Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Looking Up

I was downtown, running errands during a deluge, and I turned my face upward, to gauge the rain. Obsidian windows of office buildings went gritty behind the storm’s incessant sifting. The rain filled space, an insatiable static. The downpour was no longer pouring down—it was just a weird, blank, total stillness.
Looking up, at that sky in reverse, I felt way too diffuse. I felt myself, all of me, flying centrifugally—out over the length of this city, this Philly. It was disorienting—a vertigo of sorts. But if it was a tilting, it was the particular tilt into familiarity.  
This is the thing—I’ve been looking upward in Philadelphia for so much of my life. And there’s always that certain feeling—a sort of plea, a sighing please, or the word need, or any phrase that could bring those two together. I guess it was, simply, an asking for justice.
I grew up in this city, and I grew up religious, so I used the language of dolorous Old Testament prophets to do my asking. The wording could be have mercy or O, my city! or how long. I asked in the heave of a heat-wave, when a homeless woman approached me, and I could sense the bloat of death about her. I asked for this justice, when boys in my own Germantown began entering adulthood through the ritual of being shot down. I asked, when I squinted at City Hall’s indomitable façade, and demanded more money for our Philly schools. I asked as I marked out blocks of Olney with my walking, and saw the poverty that spilled out—through doors, over stoops, into the indifference of Broad Street.
That feeling, when I was young, was so many things at once—all ache and love and burden and weightless glorying in this place. I wrote many poems about the city, and almost always used words like surfacing, rising, cresting. In Rittenhouse Square, after-school sunlight surfaced—burnishing lawn and fountain and stone with immutable bronze. There was the breathless, cresting instant when the R8 train arced over the Schuylkill River. There was the rising-up of rusted columns at the North Philly station—their earnest, industrial bolts now riveted only to the sky’s impossible autumn blue.
I felt, in these moments, that the woman I would be—later, when I’d grown up—surfaced as well. Her hands rested on wooden kitchen tables—rested calm and assured, measuring the exact angle of home. Those same hands could touch—without a flinch—the stricken hand that homeless woman had extended toward me. Those hands, I believed, could bring justice through simple, archetypal acts—proffering bread, proffering a small coin, proffering—when nothing else remained—the skin of the hands themselves. I really did believe all that—all that, and more. 
These days, I know myself to be no prophet—too busy, too many bills to pay. Too distracted by the convenient commotions that hover at eye-level—Facebook, text messages, user IDs, email alerts. My hands just scroll through websites and chop onions and cramp while holding the pen that grades the papers.
Only lately, I have been feeling it again. I sense it mostly in transit. Between exiting the Orange Line subway and entering the pneumatic indifference of department store doors. Between gathering Trader Joe’s bags and the moment, while waiting for the bus, that I look up.
The prophet feeling has come back—that enduring rawness, that holy heft. It’s a sentimental cling to my previous, adolescent sense of calling—sure. But now, when I look up, and I hold for a moment the shape of my stillness, I feel different. I feel—for the first time—helpless. Helpless against our leaders, who feed kids to whatever Moloch the expedient moment requires. Helpless against our wrong justice, which tastes like gunmetal and oil. Helpless against poverty, the way it’s settled on our country like skin. Helpless, even more, against those who cultivate this poverty, who grow its cells and coax its clone-like proliferation.
One day—one day in June—I was biking home from a protest outside the governor’s Philadelphia office. It was after a rainstorm. These days—this stricken summer—the moments that aren’t after a rainstorm seem to be during one, or just on the cusp before. Crossing the South Street bridge, my eyes were on the road, not rising toward the noncommittal, heat-fuzzed sky. As I hunkered over the handles, intent on not crashing into cars, a passerby yelled “Rainbow! Rainbow!”
 It was true. Cresting over the city—surfacing from the torrid atmosphere—were the tatters of color. The rainbow seemed more like an action than a sight, its colors quietly inhabiting, patiently filling up. I looked upward at it. I remained in that outbreath, and I remained in the stillness that the sky allowed. I remained in the interstices between need and please. I wanted to flip my palms up, and let it all—the splendor and the suffering—fall right into my hands.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Of Ideology, Bias and Sports

I have spent the majority of my life as a Philadelphian. I have also spent this time actively not giving a crap about Philadelphia sports. I am no Phool for the Phillies (sorry, I had to get in at least one stupid Philadelphia alliteration). If you were to talk to me about the 76ers, I’d attempt to make a savvy reference to Iverson’s latest game. I wasn’t entirely convinced that the Fliers and Eagles existed until—around sophomore year of high school—I encountered Starter Jackets with those logos.
