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Friday, August 26, 2011

Pay me more.

A colleague asked me recently why it was that everybody seemed to have an opinion about what was wrong with public education and what should be done to fix it.

"Simple," I replied, "Everybody you talk to spent twelve years in schools and feels that this extensive experience has made them an expert."

It's true, in a way. If somebody spent twelve years in a hospital, they would know a considerable amount more about the practice of medicine related to their condition and the operating conditions of medical institutions, and anybody who's spent even a little time in prison can tell you exactly what's wrong with it. It's a human thing that we have where we induce the general from the specific and believe firmly in it.

We all think we know because we were there. And since we know because we were there, we are all justified in offering our opinions.

In the first of an occasional series on credulant and cuphinious fixes to public education, let's look at one of these great plans: Merit Pay

Occasionally, some well intentioned person will explain to me that, really, if good teachers were paid more then more highly capable people would want to become teachers and everything would be better.

Good teachers should be paid more? Cool. I'm a good teacher and I already top out the salary schedule, so I'm on board... or not.


You see, let's say it works and all the good teachers are paid a salary competitive with the private sector and all the loser teachers are told that they suck and they can stay and earn minimum wage to babysit or they can get out. Let's just say it happens. Let's say we can develop a metric that is fair and objective and acceptable to all parties involved while still being politically palatable. Let's say that it gets implemented. Guess what? Now we're fucked.

Why? You've just greatly expanded the cost of public education and we can have all the merit pay in the world on paper but I doubt if Joe Tea Patriot or Bob Libertarian or Billy-Jack Blue Dog are going to be willing to foot the bill. If the average teacher pay were $110,000, the cost of public education, which is already the plurality of most state budgets, would be overwhelmi­ng. In California where we have somewhere in the neighborho­od of 8,000,000 school-age children and 300,000 teachers, this would imply a $2,100,000­,000.00 increase in school funding to simply stay where we are.

My guess? Even if we did this and told people it would only cost them $140 per household in California (we have a lot of households), people would still tell the schools that we could find the money by cutting waste and abuse.

Oh yeah, another thing: I like money as much as the next guy, but the last thing I want is to have the money in teaching be enough to entice people to enter the profession for the paycheck. If one is going to get into teaching, it should be for love of teaching and love of society -- not for love of money. We earn enough to stay firmly in the middle class and we have benefits and summers off (save for professional development, classes, summer school, in-service days, classroom preparations, planning, and meetings) and, frankly, that's really all we need.

My district is implementing a merit pay system, by the way. It's called The College Ready Promise and is funded in part by the Gates Foundation. It has some innovative elements and I'm certainly willing to give it a go, but I know (and they know, too. Gates Foundation money is a deep well, but it will run dry) that in the end the money won't be there to make it work. I'll keep you all posted on its progress, though, and maybe there will be a sudden and profound upswell of people who shout a million voices at once, "Raise my taxes so that we can have better schools," and the money will flow in to make merit pay a reality and buy public schools enough toilet paper and handsoap, too. Here's wishing.

Oh -- here's a book I haven't read on the subject. If somebody's read it (or is willing to cough up the money to buy it and read it) I'd love to know what it says.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Libertarianism and Reality Don't Mix

Every once in a while I listen to something Ron Paul says and I find myself nodding, "Yeah, Ron, I'm glad somebody on the national stage is saying that besides Dennis Kucinich." It's usually something about drug laws, drug wars or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- come to think of it, it's only when he says something about those that I nod. The rest of the time, as I do when most libertarians discuss politics, I shake my head in wonder.

Don't get me wrong, I'm into liberty. I'm not a libertine, but I enjoy my ability to marry who I want, say what I want, and do what I want so long as it doesn't hurt others as much as the next guy. The problem with what I hear from most libertarians, though, is that it simply doesn't acknowledge what I see as some very basic realities.


