to be a peacemaker. I know that. I know life is not fair. I will work hard and make efforts that will go unmatched and unappreciated. I know something else. If I wait to make my efforts for peace until everyone else makes theirs, my wish for peace will never be fulfilled in any measure. In fact, it will only be undermined. If I wait for every individual within a group to be perfect before I see that group as being worthy of my concern, there can be no justice in this world, and as the classic protest cry states: No justice, no peace.

If Jesus is your reason for the season, may you find him—right there, under your rib cage, beating in the spirit of peace. If the solstice is what stirs in your veins, may you bring the light of peace into these brief, dark days. If a menorah illuminates the last nights of your December, may you reclaim the holy temple by laying full claim to the hope for peace on earth. If the humanist in you knows that only human dedication can bring about peace, well, then you know what to do.

Peace on earth. Good will toward all.

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Toughen Up, Buttercup

A former classmate’s comment about how safe spaces and group discussions where kids express emotion are ruining this generation got me to thinking, and thinking often gets me to writing, as you may have noticed.

I am aware of a new concept in education of “safe spaces” for students who may encounter ideas or works which trigger their own feelings around a traumatic event or where students of particular marginalized groups can get together without people outside of those groups to talk. I can’t really speak with authority about them as they actually function because I’ve never actually seen one or used one. I know people often go off half-cocked about how great something is or how terrible it is without actually knowing anything about it. My experience in life is that when you really delve into anything, you find out there are pluses and minuses.

My classmate conflated this concept (which he clearly doesn’t like) with a support group environment I’ve used in my classroom for a couple of decades. I will shamelessly admit that making my classroom feel “safe” has been a pretty important thing to me for my entire teaching career.

I hear a lot that “life is hard and we have to toughen kids up.” I figure that’s kind of true, but I also think that life shits on people enough to toughen them. They don’t need to get shit on in my classroom to make it in the world.

It’s not that I favor bubble-wrapping kids. I was not a helicopter parent. I didn’t take care of my kids’ problems with peers or teachers for them. I figured they needed to learn that themselves. I let them walk to the bus alone and play and fall down and get bruised. I am a teacher of literature, and with that, I often touch upon history and current events and human issues that are timeless, all of which tend to expose kids to just how awful people can be to each other. No bubble-wrap here.

People commit atrocities because of race (To Kill a Mockingbird and The Power of One) and politics (Long Way Gone). People betray one another and destroy lives in the name of religion (The Scarlet Letter). Economic injustice and greed exist, and they suck (The Great Gatsby). People get raped and people suffer depression (Speak). Abortion is a complicated subject, and the more deeply you look at it, the less clear the whole thing is in either direction, plus, there are a lot of ways we treat people as disposable besides abortion (Unwind). Childhood is not all innocence and playing fair, and in the end, all this is a reflection of adulthood (Lord of the Flies and Catcher in the Rye). These are just a few of the books I’ve taught over the years.

Literature, I tell my students, is an instruction manual for life. It allows us to come together and explore the most difficult parts of being human in a way that is unattached to us and provides us a bit of distance. Maybe we even read about something before we experience it, so when we do experience it, we are not utterly taken by surprise. When we read The Scarlet Letter and talk about Roger Chillingworth, I make a dark promise to my kiddos: If it hasn’t happened to you yet, someday someone will do something unforgivable to you, and you must decide how long you will carry that weight before you put it down.

I do not think it is in a student’s best interests to allow them to opt out. I don’t think parents should opt their kids out, nor do I think schools should.

I do think the classrooms in which these things are discussed should feel safe. I think rape victims who don’t want to read graphic descriptions of rape should be allowed to take care of themselves by skipping that section, maybe even take a break to “go to the bathroom” and breathe, if needed. If the trauma is very recent, okay, maybe you can bow out altogether.