The year I started teaching in Philly, I was following the 2008 Presidential election—reading up on the stats, watching the debates in bars—but was studiously ignoring the brouhaha around the Phillies being in the World Series. One of my students—her South Philly accent bending through the membrane of her gum—simply couldn’t believe that I wasn’t watching the games. “But,” she said, her voice registering the high pitch (pun completely intended) of her shock, “aren’t you married?” At first, it seemed like a non-sequitur; I couldn’t understand what my marital status could possibly have to do with baseball. It finally dawned on me: she literally could not conceive that there could be a single male within a three hundred mile radius of Billy Penn’s hat who wasn’t being ecstatically transported by the Phillies’ good fortune. She thought that, at the very least, I could get some Philadelphia cred by osmosis—by just bringing in the wing platter while my husband and his buddies watched the game.  
I wondered what would happen to my Philadelphia cred were I to note that my husband could possibly be the one human on earth who cares less about sports than I do. The only thing I could imagine him cheering about while eating wings with his buddies is really exciting new developments in 3-D printing. And, come to think of it, none of his buddies would be cheering along.
In 2008—when Obama was running and I had hope, when the Phillies were winning and the entire rest of the city had hope—I was new to teaching high school. I longed to cover complex topics like ideology and bias; however, since it was the first time I was teaching high school, I had no idea how. Besides, I was a little disappointed that my students seemed to be squandering all of their analytical energies on the intricacies of some stupid sport, when they could have been discussing how the City on a Hill ideology had infected Sarah Palin’s rhetoric. When I remembered my own time in high school, I thought of gnashing existential debates, of worldviews that clashed epically, like the smashings of tectonic plates. As for sports, well… I failed Phys Ed one quarter (who knew you had to show up and get changed… and stay?). As punishment, my parents forced me to go to school baseball games, and write reports about them for my PE teacher. As what I imagined to be punishment for my PE teacher (which I’m now sure he just found hilarious), I included lots of stupid, pointless figurative language, such as “like the inarguable rainbow of the soul’s very being, the ball arced insolubly over the implacable fence.”
            For most of my life, I’ve thrived on a particular binary ideology—a groundless bias that has been recently undermined. I believed that people who were interested in sports were being sort of duped—that sports were useless and, honestly, a little base (pun wasn’t intended there, but I guess I’ll let it stand). On the other side of the binary were the things that I was invested in—which, of course, were noble and important. These passions of mine were: interrogating the human experience through literature, instilling critical thinking skills in kids, and—perhaps most importantly—creating equity in society through fair access to education (just a modest little goal, that last one). And so I set myself, as staunchly as a point-guard (is that someone who does defense? is that basketball or soccer?), against those who might want to take down public education.
            This year, though, I learned to see sports in a completely different way. (That’s the great thing about being a teacher: you’re always learning… and I’m not referring to bullshit Professional Development courses when I say “always learning.”) I’m glad I learned the first lesson, but, with all my heart, I wish I—and, more importantly, my kids—didn’t have to learn the second.
            First, as I was doing my planning for the 2012-2013 school year, and thinking about a short unit in Cultural Studies, I had an amazing revelation. When my students yawp and clamor about sports, they oftentimes aren’t abrogating critical thinking—they’re practicing critical thinking. So, as part of this introductory unit, I decided to have students read a selection of critical articles on sports, in the hopes that I could harness students’ innate interest as an entree to a discussion about the ideological underpinnings of fandom. While—like all new lessons—it had its strengths and weaknesses, I noticed that my students did begin to understand issues of ideology in their observations. One girl emphatically described how LeBron James is anathema to her, but ended her rant by reflecting “I don’t really know why I hate him… I just do.” Another student said something along the lines of “Yeah, every time people are getting all upset (she might’ve said “hype”) about sports, I always kind of think—those people are getting paid, no matter what. They don’t care about you, so why do you care about them?”
            The second shift in my sports paradigm occurred in the spring of 2013, when the School Reform Commission passed the Doomsday Budget. For me, it sort of felt like the opposite of the hopeful fall that Philadelphians had experienced in 2008—those crazy days when we walked past each other and let our heads tick up, ever so slightly, in a Yup, we did it kind of way. I can’t claim to know exactly what ideology-factories whirred and churned in order to produce the SRC’s vote. I care about that toxic cycle of production, but I care more about how the product affected my students.
            The kids who were the most aghast, the kids who spoke the most directly about the budget’s effects, were the kids who played sports. Basketball, football, soccer, field hockey, baseball. The kids who play these sports don’t see them as an ideological scam or a facile pastime. They see their sports as the reason to make it to 3:00. They see their running as the thing that tramples mediocre grades, and bullying, and absent parents. They see their games as the only time their name—screamed—feels like a blessing and not a curse. They said things like:
“Miss, I will drop out of school.”
“If there aren’t any sports, I might as well be home-schooled.”
“You will see me losing my mind next year. I will literally loose my mind. Expect me to be crazy.”
“That’s the only thing that could possibly make colleges notice me.”
And: “I will drop out of school.” I included that last one twice—not by accident, but because that’s the one I heard the most.