Everybody should succeed or fail on their own merits
It's a fine idea -- John Galt would be thrilled (though he wouldn't admit that your opinion matters) that you think so, but there are some real problems here. The first one is simple and is one which blocks me from ever buying in. It's The myth of equality. Inherent in the belief that success or failure is up to individual drive, ambition, and ability is the belief that all people have the ability to do much of what is necessary for success. This is, in fact, not true. As one of my college professors once mused, "The average intelligence is truly mediocre," and the same can be said for ability. We all laugh at the idea of the Peter Principle, because it makes us feel better about our bosses, but the fact is that if you believe in it, you are already admitting that human ability falls along a long continuum from eminently able to totally incapable. We like to believe that the world is filled with morons when it makes us feel better, but when one of those morons is actually not capable of supporting themselves, we berate them for being lazy. The belief that success and failure needs to be on one's own merits can only be consistent if we either blindly follow the belief that everybody is equally capable, or if we are totally callous to the plight of others and are willing to wash our hands of them under the notion that, if they haven't yet bred, it's better for all the rest of us if they die. I'm just not able to go to either place, so I shake my head instead.

Those who reap the rewards of success should be able to keep the rewards of success
I agree with this premise on the small scale. If somebody makes a lot of money, they should be able to have a lot of money. No problems there. Where it runs into problems for me, though, is when this becomes an argument for destroying progressive taxation. Whether it be the flat taxers, the national sales tax folks, the no-capital-gains tax proponents, or the sovereign-citizens' brigade, the argument centers on the belief that to ask somebody who has more money to pay more is class warfare and goes against this fundamental principal of liberty. While "wealth redistribution" is an uncomfortable idea to defend, it's something that is healthy for general society. Why? Because The Myth of the Infinite Pie is just that: A myth. If there were enough money for anybody who worked hard to have billions of dollars, those same billions of dollars would be rendered valueless. The only reason our monetary system -- and all of capitalism -- works is that we are able to view money as a resource (having the qualities of both scarcity and demand). While we do add money to our economy, it is generally in the amount of 2-3% of GDP per year in a good year and most of that goes directly to those who have been able to capitalize their resources, not to those who are just starting out. If 2% of the population controls 80% of the wealth, there really is no way for all but a few of the other 98% to get their piece. Horatio Alger was a popular fiction, but a fiction nontheless. Andrew Carnegie, the godfather of American Libertarianism himself, was clear on the idea that generational wealth and retained wealth were anathema to capitalism, to Americanism, and to economic good health. Progressive taxation, capital gains taxes, and inheritance taxes are the only bulwarks we have against the accumulation of the supermajority of American capital in the mattresses of a very few very wealthy individuals which, when it happens, makes succeeding on our own merits nearly impossible both for them and for the rest of us.

Trickle Down Economics
If I earn $32,000 each year, I am pretty sure I will spend $32,000 (or more) each year. If I earn $32,000,000 a year, there is no single way I can spend it. I would have to spend $87,400 each day, $5,500 each waking hour and even if I'm Paris Hilton I couldn't do it. The mortgage on a $12,000,000 mansion would be about $35,000 per month (including PMI and property taxes), leaving me $263,000 to spend that month on vacation homes, staff, private jets, and dinners out. Instead of spending all of it, I'll simply invest much of it securely in T-Bills and the rest of it in stocks, but it won't go back into the economy. I can only hire so many people, I can only buy so many baubles. The rest I just can't spend. There is a point of diminishing returns on allowing the wealth to keep their money untaxed so that they can provide jobs and we are already well beyond it.

Regulation is Bad
I'm fine with caveat emptor when it comes to the Home Shopping Network and diet pills, but when it comes to buying a car, to buying food at the grocery store, to buying a computer and to getting medical advice, I just don't see it. Back when Adam Smith was writing, a buyer could do his research and determine whether the gunsmith was a quality artisan and a consumer could quickly identify exactly where his produce was grown and with what pesticides (none). Now, though, the idea that we all should be able to be educated consumers in all areas is ridiculous. We banded together under our constitution in part so that government could look out for the General Welfare and I strongly believe that part of the general welfare is ensuring that products and services are relatively safe, relatively honest, and relatively free of unintended harm. If you really really want to exercise your right to buy a car that is manufactured free of oppressive government regulation, I suggest you by a Lada. You are welcome to only fly on Tupolev aircrafts, too. Me? I think I'll stick with my stifled-by-regulation-to-the-point-of-safety-and-reliability stationwagon.

The Market Will Regulate Itself
Related to the proposition preceding is this one. The problem is that supply and demand can only work if the consumer is able to walk away from the deal. This is fundamentally not possible with healthcare, housing, food and safety. Unless we are willing to say to somebody who is dying of cancer that they should shop around for the cheapest quality treatment before undertaking their quest for a cure or unless we are willing to argue that a trauma victim should stay in the ambulance until he has properly assessed whether the care at the closest hospital is the most efficient, then we really cannot say that healthcare should be a free market enterprise. Is there room for the market in healthcare? Absolutely. Should basic health coverage be market driven? I find that unconscionable.