But I’ve had my share of trauma, and I don’t retreat every time a reflection of that trauma comes up. I don’t voluntarily do school shooting stuff, so no, I haven’t read The Hour I First Believed, nor have I seen Elephant. If either were required for a class or something else I was doing, I could swing it. Whatever trauma I have personally experienced, I will discuss more frankly with those who have shared the experience, so I see the value of gatherings of only those who have experienced the trauma. I also think that being the direct target of homophobia, racism, et cetera is traumatic. I’m in no position to tell people whose experiences are unlike mine what they have “the right” to be hurt by.

And don’t tell me that people “shouldn’t” be hurt by these things. If I tell you that a knife shouldn’t wound you and you shouldn’t bear a scar from a knife wound, will that make you immune to being cut? Will it keep a scar from forming?

This is why classrooms should be safe. So kids can say what they think and hear what others think without needlessly inflicting damage on each other. You’ll get cut in the kitchen enough times in your life. No one in school needs to bring a blade to “toughen you up,” metaphorically speaking.

Now, for those who don’t know me and don’t know about the class I teach, it’s called ACE (Alternative Cooperative Education). Before you go off on how “cooperative” probably means some new-agey shit, like teaching people to cooperate with each other, the “cooperative” actually means that we work in partnership with business leaders to make sure our kids are learning the skills businesses need. (Ironically, the ability to cooperate with others tops that list.)

I teach reading, writing, and business skills with a healthy dose of personal responsibility and work ethic to kids who have not been super successful in traditional classes. These are not kids with disabilities; they are generally kids who don’t do school for a variety of other reasons. Are some basically just lazy? Sure. But none of them is stupid, and many of them have back-stories that I find make super-judgey people awfully uncomfortable. (I just re-read that. I’m not saying kids with disabilities are stupid; I’m just asking that readers not make that assumption about my kiddos.) Think things like having both parents in jail because when you were 8 years old your body was being sold to pay for Dad’s drug-habit, then going through the foster care system for years. Think using drugs and alcohol with mom or dad while you were still in preschool. Think getting the crap beaten out of you by your dad until until you were finally big enough to hit back. Think being told your whole life that you are worthless, that you’re the reason your mom or dad’s life is total shit. A former student recently made a comment to me along the lines of thinking her life had been much rougher than almost any other student I’d had. Don’t get me wrong—she’s had a damned hard time of it. Still, the look on her face when I shared a few others’ stories said a lot about what we assume children’s lives are all like.

If your life was hard, but none of this stuff happened to you, and you thought helping kids feel safe would ruin them, make them soft, well, now maybe you have a different understanding.

So in my classroom, it’s okay to cry. It’s even okay to cry “just” because some other kid called you a name, because sometimes that name is simply the straw that breaks the camel’s back. You can cry because the work I’m asking you to do is hard and you’re frustrated. When you’re all done crying, I’ll make you do the work anyway, but it’s okay to cry.

And if you cry, I will ask if you want a hug. It’s okay to say no, and I’ll respect that. It’s okay to say yes. In my classroom, you can just walk through the door and ask for a hug, and you’ll get it. Even if you are 6-foot-6 and headed into the Marines in two weeks when you graduate. Heck, if you’re a former student who has done multiple tours of duty in a combat zone, I will meet you for a beer, sit with you while you cry in it, and give you the same hug I gave you when you were a kid. (I have actually done this.) In my experience, this does not prevent said Marine from returning to the combat zone weeks later.

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The Day After (2016)

We are in deep trouble.

I told you all that I would probably stumble in my resolve to handle this election with grace. I am flabbergasted at our choice in president and heartbroken that Jefferson County abandoned its children. The damage done so far is only the beginning.

That said, I’m not giving up on my country or my profession. Groups will face persecution on a scale we haven’t seen in quite some time, but those of us who care for justice—not just for ourselves but for everyone—are going to have to step up. After all, when justice belongs only to a few it isn’t justice; it’s privilege. We may find that privilege is a precarious thing. You know, that “First they came for the Socialists” kind of thing.

We are going to have to take risks, invest time, be and do more than we ever thought we could. We cannot surrender to bigotry and ignorance and fear.

We don’t have to hate anyone to do that. We don’t have to spread vitriol. We do have to speak up for justice, show up for justice, invite and invite and invite the rest of our country (and our county) to join us.