So it was that I—the long-time reviler of all things uniformed and sweaty and chanting en mass—finally put my bias about sports aside. I realized that—at least in the context of high-school sports—when it comes to equity and justice, there’s little enmity between sports and my own ideological goals. I only regret that—now that there aren’t any sports to hate, or sports to support—I seem to have learned this lesson too late.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Open Letter to the Colleges of America

Dear Colleges of America:
I’m writing to tell you about three of my students: Ruba, Alice, and Afaq, known as Fofo. (Fofo says that when she was born, even though the name Afaq had been pre-determined by elders, her parents looked at her face and declared, “She is Fofo!” They were right; she is Fofo.)
I’m writing to tell you about how brilliant all three girls are—how acute their language, how well-wielded their rhetoric. How they cleave ideology with the edges of their insights. I’m writing to tell you about how they came to America, and how they’ve been grieved by America, and how they are certain to transform America.
You’ll be receiving their applications soon—in November, 2013. It turns out that, if you live in Philadelphia, and you’re not wealthy, November, 2013 is a terrible time to have to apply to college. For Ruba and Alice and Fofo, getting into college will be—at best—unnecessarily complicated, and—at worst—completely undermined. Obviously, I don’t need to tell you that the college admissions process can be daunting, and that it can be positively Byzantine for low-income students, or students whose parents don’t speak English, or students whose parents have never filled out a FAFSA form themselves. What I do need to tell you is that, next year, our school’s resources are likely to be primitive, stripped-down, and—what’s the word? Oh, yeah, austere—thus making the already daunting process virtually un-navigable.
And you want these students to navigate their ways to your schools. You really do.
You want these students because they actually fucking think. I won’t curse when I write their recommendations, I promise. But actually fucking thinking is so rare—it deserves the expletive.
You should see the way Ruba sits in a desk and speaks during a debate. She’s statuesque, and she’s dressed impeccably in an elegant tunic—one of the classy outfits that she manages to curate, despite having limited money for clothes. With her regal posture and her self-possessed mien, she manages to make the constricting indignity of a high-school desk actually look comfortable. She’s explaining why the other team’s erroneous definition of feminism is the underpinning of their inaccurate claim. She's saying that Their Eyes Were Watching God is, in fact, a feminist novel, if you define feminism as a woman's ability to define her own choices. She’s not hurried or pressured as she speaks, but she speaks with passion and precision; her slight accent makes her words sound even more pointed, makes her argument seem even more exact.
You should be me—an English teacher beleaguered by term papers—reading Alice’s academic writing. When I read Alice’s papers, I think, with some relief, Right. This is why I do this. By do this, I don’t mean teaching; I mean teaching complex theoretical concepts such as post-colonial theory and post-structuralism and the social construction of gender. Teachers often refer to these critical theories as “lenses”—but in Alice’s writing, the basic introductions I’ve given to these topics become electron microscopes, become high-powered Hubble-type telescopes. Whether she’s writing a post-colonial apologetic for Sherman Alexie, or deconstructing the binary world of The Crucible, Alice simultaneously perceives the minutia of language and the macro way texts function in society. Her written language is glass-clear, and her arguments are indestructible. And she makes these delicate, ornate language creations despite having learned English a mere six years ago.
            As for Fofo, you should see how she thinks like no-one else, and how she could care less what others think of her. You should see how Fofo literally can’t conceive of what it means to be phony—how, in a class discussion, she said, “I just don’t understand how anyone can be something other than what they are.” You just have to meet Fofo to believe that her forthrightness and innocence and absolute, sometimes-stubborn fidelity to herself isn’t disingenuous or an affectation. Fofo, like Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, much prefers children to adults. This is why, in a class debate, she was literally the only kid in my class who defended Holden’s growth and maturity at the end of the novel. Fofo delivered the argument in her tiny, gentle voice: children, she claimed, are actually wiser and better than big people, and therefore, Holden, in his close affiliation with little kids, was actually more grownup than the grownups themselves.
Dear colleges—dear NYU and Princeton and Swarthmore—I know you get thousands of applications from brilliant kids, and that some of these brilliant kids also actually think. But the other thing I’d like to tell you about Ruba and Alice and Fofo is what they do with their thinking, and what they want to do with their thinking. If—and I’m being optimistic here—you even get their transcripts next year, this won’t be apparent on their transcripts. There’s no way this can be quantified. There’s no standardized test—no PSSA or SAT, no Pearson-designed metric—that could measure these girls’ strongest quality: a passion for social justice. These outspoken girls have sealed their mouths on the Day of Silence, to protest the bullying of LGBTQ kids. They’ve run a well-attended conference to educate other students on issues related to human trafficking. Most recently, Ruba, Alice and Fofo have been active in the efforts organizing against the School District of Philadelphia’s “Doomsday Budget.” Early on, Ruba and Fofo ran a teach-in on the $300 million budget gap; at that teach-in, Alice declared that “education is a human right.” In the waning months of the school year—as other students were scrambling to bump their year-end averages up from an 88.3% to a 90%—these young women were planning walkouts, painting signs and running letter-writing campaigns. On a day students had no school—when, I might add, their 20-page term paper had been due to a certain hard-ass English teacher at 11:59 PM the night before—Ruba and Fofo woke up, got on the bus and schlepped into school like usual, in order to run a teacher/student/parent panel discussion. Alice created a film documenting student pleas for increased funding, and she did so on June 19th and 20th—weeks after final exams had ended, when only the most clueless freshmen were still coming to school.