Freedom's cool, but freedom that flies in the face of reality is cruelty. Don't be cruel.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A book list for escapist reading (Character driven mystery/noir/procedural)

I don't read as much quality literature as I should. Instead, when I read I am looking to be captivated and transported away from life for a while and so I look for books that are well written enough to be engaging but that aren't "work" to read. I also like to find series that are built around a likeable, well-drawn, character who I enjoy inviting into my life for an extended stay. I am especially excited to find an author who is prolific and allows me to read multiple books without having to learn a new world and a new population.

Here are some authors and titles that, for me, did exactly what I wanted them to:
I'm assuming that everybody already knows Michael Connolly and Lawrence Block, so I'm leaving them off of here. If you don't know them, they're pretty much the best out there.

Don Winslow's Neal Carey series:

Set in the 1970's and 1980's, the series is built around a genial loner who works for a private bank, helping its clients with special problems. It has some noir elements, but Winslow is a strong writer who builds great characters and intriguing plots.

Robert Crais' Elvis Cole series:
Sometimes funny, oftentimes dark, Crais' LA based private detective series is simply a good read.

Thomas Perry's Butcher's Boy series:
It is a rare author that can build a three-book series around a character with absolutely no redeeming qualities and still make it enjoyable. The Butcher's Boy is an unapologetic psychopathic contract killer but somehow he is still likeable enough for the reader to hope he doesn't get caught or killed.

Harlen Coben's Myron Bolitar series:
Myron Bolitar is a sports agent. This, somehow, doesn't make these books annoying and they provide an extended series of great reads that follow a character through several stages of his life.

There are many more, and I'll be adding more to the lists as I go.

If you have one that I should read, let me know.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

graphical neurotic autosturmia

Recently, while thinking about writing and avoiding doing so by hanging out at the Universal Cocktail Party and evesdropping on conversations, I interrupted a thread that started with the simple post: "Writing is Hard."

"So's not writing," I responded unthinkingly -- more captivated by my pithy ability to reverse the statement to create an opposite "truth" than by whether or not my statement was actually meaningful or true. An hour later, as other people chipped in, I began to descend into graphical neurotic autosturmia (The sudden and debilitating storm of self-editing and recriminations that follow putting words on a page) regarding what I had contributed and, because of that, I've been thinking a lot about it. Instead of writing. Here's where I am with it now:

Writing is hard for those who suffer from graphical neurotic autosturmia. For me, writing, whether it be an essay, a script, a novel, a poem, a letter, an email, a resume, or anything else is difficult because it creates a circumstance in which I create a permanent record of a thought or observation which will then be assessed for skill, meaning, and importance by other people without further input from me, the originator. As soon as a blank space is darkened with words of my own creation, I cease to simply hold myself inside and am joined by thousands of faceless readers. They coalesce into a dark cloud of editors and critics, voiced by the cool kids in middle school and faced by a morphing stream of people who's acceptance I've craved since my early days, and who (I've now edited this paragraph seven times) cause me to doubt, to review, rehash, reword, rethink, and rewrite my words in the same manner I reviewed, rehashed and reconfigured my outfits at thirteen. Putting words to the page forces me to confront all the times that my words fucked me up when I used them wrongly and all the times my joke fell flat. All of the embarrassing moments when I carelessly said something that fell hard on somebody and caused pain and all of the times when my important words dissipated into the ether. Writing anything, for me, is hard because I suffer from graphical neurotic autosturmia

I have to do it anyway, though. Like any psychological disorder, surrendering to it causes worsening symptoms. It has been almost two weeks since I wrote, save for this blog, and I am already exhibiting (I've edited this paragraph four times) late stage autosturmia that is beginning to effect even my professional life. I edited a one-sentence email three times earlier today before sending it. It was a simple response to a query for basic information.

So even though writing, for me, is hard, not writing is harder because when I do not write, my symptoms worsen, my obsession with grammar and construction become compulsive, my faith in my diction degrades, and the swirling storm inside grows stronger and more confident and when I do have to write, my swirling autosturmic crowd is liable to take on the face and voice of David Beeman, who I really wanted to be in 7th grade and then I won't even be able to fill in the order blanks on Amazon.

A self-help book for those who suffer. I guess I'm not the only one.