I know my fellow teachers will be disheartened today. We’ll be back to big pay cuts. We’ll hemorrhage teachers to all the other districts that chose to invest in their children. It’s difficult not to feel as though we have worked so hard only to be slapped in the face. Take some time, Jeffco teachers. Lick your wounds. I am considering teaching my classes today and then taking half a sick day in the afternoon when I don’t have students. I feel a need for church.

But I have an after-school commitment to a kid that I’ll go back for, because I promised that no matter what I would be the teacher my students deserve. I meant it.

At some point we’re going to have to shake it off, and those of us who remain will have a lot of strenuous work to do.

People before me have worked hard and made sacrifices to make progress, to form a union that protects teachers and kids, to provide opportunities to kids of all backgrounds, to strengthen families in all their forms. It’s bad enough to be facing the setbacks we are in these areas, but I will not abandon these causes for which others gave so much. I may feel discouraged, but I will not be dissuaded.

We lose only when we surrender.

Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | 1 Comment

Win or Lose 2016

I wrote this just before the Jefferson County recall election last year. It seems even more apropos this year, with a few adjustments:

Tuesday night, or maybe early Wednesday morning, we should know the outcomes of this election.  I wanted to revise this now, a public challenge to myself for which I can be held accountable, and to my fellow United States citizens.

This election will put many of us who have cared passionately about the outcome into one category or the other.  We will be winners or losers, and no matter which side we took, we will most likely believe that our whole country won or lost with us. Emotions will run deep.

Win or lose, I hope that we will remember that we are not each other’s enemies.  No matter what signs your neighbors had in their yards, no matter what words were exchanged face-to-face or on social media, we are family, friends, and neighbors.  Hard times will fall on all of us, and we will bring each other meals, care for each other’s children, watch out for each other.  We will bear loss and celebrate life together, because we are, in the end, human beings–flawed but loving, no matter whom we voted for.

Win or lose, we all truly do care about our country.

I’m human.  I’ll stumble.  Win or lose, I will be as tempted as anyone to feel smug and superior or angry and bitter.  I know I will.  But I resolve not to fall.  I intend to stop and remember the inherent worth, dignity, and humanity of everyone around me, even those I believe were wrong, or selfish, or lazy.  I will reach for humility and forgiveness. At least, I promise to start trying really hard no later than Thursday.  I’ll stumble.  I’m human.

Win or lose, I will never forget the amazing people I have met in the past two years of political activism around the issue of education.  Sure, I’ve seen some really ugly behavior on both sides of the 2016 presidential campaign, but my personal experience working for funding for my local public schools has been nothing but positive. Nothing can ever truly diminish my faith in my fellow human beings because in the past two elections, I have met hundreds of our species’ finest.

Win or lose, I will walk into school on Wednesday morning and be the teacher my students deserve. Whom their parents voted for will make no difference. May we all go to our jobs, and out on our neighborhood streets, and to family meals and begin the work of healing. And then, may we find the strength and the grace to reach beyond that, even. And then, maybe even listen to each other–really listen–and try to understand, and love each other.

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Jeffco Mill Levy and Bond Issue

When Jefferson County Schools waged a battle to take its schools back from corporate reformers, I blogged about it ad nauseam. There was much to write about. First the public needed to be made aware that there was even an issue. Then we had to motivate teachers and community to fight for it. We fought like hell and won a major victory.

Now we have something new to work for. It’s not as sexy as rescuing children from those who had a political agenda rather than kids’ interests at heart, but for Jeffco now, it’s just as important.

We have a mill levy and bond issue on this November’s ballot. These are biggies, and they’re vital to Jeffco’s future—both in the form of our children and in our overall economic prosperity. Like the board issue, it is important for those of us in the know to talk to our friends and neighbors, and in the weeks to come, we’ll be back out pounding the pavement and knocking on doors to make sure everyone knows—Jeffco Schools are in dire need.

We know that Jeffco voters are very skeptical about new taxes, and it is certainly valid to want to know why we are asking for approximately an additional $4.25 per month per $100,000 assessed value from property owners.

