Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Gaming the System

This is what happens when you allow the wolves to mind the henhouse, or the inmates to run the asylum, or [insert your own cliche here].
Will C. Wood Middle School faced a vexing situation when last year's test results came out in August. Most students had met the mark set by No Child Left Behind. But African American students' math scores fell far short of it, bringing the school into failing status in the eyes of the federal law.

One hundred students were categorized as black when they took the test last spring. But if the school had fewer than 100 students in that group, their low scores wouldn't count. So Principal Jim Wong reviewed the files of all the students classified as African American on the test, he said, and found that four of them had indicated no race or mixed race on their enrollment paperwork. Wong sent his staff to talk to the four families to ask permission to put the kids in a different racial group.

"You get a kid that's half black, half white. What are you going to put him down as?" Wong said. "If one kid makes the difference and I can go white, that gets me out of trouble." Over the past two years, 80 California schools got "out of trouble" with No Child Left Behind after changing the way they classify their students, a Bee analysis has found. The changes nudged their status from failing to passing under the federal law.

Well, thank god that problem is solved. Now...what's for lunch today?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Pop Quiz

What tools, external to a teacher's heart, mind, and commitment, must a teacher have in order to perform his or her job effectively?



Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Ma Nishtanah?

Once upon a time, in a previous life, I wrote and directed a folk-music-drenched adaptation of the medieval "mystery plays," a cycle of playlets dramatizing stories from the Bible, plays that were originally created and performed by members of various guilds and merchant groups as a holiday extravaganza for cities and villages around England. I edited with a heavy hand, to say the least, and added a lot of material of my own, to give the whole thing a more modern twist. An old theatre professor of mine--pompous, self-important, ill-kempt, and pipe-smoking to a ludicrously stereotypical degree, came to watch a rehearsal and chuckled at the scene of the Israelites escaping from bondage. I had added a musical number taking the slaves from Egypt through the desert and to Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. Everyone was dancing around and singing, "Freedom! Freedom!" Which is what made my very Irish Catholic old prof laugh. "Only Jews," he chuckled. "Only Jews could write a scene where people sing and dance about Freedom while being bound down in Law."

He meant it as an insult, but all I could say was, "Yes? And? So?"

I started thinking about that moment in time while reading this over at City Journal, on the relationship--correlation, even--between Freedom and Happiness. But the Freedom the author speaks of is not License. It is not Abandon. It is the kind of Freedom our Esteemed Founders talked about:

The earliest American definition of liberty—stated frequently by the Founding Fathers—is about constraints on personal actions: if I don’t hurt anybody else, I should be free to pursue my own will. As Thomas Jefferson put it in his first inaugural address, “A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the outh of labor the bread it has earned.”

Let's put aside the sad impossibility of ever having a government--local, state, or national--that truly behaved this way. I want to focus here on Us, not Them.

"If I don't hurt anybody else, I should be free to pursue my own will." That's liberty as I have always understood and defined it. But how do you guarantee the first part of that conditional statement? "If I don't hurt anybody else." That's a big if, brother.

What the author is working towards (what I quoted is from the very top of the essay) is the idea that personal freedom is impossible without personal restraint--moral restraint. My old theatre professor thought it was amusing that Jews saw Law as Freedom, but it is freedom. Without it, all you have is abandon--license. And we all know what total license leads to: chaos, destruction, and, ultimately, the imposition of Power to make it all stop. In other words, you can have the cop in your head, or you can have the cop on the street. Despite what the hippies believed and longed for, there is no such thing as non-cop. A world of non-cop leads to a world of dictator, sooner or later. The strong will dominate the weak and make that dominance into law, for all generations to come. To truly have that hippie paradise of pastoral frolics, girls in peasant dresses, and kibbutz-like sharing, you need people with a strong moral core and a sense of personal restraint. All of them. Because all it takes is one immoral greedhead to wreck the commune and turn everyone against everyone else.

Coincidentally--or not--it is Passover this week. It is the week during which Jews--even Jews who do nothing particularly Jewish the rest of the year--gather together with family and friends to lift the matzoh and say, "I was a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord saved me with an outstretched arm." The Torah does not tell us much about how to celebrate Passover. All it tells us is that we must tell our children the story of the Exodus (not just celebrate, but tell our children) and that we must tell the story as though it had happened to us, ourselves.

For anyone who likes the Grownup Versions of these stories, what happens to the Israelites in the desert (the wide open spaces) after they leave Egypt (in Hebrew, literally, the "narrow place") is instructive. They quickly fall to pieces, arguing with each other, moaning about how much better things had been back where they came from, and blaming Moses for everything up to and including the weather. The minute Moses leaves them alone, they fall to idol worship and various depravities only blurrily depicted by Cecil B DeMille. They're hopeless. In fact, they're so hopeless that God offers to wipe them out and start all over again with Moses' own children, and build up again from there. Fortunately, Moses talks the big guy out of this idea, if for no other reason than the lousy PR it will create when word gets out.

