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.

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