Share your story.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Truth About Charter Schools Part II

Somebody asked me with regard to my last post how charters came about and why American schools are so awful. So before I get to the rest of the charter post:

How did we get here?

A little background: First of all, believe it or not, public education, in general, is doing a much better job for a great number of students than it did 50 years ago. What? You heard me. Fifty years ago, in the "golden age" of public education, we provided a quality education for middle and upper class white students. We also provided a world-class education for a small minority of those students through the creation of college tracks and advanced science and math classes in reaction to Sputnik. The rest of the American educational system, though, lay on a continuum between mediocre, vocational and non-existent. We did not educate poor people very well and we all but refused to educate minorities in much of this country. Rural education was hit and miss and the end result was that the empowered classes were educated while nobody else was.

We, as a society, bought in to Andrew Carnegie's ideal that we needn't provide education for the poor and working class beyond basic abilities in reading and math. Carnegie paid for libraries and the thought was that anybody who was good enough to deserve an education would take care of it themselves.

We did, however, believe in giving young people job skills, so even if a child left school with limited academic skills, they would possibly be trained for cabinetmaking, metalworking, or some other vocation.

This three track system of collegiate, vocational, and dumb changed, slowly, through the 1960's and 1970's. As a society, we gave in to the demands for equal access to quality public education. We did so, in many cases, without being willing to spend more on education so, in effect, we redistributed the existing money. What happened? In the 1980's, the empowered classes still had greater access to quality education which they provided for themselves through local property taxes and selective housing and everybody else got a better education than they had had before, but it wasn't nearly as good as the empowered classes had always had.

"Our schools are in crisis!" The headlines read in the early 1980's, and the stories detailed campuses where drug-addled students couldn't identify Iowa on a map, separate the Declaration of Independence from the Constitution, or identify the square root of 25. The answer: cut funding for education as they are obviously wasting what we give them. The grand slide began.

Somehow cutting school budgets didn't make them better, so the privatization movements began -- vouchers and charters began in earnest in the late 1980's and early 1990's under the thoughts that, if schools were run like a business they would be more effective, if there were competition then public schools would have to shape up, and that if that didn't happen then students should have help with private school tuition.

So here we are in 2011. There is less money in education per pupil than at any time in recent history and society has mandated that we bring all students, regardless of starting point or deficit, up to a level of proficiency in basic skills. This is an admirable and necessary goal -- don't get me wrong -- but the issue remains, how best to do so.

Another note: My knowledge is specific to California, so please do not assume that what I say is true about charters in other states.

Alright, just as everything negative that is said about charters can be misleading, so can all the positives. Mostly, the positives I hear are these:

1. They are run more efficiently
2. They offer students a choice
3. They are freed from the burdensome bureaucracy of the larger districts
4. They are able to respond more quickly to challenges
5. They are more family-friendly
6. They are safer
7. They give more attention to individual students
8. They offer greater opportunities.

This one is much easier to deal with because the answer for each of them is the same: It depends on the charter school.

Charters can be more efficient, certainly, thought that efficiency often takes the form of being underadministrated which can then lead to even greater inefficiencies later. They do offer students a choice, though in many cases, the choice is between vanilla and french vanilla, or between vanilla and axle grease -- neither of which is a real choice.

Charters can be freed from burdensome bureaucracies, but they are also fully capable of developing their own triplicate forms and circular chains of authority -- and they are also capable of having too little bureaucracy (not something I ever thought I'd say) and therefore having no ability to consistently apply policies and procedures. They are, indeed, more capable of responding quickly to challenges, but they often lack the resources to respond effectively.

Independent Charters are small and underresourced. A small independent charter, when confronted with even an insignificant drop-off in student achievement as measured by the API will be forced into Program Improvement by the state. They will have a short window of time to produce an Improvement Plan that will then have to be authorized by the chartering district. This generally means choosing off of a menu of predictably approved choices for change and the end result is that small independent charters that try to create change in struggling communities end up looking very much like the neighborhood schools in terms of academic and curricular approaches. Chartering Organizations like KIPP, ICEF, my own GreenDot, and PUC are all now equivalent to small districts in their size and behave accordingly. In the end, the ability to respond quickly to student needs, because of the ways that the charter laws and national education laws are worded, usually means throwing out the original mission of the school and being forced to mimic the same one-size-fits-all approaches that are showing modest gains in all public schools.

