Saturday, June 29, 2013

Two Views of Justice

There comes a moment in every liberal Philadelphian’s life, when an important decision must be made: “should I, or should I not, scroll down and read the comments at the bottom of this local news article?” I, for one, never learn from my mistakes. My thought process goes something like this: “There’s no way that anyone could think this austerity budget is good! Who could possibly support schools having no counselors, librarians, or assistant principals?” Every single time, I think that. And every single time, I see comments like the following:
Why doesn't the public school make the parents pay something toward the schools. My children and grand child all went to catholic school. I pay real estate taxes and get nothing but increases on them.
I think to myself, “OK, that’s just one libertarian curmudgeon. If I just keep reading, there have to be, like, a thousand people who disagree.” I keep reading. Things go from bad to worse, with comments such as:
That's a good idea. Maybe then the people on welfare would have to actually work and pay taxes to get their kids educated like the rest of us do!
At this point, I know that hours of my life are going to be lost. I’ll read a comment, and then think, “OK, at least maybe the next comment will be reasonable.” Then, I can’t pull myself away. It becomes sort of like rubber-necking at the scene of an accident. I think, “It can’t possibly be that bad… Let me take one more look. OK, it is that bad. But maybe if I take one more look…” I read comment after comment, looking for relief from the carnage. I don’t find that relief. I want to tear my horrified eyes away; I’m horrified, so I can’t tear my eyes away.
            I have a strict rule against getting into online arguments with random strangers. Sometimes I’ll write a comment and then immediately delete it, allowing it to vaporize into the intangible stratosphere of the Internet. Those little comments boxes couldn’t contain my rage, anyway.
            But I try to imagine sitting down at my West Philly kitchen table with one of these folks. I try to imagine pouring a glass of water for myself, and one for them. I try to imagine—if we were able to clear a clean and sunny space for such a human discourse—what I would actually say.
            I think it comes down to antithetical definitions of justice. I imagine a line, running down the kitchen table, delineating the two sides of this issue. The word justice runs the entire length of that line. Because justice means both “righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness” and “the administering of deserved punishment or reward.
            When people place their cursors in the comment box and write about things like “the people on welfare,” they must be convinced that they, themselves, are holy arbiters, “administering … deserved punishment or reward.” The “punishment” for “those people”—people from North Philly, say—is austerity, is an education that only vaguely resembles what we know education to be. Of course, the folks who ascribe to that definition believe that they, themselves, aren’t “those people.” They believe that they, themselves, could never be “those people.” If people thought they deserved punishment—or even that there was a possibility that they could be punished—they’d be less fervent in their support of this sort of justice.
According to this worldview, the impartial American meritocratic system has simply granted unto them their deserved portion of reward. They fed the appropriate raw materials into the system, and this reward was delivered to them—delivered automatically, and without any sort of bias or intent, as if on a conveyor belt. From this perspective, justice is a clean, gleaming machine, dispensing packages of punishment and reward. There is something appealing to that model of justice. It’s so modern, so industrial—a justice of gears and ballasts. This justice is impersonal, unarguable—half Calvinist God, half Darwinian natural selection. It seems to be automatic; its metallic works function without any human error.
 My own definition of justice—righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness”—has less of a hardened sheen, less of a stainless-steel efficiency to it. It’s not plated in the authority of objectivism. I might say that it is indeed “righteous, equitable and right” for my students—children of immigrants from Russia and Ethiopia, kids from poor South Philly families, kids who have absent or indifferent parents—to receive the same education that students in the uber-wealthy Lower Merion district, right outside the city, receive. However, as the comments section debacle illustrates, there are hordes of people who do not agree with me. There is no immediate formula for what righteousness, equitableness, and moral rightness” actually is. This justice cannot be created through empirical rules, or by flipping an “On” switch. This justice is a human justice, and, as such, it must be thought through, debated, written about, and slowly processed. Like all things human, this justice is muddled and disorganized and inefficient. It is multiple, rather than singular; it is diffuse, not centralized. It takes place in a conversation that is made from human voices.
