Friday, July 24, 2009

Hard News: Better Than the Best

When I was a small child, summers on my grandmother's prairie farm meant strolling in cow pies. I liked to squirm my bare toes in warm, freshly dropped cow pies and my mother would have a royal fit. Fed up, she'd huff and puff, grab me about the waist and dump my goopy feet into a pail of cool water.

Be warned: I'm about to do it again. Step in it, that is.

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?
Hamlet Act III, Scene I

As a citizen and a school volunteer, I'm saying there are things to think about regarding where and how children are schooled.

I'm prepared for the following criticism: You do not have children, Mel. That's fair, but hear me out.

On July 16, President Obama spoke at the NAACP annual convention:

"All of us can agree that we need to offer every child in this country the best education the world has to offer from the cradle through a career. That is our responsibility as the United States of America."

Most parents want the best for their kids. If they can afford a private education, perhaps that's the answer. For others it may be a charter or magnet school. But I think it's also worth stepping back to look at other aspects of the educational experience.

The elementary school where I direct The Shakespeare Club is a Title One school. This means most of the students come from low-income households. Our school is ethnically, culturally and economically diverse.

As our country's economic stresses have risen, I've witnessed emotional angst on the upswing in the kids. It's a rotten thing to see children depressed, angry and hurting. That should not be the lot of a child and yet it is often the case.

"I remember visiting a Chicago school in a rough neighborhood as a community organizer, and thinking how remarkable it was that all of these children seemed so full of hope, despite being born into poverty, despite being delivered into addiction, despite all the obstacles they were already facing.

"And I remember the principal of the school telling me that soon all of that would begin to change; that soon, the laughter in their eyes would begin to fade; that soon, something would shut off inside, as it sunk in that their hopes would not come to pass — not because they weren't smart enough, not because they weren't talented enough, but because, by accident of birth, they didn't have a fair chance in life."

This year I seated two fifth-grade girls next to each other in club meetings.

Alice is academically bright and accountable. She is raised in a household with two parents and two younger siblings. A lot is asked of Alice because she's one of those kids who can do so much. Her parents count on her to look out for the younger ones and her teacher loads extra classroom tasks onto her. Then along I come, casting her in the leading role of Olivia in "Twelfth Night."

Geneva, also a bright girl, appeared ready to sabotage any good that came her way because she was so darn angry. She had been in The Shakespeare Club the previous year and I nearly didn't take her back. Geneva was born to parents who'd split up. Mom left six kids in Dad's hands, so Geneva was sent off to live with an aunt. Geneva acted out on other kids. We had a chat before this year began and I told her straight up about my doubts. She believed that she was capable of changing. Of being a leader and treating others well. I also cast Geneva in a leading role in "Twelfth Night," that of Maria.

I spent a lot of time with my eye on Geneva. She'd elbow Alice, or stick her foot out to deliberately trip another kid or take someone's pencil...on and on and on.

Here's what I saw at the end of the performance of "Twelfth Night":

Alice and Geneva sharing a hug. Together they had survived exhausting rehearsals and together they had triumphed in front of an audience. They are better for each other.

Alice is stronger for Geneva.

Geneva is kinder for Alice.

You do not have children, Mel.

A mother recently told me of her young daughter's new playmate. Of how pleased she was that her child walked to school with this other girl and how they shared time in class. It was all good...except when her daughter spent time at the other girl's place. The unhealthy snacks that were served there...not so good.

Let's call this "The Cheetos Factor."

It addresses this argument:

    I want my kids to be with other kids like mine.
    I want to be around other parents like me.
    I want us all to share the same values, politics, ideas of creativity and...and...and...well, to be like us.

No one is going to die from Cheetos. Not really. But there may be a loss in gripping too tightly to "like us."

This mother confessed that she secretly enjoyed Cheetos from time to time herself. This is all bigger than a snack food, of course. Isn't her daughter, in that other residence, getting something her own parents cannot give to her, read to her, or tell to her? Perhaps her daughter's in an environment with a different point of view, culture and value system. And perhaps that's a great thing.

Seventeen-year-old Zac Sunderland returned home to California last week after sailing solo around the world. His parents have taken a lot of flak for letting their boy loose on such an adventure.

If Zac Sunderland had completed his education with a fistful of degrees from Yale, Princeton and Stanford, he never would have learned what he did in these last thirteen months.

You do not have children, Mel.

Sometimes the experience is the best. Better than the best. Of more value than the best charter or magnet or private.

"And we should raise the bar when it comes to early-learning programs. Today, some early-learning programs are excellent. Some are mediocre. And some are wasting...a child's most formative years."

"We have to say to our children...No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands — and don't you forget that.

"To parents, we can't tell our kids to do well in school and fail to support them when they get home. For our kids to excel, we must accept our own responsibilities....we need to be there for our neighbor's son or daughter, and return to the day when we parents let each other know if we saw a child acting up. That's the meaning of community. That's how we can reclaim the strength, the determination, the hopefulness that helped us come as far as we already have."

People used to call this: a mixer.

Obama photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images North America; Sunderland photo by Al Seib/LA Times

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