Friday, April 14, 2006

Selling out

I've decided I would rather someone buy into me, than me have to sell out.

I am waiting patiently.

The New McCarthyism?

A British friend of mine from grad school sent me an article on teachers being persecuted for stating political opinions in the classroom. The article was from the Guardian in London and it came attached with an email that said “Apparently it’s not only the Norwich School of Art and Design”-- the school where we both studied publishing. Nope, the problem, just like the Pilgrims, seems to be migrating across the Atlantic.

I’d had whispers of thoughts I didn’t like before reading it. I had heard an NPR story about assinine racist comments a teacher had made over the weekend. I’d seen a colleague of mine chewed out for making his viewpoints known. And the other day, another colleague announced he was retiring over similar narrow-minded thinking. In my office today (which I share mostly with fantastically bright people and great teachers), we were talking about the disparities between race and class in education, but of course we came back to the bigger issue: it’s culture. Then I told them that I have to scale back my college teaching to one class. I make more money waiting tables. Point is, everywhere I turn lately, teachers are leaving, being forced out, or being reprimanded. How can we encourage independent thought if we, as teachers, are being asked to not think independently?

That article Ian sent me struck me as a warning of a new era, the ushering in of a new McCarthyism-- beginning with education. We’ve always liked our enemies, creating them at times where they do not exist. But now, instead of communism, the enemy seems to be free thought. As a society, we have grown so conservative, as we often do in times of war and diaster. 9/11, Iraq, Katrina: we are learning to toe the line, yet I’m afraid we’re going to lose our balance and fall in. Consumerism and globalization have started the erasure of distinctive places and distinctive people. Sure, they remain, but we bury them like some dirty secret, marginalizing all who do not conform. And yes, I realize it has always been this way, but come on, it feels like the stakes are changing.

That homogenity has actually lead us to start punishing people for original thinking, expressing viewpoints, and God forbid, dissenting. It’s gotten to a point where we cannot disagree with our government without being un-patriotic. It’s treacherous to even want to demonstrate. And public speaking is a forum no longer available to us in any real way. Media has been controlled by conglomerates for so long that we have started to accept that because we have more choices, it is okay to pay for information. Think about it, how much longer will we have free radio and free television; how much longer will any thoughts be free, or free thought tolerated, nonetheless encouraged, especially when access to information is becoming pay-on-demand. No wonder we discourage free thought, and no wonder we are making people pay for it in other ways.

Officially, most schools do not censor opinions or political viewpoints-- not so long as you claim them as such and present both sides (and the students are of an age to be able to think more indpendently). But unofficially, I keep seeing and hearing about people getting essentially blacklisted for doing so. Loss of job is the extreme, but the norm is to no longer get put up for a promotion or a raise, to lose bidding for classes or get a reduced classload, or to get extra assignments, or lose the assignments you love-- essentially to be punished. Schools like to ride the middle ground, and as an institutional policy, I can understand that.

But this covert punishment, and the often overt censorship (“Stay away from that topic,” “Do not discuss that,” Steer students away from this.”) and the backlash that educators receive makes an already difficult job tantamount to impossible. I keep thinking we’re ushering in a new Red Scare, a new blandness, a new fear of that which is different. In the 50’s, the backlash and blacklisting began with intellectuals; are we beginning to see that trend again starting with our educators?

It’s obvious that, as a society, we don’t value original thought, that we can’t, to some degree, because of our economics-- but of all the places where I thought we’d allow free thinking, I thought it would always be education. Isn’t that the point: to question?

I teach my elementary school students to look at language as power, that words are weapons and our knowledge can be used powerfully. I just hope I don’t have to teach them that sometimes people use that power against you.

