Monday, September 30, 2013

Golden Door?

In a couple of weeks I will be attending my 50th high school reunion. Yikes! Besides causing me to notice the accumulating wrinkles appearing in my mirror, it has caused me to reflect on my many years in public education--17 years as a student from kindergarten through college and 35 as a teacher. I believe in the principles of public education, but what Horace Mann called, "the great equalizer of the conditions of men" [sic] is becoming less and less equal.

Public schools are the Lady Liberty of education. We are the golden door (frequently peeling) open to the homeless (literally) and tempest-tossed. We accept (by law, we must) everyone.  We accept the boy just off the plane from Iraq, the girl in her third foster home in six months, the twins separated by divorce, the boy who works 12 hours a day and gets paid under the table so he can feed his family, the 14 year old who reads on a second grade level, the gang member wired with an anklet, the girl who hasn't spoken in five years (We suspect abuse, but really don't know why). Sprinkled among them are the kids from well functioning families who get three balanced meals a day, dance lessons, tutors, vacations to Disney World, and emotional support. At least this is the way it used to be before the myth of "School Choice" gave birth to charter schools, magnet schools, and other variations of the same, and the sprinkles became fewer and fewer.

I say "School Choice" is a myth because not everyone has a choice. We know that students whose parents are involved in their education are generally more successful. Parents who visit schools, check homework, communicate with teachers and staff, attend PTA meetings, and are otherwise aware of what's going on in the school are able to guide their children through any rough spots they may encounter. These are the types of  parents who "choose" where their child goes. These are the types of parents whose children will fill the charter and magnet schools, not the children whose parents are not so involved.

Why aren't they involved? Certainly there is some dysfunction there, but  there are also the parents who can't speak English, those who are working three or four jobs just to put food on the table, those whose own poor educational background inhibits their understanding of what the "choices" are. The children in these families didn't choose their parents or the conditions in which they live. These children do not get to choose; these children remain in the public schools, despite what some would see as better "choices" for them.
Charter and magnet schools are the ones that choose. They choose whom they admit, what they teach, what activities they provide, and whom they exclude. It is understandable that parents who want the best for their kids may be impressed by "improved test scores." I'll save my rant about high-stakes testing for another day, but just a comment here--if a school can choose who takes the test, it thereby skews the scores in its favor. The test results of the public schools, where everyone takes the test, are also skewed but not positively.

Mann describes public education as an ark, outside of which, "all is deluge." What he didn't anticipate were all the pleasure crafts sailing away.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Lessons from Left Field

Apparently some fans are upset about the facial hair that the 2013 Red Sox have been growing, and growing, and growing. I don't particularly like the longer versions a la Mike Napoli, but the more trimmed ones like that on the chin of David Ortiz are fine with me. But, really, can anyone who is a true Sox fan have anything to complain about this season? Really? After the debacle of last season, really? Beards? Come on.

I have been following the Sox since the crack of Ted Williams' bat came out of the little red radio in my parents' kitchen. As part of the Fenway Faithful, I have learned a lot, and not just about baseball, but about life. Until that glorious day in 2004 when they broke the curse and won it all, cheering the Red Sox was an experience of continuously dashed hopes. Over and over and over we would hear the scouting reports from Florida and begin to believe that this would be the year. The season would have its ups and downs. If we made it into the playoffs, we' d begin to really hope that this year would be different. Then catastrophe! Mention the names Bucky F. Dent or Bill Buckner in front of a Sox fan, and you'll understand that you don't have to fight a war to have PTSD.

I've always thought it was significant that baseball season starts around the same time as Easter. Seeing all those guys with their new uniforms running out on the green green grass, it is like a rebirth, especially in 1979 and 1987. Hope is alive again. We believe again. Everything is possible in April. Being a Sox fan means believing again, despite the memory of crushing defeats. Off-season is a time to forgive and almost forget.

This tendency to forgive a lot has led me to make a few bad decisions, but enough about my love life. It has even (I can't believe I'm going to say this) made me feel a little bad for Yankee fans this year. They expect to win, to be in the playoffs. They don't have the scars that we do. They don't really understand, "Wait 'til next year."

I don't know whether the Sox will go all the way this year, though I certainly hope so, but I do see something similar about this team and the "Idiots" of 2004. They are a TEAM. They are not a group of stars. They pull for each other, and, yes, they pull on each other's beards. The beards are a sign of their kinship, so whether they are long or short or bushy or straggly, I say go for it.  Enjoy the game, enjoy each other, and go out and win one for the team...and those of us in Red Sox Nation.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Remembering Jeannine

When I heard yesterday of Jeannine Belisle’s death, my mind was filled with so many memories. We worked together for 21 years. For most of that time she was a vice principal, then later principal. For all of that time I was an English teacher. I never wanted to be an administrator, especially not a vice principal. I wasn’t cut out for a job where one dealt almost exclusively with problems and the students and staff causing them.

