Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Lists for the Beginning of a School Year

 Usually, on an August Wednesday like today, the lists begin their churning. I wake up with my heart beating to the syncopation of the words to-do, to-do. I lift my small notebook off my desk. For the whole summer, my small notebook—my desk itself—has felt dormant, like a thing subsumed by hibernation. Smoothing out its spine feels strange to my fingers. I pick up a pen, write the words as cleanly as I can. To Do. I know this is the first—the only—time I’ll write so neatly in my little book. From September to June, I jot notes on the subway and in the hallway between classes, in the middle of dinner parties and while I’m trying to hold my coffee. During the school year, my scrawled To Do, in my little book, looks erratic, like an EKG chart.
In September, the crimson doors of my school flare open. Their red thudding continues its adamant rhythm till June. Those doors, with their muscled bustling, always remind me of a heart. A passionate, hard-working, unceasing heart.
I get together with my colleague Josh. He coaches the boys’ soccer team, and he was afraid that the team would be de-funded. He says, “We’re starting soccer pre-season.” He says, “When I say that phrase—‘We’re soccer starting pre-season’—my heart does this thing.” He says, “I can’t explain it. But I’m so excited, it really feels like my heart is skipping a beat.”
Usually, our school’s office is the thrumming pump that runs the entire building. But—in the way I don’t often notice my own heart—I rarely notice all the office does. Our five administrative assistants churn endless papers— the contents of which I cannot even begin to comprehend—over desks. The only chit-chat they have time for is the rattling-out of code letters and numbers; these letters and numbers are associated with various arcane pieces of paperwork; these pieces of paperwork direct my life. The hands flicker, with ceaseless adeptness, over drawers of inscrutable files. They navigate occult School District computer systems, surreal Telnet programs that pre-date the invention of the Internet. They issue early dismissals to students, calling to confirm the early dismissal with every single parent. Unlike me, they don’t even seem to need lists to organize all of this.
Here’s a list of the things I usually love about the first day of school:
1-    Providing the freshmen with directions, even—especially—when they’re too scared to ask for help. The 9th graders are always instructed: The school is laid out like a giant E, on its side. But when they’re wringing their printed roster papers in terrified hands, the giant E image is surrealistically, confoundingly useless. Sometimes I tell them about how I, myself, was a freshman here, subjected to the labyrinthine throttlings of this epic, monolithic E. I tell them about how I sat, in a silent panic, through an entire period of Chemistry, having mistaken it for my Bio class. The freshmen say, “Thank you,” and I say, “You’re welcome.” Actually, most of the time I say, “You’re welcome, sweetie.”
2-    The sound of my heels in the hallway as I’m rushing to class. The feeling of chipper, swishing efficiency. The moment—before each period I teach—of leaning, in my teetering shoes, toward the new.
3-    Learning my new students’ names. Even more than that, the moment of transformation—when the kids cease being names on lists, and become people. When I learn that Sara’s pet peeve is when someone taps a pen on a desk during a test. When Sebastian talks excitedly about Fight Club. When kids describe their sports, describe their break-dancing, describe their skateboarding and blogging and internet geeking. When I learn that Daniel is planning on becoming a competitive ballroom dancer.
4-    Picking out an outfit to wear, in the early-morning dark that feels so different on the first day of school. Standing there staring at my only business suit, and a sleeveless dress. Weighing professionalism against comfort; remembering that my classroom is not air conditioned, and has only one window. Choosing the dress, and inevitably sweating to death anyway.
Usually, from September to June, my blood feels mostly like a flow chart of the things I have to get done. I know this sounds like a terrible life. But for me, and for many of my colleagues, it’s like a galvanizing zap of zinc-tinged excitement, like an electro-magnetic jolt of focus. I used to work an office job, and, every day, I’d sit and wait for the clock to click to 5:00. I’d try to proliferate my paperwork—to muster a sufficient number of tasks— just to fill up the entirety of my workday. I never had to keep to-do lists. The main thing I had to do was to keep from falling asleep. Now, as a teacher, I’m always astounded when it’s 3:00—then 4:00, then 5:00. I snatch at the fleeting edges of the day—trying to make it last longer, trying to get more done.
Usually, the first day of school makes me aware of my cardiologic existence. Of course, it’s expected for my heart to skitter a bit with first-day jitters. What’s less is expected is the other stuff my heart does:
1-    Surging with joy at the sight of a former student, who’s walking into my office, yelling my name.
2-    Sliding into a strange calm when I pick up a piece of chalk for the first time.
3-    Feeling a click of gratitude as I’m moving, in the midst of tons of kids, through the super-crowded halls.
At school, I am quite famous for my little books—the ones in which I keep my lists. When we were in the preliminary stages of laying out the school’s literary magazine, the student editor said, “Ms. Toliver, do you keep your old little books?” In fact, I do keep my books of lists, going back a few years, on a self in my office. They are often surprisingly useful. She continued, “Can you look back to the list we had for the last issue? So that we know what to do?” My kids, too, are list-makers. Their planners are thick with lists—brambly addendums and adjustments and marginal notes to themselves. They add dark, thick, deeply scored lines, crossing out each assignment they’ve completed. This building, with its red doors, is a place for us—neurotics, compulsive over-acheivers. To-do-ers.
I guess that’s why this August is so odd, so uncomfortable. Now that it’s here, I’m expecting a rhythm to start in my ribcage—galvanizing, turning the first gears of fall. I want to look at my class lists, but there are no class lists yet. I want to enumerate the activities I’ll do with the kids on the first day of school, but—since the SRC eliminated my department—I’m still not entirely sure what classes I’ll be teaching. The lists of the missing, the lists of the laid-off—teachers and counselors and noontime aides—float in an enormity of silence. The administrative assistants—the logical brains that make the lists for my principal, for the kids, for all of us—are all looking for new jobs on monster, all creating Linkedin profiles. And then there are the other lists: lists that summarize our contract negotiations, lists of sacrifices that we teachers are expected to take on. These lists are bullet-pointed, emailed or printed—sometimes in clinical font, sometimes in the font of panic. In no particular order, these lists include: no guarantee of potable water in schools, no guarantee of supplies such as books provided to schools, %13 pay cut, no seniority, time added on to the school day, %13 reduction in medical benefits. 
This August, any lists I manage to make just feel like an admission of paralysis. Where a heartbeat once was, there’s only a panicky echo. If it sounds like anything, it’s maybe the backwards hitching of What to do? What to do? What to do? I can barely even list what’s missing. I can make no claim that it’s first one thing, then another, then another. My natural impulse to prioritize, to fix, just seizes up instead. There’s nothing but that same phrase—What to do? What to do? What to do? Against my chest, inside my lungs, it pushes its weight of blankness. And its weight—its weight feels like the weight of a drowning.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