Colleges of America, I’m trying to look at these young women the way you’ll see them, when you receive their applications in November of 2013. So I’ll look at them in the context of the other kids they’ll be competing against. You can say this isn’t accurate—that it’s not about competition—but I’m pretty sure that you, colleges, are aware of the increasing number of kids applying, and the intensifying acceptance requirements, and the consistently limited number of spots. And all of that sounds like competition to me.
When imagining Ruba and Alice and Fofo’s competition, I’m imagining a random student at nearby Lower Merion High School, in the suburbs of Philadelphia. You might think that people like me are always making comparisons between services provided to Philadelphia students and services provided to suburban students—but when Philadelphia spends $13,000 per pupil, and Lower Merion spends about $21,000 per pupil, the comparison is worth making. You might think, “Well, that’s the result of your unfortunate budget cuts”—but this difference is actually prior to the cuts taking effect.
Colleges, I’d be interested to know how many of your accepted students have applied without a counselor's help. I’m also curious as to how many of your accepted students had to share a counselor with 381 other kids. In November of 2013—if the current layoff notices are not rescinded, which they have not yet been—Ruba, Alice and Fofo will somehow have to apply to your schools without the assistance of counselors. Our school currently has six often-harried counselors serving a school population of 2,300 kids. Lower Merion has the same number of counselors for 1,400 students. Besides counselors being the hands that are authorized to stamp transcripts, they are the only ones who can apply for the SAT fee waiver. The $51 it costs to take the SAT is the difference, for some families, between making rent and not; if any of these girls have to make that decision, they might just decide that taking the test again isn’t worth it.
Additionally, I wonder how many students have gotten into your school without being able to use a computer to complete their application. Lower Merion high school (famously, if you’re aware of the lawsuits) provides a computer to each of their students, which I’m sure is pretty useful in researching and applying to colleges. Many students at my school do not have a computer at home; I once stayed at school with Ruba until 6:00, because she had to use one of my office computers to complete a paper. The good news is: my school has a state-of-the-art library, complete with two computer labs. The bad news? According to the proposed budget, libraries were deemed a “non-essential” program, and the librarian was one of the employees who received a layoff notice in June.
Last, colleges, I know—from all of your nice thank-you notes to me—that recommendations are really important to your decision-making process (and Smith College: your thank-you totebag is really dope). At Lower Merion, the student-teacher ratio is 12-1. Next year, at my school, the student-teacher ratio will be 33-1; each teacher will be responsible, in total, for 165 kids. Now, not to be completely immodest, but in the past, I’ve become famous for my epic recommendations; they haven’t been as epic as this open letter is turning out to be, but they still average about two pages each. But I’m already doing the math—doing it guiltily, but doing it—and I just can’t figure how 24 hours in the day will expand, in order for me to write 50 recommendations, and grade 165 papers, and still enjoy the five hours’ sleep I’ve become spoiled with. Any one of my colleagues would be thrilled to write a recommendation for Ruba, Alice or Fofo—but, if it ends up being a choice between writing a vivid, nuanced letter and luxuries like doing the dishes or brushing one’s teeth, it’s going to be a tough decision.  
Colleges of America. Soon, it will be November, 2013. For you, that will be just another admissions season—a season when your admissions officers will spend a little less time with their families, a season when more coffee is consumed in offices, a season when everyone is a little on edge. For Ruba and Alice and Fofo, and for their families, November, 2013 signifies something quite different. For these young women, November, 2013 represents something different from what it represents for most of their peers—their competitors—at Lower Merion.
You see, colleges, these young women and their families left one place—a place where their parents’ names were known to everyone within walking distance, a place where a grandmother’s hand could be grasped, a place where they could name a food and know exactly how it tastes—and they came here. Ruba came here from Sudan, and she asked her father why they had to leave the mangos in their backyard, and why they had to come to a place where the cold broke so brittle, and her father told her—opportunities. Now, she writes poems describing how the simple syllables of English have edged the Arabic out of her language, how she’s not even sure, anymore, what makes her Sudanese. Alice and her mother came here from China when Alice was in fifth grade. On aching gray playgrounds, Alice was mocked, in an English she didn’t understand, for the lilt of her speech. Now, her English could act like a magnifying glass and set those same kids aflame. But, instead, she wants to use that language to question systems, to change things—to light the world. Fofo, who is also Sudanese, holds on to her childlike insistence that people are basically good. This is despite the murmurs and outright revilement that she, as a young woman who wears the hijab, has experienced in America. When she recites her ironic poem—called “I am a Terrorist”—in her sweet voice, it leaves me breathless every time.
