Last night, I did something I rarely do on Friday’s. I went out to this spot I know just north of the city. Part bar, part party, the place overflows with this wondrous blend of humanity only it could attract. Blue-collar and white-, men and women, young and old blend easily there, and the soulful feel and deep amber lighting remind me of those great basement parties of my youth. Then and now, the sway of tensions melting imbues the very air we breathe with optimism and release.
At my spot, Latinos dance and pump fists to a funky “old school” beat while a group of African men huddle and perform some ancient line dance. Two white women move their hips like paper blowing in the wind. Black women dance with equal abandon–with or without a partner—while a bald white man with tattoos taps his feet to the beat. Black men greet each other like old friends on a fishing trip. Everywhere, there are happy faces, or at least contented ones, and I am not alone in my love for the place. “It’s like home,” one lady sitting next to me at the bar explains.
I found it by accident while looking for something else. Isn’t it ironic how so many happy endings start that way? The music drew me inside, but the people kept me there. I made up a fake name for myself that first night. I don’t know why precisely. I just felt like someone else that night, someone bolder and more sure of his steps. Not that I am the doubtful type, but we all need the occasional boost a fresher self provides. Some people find it in books; others in a tight embrace. Whatever the source (and there are many), it usually involves other people sharing something warm together. It engenders the kind of feeling you wish you could keep in your pocket and imbibe on frosty days.
We humans are such social creatures, even as we spend more time than we should erecting walls between us. We are at our best when our connections are evident and prized. Schools have such a unique opportunity to make that group sketch real. The purpose could be common, and students and adults could join in some rhythmic push for excellence in all things attempted. Administrators, teachers, staff, counselors, custodians, security, parents, and students should be joined like chain link keeping ignorance and antipathy at bay.
But something is amiss these days. The obsession with scores, standardized and otherwise, threatens to divide us into the favored and the damned, the fortunate and the dismissed, the fruitful and the destitute. Some studies suggest we are marked on the day we are born by our circumstance. This societal divide embodies not just race, but also gender, eye color, hair length, height, and weight. All I know for sure is that numbers assigned to everything from prospects to cognition paint a bleak portrait for too many Americans who resemble me.
In some quarters, these variances have simply confirmed a genetic deficiency. Others see them as a rallying call for stark, unflinching attacks on all things educational, especially teachers who are paid to overcome the rift. In a frantic push to break the bond between zip code and outcome, schools are increasingly cast as the last, best hope. “It is the only thing we can control,” reformers argue. Indeed, both anecdotal and scholarly research appear to support the notion that the one sure thing zip code guarantees is the caliber of teaching awaiting the children who live there.
For most, education remains a proven ladder for social mobility, even as wealth in this country becomes increasingly concentrated at the top. One colleague argues that, rather than peer deeply into the workings of an American system which more and more resembles a pyramid scheme (where the few who secured their place early on feed on the prosperity dreams of the masses who follow), it is simpler to focus on schools in hopes of reshuffling the deck. All I know is America’s future rests in the minds of our young people. But how to claim them all?
As always, the dirt lies in the details. To what extent do we excuse household dysfunction and parental choices and child rearing practices for the achievement gaps we face? Are urban schools more forgiving of weak instruction and unprepared professionals? Is student motivation created or innate? Do neighborhood charter schools which claim to have found the solution in longer days and tighter teacher reins merely manipulate the numbers through their admission and retention policies?
Are unions using principles of seniority merely to protect lousy teachers with inflated salaries, or is there some service professional stability and job security perform in the classroom? If we do not make an attempt to measure teacher input, and then rid the ranks of the underachieving, how can we ever hope to turn matters around? Who exactly are the villains here, and what must we do to escort them peaceably out of town?
The rush to find answers to all these questions and more has fueled an intense debate. Heroes have been declared, and bad names have been bandied about. In the midst of it all sits that neighborhood school and its odd mixture of children outnumbering adults. I just wish that school-by-school adjustments and readjustments valued community more and blame less–not just for the adults working there, but also for the children who are too readily poked and sorted in the name of progress. Predictable failure, whether in reading scores, graduation rates, or teacher evaluations, seems to pick its victims much too easily these days.
Something must be done to promote healing. At the same time, we must hoist the expectations of everyone involved to higher levels. But how do we accomplish this goal without creating more problems then we solve? I take my inspiration from the club I keep returning to whenever an injection of hope is in order. We simply have to learn how to value one another and assume the best intentions, even when we fail. Where we are lacking, is it better to simply discard experience and start over, or can some form of rejuvenation occur?
At my spot, it doesn’t matter whether you own your home or are toothless. Everyone is welcomed and accorded respect. There is no room for the harsh glare of judgement. Once inside, there is enough space for our differences because those are the rules by which we play. A good time must be had by all. As I tell my students on the first day, “Come on, now. Get on board the knowledge train. Pay what you can. It doesn’t matter. Our destination is anywhere–and everybody rides.” But it appears that when it comes to education today, the burning question remains: for how long?