The article from the Guardian:,,1746473,00.html

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

70 and Union

I used to drive straight up Kingshighway to get to the North side. I loved the old buildings, even the worn ones. The independent markets and stores, the people sitting on their porches. It's always so funny to me, the lower the socio-economics, the more alive that part of the city seems. That is to say, despite it all, you seem to see more life. A simple drive through the North side (or other areas) and you see people out on the street, walking, laughing, waiting for the bus, milling in parking lots, kids playing. Especially as the weather gets better, the streets just seem to open up and breathe.

I've started driving around Downtown on 70 to head North. I love all the old warehouses North of downtown. All that old industry. It reminds me of other places I've lived, namely Pittsburgh, but it also instills some sense of continuity and promise to me, even though others might just see junk, boarded up windows and dilapidated buildings.

When I get off the interstate at Union, the friendliest man is always there peddling his wares for money. He bounces and bounds up the street, waving at cars, genuinely and hugely smiling at everyone in sight. I always shake my head, but when the light changes and I turn, I realize each day that he has made my day better. Though he wants something, he asks for nothing and treats everyone driving by as though they were a long lost friend, and I like that. He simply does his thing.

I love driving down Union, the barbeques were a-blazin' today and the whole neighborhood smelled amazingly sweet and charry, that beautiful mesquite smell. Mischeaux's has beckoned to me for a long time, and I wanted so badly to stop on my way home from school (when I do drive through the city to the South side) and grab some bbq from the man out front grilling.

This town has such misconceived notions of the North side. Similarly, we seem to have such misconceived notions of education.

The school board race last week further helped to clarify this for me. Over and over I saw violence in schools addressed as a problem. While it certainly is, I don't see people looking at the root of the problem. It's not necessarily parenting or income level or race or any of the easy answers we so often like to pinpoint. I've been working in city schools for a while now, and teaching community college classes in the city. I see the same things. I know what the problems are as well or better than anyone sitting on that Board. But we are not asking the right questions. It's more than just fixing these symptoms, we need to get back to thinking about Education.

I have been disheartened a long time about the educational values in our schools. Even when I was in school-- despite going to "good", white, upper middle class schools, it was the same thing, the same problems-- just a different point of view from everyone involved. We are no longer teaching our kids to think, nor are we asking them to problem solve or be creative. That is going to be the real reason the US continues to flail as a nation and as a leader: we no longer care about independence or individuality. Business drives everything, and ask any top CEO what their biggest problem is right now and they will tell you it's finding and retaining talent. It's not that these kids aren't capable, it's that we don't provide them with the opportunities or challenges they need to develop and prove their capability.

I was speaking with a great teacher today at school. We were discussing education as business, which is not necessarily a bad model, but right now education is a failing business. And it's because business is also failing in this country. We don't know who our market is any longer. we don't examine the problems. we don't find solutions. We find opportunities to make money, to show progress. It's a numbers game all around. Real education cannot be quantified. Real education is about personal development, tools for creativity, being a part of the community, and feeling like you have something you have to give. Education is about passion, not regurgitation.

I see that passion on the North side. I see it in small businesses every day, in the community organizations which have been contributing for years to the devlopment of individuals and place. These things are not isolated. Yet, we write them off. We focus on small aspects, on the symptoms of our demise, on blame, never on asking the real questions. Maybe we won't have answers right away, but we sure as hell are never going to get anywhere if we don't try to find the words to ask the questions.

I heard something at an education and race conference a while back, and it has stayed with me. Our kids are renting their educations; give them something they can own. That thought struck me on so many different levels, but it's true... and not just on the North side, not just because of race. When I was growing up, my mom used to always tell me that my education was the only thing that couldn't be taken from me. What will these kids have when they leave school with no real knowledge? What happens when they can't make the connections between school and the real world? What will they have when they have never been asked to think, or feel, or when they have never been challenged? They will leave with no sense of possibility and no idea of what they can do, and then, at some point, we will also be left with nothing as a nation. This is going to filter down, and it's not about race or class. It's about the fact that as a society, we are no longer interested in promoting curosity. We are no longer interested in promoting individuality. Because of it we are losing place, we are losing bright minds, and we will eventually lose in the international market as well.