But can you blame them? What moral compass can you expect them to have after hundreds of years of slavery? They have not been able to be moral agents, or to raise their children as moral agents. They are cattle, donkeys, beasts of burden. And now they're free, thrown out into the daylight with nothing internal or external to guide them (well, there's a pillar of fire, but that just tells them which way to keep walking).

Only when they reach Sinai are they given a true, internal road map. And God is quite explicit about its purpose. "Behold," he tells the Israelites (well, those among them able to listen to The Voice without completely freaking out), "I have given you this day the blessing and the curse, life and death--therefore choose life, that you and your people may live."

Notice that He never says, "Do all this stuff and you'll go to heaven." Never. And neither does anyone else. This is a social contract. Sure, it has a lot about worshipping one God, resisting idols, and so forth, but the rest of it is really a blueprint for living together in peace and security--a handful of very basic rules of personal, moral restraint. Don't murder, don't lie, don't steal, don't commit adultery, don't covet. Honor your parents. And so forth. It's a handful. And none of us--none of us--can live by them 100%. Think about that. As good as we are--and most of us are very good, decent, moral people--as good as we are, we can't quite hit this target.

But if you can come close enough, most of the time--and you can have some faith that your neighbors are making an equally good effort--then you can really live a life of freedom. Some safe social space has been carved out for you--space in which you can live and breathe and relax--where you don't always have to watch your back, or your possessions, or your spouse. Without that breathing room, there can be no freedom. And there are only two ways to get that breathing room: trust and faith in one another...or the cop.

I like the fact that our tradition makes Passover a Big Social Event. We don't just tell our children; we invite a crowd. At the first-night Seder we were invited to this year, there were thirty people at the table. So we don't just tell the kids. We tell each other. And it's a good thing, don't you think? Because God knows, we need reminding.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

It's Just the Onions I'm Slicing

Following the lead of Zen Master Sagal, writing about what makes men--or at least him--feel deeply, here is my own, personal list of "stupid, juvenile, sentimental stuff that has, for whatever reason, pulled on my reedy, fraying heartstrings."

  • The last line of To Kill a Mockingbird, movie or book, as Atticus Finch waits by his son's bed: "And he was there when he waked up in the morning."

  • And, while we're there: "Stand up, Miss Jean Louise; your father's passing."

  • The sight of any Welsh Corgi, reminding me of the World's Best Dog: Lightning

  • Watching my sons lie on the floor on their stomachs, legs up in the air, drawing pictures

  • Indigo Girls: "The Wood Song"

  • Rowboats

  • The Auld Lang Syne ending of It's a Wonderful Life (as one of Peter's commenter's also mentioned)

  • The Playing-Catch-With-The-Ghost-of-Dad ending of Field of Dreams (also as one of Peter's commenter's mentioned)

  • The ending of Hannah and Her Sisters

  • The scene in Peggy Sue Got Married, an otherwise dreadful movie, where time-travelling, now-teenaged Kathleen Turner answers the phone and hears her grandmother's voice--a voice her adult-self hasn't heard in years

  • "Polish your shoes for the fat lady," from Franny and Zooey

  • Erik Satie's Gymnopedie

  • The French horn solo from Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony

  • and two scenes from Big: 1) Tom Hanks watching kids playing baseball, with a look on his face that says "what have I done?" and 2) the kid, dragging along in his grown-up clothes as he returns home to his mother.

We spend our childhood begging to grow up, and then spend our adulthood mourning our lost childhood. Not just the being-children part of it, but the family we once had around us, the safety and comfort and protection of that family, the not-having-to-have-answers-for-everything, the not-being-in-charge, the having-someone-to-turn-to...all of which, little by little, year by year, we lose.

But we can't play catch with our ghost-fathers. Because we are the fathers now. And every act of fatherhood reminds us of the fathers we've lost--not lost because they're dead, necessarily--just lost because we're not children anymore--and there's really no one we can turn to or cry to or lean on in quite the same way, ever again.

Ah, well...

But Lightning was the greatest dog ever.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Walk On By

Reb Nachman of Bratslav once said, "The whole world is a narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid."

But this is just ridiculous.

I mean, it's stupid enough to try to walk this path at all. But to walk it with a video camera in hand takes a special kind of stupid.

By the way, this is the Caminito del Rey, in Spain. In case you wanted to try it for yourself.

Friday, April 4, 2008

National Poetry Month

April is the cruellest month.

It's also National Poetry Month.

So kick back with a good poem and marvel at how some of your fellow monkeys have managed to transform the squeaks and squawks with which we ask for more bananas into phrases of Absolute Beauty, Wonder, and sometimes Terror.

Go ahead--just pick an author at random when you have a few moments to spare. And graze.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

People Are Strange

I was supposed to meet my two fellow teacher-trainers at their hotel for bit of coffee and strategizing before descending upon the trailer (sorry: portable) where the training session was to occur. They were nowhere in sight. I sought out the dining room and ensconced myself with a free USA Today (is there any other kind, really?) to wait.