First, you need to know that at our current funding levels, Jeffco must spend $1,449 less on each child than Denver. We spend $1,151 less than Boulder, and around $500 less per child than Cherry Creek and Littleton. Is this because our children deserve less? I don’t think so.

Jeffco pays teachers, on average, 19 percent less than surrounding school districts, making it possible for them to attract and retain the best and the brightest. Do we believe all our kids deserve is new teachers who are gaining experience, while other districts’ kids deserve the fruits of that experience when teachers leave us for better salaries? I certainly hope not.

I truly believe that even people who do not have kids in Jeffco Schools (and that’s 70 percent of our voters) care about the children who surround them. They want bright futures for all our kids.

But for the sake of argument, let’s pretend there are some folks out there who only care about money. According to Realtor.com, one study showed that people are willing to spend 20 percent more for a house in an area with good schools. A 20 percent return on your home’s value seems worth the very modest investment of this mill and bond.

If you want to know more about how the money will be spent, click here and read up.

Then do the right thing for our kids and our community and vote yes on 3A and 3B this November.

As always, feel free to share this.

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Are You Sure It Was Rape?

One of the hard things this country has been doing, and I am proud of this country for doing, is pulling up carpets on issues and exposing what’s underneath. One issue we are slowly exposing is rape culture, and we have much work to do.

I and every other woman I know has either had direct experience with sexual assault or knows multiple women who have experienced it. One would hope we’d come a long way since my experiences in the 1970’s, when my own mother told me not to report because what I would be put through by the police and the courts would not be worth it, and I would probably lose. At the time, it would have been totally acceptable for them to question my sexual history, but even the fact that I had none would not have saved me. My clothes, my attitude, whether I had fought (though I was young and naïve enough to not fully understand what was even happening, much less fight)—all of these would be questioned, and I would most likely not be believed.

With the decision not to report came a great deal of regret and years of feeling guilty. My abuser went on to be in a position to abuse other girls. I have borne the weight of that responsibility my whole life—the fact that I was between the ages of 12 and 15 at the time notwithstanding.

But we have further to go, and now a young woman who means my whole life to me is facing this, and like the women and girls of my generation, not feeling like she could report it. Like me, until recently she wasn’t able to call her assault what it was, because even we women are taught to question ourselves. Now, there are acknowledgeably gray areas that can occur in sexual situations. I understand that. Given the mixed messages society gives both men and women about what constitutes consent, I asked her whether she thought her attacker could identify what he had done as rape, and she said no. Then I discovered all the details; I can tell you without the slightest doubt that she was assaulted by a predator who knew exactly what he was doing. He manipulated his way into her home, slapped her, and ignored her struggles, yet she could not bring herself to “accuse” him. In 2016, young women still believe they have somehow misunderstood when rapists willfully violate them.

Like my generation 40 years ago, she faces a legal system that does not automatically believe a woman who reports a rape. “Are you sure?” No one asks a mugging victim whether he is sure he didn’t voluntarily give up his wallet. No one finds out he gave money to another person—in a store, on the street, wherever—and then suggests that it was understandable that the mugger thought it would be okay to take this person’s money.

And you know, not all thefts are violent. Faced with a mugger who is clearly bigger and stronger and very demanding and intimidating, more than one person has handed over a wallet or purse without further threat or protest. No one says that crime can’t be prosecuted or even investigated. When someone is bilked of money, defrauded by a master manipulator, they often have legal recourse. No one tells them that, because they were conned by an expert before their money was taken, the conman wasn’t a criminal. Charles Ponzi went to jail. No one tells those victims they have no right to report the fraud. But we tell women who are conned into letting predators into the safety of their homes that what happened to them wasn’t really rape.

Remember, prosecution is not conviction. I’m not saying every man accused of rape must be punished. In America, we have a presumption of innocence, and that is important, but this does not require an immediate presumption that the accuser is lying or delusional, either. It means both are treated by their own side as if they are telling the truth, and the final determination is made through investigation and, when possible, in court. I have no doubt that people have been accused of stealing things when they were, in fact, willingly given the items in question, or who never had possession of the items at all. But how often is the victim of a mugging unsure he was even mugged because society tells him it’s ambiguous? After all, the mugging victim engages in voluntary exchanges involving money. How can he be so sure he was mugged? How often do we tell that victim that he shouldn’t “ruin the thief’s life” by reporting him?