I think about that man out there at 70 and Union, smiling, selling his candy. I wonder if he has any of the answers. Of course, what I also know is, no one thinks he's important enough to ask. Most people don't go to that part of town, and when they do, they roll their windows up and lock their doors.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Our flag was still there...

Driving hurriedly to the Royale to see the first pitch out in the new stadium, I was listening to the pre-game on the radio. The crowd sang the national anthem, and it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard. Every time I go to a baseball game, especially in this city, I am reminded that sometimes we are all able to find things in common. It's like the beauty of the Seventh Inning Stretch. Kelly used to always love it because she liked the idea of the whole stadium doing the same thing, and she loved that it was singing and eating peanuts.

There is something wonderfully simple about baseball. It is about family and friends sitting in the sun for a few hours, the Arch in the background, the flag waving, that green, green field. It's the same as when we were little and when our parents were little, and it is, for me, always a beautiful moment of being American. There is a patriotism to it that does not make me feel corny, or like my politics are being corrupted or confused. It is just about being in the same place, a beer in hand, and watching people throw a ball around. It's not life or death, but there are certain days that I think baseball might have all the answers... and then there're days like today, when baseball is the answer.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

You've no mansion for this to happen in...

It's funny how the things we often hate are the things that later seem to change our lives. There's a line in a John Ashberry poem called "Light Turnouts". I hated that poem, but for years, a line stuck with me. I had no idea why, no idea what it meant, and absolutely no idea what the hell the poem was saying. And yet that line stayed: "You've no mansion for this to happen in."

Years later, living in England, I took a walk with friends, as the crow flies. It was a foggy, misty, November morning, the marshlands wet and boggy. We hitched through the mud and marsh, past the broads and the river through the fields and into small villages. No one seems to mind you walking through their property in England. Horses were out in the fields, and I was just trying to navigate around the puddles.

We came upon a field, surrounded by woods-- maybe 3 or 4 acres of land. Smack in the center was one of the largest greenhouses I have ever seen, and older-- all the glass was in small panes. There was no door, just a double wide opening big enough for a tractor to pull through, though I doubt one ever did. And inside?


Beginning of winter in England, cold and damp, in rich farming country, and there was not a single thing in that greenhouse. No seeds, no bulbs, nothing but soil. Deep, rich, dark, moist soil. And in that moment, I knew what luxury was. I was looking at it.

My friends pulled at me, but I wasn't ready. That line came back to me, that ashberry line of so many years before. "You've no mansion for this to happen in." And suddenly, I understood it.

We need to build the spaces in which we live. Ourselves, the architects of whatever is to become of those dreams, of those moments, of those possibilities. But we have to have the space, to create something big enough that we can succeed and fail, use some of it, or small portions at a time. We have to create the space in which we live. And that space has to be big enough so as to not limit us.

I keep driving around the city lately. Long afternoon drives after school through the North Side. Meandering mornings journeys down by the river along S. Broadway. So much space, beautiful, beautiful space, and yet we are not the architects of our future. There are so many things we have to build in St. Louis, and I am not speaking of just structures. There are so many things we have to create room for if we want to do anything, to go anywhere, to be anything. We have to create the space for that possibility, and drive our own desire and urgency for change.

My suggestion: we need to start with race. We need to create a space in which we can discuss race. A space in which race is not evened out or equaled out, but one in which race matters-- because it does. We need a space to understand and appreciate our differences and decide how we want to live. This city is so rich, so full of vibrancy, and yet we live in 1/3 of its potential, in all ways. We're not going to get anywhere until we look at how big a mansion we could have, and we start to build the place in which it can all happen. My eyes are open, and I'm looking to talk about the space.

We have the luxury of that greenhouse in England, abandoned, where so much can take place. It just hasn't occurred to us there should be something there yet.