This type of justice is only possible through a posture of receiving, a stance of humility. The word “deserved” has little place in the lexicon of this justice. For instance, I, myself, have never received welfare; however, just a few months before I met my husband, unemployment benefits saved him from losing his house. I know my husband didn’t deserve to lose his house, so how could I claim with certainty that my neighbors deserve to lose theirs? This justice does not roll out gates between “those people” and “us”; it recognizes that “those people” are “us,” and we are “those people.” This justice smashes down the chain-link between these binaries, and—again—leaves us with a glorious disorder, an energizing mess.
People who comment on articles regarding the austerity budget—people who write things like “there is NO such thing as a free ride!”—do so from a place of faith. They have faith in their own ability to “administer punishment and reward.” They have faith in their sparkling, no-hitches justice machine. They have faith in their hubris, in the pride that rivets them to their claims about “those people.”
If they were sitting at my kitchen table, I’d have to realize that the line between their justice and mine is entrenched, cleaved deep. But I have faith, too. I’m not sure whether anyone can be convinced that educating other people’s kids is the right thing to do. It certainly isn’t going to happen within the strictures of the “comments” section. It might take these folks being crushed in the works of their own justice, before they understand how oppressive it truly is. Or it might take the rest of us walking, unsteadily, down the fraught path of our commitment to righteousness, equitableness, and moral rightness. Whatever that looks like, it might take us going all the way.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Not with a Bang, But a Whimper

 The end of the school year. Once final exams are over, my school starts feeling downright post-apocalyptic. Time becomes a frail construct. Our synchronized clocks, when no longer watched by kids, become obsolete. The bells ring, but without the churn of crowds in the halls, it no longer matters whether it’s first or fifth period. As summer break nears, a sense of vagueness and distracted destitution pervades the building. Trash skitters through the corridors. Kids—mostly freshmen—roam the halls in plucky bands. They make strange, giddy alliances; I overhear their awkward chit-chat. It seems to be the diction of survivors. “I can’t believe I’ve never seen you before,” they say to each other. They ask, with desperation, “Are we the only ones here?”
 Every June, when I should feel relief, I always feel a weird sense of mourning, an uncanny wistfulness. As the school year ends, I wander the building, looking with the eyes of someone whose world has just washed away. I have so much to do—classroom items to pack, book slips to process, textbooks to count. And yet, I wonder what I’m going to do with myself. I feel like I should move things around on my desk or clean something. But then, the moment I pick up a stack of papers, I immediately feel that there’s no point. Each day seems to pass more slowly than the last, a sick trickle of boredom and purposelessness.
            Every June, I think—This is the way the school year ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper.
            This year, here in Philadelphia, though, there’s a bang. There are implosions, and explosions, and pyrotechnics. There’s one mushroom cloud, and another, and another. There are seismic shockwaves rending what once felt like solid ground.
            In their secret laboratories, the SRC cooked up a lethal concoction of school closures and austerity. We watched in terror as sports, then the arts, then counselors—each stronghold, each bastion of civilization—fell. Now, nearly 3,783 layoffs have rippled through the city, spreading like some dread plague from the red-X-ed epicenter at 440 North Broad. Surge after surge of unreality—how do we run our schools without secretaries? without Assistant Principals?—has washed over us. It’s played out with the stunned, slow-motion numbness of a zombie film. Those who were quick, and those who were naturally paranoid, realized what was happening, and reacted. The dumbfounded, and the optimistic, blinked a little, and said, “I never thought this would actually happen.”
            I know that these descriptions seem hyperbolic. But 3,783 people have been laid off. Ratios for School nurses are 1 nurse to every 1,500 kids.  The staff of my school has been reduced from 109 teachers to 89 teachers. We are expected to mange 2,300 kids, with our three assistant principals laid off, with our principal as our only administrator. Our five counselors have been eliminated, and next September, our 660 seniors—many of whom are children of immigrants, many of whom are first-generation college students—will have to somehow navigate the increasingly Byzantine processes of college application and financial aid.
What other language is available, when our reality itself is hyperbolic? Anything I might write feels inherently like an exaggeration.
I’m not the first one to apply apocalyptic rhetoric to the end of this particular school year. From the time the 2013-2014 school year’s budget was revealed, it’s been called the Doomsday Budget.