With regards to being more family-friendly and safer -- there may be some truth here. Charters are assessed as part of their charter on how they will increase neighborhood and parent involvement. Also, charter families tend to be at least slightly concerned about the quality and safety of their child's schools. The exceptions for this are the district take-over schools like Locke, Jordan, Camino Real and Palisades. These schools are forced to accept whatever child lives in their district area just like any district school. Here, the improvements in safety and family involvement are generally due to the fact that, as a smaller organization than LAUSD, they have more riding on the safety records of these schools and therefore focus more highly on them. GreenDot has turned Locke High School into a very safe school. In order to do this, they have spent a considerable amount of extra money over the last four years on safety and security -- money that the district was not willing to spend.

Individual attention and opportunities are truly going to be school by school. If I had a choice between sending my child to Diamond Ranch HS, a high quality public school, or a small independent charter, I would choose Diamond Ranch unless my child was one who would benefit from being on a small campus where s/he felt known. The resources are greater at Diamond Ranch, the opportunities are better at Diamond Ranch, the systems themselves are better at Diamond Ranch and my child would be offered a consistent and high quality education.

Of course, I don't live in Diamond Ranch and my kid's local high school will be Belmont. This means that I will be looking at local charter high schools and inter and intra-district transfers. It all, really, depends on what is available. If she got into the magnet program at the Downtown Arts High School, an LAUSD public school, I would want her to go there. If not, then I would probably try to get her into Camino Nuevo or Downtown Values charter high schools.

To sum up: Charters are not the answer. Charters are an answer. There is no "The Answer," and until people stop trying to find silver-bullet style solutions to the education problems in our society, we will stay right where we are.

One final note -- something that has been unsaid in much of the modern controversies regarding public education: College is not, can not be, and should not be the goal for every child. Purely practically, if every child went to college, college itself would quickly become meaningless. Every child should have the opportunity to go to college if the choose, but they should also have the opportunity to choose against it without shame, without embarrassment, and with options. Right now, that doesn't exist for many of our children. If they are not on college track, they are on "high school completion" track where they are taking easier classes with little to no enrichment, challenge, or training for life beyond high school.

College preparatory curriculum is the easiest, cheapest, least challenging way for a school to look like a high quality option. Vocational education costs much more money. Arts education costs much more money. Technical education costs much more money. Career training costs much more money. The next time your district or a charter touts itself as being College Preparatory, ask yourself: "Is this because they truly believe that college is the best option for all of the students enrolled, or is it because being college prep is cheaper and more politically acceptable than actually properly serving all of the students in their community?"

The average intelligence is truly average. Let's not create a system where anybody who is not above average in either intelligence, ability, situation, or drive ends up unemployable. That would suck.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Truth About Charter Schools Part I

A friend of mine just asked my opinion on Charter schools and their relationship with traditional public schools. Fortunately, I happened to have one handy so I didn't have to go find somebody else's and pass it off as my own. While I was at it, though, it occurred to me that, as my opinion is credulant on the matter, that this would probably be the best venue for offering an answer.

Traditional public education does a reasonably good job for the majority of students, an excellent job for a minority of students and a miserable job for the rest. Charter schools were designed as a tool to encourage public schools to do better, to offer alternatives for students who were unsatisfied, and to offer an opportunity for students who were being underserved.

Charter simply means that a school has autonomy from district policies in terms of delivery method, but in most states is held to the same (and in some states higher) standard of efficacy as traditional public schools.

Charters, however, have been perceived as a threat by much of the traditional education community. I do not believe that they are. First of all, we need to stop viewing education as a zero-sum game with competing teams. While this might be an accurate model if the goal were to simply collect education dollars, if the goal is to actually educate students and improve society then, please, we're all on the same side.

But to more specifically refute some of the most common statements used by charter detractors to dismiss charters, I'll deal with them one at a time:
Here are the common complaints about charters:

1. There is no oversight.
2. They are anti-union tools
3. They exploit teachers
4. They divert money from traditional schools
5. They aren't any better
6. They get to pick and choose their students

Each of these is a partial truth. In this entry, I'll deal with the complaints and in a later posts, I will deal with the praises.

1. There is no oversight: I can only speak for California, but here that is far from true. Charters are strictly regulated and, unlike district schools who are only assessed officially by WASC every three years or so, charters are assessed by both WASC (on the same basic schedule as all schools) and by the chartering district each year, as well. Any issue that is out of compliance with the terms of the charter can lead to a non-renewal or, if egregious enough, can lead to the immediate loss of the charter. This is not the case for district schools who have only NCLB or a parent or teacher led charter rebellion to fear.