In Philly and in Istanbul, “Revolutions Happen in the Flesh”

(Or, Why I really L-tilted-O-V-E the hell out of out of public space)

I was sitting outside of Dock Street brewery; across the street, a mid-June evening was doing its thing in Cedar Park. The light of that summering dusk imitated the exact tincture of my Rye IPA. In the park, some guys were being really voluble—more than I’d ever felt possible—about a chess game. Squatters—a contented encampment of dreds and patches and wagging dog tails—basked on the grass. Kids sproinged around on the playground, and were having every possible adventure on the jungle gym. They were just enacting their arcane kid-doings, but were also inadvertently—gorgeously—showing off the racial utopia that West Philly can occasionally be.

As I was watching the park’s proliferations, as I was enjoying my beer outdoors, my friend Megan was answering the question I’d asked when we first sat down: “What’s the deal with Gezi Park?” Megan has friends in Istanbul, and she also has ties to the worlds of architecture and urban planning. She’d been doing her darndest, via Facebook and other social media, to make us Americans aware of the deal with Gezi Park.

On an open-windowed June night in Philadelphia, Megan explained to me that the Gezi Park protests were, most immediately, about public space. “Imagine,” Megan said, gesturing across the street, “that Cedar Park was one of the last open green spaces in Philadelphia.” She described how the pedestrian grit and haphazard economy of the ancient square were to be replaced by a bizarre mall, which, it seemed, managed to be garishly modern and, at the same time, blindly anachronistic. Currently, the park—like public spaces everywhere—creates an unrestricted, non-hierarchical space, “where” according to this article, “locals, especially the urban poor, can spend time without spending a penny.”