Colleges of America—these young women shouldn’t miss the opportunity to experience you. But—more importantly—you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to experience them

Regards, till you hear from me again in November,
Rachel Toliver

Saturday, July 6, 2013

How the School Reform Commission Ruined My Dystopian Novel (part 3)

The heroine of my novel, Blank Slate, is hunched in an air duct; her knotty muscles are taut. She’s a dark-eyed, intense—pretty-in-a-living-off-the-grid-way. (As evidenced by The Hunger Games, if your heroine is a survivalist, her hot bod is a given.) She looks down into a boardroom: burnished table, ergonomic chairs, muted wall-to-wall carpeting. The people arrayed around the table have hair coiffed into fancy, futuristic curlicues; they wear suits that were tailored by the pincers of tiny robots.
            A man stands, right below her, at the head of the table. He’s got white hair and a grandfatherly mien; he’s half docile geek, half benevolent cosmopolite. You could imagine him graciously ushering a movie star through his art collection, or calculating stock options with the quick whir-tick of his brain. This man is a philanthropist, an altruist. He lavishes cash upon the most needy students in the country. No ghetto has gone un-capitalized by him. No photogenic low-income youngster has been missed by his infinite largesse. He’s the cerebral cortex of education think-tanks, the magnanimous patron of our inept, antiquated American education system.
            If you’re thinking, “This guy couldn’t possibly be the villain of Blank Slate!” you clearly have never read a dystopian young adult novel—or any dystopian novel, for that matter. Despite my limited imagination, dreaming up a bad guy was the easiest part of the writing process for Blank Slate, since both the genre and the audience pretty much scripted that role for me.
Dystopian novels are inherently distrustful of authority and power. And young adults are naturally—often rightly—distrustful of authority and power; I know this because I’m a teacher, and hence, I occasionally am the authority and power that kids distrust. The Hunger Games sold a bazillion copies because of its (read with my intended tone of resentment and envy) fast-paced, breathless, energetic plot. But it also sold a bazillion copies because kids know instinctively that not everyone in the hegemony—no matter how benevolent they seem—is actually interested in equity. They know that not every grownup is looking out for their best interests, and yet they’re forced to rely upon grownups. And in this way, kids experience daily what most of us grownups—with our mortgages and our bank accounts—forget.
            If only the citizenry of Philadelphia had the cynicism and suspicion of the 16-year-olds sitting in my classroom. Then maybe we wouldn’t have fallen for the same destructive agenda—not once, but four times over.
When I was working on Blank Slate, I actually didn’t model the antagonist on the millionaire Eli Broad, who runs an elite “academy” for superintendants—specifically superintendants of struggling urban districts—out of his California mansion. However, I should have, since the policies that he inculcates have directly—and catastrophically— impacted the School District of Philadelphia for the past ten years. From the controversial Vallas to the dictatorial Ackerman to our current leader, the bland and cipher-like Dr. Hite, our last four Superintendants have been “graduates” of Broad’s “program.” Every time Philadelphia gets a new Superintendant, it’s billed as an overhaul of the existing system. But in actuality, each of these “new visions” is merely a different face for the same ideological agenda: standardized testing, school closure, and privatization.
            Let’s return, though, to the tension-filled scene, as our heroine is on the cusp of a disastrous sneeze. (Indulge me here, as this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to writing an “action” scene for the book…) The villain, who never had a name in the novel, but whom I will now subtly call Scheli Schbroad, slides a device that looks like an i-pad across the table.
            “Ladies and gentlemen,” he says. “The final phase is complete. I present to you: the perfected Slate!” Now, I had no idea what the “final phase” was, nor did I have a clear outline of what the previous “phases” could’ve possibly been. But I knew what the latent purpose of this “efficient, modern, self-directed” technology would be. Standing in the boardroom, Scheli Schbroad would deliver a not-so-latent Big Reveal. This would be the archetypal Big Reveal, typical of arch villains—from Bond bad guys to comic book nemeses—everywhere. Not only would it provide a (laughably spurious) way to move my (tenuous) plot forward, it would also give me a chance to insert some lecturing exhortations about my specific paranoias. Schbroad’s confession would be something like the following:
            “This electronic delivery of educational materials seems visionary and cutting-edge. Everyone believes that it delivers equal educational opportunities and eliminates bullying. In fact, it will actually impede critical thinking skills, fragment communities, and—extra bonus!—create additional cash-flow to the private sector! MWHAHAHAHA!”