Something I couldn't quite figure out what, or why. Something was happening out on the periphery of my vision, and some part of my brain was monitoring it enough to know that it was somehow askew. So I put down the rag and paid attention to my surroundings. There was a gaggle of middle-aged Church Ladies milling around a table. They had those Church Lady hats and purses, and grimly out-of-fashion clothing. But something was odd. They had forearms the size of tree trunks. And the voices coming out of them were deeper than seemed right. I looked around the room and realized (yes, I had completely missed it while walking in), that the hotel was hosting a "Gender Issues" conference. I was surrounded by transvestites.

Now, I lived in New York City for a decade, and I had an apartment on Christopher Street for the first few of those years, deep in the heart of Greenwich Village. I worked in the theatre for years. I have seen my fair share of transvestites. When the Gay Pride parade passed down my street each year, it was made clear to me that I had a moral obligation to throw open my doors and let pretty much anyone hang out on my fire escape to watch the parade go by. Which I happily did. And let me tell you, the transvestites that marched by during those parades were fine. I mean, supermodel beautiful...especially when compared with what I was seeing in this hotel lobby.

Here in the Southwest, apparently, the class of trannie one gets is a bit lower down in the pecking order. There were no supermodels here. What we seemed to have were a bunch of bankers and car salesmen--dumpy, round, balding, and gruff...and dressed up in the frumpiest, dowdiest outfits you could imagine--things I didn't think were actually still available for sale. These were not men trying to look like Whitney Houston; these were men trying to look like Grandma.

My fellow trainers were completely freaked out by the whole thing, and made lots of unfortunate and very old jokes (later on, out of earshot) about pronoun confusion. Which was too bad, really, because there was nothing threatening about any of this. It's either something you feel the need to do or it's not. It either goes along with being gay or it doesn't. It's playing dress-up. And ok, I'm sure there were people at that hotel for the Gender Issues conference who had serious and profound issues--issues that have made life difficult and painful for them. But is it the gender issue itself that has made life painful, or is it everyone else's reaction to it, day after day? Is it everyone pointing and chuckling and saying, "look at the freak"?

All I'm saying is, ultimately, who's to say who's a freak? And who really cares? Oh, I know it's easy to think there's an actual "mainstream" out there--but only if you don't look very hard. There are a lot of folks able and willing to conform to the norm at the surface level. But the surface level is just window dressing. Underneath that, we are not all made to factory spec. We are not robots.

And what a vast and strange array of non-robots we really are.

We recently moved Thing 1 to a Jewish Day School, after homeschooling him for a year (and that, after a disastrous first half of first grade at an allegedly progressive private school). We chose the school because of the Jewish education aspect of it, which we liked a lot, but also because the class size was very small, which Thing 1 needed.

One of the fascinating things about this school is that it caters to all denominations of Judaism. There are Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Chasidic kids and parents (and teachers) milling around the courtyard each morning. And they all talk to each other and they all get along. They have made a safe space at this school (a very rare and magical place) where the denominations can come together and just be Jews together. And these are groups, in case you're not up on your internecine Jewish squabbling, that Do Not Get Along out in the world. I've gone into shops in New York City where the owner refused to shake my hand or look my wife in the face--possibly because she was wearing a short-sleeved shirt. I've gotten in arguments with people over who should rightfully be considered a Jew in Israel--or have the right to perform weddings and bar mitzvahs. The acrimony can be palpable.

But not here. Here in the school courtyard, you can see Social X-Ray women in high fashion and women in plain skirts and kerchiefs around their heads; men in perfectly ordinary suits and men with tzit-tzit fringes hanging out over their belts; the beardless and the bearded. And here they're just parents. They talk to each other. They invite each other home for dinner. Their kids play together in the afternoons. I look around in the mornings, when we're all dropping off our children, and I think, "we can all get along--any group of us--if we'll just let each other be."

At a certain point, we're all freaks. We're all weirdos. Maybe the bank president isn't wearing a dress when he comes home from work--maybe he's just playing with model trains in the basement...and slowly, painstakingly, creating an alternate universe down there, with houses, roads, cars, human figures--a whole world, taking up the entire basement. I've met such a man. You'd never guess he was playing god to his own universe in his basement. But that's what basements are for.

Or there's my cousin--a successful editor and writer, a good husband and father, a mensch in every way. He's also a nudist.

Maybe it's a passion for karaoke. Or ballroom dancing. Maybe it's a fantasy football league that's taking up way too much of someone's time. Hell, maybe it's a real football league that makes someone show up to a game in 15-degree weather, shirtless, painted green.

We are infinitely strange--that's all I'm saying. Strange in deep places or dark corners where it's most surprising. Profoundly strange. And sometimes unknowably strange. And wonderfully strange. And we should just relax and enjoy that about each other.

So quit it with the "he, she, or it" jokes, girls. It's just people. And just people is plenty weird enough.