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.