2.They are anti-union tools: I am a union member and I work in a charter. A charter where I worked for five years unionized the year after I left. While it is true that charters do not have to be unionized, they are able to unionize fairly easily. Anybody who says that unions are unnecessary in public education -- that teachers are professionals and should act like it -- needs to spend more time on the ground and working with some of the difficult working conditions, difficult schedules, difficult circumstances and difficult (and sometimes downright vindictive) administrators that populate public education. The union contracts that stipulate tenure, however, are not necessary and many charter unions eschew the traditional tenure protections in favor of strict dismissal due process and a two-year renewal cycle after the third year.

3. They exploit teachers: There is truth to this statement with regards to teachers. Charters tend to hire younger teachers and work them harder, piling on outside duties that in a traditional school are dealt with by administration. As a charter teacher, I have done master scheduling, discipline, security, lunch duty, recruitment, schoolwide data analysis, charter revisions for renewal, and many other tasks large and small that wouldn't normally fall on a teacher. I have had schedules where I was expected to be in front of kids for 6 hours straight without a break, and I have had work schedules where I was expected to be on-site and available for 9 hours each day. It is circumstances like these that are inspiring union efforts throughout charterdom. The flip-side, however, is that I have spent a teaching career free of pacing guides, district mandates, forced textbook adoptions, and tenure-enforced hierarchy. I've gained incredible experience which has shown me that I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in being an administrator, and I have had opportunities to teach classes that would never be given to me in a traditional school.

4. They Divert Money: The money follows the students. The state provides a set amount of money per day of attendance per student so yes, if a student goes to a charter school, the district loses money. They also lose the cost of educating that particular student, so it's a bit of a wash. Charters have been historically more aggressive and dynamic in the pursuit of private and grant money, too, which often gives the perception that charters are somehow better funded and therefore they must be stealing money from traditional schools.

5. They Aren't Any Better: Just like the schools in an a district, there is a great variation in quality in charters. Some are ridiculously bad and some are phenomenal. Most of them exist in the big part of the bell, just like everything else. Charters aren't the answer to education -- there is no one answer to education. I have worked in charters that struggled and I have worked in schools that have done brilliantly with students that the district had foresaken.

6. They Get to Pick and Choose Their Students No. No they don't. They do not. My current charter is a former district school -- we must take every single student in our district area, regardless of any factor. No charter school can refuse students if they are eligible for school. Many charters have waiting lists and lotteries, but they must take students by chance or by order of application. There is a propensity for charter schools to be attractive to parents who are more involved and therefore who possibly have children who are more educationally inclined, but in my experience, the net effect has been negligible.

Tomorrow: Part II: The reality behind common CS praise.

Just as the reality of the commonly repeated issues with charters are a mixed bag of credulance and reality, so too are many of their praises.

Monday, August 8, 2011

A Progressive 10-Point Plan

OK, It's about time. My wife keeps harping on the fact that progressives have no ability to market themselves so they're constantly outsold to the Great Befeared by the reactionaries who know how to coin a phrase. She's absolutely correct.

Here is an absolutely brilliant, one page (you listening, Mr. President?), ten-point plan for our future -- that's 3 less points than the Nation of Ulysses needed to destroy us.

Read it, discuss it, repost it, destroy it -- but make sure that the next time somebody says that progressives have no plan, be sure to say:

"No.  There is a plan.  It has ten points."  I would also hope you would add, "And they are exactly what we need to do to save this fucking country from ourselves."


Sunday, August 7, 2011

This weekend we spent feeling the chill of a San Francisco wimmer in our thinned Southland blood.   We stayed with good friends in the Sunset where we didn't see the sun and where it rained.  The mist and wind turned August into an intellectual pursuit.

Each time we drive North, I prepare to spend my time battling city-envy and pretending that, "while I like to visit the bay area, I couldn't imagine living here" and then hoping that nobody I'm talking to notices that I'm lying.   Each time, I brace myself and practice my most earnest looks secretly in the rearview mirror and each time as we slow to the tollbooths on the Bay Bridge, weaving back and forth as we frantically scrape lost dollars out of our pockets and bags, I remember:  I'm not lying.  I actually do like living in Los Angeles and I couldn't imagine living in San Francisco.