            With snappy dialogue like that, it’s hard to imagine why the book was a failure. I know that my allegory is completely subtle, but the virtual, Slate-based education system is meant to represent the burgeoning business of cyber charter schools. How did this idea dawn on me? As I began writing Blank Slate, the banner at the top of was constantly generating ads that pictured grumpy-looking teens glowering from behind their rebellious haircuts, with slogans like “No More Bad Grades!”
            Again, just as any teenager can tell from the get-go that President Snow is up to no good, it’s patently apparent that, behind their gargantuan advertising budgets, there’s something shady about cyber charter schools. It’s well-documented that cyber charters provide sub-par instruction, abuse their employees, and (ironically) lack the “accountability” that corporate reform types constantly tout. Additionally, they are rife with corruption, relentless in their lobbying efforts, and clearly beholden to special interests. Who are these special interests? Well, primary among them is the Walton family, otherwise known as the heirs to the Walmart fortune. The fact that the anti-union, poverty-creating, relentlessly opportunistic Walmart corporation is actively bankrolling these charter schools induces Phillip K. Dick levels of paranoia in me. However, as demonstrated by recent events, reality can often be stranger than—or at least a mirror of—paranoia.
There’s one question that Blank Slate couldn’t answer, that this series of posts can’t conclusively answer either: Why are capitalist moguls suddenly so interested in determining the future of the urban poor? In Blank Slate, our heroine (her eyes watering as she swallows that sneeze) might glimpse a convenient pie chart or PowerPoint that answers this question. But I’m not entirely sure what would be on that graphic display of Machiavellian intentions. I’ll end, though, with two possibilities.

1) The least diabolical explanation is that people like Broad and the Waltons simply adulate the private sector. They might just believe, in their hearts, that free-market competition is the solution to the country’s current “education crisis.” After all, the private sector worked for them. For these millionaires, the private sector has been a kind master, rewarding them for all of their hard work. Now, they feel an obligation to serve this master by feeding the children of America to it.

2) Alternately, when funding programs and individuals who make catastrophic decisions for children, these folks know exactly what they are doing. They know full well that their pet projects will erode critical thinking and stifle vibrant learning communities. How else will people be duped into buying the crappy tract housing and equally sub-par plastic shit that built their empires? How else will they create blind and easily-exploited workers, and the 99% that enables their 1% existence? If fewer people are educated for critical reading, critical writing, and critical thought, who will be left to criticize the monstrous behemoth of unchecked capitalism?
            Who—like the unnamed heroine of Blank Slate—will be crouched in an air duct, ready to take these bastards down? 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

How the School Reform Commission Ruined My Dystopian Novel (Part 2, of 3)

Last year, when I was teaching Fahrenheit 451, one of my 9th grade students proffered the following insightful criticism: “This book is a terrible novel, but it’s a great essay.” The same, apparently, is true of the dystopian young adult novel—entitled Blank Slate (Tabula Rasa, for you pretentious Latin fans out there)—that I’d started writing last summer. Shockingly enough, my skepticism about the so-called “Educational Reform” movement didn’t exactly generate the intrigue that’s typical of New York Times best sellers. It turns out that public school closures and the proliferation of cyber charters don’t exactly make for a scintillating page turner.
One of the problems with the book, besides its lack of—what’s that thing that sells books, again? Oh yeah, plot—was that I wasn’t quite sure how my dystopic world had actually evolved. Most dystopic novels include some neatly-encapsulated synopsis of how our comfortable, normal society mutated into the horrific vision portrayed in the book. In Fahrenheit 451, for example, Bradbury includes a lengthy, didactic diatribe in the voice of Fire Chief Beatty, which serves to explicate the shifts that produced his anti-literate world.
If I’d just waited a few months, Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission (SRC) could have charted the genesis of my book’s dystopia for me, in what they euphemistically called the “Facilities Master Plan.” The following is an outline of how the back-story of my dystopic novel has been put into motion over the past year. The similarities are quite remarkable, making me think that perhaps SRC chairman Pedro Ramos somehow got hold of the notes I’d jotted for the book.
In my would-be novel, Blank Slate, Philadelphia's public schools are ubiquitously closed, and the city is filled with abandoned school buildings, known as Hulls. These Hulls are vilified by politicians and residents, as the remnants of an old system that was antiquated, dangerous and—horror of horrors!—inefficient. In my drafts, I included long, florid passages describing what I imagined the insides of the destitute Hulls would look like. They would be distressing scenes of dereliction and waste, uncannily combining war-like ravages with comforting, familiar academic images. I imagined an eerie juxtaposition between icons of education—desks, books, computers—and consuming mold, peeling paint, and ominous graffiti.