A month ago, after a protest, my colleague, Ken, and I were hunkered down at the Prohibition Tap Room. Mere blocks away, barricaded in the sterile School District headquarters, the SRC was passing the budget. Ken and I were talking, in hushed, shaky tones, about the future. Next year. Next year should have sensational movie-esque titles like Next Year: Countdown to Counselor Zero or Next Year: Corbett’s Revenge, Part III.
The bartender approached us and said, “Those people over there just bought your next round.” When we looked over, we realized that “those people” were the parents of one of our students. Judging by the red they wore and the placards they carried, they’d been at the rally as well.
As they raised their glasses, the dad yelled across the room, “Keep going. Please keep going.” I imagined it like a scene in a film. Ken and I would look at each other, say “Ok! Let’s do it!” We’d sling rocket launchers onto our shoulders and bound off through the rubble.
As we raised our glasses to them, I quipped, “There’s nothing like a Doomsday Budget to bring people together.”
             As we waited for the SRC to vote on the budget, the Prohibition Tap Room turned into a sort of impromptu headquarters—for the resisting; for the terrified; for the survivors. In other words, it was filled with Philadelphia’s teachers and parents. Even our student and her friends stopped by to share an anxious meal with their families. We were all there together, and it almost felt like we should barricade the door, stockpile provisions, and steel ourselves for the thing that was coming. We made bitter jokes:
“Hey, remember how Ackerman’s slogan was Imagine 2014?”
“So, I guess we’ll have to start using old School District memos for toilet paper next year.” All to distract ourselves, to pit camaraderie against the big, irrevocable thing that was, doubtless, on its way.
We knew it was coming, could hear its austere rumbling. It was moving, with insidious omnipotence, through the silent streets of Philly. We didn’t really have a plan for surviving it, and it was difficult to imagine how we’d fight it. So we figured we’d just stay put, and stay together. Even if we were to run, where would we run to? Philly is our home—even if it’s being utterly decimated, pulverized by this thing that’s coming.
            That thing is, simply, a sense of crushing nothingness.
            Now, it’s the end of the school year. Instead of being energized by the coming of summer, I’m crushed by this end-of-the-world malaise. The neat progression of my days becomes unfixed. I walk by vacant-eyed freshmen, all of whom are confused by what has happened to their classes, their school. They ask, “What do we do now?” and crouch in the hallways, shivering as if from PTSD. Shredded bits of notebooks and worksheets swirl in uncanny cyclones.
            I’ve spent the past ten months building; I’ve spent the last five years building. I’ve built feisty class spoken-word competitions and debates about the American literary cannon. I’ve supported my students as they built 20-page research papers on difficult critical topics like a Disability Studies reading of Flannery O’Connor or a Masculinity Studies reading of Fight Club. At the end of every school year, all of that feels decimated. But usually it’s a natural decimation, part of the typical September-to-June movement of planetary rotation.
What’s happening this year is not natural. I could compare it to melting ice caps, or an asteroid, or zombies, or the bright flash. But the enormity of this thing even eclipses my metaphors, makes my language go dark.
This year, everything I’ve built is muted to a muttered whine, a listless whimper. So this is how this school year ends. With a bang, and then a whimper.

The Cuts

            They’re saying cut to the bone. They’re saying eviscerate. They’re saying slashed and hacked to pieces. But all the gore in the Thesaurus couldn’t describe what’s happening to the Philadelphia public school system right now.
            I’m a teacher in this truncated system, this system with all its limbs missing. For me, the cuts slice in two directions. They gash in the direction of my future, and in the direction of my past. I’m from here. I’m from the City of Philadelphia, from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. I’m from Germantown, and I’m from Central High School. I’ve lived in other places—Manhattan, Chicago, Oxford, Brooklyn. I’ve worked doing some things that aren’t teaching. I came back here in a circuitous way. But these streets and these hallways are the veins where my blood belongs.
            Here is where I found a way to speak some certain words. And those certain words have been my lexicon for a long time now. And that lexicon has become my thought. And my thought is the language that I speak to my students. Here is where I learned the discourse of pluralism. I’d come into high school from a religious background. I'd come from a small school and a discourse of dualities—of binaries, of absolutes. Here is where my words began to be cloven, to branch beyond either/or, and into both/and. Here is where my teachers asked an interesting question, and allowed my 15-year-old Christian self to just fight it out with the Wiccan kid, and the Jewish-but-Agnostic kid, and the nominally Buddhist kid. Here is where I grew to really love the Wiccan kid, and the Jewish-but-Agnostic kid, and the nominally Buddhist kid. Here is where I said, at Bible Club—when the Gay-Straight Alliance dropped by—Discussion is good. And when I said it here, I said it in a strangled voice—but still, I said it, and I grew to mean it.