By the time I've missed my exit as the 101 emerges from nowhere and the fuck-80 or 3-I-don't-know disappears into a picturesque mess of warehouses, lofts, and baseball stadiums that showed up suddenly while I was gaping at the enormous practice New York that leaped up on my right I start to remember why and I spend the rest of each trip adding things to my LA/SF Love/Hate Matrix:

Things I love about San Francisco:

I love the density.  I love the architecture.  I love the views.  I love the water.  I love Golden Gate Park.  I love several people who have told me that they love San Francisco and are thrilled to be lucky enough to live there.  I love the respect the city has for City Lights.  I love that the city is progressive enough to erect a giant concrete penis for its firefighters.  I love that people keep books on their shelves.  I love that people have serious jobs and do serious things to improve the serious state of our people.   I love the city-wide composting, the ubiquity of mass transit, the trashless streets, the availability of good bread, and I love that the city has disguised all of their hipsters as librarians, programmers and dominatrixes so that the regular people don't have to worry that they aren't listening to the right music.  There are many things I love about San Francisco.

Things I love about Los Angeles

I love the weather.  I love the lack of cohesive urban design.  I love the views.  I love the parks.  I love the people who confide in me that, "they love LA, too" like its a shared pathology.  I love the fact that in LA, even though there are no bookstores and nobody has bookshelves in their livingrooms, people are secretly very-well read even though they won't talk about it.  I love the fact that the MTA can get me wherever I want to go for $1.50 and I can still feel like an urban pioneer when I take it.  I love the sense of discovery I get when I find a loaf of good bread and I love the fact that the city has disguised all its librarians, programmers and lawyers as hipsters so that nobody knows who listens to the right music.  I love the fact that, in Los Angeles, the only requirement for citizenship seems to be that a person dreams of doing something aside from what they are doing right now.   I love that the city gets excited when it discovers some section of itself that it forgot existed, especially if I already knew it was there.

Things that frustrate me about San Francisco:

My San Frustrations begin with the Cold.  The Wind.  The expectation that you, too, believe that San Francisco is great.  The fact that whenever I go there, I am disappointed that neither Miss Madrigal nor Barbary Lane are real.   That when I'm there I sometimes choose my food based on what I think will impress the waiter.  That everybody has a serious job, or takes their job seriously.  The serious.  Seriously, the serious.  That Jello Biafra didn't beat Diane Feinstein.

Things that frustrate me about Los Angeles:

My Los Angst begins with the smog.  The traffic.  The expectation that you, too, are only here temporarily.  The fact that Bowfinger and LA Story makes sense when you live here.  That there are very few really good restaurants and that Sam Yorty won reelection as Mayor because he ran against making the people sort the recyclables from the trash.

In Los Angeles, though, I can be a teacher who is really a novelist and be married to a book-keeper who is really a screenwriter and when we say these things, nobody laughs.  Instead, they tell us what they are doing while waiting to be able to do what they are really doing.  In Los Angeles, I know that if I chose to raise chickens, my neighbors wouldn't complain.  Or if I painted my house purple, or if I built a crows-nest on my roof and I spent my evenings up top with a spyglass.  I know that in Los Angeles, I can dress badly on purpose or by mistake and that it will be ok.  I know that in Los Angeles we have a dirty little secret which is that we all each believe in each others' dreams and that, here, I am surrounded by millions of people who won't be surprised if I become a world-famous writer -- not because they've read anything I've written and not because they know I have talent and not even because they like me --because in a city that is held together by aspirations, each success is simply another proof of possibility and further reason to keep dreaming.

In the end, I will sacrifice clean streets, sweeping vistas and good bread for smog, traffic, and celebrity because my aspiration isn't to work hard and do good so that I can live in the Best City on Earth but to live and dream in a city that isn't embarrassed by fantasy.  Thanks, Los Angeles.  I love you.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

I Don't Matter

I don't teach in a traditional school.   I work as part of a team in an academy designed for students who could not make it in traditional schools.  Some of our students come to us ready and willing to do the simple strenuous work of graduating and have the tools for doing so already installed.  The rest, though, do not.  My students are the ones that disrupted class, or didn't go.  My students are the ones who got pregnant or got arrested or got deported.  My students are the ones who slept in class or wouldn't take off their headphones.  My students are the ones that were better known by the security guards, lunch-ladies, attendance officers and janitors than they were by their own teachers.   My students are the ones that didn't understand that teachers don't need their opinions on their hygiene and personality and who insisted that calling the classroom leader a punk-ass bitch was simply an observation.  My students are the ones who missed the memo on the importance of getting in line, shutting up and being seated when the bell rang.  