When I sat down to write Blank Slate, I couldn’t decide what policy decision could have possibly precipitated this austere and draconian turn in the city’s history. After all, public schools are the bastions that defend urban neighborhoods against the ravages of blight; they are sites for shared history and shared discourse, places where fragmented communities can still come together with a common cause.
It turns out, however, that I could’ve placed a pin in my dystopian timeline, sticking the point at the exact date of March 7, 2013. This is when the SRC voted to close 23 of Philadelphia’s public schools, despite the fact that there is no conclusive evidence of school closures saving money or improving student outcomes. Two of the closed schools include Germantown High School, which my mother graduated from in 1961, and Bok Technical High School, which was one of only four technical education programs in the district.
If I’d known how simple and streamlined this process could actually be, the convoluted and labyrinthine history of my dystopia would’ve been a lot easier to plot out.
Imagine the lecturing, pompous voice of some stock character recounting the following, in order to provide the book’s readers with necessary exposition. (This, by the way, would’ve been the obviously-contrived passage that most readers would’ve skipped over, looking for the point at which something more interesting was going to happen.)  
Once historic institutions like Germantown, and vital programs like Bok’s, began closing, more schools were starved into failure by a lack of funding from the local and state governments. First, a cabal of corporate interests and avaricious politicians got together and emptied public schools of everything that makes them communities. Claiming economic necessity, they reduced—and then eliminated—sports, libraries, counselors and clubs. Next, schools became nothing more than brick-and-mortar boxes, enclosing a random collection of disengaged, demoralized kids and grownups for 8 hours a day. Finally, the same diabolical crew that created this untenable situation stepped in, and declared schools to be nothing more than useless buildings—nothing more than vacuous Hulls that voraciously consume public resources.  Once schools were defined in this reductive language, it was easier to shut them down. Schools ceased to be schools, and were simply bullet-points on an austere “Facilities Master Plan.”
This speculative slope of history would bring readers up-to-date with the dystopian  world depicted in Blank Slate. In this Philadelphia, Center City was thriving with the pulse of electronic commerce; it was a glittering refraction of glass, a nexus of economic success. Dozens of skyscrapers had sprouted up (cough, cough, facile metaphor for hierarchical society), their ziggurated and pyramid-like forms juggernauting the sky. Meanwhile, the surrounding neighborhoods of North, South and West Philly had attenuated into bizarre wastelands, arid landscapes of cracked concrete and rubble. This atrophied city, this dread geography, was the sort of thing today’s urban planners have nightmares about.
When I was writing Blank Slate, I’d just read The Road, and, as a result, I was considering populating my already-depressing world with ruthless, drooling cannibals. However, I got really stuck on how to connect the eating of human flesh with standardized testing and educational reform. Without roving bands of gorging, Kurtz-like savages, I wasn’t quite sure who my antagonists would be. Would I go for a diffuse ideological entity like Big Brother, or a creepy, death-breathed figure like President Snow?
Given my natural distrust of insatiable corporations, I had some inclination that my MWHAHAHAHA-ing bad guys would be executives who sat in swivel chairs and looked out on panoramic views of the city that they had consumed. But how, I wondered, would ravening Capitalists be able to pick up their knives and cut out hunks of public education? And, moreover, what would motivate them to do so? It seemed untenable, and I was afraid of stretching my readers’ credulity to the breaking point.
But—as with every other aspect of this story—the spurious and staggering events of my paranoid imagination proceeded to play out in Philadelphia’s increasingly implausible public policy. Not only has the line between essay and novel been blurred in a Bradburian fashion, the line between novel and newscast has also been collapsed. However, since I am apparently attempting to make this series as long as the actual book would have been, I’ll save the bad guys for my next and (I promise!) final post.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

How the School Reform Commission Ruined My Dystopian Novel (Part 1)

Spoiler alert: They ruined it by making the catastrophic events I predicted ACTUALLY HAPPEN
Last year, I—like many boys and girls, ages 12 to 17—got utterly enthralled with the breathless spectacle known as The Hunger Games. I have to admit that I quivered and twitterpated more than once when reading about Katniss and Peeta’s sensational kisses. When spring break began, my big exploit was to buy myself a copy of Mockingjay, wrap up in an afghan, and barricade myself inside the house until I finished it. Approximately seven hours later, I was ready to join the world again, but I was a changed woman. For the next two weeks, I thought incessantly about that winsome twosome, and their wrong-constellated debacle, and the book’s bowstring-taut tension between justice and injustice.
Somewhere in the midst of my middle-school-esque reveries about what Katniss and Peeta’s wedding would be like, the idea dawned on me that I could write a Young Adult novel set in a grueling, yet fascinating, dystopia. The formula was simple enough. I just needed:
-       A plucky, brooding, slightly saucy girl heroine
-       At least one, but no more than three, equally plucky, brooding, slightly saucy love interests (genders to be determined)
-       A really, really shitty setting for her to live in
It turned out that dreaming up a shitty setting was the easiest part of the project. After working in public education for nearly a decade—after watching the progression of the insidious “educational reform” movement—I’ve reached almost Orwellian levels of paranoia. I figured that the dystopian genre was a perfect fit for my disillusioned, cantankerous self.