These days, here is where I often ask my classes, What do you think? and tell them that, in our discussions, there is no right answer. Here is where my students realize that I won’t have an answer for them, because there is no one right answer. Here is where I tell kids that I don’t have a problem with what they believe, but I have problem with them believing anything they haven’t thought through. 
            I speak here, all day long—in class, in the halls, in my office, before school, during class, after school, on my preps—to kids. I speak with the tongue I was given. With a tongue that has been transformed and, I hope, is transformative. And this is the tongue that feels cut out, leaving me bleeding from my mouth like Philomel. My city of Philadelphia, my Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, were the ones who rooted this tongue inside my mouth. Yet when I shout at protests, I might as well be contorting my lips around bubbles of muteness. The Mayor, the School Reform Commission, the Governor—all they see is an ape-show of soundless words.
            Cuts, cuts, cuts. At my school’s graduation last week, a distinguished Central alumnus chanted this phrase from the stage. Cuts, cuts, cuts. When the words—cuts, cuts, cuts—first hewed through the air, I thought this famous man would decry the cutting, and cutting, and cutting. Finally, I thought, someone with the clout to fell the rich, the powerful—those folks in Harrisburg and City Hall, who build castles out of tax-breaks, but whittle away the portion of the poor. Cuts, cuts, cuts. But then I realized he was speaking in a mimic’s sing-song. His cadence was a School-marmish refrain, intended to mock those who keep speaking of the cuts, because we can speak of little else. Intended to mock those like me, whose every step around the city echoes Cuts, cuts, cuts.
His admonishment to our seniors, it turned out, was to cease whining and do more with less. He didn’t have the Internet when he was growing up. He didn’t have a smart phone. He didn’t have 3-D movies and Facebook. I felt the breath cutting into my throat. Obviously, there were flaws to his logic. For instance, the Internet doesn’t necessarily mean our kids are privileged; instead, it means that they’re competing in a global economy that’s far more cutthroat than that guy’s world of stickball and pencils. Also, the fact that they’re graduating—that they’re going to amazing colleges and doing so much with their lives—is sufficient proof that these kids already have done more with less.
            But my main questions for this austerity-loving gentleman would be the following. Wouldn’t you want for the students of the future to have more, to have better, than what you (or I) had? And didn’t you come to this venerated graduation with the hope of building something? Why, then, are you choosing instead to hack it down? Why are you cutting against everything I hope for? Why are you deconstructing the purpose I have in returning here—the purpose for everything I do here?
            Some say what’s happening in Philly is a pruning—a necessary, sanitary clip-clip, a brief season without any leaves, a time of bare twigs, and then the flowering of fiscal responsibility. But these cuts are not prunings; they’re amputations. They’re lobbings-off of the complex boughs and branches—counselors, librarians, Assistant Principals, aides— that make up a school. Many kids come to school for shelter, for a shade that protects them from their neighborhoods, their homes. What they’ll come to next year will be a desiccated stick stuck in the earth.
            These days, this city feels like a slashed map of my circulatory system. I love this messed-up city, this schizophrenic State. I love this diverse, kooky cacophony of a school. There are a lot of places where the scars from these cuts will be seen—school hallways, libraries, lunchrooms, playgrounds. Where we had schools, we’ll just have a mass of scar tissue. And this is all grievous. But to me, it’s the injustice that’s most grievous—the glib idea that we can cut, cut, cut from those who already have so little.
At rallies, we yell, They say cut back! We say fight back! We call and respond Cut back! and Fight back! I hope that the fight will go as deep as the cuts, that it will dig down to the very core of our unjust country.
At a rallies, I walk through the intersections I’ve known since I was a kid. Each intersection feels like the intersection of the past and the future. And the cuts are bisecting that, slicing it in half, scoring it through. My past here, in this school, was rich, engaging, fulfilling. My future is uncertain. And as for my heart, it’s here; it’s always been here. You can tell it’s here, because the cuts run right through it.