People get away with all kinds of crimes: murder, burglary, embezzlement, you name it, because no justice system is perfect, and great care must be taken to try not to convict innocents. It’s entirely possible that a woman may report a rape and be believed, and the case may still not even go to trial. Sometimes that’s because of a system that secretly still blames the victim, but sometimes it’s just a genuine lack of evidence, as may occur in any other crime where the perpetrator goes unpunished. That happens. I get it. But many rapists get away with it over and over because their victims don’t report them, and how can we protect people if there are rapists getting away with it all the time? The National Institute of Justice reports that of the “rapes and sexual assaults perpetrated against women and girls in the United States between 1992 and 2000, only 36 percent of rapes, 34 percent of attempted rapes, and 26 percent of sexual assaults were reported.” Men under-report even more because there is this idea that they cannot be raped. It is wrong, of course, but who tells them that before it happens? Almost no one, I suspect.

How can this still be? Granted, more rapes are reported now than when I was in my teens and twenties, but do you know how that happened, according to the National Institute of Justice? Not from victims reporting it themselves. The initial increase in reports came from third party reporters like witnesses and family members. Somehow they knew they would be believed without blame, whereas the victim, herself, did not. Victims must be empowered to report, and that means their word should be as trusted as the word of anyone else who reports any other crime.

For those of you who worry that people will cry rape willy-nilly, the solution is readily available: explicit consent. “Is this okay?” “Hey, do you wanna…?” Then going no further without “yes.” I have begun teaching this in ACE, during the portion of the class where we talk about teen issues. I explain to the kids that the law is not as full of bright lines as they would like to believe. This is why we have a trial system. I tell them that, while reporting rape is not a guarantee of prosecution or conviction, all nonconsensual sex has the potential to end up in a rape conviction. Explicit consent protects both partners—from the pain of feeling violated and from the charge of rape where no rape was intended. For those who think this puts a damper on the mood, ask people in the BDSM community, where explicit consent is an absolute requirement. They seem to navigate it pretty well. (No, I’m not advocating BDSM for all; I’m saying they seem to have some pretty wild sex and still get in some version of “Do you wanna…?”)

Yes, indeed, America still has work to do. May my grandchildren’s generation be a safer one.

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Yes, More on White Privilege

I have vacillated between “there is enough blathering about race from people who haven’t really given it any thought, so there’s no need for me to add to the cacophony,” to “there is enough thoughtful commentary about race from thoughtful people, so there’s no need for me to add to the discussion,” to “maybe I have a different perspective than anything I’ve seen so far, so maybe I have something of value to add.”

Guess which won?

This is long, because the issue is complicated, but here’s the key idea: I teach at-risk students in a predominately White school, and this gives me a different perspective on things like privilege and “compliance” and things of that nature. I hope you’ll stick with me.

The alternative class I teach has support groups, and in those groups, kids talk about the issues they face in and out of school. Marijuana possession, alcohol possession, minor skirmishes with the law are not uncommon. Most of my students, regardless of race, are respectful to cops, but more of them are disrespectful than you might imagine. These students are, without exception, White. They frame their disrespect with “that cop had no right to…” Heck, it’s not even just the kids in the alternative class. I had a high-achieving White debater pull a pocket Constitution out of his pocket (I love debaters!) and lecture a cop about what he did and did not have the right to do.

My students of color think these White kids are crazy. When you’ve watched your father gunned down in front of you by cops (as two of my Latino students did) or your friends or siblings cuffed and thrown on the ground by police, you comply. Like one Black student said to his White peers in one of these conversations, “It doesn’t matter what a cop has the right to do. If he shoots you, you’re dead.” I should also mention, this conversation was years before Ferguson.

