The Impossible Job

I woke up yesterday and did the unthinkable: I started reading a poetry book! The hook for me is that it’s a collection of San Francisco-related poetry edited by devorah major, whom I think is one of the best writers of our era, and just dang smart. It’s an awesome collection (The Other Side of the Postcard) and it didn’t take long before my heart was aching and my head spinning. The poem that just grabbed me by the throat and hasn’t left me yet is called “Dojo” by Thomas Centolella. Here’s an excerpt:

what gets me going again

is the lamentable

high school where I taught

a shy fifteen-year-old

the uses of metaphor, the magic

of calling one thing

by another’s name,

a high school where mine
was the only light face
in a too full room of dark faces,
though I had my own darkness
and kept it to myself,
though they had their own light
and spent it freely, their hands
shooting high at every question,
bodies almost airborne, loud
entreaties for me to call on them,
to let them show off
how much they knew,
how worthy they were
of a hundred attentive ears–

a school that displays on the outside
a visionary’s name
and on the inside: a metal detector,

The Impossible Job? The public school teacher, of course. Who could give what is called for, when dozens of yearning hearts and minds clamor for recognition, respect, love and dignity? When the airless, gray, somber poverty of decrepit schools says to all inside that they don’t count, that there is only a dull, stupid future ahead to match the witless repetition of the school’s mission to get everyone ready for a test so they won’t be “left behind”?…

They work every day under the crushing weight of the hated and the hateful, trying to spark beauty and creativity from the cracks and fissures of a predetermined stupefaction that is reduced to accepting survival as a satisfactory target. What an impossible task, to bring one’s own humanity and vulnerability to the daily grind of processing young damaged humans, looking for the glimmer of life and refusal and passion that burns in each of them, but so rarely flares into the open in the predictable and foul atmosphere that has beaten down so many spirits before this moment.

Jonathan Kozol has a long essay in the new Harper’s about the resegregation of American education. He lances the euphemistic “diversity” claimed by so many segregated schools with names like “Thurgood Marshall” or “Martin Luther King Jr.”, hiding in plain view the return to ‘separate and unequal’ schools that the historic (white) losers have imposed on this culture. All the blather about red state and blue state misses the overwhelming elephant in the living room, a deeply racist society that fuels the reactionary politicians who in turn feed the fear and loathing that keeps the whole cycle turning. The mayhem in Iraq and Afghanistan are one outcome. The destruction of public education, in spite of the heroic efforts of millions of teachers who are trying against all odds to nurture real humanity in the soulless broken-down factories we call schools, is well underway.

At a party last night I was speaking with my old friend Julie S. who now lives and teaches in Portland. She’s been in the public school trenches for a number of years already, in SF, Oakland and now Portland. We commiserated about the difficulty of giving kids what they really need when they’re coming from homes where they aren’t getting breakfast, let alone intellectual stimulation, reading, love, attention, appreciation. Broken parents automatically pass on their own negligent and violent upbringings, having no reservoirs of love and self-acceptance to share with their offspring. Which leaves it to the teachers at school to impart other ways of being alive, and giving the kids what they aren’t getting anywhere else.

The dysfunctionality that plagues so many humans, especially those already disempowered and abused in the lower rungs of society, has been institutionalized in the public schools. Parents who can afford it, or who have the wherewithal to hustle the financial aid, are abandoning the public schools as fast as they can. Parallel to the dynamic by which a whole generation of us has learned to “move on” when we don’t like our jobs or our homes, rather than stick around to fight collectively for improved conditions, individual choices are reinforcing a larger political process of destroying public education through the back door of “choice”. And that reasonable set of individual choices turns to the only option: privatized education, the ultimate commodity to give your child a leg up in the rat race.

Teachers and parents in every urban school district are fighting a crucial battle of our times, to save the last remnant of a public commmons (along with libraries) against all the institutional efforts to starve it and reduce it to a giant test preparation factory. It’s an impossible job without a groundswell of support that grows beyond any given neighborhood, district, or municipality, and really grows beyond the limits of those concerned with education per se.

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