Few people are cut out for the job. Jeannine was the rare exception. Janeula Burt summed it up well. She was “fair and impartial, stern yet compassionate,intimidating and funny,” and, I would add, sometimes all at once, like the day I had captured a white mouse someone had let loose in the suspension room. I dropped the rodent into the envelope used for attendance and brought it to Jeannine’s office. (Where else?) After a good laugh, she returned Micky to the science lab, and hunted down the abductor who turned up the next day in suspension, but this time sans mouse. It’s easy to see why so many former students were remembering her so fondly on Facebook today.

I was fortunate to know her on another level. We were both single women who loved our siblings’ children. From time to time we would sit in her office and
just flat out brag—she about her nine nieces and nephews, and me about my four nephews. She had a huge heart whose love seemed boundless. She also had a wicked sense of humor. She wore sequined sneakers to caf duty. Her office was covered with Snoopy and Charlie Brown posters, and in private could tell some very funny stories. 
Jeannine was also extraordinarily generous. When one year I gave her a Winslow Homer calendar, she turned around and presented me with one of her original water colors—a copy of “On the Cliff” that I had admired. Every year when I reached out to friends and family to support me in the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life, Jeannine was always there with a check. Sadly, cancer was something else we had in common.

In the past several years I’ve been able to keep up with Jeannine on Facebook. Her entries were mostly about getting together with family and friends, traveling to Maine, enjoying lobster, and always her visits with Rosa. It was on Facebook she said that the cancer had returned. When I hadn’t seen a post in a while, I suspected the news was not good.
The last post I saw from her was, “I’m fighting.” I believe it. Jeannine was always fighting to get everything out of life that she could, and, in the process, she made life so much richer for those of us who were privileged to know her.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Basketball, Trees, Etc.

I have become a fan of the Science Channel’s Through the Wormhole. (Thank you, James, for introducing me to this). It is narrated by Morgan Freeman. I don’t always understand ALL of what they’re talking about, but usually enough to fascinate me.  

Today while I was watching an episode dealing with evolution, I was especially interested in the theories of Adrian Bejean, a professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University. The theory he developed/discovered (?) is the constructal law, and it connects basketball, trees, nature, and even us humans. Fascinated yet? 

Consider the flow of the two teams on a basketball court. The ball flows from any point on the court to the basket in a “live flow system.” Players on the offense are trying to open up the channels, while the players on defense are trying to close down these channels. Over time the better players get the ball more often, making channels bigger and busier, while less active channels stay smaller. Eventually a pattern emerges resembling the shape of a branching tree. (Ah, trees! I see material for another poem here.) 

Look around; this pattern is everywhere in the universe--from the branches of the tree, to the veins on a leaf, to the lightning bolt, to the arteries and veins in our body. Bejean’s trying to understand what causes this phenomenon. He thinks it has to do with how things flow from one point to another.

Consider the tree. Water flows up from the ground, while mechanical forces like the wind are transmitted back to the ground. Or think about our bodies—the oxygen in our lungs, the blood in our veins, the electricity in our neurons—all have that same tree-like pattern. Bejean believes this pattern naturally creates stronger, fitter organisms because this pattern helps improve flow.

I am writing this within a couple of miles from where the very first basketball game was played and two days before twelve new members will be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame. I wonder if James Naismith ever thought of basketball as a metaphor for life?

Monday, September 2, 2013

Labor Day

It's Labor Day, and I have just seen The Butler (twice actually), and I'm thinking about those people who work to serve us (us being everyone, as we are all served at one time or another). No one I know has a butler, but there are many others who serve--the traffic cop who steers us around the accident, the farmer who rises early to  tend to the fields, the babysitter who watches  our children, the man who mows the lawn, the clerk in the store, the nurse, the trash collector, the delivery truck driver, the teacher, the painter. The list could go beyond next Labor Day.

I think it's good to set aside a day to think about how we are served by others, how we serve others. As I muse over my oatmeal this morning, I stop to consider how many people worked to put this meal on my table, from the farmer who grew the oats to the potter who made the bowl it sits in, from the stocker who put the coffee on the shelf at the market to the designer who created the mug from which I drink, from the pharmacist who prepares my calcium pills to the clerk at COSTCO where I purchased them. If you stop to consider it, we are all intimately connected.  Yet, in our rush to be about the business of our lives, we don't often think of this. These other people, upon whom our lives depend, are, for the most part, anonymous.

The Whitehouse maĆ®tre d in The Butler told him,  "You hear nothing. You see nothing.
You only serve."  When I was teaching I rarely sat down for breakfast at home. Frequently I used Dunkin' Donuts Drive Thru on my way to work. The same woman
every morning would smile and hand me my medium hazelnut and a glazed donut. She would take my money and wish me a good day. All this was done with efficiency and pleasantness. Yet, I never knew her name. I never asked. I was too much in a hurry. I wonder if she had children at home she had to leave to be up at that early hour. I wonder if she had to hold another job to pay her rent.

In celebration of that anonymous woman at Dunkin' Donuts and all those who serve silently, I am going  to make it a point today to thank those I come in contact with who are serving me. I hope I keep it up tomorrow and beyond.