I know someone’s going to ask, were the cops justified in shooting the Latino kids’ father? I have no idea. They were very young at the time, so they don’t remember the particulars. They remember the trauma. He was a drug dealer, so it’s possible. I had a White kid who lived the first years of his life on the run from the cops with his parents who were criminals. His parents were apprehended in front of him in such a way that they both lived and it didn’t seem to stop him from being disrespectful of authority figures. These are anecdotes, not statistics, but I’m just sayin’.

It never occurs to my White students that a cop will shoot them. Never. Occurs. To. Them. Even the White kids who are respectful are just scared of getting in trouble. They’re not scared of getting beaten up or killed. My Black and Latino kids are afraid for their physical safety. I can’t seem to get a grip on trends for Asians. I’ve heard both points of view, and if the trend is identifiable at all, it comes from where they live—predominately White suburbs, no fear of cops; predominately mixed urban areas, fear. As far as I can tell, for Blacks and Latinos, it doesn’t matter where they live. Cops can beat you or kill you, so do what they say.

And that’s just a reflection of race in police interaction.

In my senior class, we read a graphic novel called American Born Chinese. It’s about how race and racism affect Asian students in predominately White America. Before we start, I have the kids talk about racial stereotypes. It’s Columbine, so my classes are mostly White, but they are more mixed than many other classes at the school. (The proportion of students of color being identified as “at-risk” in schools is its own piece of institutional racism.)

We list different races on the board and brainstorm. White jobs: doctor, lawyer, businessman, teacher etc. (This list is always, by far, the longest list. These are just a few of many similar jobs.) Black jobs: Cop, drug dealer, hair stylist, maybe a couple of other low-paying or criminal jobs. Latino jobs: Housekeeper, lawn maintenance, Mexican restaurant owner/worker. Asian jobs: Scientist, computer jobs, nail salon worker, Chinese restaurant owner. (The Mexican and Chinese assumption is part of the stereotype, despite the many Latino and Asian ethnicities that exist.) One year I had a Native American student point out that I hadn’t listed Native American. I put it on the board and kids had one answer: Casino owner/worker.

Keep in mind, kids of all races create these lists. The kids do tend to contribute mostly to stereotypes for their own groups, not others, for fear of “looking racist,” but in the end they all agree these are the stereotypes.

There is a lot of talking and joking during this activity. We list other kinds of stereotypes, not just jobs, but the next piece focuses there. I follow up by asking, “What if every Black child grew up in a world where it was assumed that he or she would be a doctor or a lawyer? What if every Latina or Latino was expected to be a scientist or corporate CEO? What if White kids grew up in a world where people assumed they would clean houses or mow lawns? No one would explicitly tell them they couldn’t do any of these other things. It would just be a world where that’s what you saw around you on TV or when you were out and about, that kind of thing.”

And the room gets really quiet for a while. There’s just a long moment of cognitive dissonance while they wrap their heads around it. The discussion picks up again, but that moment is profound, I think. This is institutional racism. This is White privilege, so ingrained that even children of color often buy into it.

From my perspective, it is counter-productive to talk about White privilege and institutional racism only from the perspective of two or three or four high-profile cases of police shootings. These things are so much more complicated, so deeply embedded in our culture that they cannot be reduced to sound bites from a few news stories. I mean, even I have had to reduce 30 years of teaching into a handful of examples (though they are examples of many similar experiences throughout those years) from one school. And I am only one teacher.

So yeah, I’m okay with all the perspectives getting posted on Facebook, and I hope this was worth contributing. I hope all these contributions add up to no longer denying the existence and significance of White privilege and institutional racism so that we can solve the problems they cause.

Posted in Columbine, Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | 3 Comments

How High School Debate Can Save America

I am taking a break from the book I’m working on to write this. Yes, after a two-year hiatus defending public schools in Jeffco, I’m actually back to the book project I was working on with a former student. (Sorry, Danielle—I’ll have to get those markups to you Monday.)

These are potentially divisive times. Well, they are just plain divisive within our country, but I’m writing this in hopes that they need not be as divisive among each other.