Dystopian books—from 1984 to The Hunger Games to Super Sad True Love Story—have all sprung from a fine tradition of incisive cynicism, of prophetic pessimism. The dystopian cannon, ironically, is one of unflinching social realism. Despite the fantastical, futuristic settings of dystopian books, they descry the injustices of today’s society with an acute and prescient eye. And I—having gone through the transition to No Child Left Behind and the Ackerman Era—had plenty of fodder for gloomy prognostications.
            At the beginning of last year’s summer break, I sat down in a chair next to my bay window, and started writing the book. As I was trying to dream up a cohesive vision for my dystopia, I realized that I literally could glimpse the book’s setting by just looking out my window.
The abandoned West Philly High building is a mere three blocks from where I live. This indomitable, soaring Gothic façade dates back to 1912—an era when there was actually reverence for, and faith in, public education. Its ornate stone scrollwork rolls and spires up into the sky. Faces peer from its lace-delicate carvings; these visages look out with wondering, almost-curious expressions, and have gazed down over decades of students. Marble lintels above the doors facing Walnut Street are inscribed with the words “Boys” and “Girls,” demarcating the school’s antiquated gender-separated entrances.
            In an instant, I had a panoramic view of my entire dystopic world. Before I had even finished the first chapter, two shimmering words hovered on my mind’s horizon. Those words were MOVIE DEAL. I was so convinced of Paramount Pictures’ interest, I even drafted the trailer for the film; the super-exclusive preview-of-the-preview follows below:
Aerial shot of futuristic downtown Philadelphia. The whole city bristles with skyscrapers; each giant building reflects the sapphire shimmer of the next. The Comcast Center has expanded to a complex of 22 buildings. Basically, think Death Star proportions. The date 2052 flashes over the scene.  
            Inside the glassed-in Grand Atrium of Comcast City Hall, the CEO of Philadelphia gives a celebratory speech. Just imagine Mayor Nutter in futuristic lycra. A nicely-coiffed woman in an aluminum business suit stands next to him. She looks a lot like Michelle Rhee.   
CEO: Today, we close the last of those dirty, violent storehouses of injustice. Flash to an old public school building. The clang of metal as workers affix steel over the school’s windows and doors.
CEO: Today, we phase the students of Hull #23—formerly known as Central High School—onto Slates. He holds up a tiny i-pad looking device. Today, we begin a new era of accountability, equity and efficiency. He hands the device to an African-American teenaged boy, who shakes the CEO’s hand, and then holds the device above his head.
CEO continues: Every student in Philadelphia—rich, poor, black, white—now has access to the same engaging curriculum. Every student in Philadelphia now takes the same assessments. Every student in Philadelphia now has the same opportunities.
Voiceover: Imagine a world where every kid is getting the same education…
Zoom away from the atrium, in a flying shot that takes us over the Schuylkill and through West Philly. Zoom into a pried-open window of West Philly High.
Voiceover: Every kid…
Zoom up the decrepit marble staircase. Zoom in on a girl hunched on the top step, clothed in rags.
Voiceover: Except one… Zoom in on her pretty, movie-dirty face, her stylized dreadlocks.
Voiceover: And she’s about to find out the truth.           
“The truth” was—prepare yourself for a big shocker—that this high-tech, streamlined, Reformed approach to education was actually just a duplicitous machination. Our heroine would uncover a Machiavellian plot, wherein the ostensibly altruistic Reformers were actually in cahoots with avaricious corporations. By moving the delivery of public education into the private, technocratic sector, the so-called Reform movement was able to undermine the very workings of democracy. The supposedly “equal” instruction—delivered in digestible packages, broken down into isolated, simplistic “standards,” and measured by multiple-choice tests—was actually created with a clear purpose in mind. And what was that purpose? The replacement of critical thinkers with consumers; the replacement of citizens with low-wage workers.
The book—and subsequent movie—was to be called Blank Slate (Tabula Rasa), which I thought was quite clever. I was thrilled with the premise of the book. What I didn’t realize, however, was that in order to write a novel, one has to do more than think up a really, really shitty setting. One has to actually make things happen, which, it turns out, I wasn’t very good at.
Here’s the thing. Over the course of the past year, while I was trying to brainstorm the plot of my novel, THE DYSTOPIAN NOVEL ACTUALLY STARTED HAPPENING. I watched as one, and then another, and then another, of my predictions came true. It was beyond surreal.
In the spirit of Blank Slate’s cliff-hanger trailer, I’ll save my explanation of how this occurred—how this is occurring right now—for my next post.