My students were those kids and, some days, they still are. Now, though, they are older, more experienced, slightly less angry and less filled with self-loathing.  Many of them are on their own now, or are already budding heads of household, though they may still share the building with the rest of their original family.  Many of them have forged positive relationships with their probation officer, their social worker, their counselors or, more probably with me and the rest of us in the academy and now they come, almost every day so that they can be with us and be doing something that lets them feel that they are altering a life-course that oftentimes seems inevitable.

They want a diploma.  They want to accomplish.  They want to do better.  They want us to be proud of them. There are moments when what they want is to learn.

My students scare a lot of people.  The school administers a survey of students at the end of each year and one of the questions is "My teacher is afraid of me" and the students are asked to rate the truth of the statement on a scale of 1 to 5 with one being, "Absolutely" and five being "Not at All."  I got uncomfortable when I saw the survey for the first time.  The truth is that there were times in the course of the year when I was afraid of them, when I wasn't sure how far things would go or what they would do.   There were times in the course of the year when the dynamics of the academy shifted to the point where the thin and tender outer ring of willingness to change and desire for more that my students had grown seemed to crack and reveal the hardness of earlier days.  There were times when I caused that to happen by being too sharp, too critical, or too cranky.  There were also times when the steely undershells would break through and seemingly slough off all of the progress of years for reasons I didn't understand.

There were times when I asked, "why?"

"This is Watts."

I think I understand part of it.  I think I'm witnessing the product of having one's greatest truth being the same as one's greatest fear:  I Don't Matter.

I Don't Matter.  That is my truth.   I see evidence of it everywhere and it informs my reaction to every interaction.

"Why you want me to be quiet?  I ain't bothering anybody."
"Nobody cares if I listen to music -- it don't bother nobody."
"Why the fuck you so worried about what I do, anyway?"
"You all don't give a fuck about me 'cept when I get inconvenient"

I Don't Matter.  That is my deepest fear.  I see evidence of it everywhere and it informs my reaction to every interaction.

"What the fuck?!  I need help and you just walk right past."
"Why you  looking at me?"
"Fuck you, you just ignoring me."
"He's disrespecting me.  He needs to show me some respect."

So as the year gets ready to start and we dust off the chairs and tables and computers and files and cringe at all the little things that we didn't get done last year that we still need to do, there's one thing more important than any other that we need to arrange before the rising flood of students, angry at the end of summer, scared of the work ahead, embarrassed by their gratitude, and desperately in need of a structure return.  We must prepare ourselves to demonstrate in everything we do:

You are wrong:  You matter.
Don't be afraid:  You matter.

And they do matter.  Each and every one of them.  And until they believe that, until their personal narration is rewritten to reflect the new truth, our job isn't really done.

Interesting article.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

What are eminently credulant musings?

I've started a blog so that I have a way to share with you all my thoughts and views on things that I care about, but before you invest too much time you should know that I tend to make things up.  Sometimes it's because I know something to be true and I just don't have the real facts handy.  Other times it's because at heart, I love fictions and fantasies more than reality, and sometimes it's just because what I really want to be true is more important than what, sadly, is actual.  Don't worry, though.  I always make sure that people know that I've strayed from the banal confines of the shared delusion and I'll make sure that I let you know, too.

What a minute.  Is credulant even a word?   What does cuphineous mean?  I've never heard either word before.  I made them up.  They're not real -- yet.

Credulant (adj): Something that is not fully credible because it is unsourced but it sounds true so it is accepted without argument.

Cuphineous (adj): An idea or a concern that is peripheral to the real problem but is dressed up in fancy clothes and trotted out for discussion instead of the real issue in order to preserve the feelings, work, or ideology of the participants.

Eminently Credulant Musings is where you will find my eminently credulant musings, along with some real ideas, on:

Los Angeles
and the Art of Bullshitting

Many of my musings will be of the eminently credulent variety and but nothing can be solved just by discussing the credulant cuphineous, so there will also be talk, with truth and facts, about the real problems, too.  Please, feel free to engage -- I am just as thrilled to believe your own credulant musings as I am my own.