There is this form of debate in the world of high school forensics known as Lincoln-Douglas (LD) debate, and it draws upon ideas and skills that would serve us all well. The other term for this kind of debate is “values debate.” You’ll see why as I explain.

Let’s say the resolution (topic) of today’s debate is: The United States should place stronger restrictions upon the Second Amendment.

A student who competes in this area will have to debate both sides. There are usually three preliminary rounds, so they will go affirmative (agree with the resolution) once or twice and negative (disagree with the resolution) once or twice in a combination equaling three—his or her actual opinions notwithstanding. Sides are assigned in the tab room; debaters do not choose. To advance to the fourth round, the debater will most likely have to have won all three rounds, depending upon the number of competitors.

Both debaters must build their cases upon a core value. Common core values in LD include such things as justice, security, freedom, utility (the greatest good for the greatest number), etc. They must defend the supremacy of their value using philosophers like John Locke and John Stuart Mill, as well as reason and logic.

“But these are such vague values!” I hear you cry. Part of their task is to define the value and defend the definition. Another part of their task is to offer a criterion, a way of measuring whether or not the value is achieved. This is done with a combination of philosophy and real world evidence.

Going back to the resolution, it might play out like this: The affirmative offers the core value of safety with the criterion of reasonable protection from accidental or malicious injury or loss of life. After explaining why safety is the ultimate value in this debate and why his criterion is the best measurement, he is going to explain how stronger restrictions on the Second Amendment provide reasonable protection from accidental or malicious injury or loss of life. He’s going to cite gun-related accidents, suicides, and murders using statistics from credible sources, like the FBI, the CDC, etc.

The negative might then offer a different core value, such as freedom. She may use the Bill of Rights as her criterion. After she defends these, she will explain how the entire Bill of Rights is the foundation of freedom in America, and how any encroachment upon it risks all of the freedoms we hold dear. She may go more deeply into the topic by explaining how the right to bear arms prevents the rise of a despotic government.

The debate, which is highly structured and lasts about 45 minutes, will usually involve a clash of core values, where each tries to prove his or her value is of greater importance than the other’s. They will attack each other’s reasoning and evidence, trying to show contradictions in each other’s cases or show evidence from other credible sources that mitigates or negates altogether the other’s sources.

It doesn’t always go exactly like that. Sometimes both debaters offer the same core value. They might even have the same criterion. At that point, the debate will be about which side best protects safety—reasonable protection from accidental or malicious injury or loss of life. Is it gun restrictions that save people from gun-toting murderers, and gun-free homes with lower gun accident, suicide, and fatal domestic-violence rates? Or is it gun freedoms, which allow homeowners to protect their loved ones from intruders and despotic leaders?

You see, a difference in views on a particular issue does not necessarily mean a difference in values. And where there is a difference in values, this does not necessarily indicate a lack of values on the part of one side or the other.

In debate, neither debater is trying to convince the other. They are trying to convince an impartial judge (or three or five judges in an advanced round). That is to say, they are convincing a judge who is not invested in one debater or the other and who has been trained to base the decision solely upon the arguments and evidence presented in the round and the skills of the debaters—the judge’s own opinion on the topic notwithstanding. On the ballot, judges explain the rationale behind the decision. Most judges do a pretty good job of keeping their own views out of the decision.

Ethics are important in debate and are part of the judge’s consideration. It does not behoove a debater to get nasty. There is no reason to get nasty about one’s opponent’s side of the debate because neither debater chose their side. They may or may not actually hold the position they are defending, and each one may never learn what the other actually believes. It doesn’t matter.

Besides, if one’s opponent is cute and funny and smart, one may be wanting to get the other debater’s phone number for when the tournament is over…

Does this sound hard? It is. And remember, the kids doing it are between the ages of 14 and 18, and many of them are AMAZING!

I hope you’ll think about all of this in the weeks and months ahead. Have the hard discussions. Question your own and each other’s positions. Just don’t assume that people who disagree with you have no values or even that their values are different from yours. You might even try stating the values upon which you base your position, and ask other’s for their values. Find the common ground, the humanity in each other. Then we might find truth.



Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | 2 Comments