Meanwhile, the planned mall—in the eyes of activists, sociologists and architects—was basically a Disney-World version of past Ottoman splendor, a commodified nod to the grandeur of Empire, re-branded into sleek metallic angles and sterile swaths of concrete. Moreover, the protestors in Gezi Park saw the plans for bulldozing the park as a metaphor for their Prime Minister’s full-throttle wreckage of Turkish democracy. In other words, “The square has become an arena for clashing worldviews: an unyielding leader’s top-down, neo-Ottoman, conservative vision of the nation as a regional power versus a bottom-up, pluralist, disordered, primarily young, less Islamist vision of the country as a modern democracy.”

I’m a wholly amateur geek about all things relevant to urban planning and gentrification, so I was enthralled by what Megan had to say about the fate of public space in Istanbul. At the same time, I felt a little silly that I hadn’t been following this monumental turn in international events more closely. I’d known that something was going on. However, I’d been busy with my own protests—protests against the draconian budget cuts facing Philadelphia’s public school system. These protests actually took place in two public spaces that have always struck inordinate awe into me: the Capitol Building in Harrisburg, and Philadelphia’s City Hall. 

Even though being in Harrisburg felt like trespassing on enemy territory, I did pause for a moment to admire the iridescent, beetle-like sheen of the Capitol’s green-tiled dome. Inside the building—despite my being quite cowed and awkward in my lobbying attempts—I adored the gold filigree on inner arches, the firmament-like sparkle of inlay on the ceiling, and the mythical Arabian-Nights-type brass lamps suspended in the hallways.

I feel the same way about Philly City Hall—even when I’m yelling “Shame!” at its impassive edifice. Though its North, South, West and East corridors are an olfactory adventure (not the good kind; as in urine) and its halls are just as soaked with corruption, it’s still a pretty bad-ass façade. Intricate and frilly cake-like layers pile up right into the sky, and the indefatigable bronze stance of Billy Penn makes a noble gesture of hope for the city. When I was a kid, of course, no building was allowed to surpass his sincere, persecuted, pacifistic hat. But, as evidenced by Gezi Park, commerce always wins—even over that erstwhile, earnest Quaker fellow. So City Hall and Billy Penn provide me with a sense of solidarity with the city. Philadelphia’s mayor—and its School Reform Commission, and its various Superintendants—haven’t done much to earn that sense of solidarity. Instead, it comes—block upon granite block—from the testimony of our public space itself.

Really—I must admit—I’m a fool for monuments in general. I get way too into the aloof planes of an obelisk, a cupola’s luminous hover, or a public square’s pigeon-speckled generosity. I even favor a little graffiti on monuments—not the major, grave, never-to-be-defaced monuments, mind you. But the true intent of a public space often seems strangely complemented by graffiti’s snarls and convolutions. It somehow adds to the conversation, and keeps the democratic work of those spaces infected with a necessary dynamism.

But before my conversation with Megan, I had never realized that my veneration of these places stems from the very same impulses that make me super-loyal to the public school system. And—while I was protesting, while thousands of citizens were protesting in Turkey—it never even occurred to me that the people in the news articles—articles that I barely comprehended—might actually be fighting a fight quite similar to my own. It never occurred to me that the neo-liberal machines felling trees in Turkey might be nearly identical to the ideological forces that were leveling public education in Philadelphia.
When the School District budget crisis was finally “resolved” (read: postponed for the summer at worst, for one year at best), I began researching the Occupy Gezi movement. I was astounded, while reading about Gezi Park, to find entire phrases and sentences that could have been lifted from an article about my School District’s increasing fetishization of privatization. The following statement, made by a British policy analyst, uncannily mirrors education activists’ critiques of unchecked charter school expansion.
“The privatization of the public realm, through the growth of ‘private-public’ space, produces overcontrolled, sterile places which lack connection to the reality and diversity of the local environment, with the result that they all tend to look the same… They also raise serious questions about democracy and accountability.”
Many charter schools in Philadelphia have adopted a “franchise” model; they have “branded” their particular approach—ideologically, as well as through outward signifiers such as uniforms. This formulaic, metrics-based approach to educational success is replicated from Germantown to Grey’s Ferry, from South Philly to North Philly. Charters hack down the gnarled roots of these communities, allowing the charter’s business model to roll smoothly in. Charter schools are a showcase of sleek, mall-like institutional design; they’re basically the educational equivalent of a Forever 21 store, replicating the same pattern without regard to the environs. And, of course, the “individualized experience” of online charter schools renders the public space of actual—non-virtual— local communities utterly razed, nullified and silenced.

This trend toward homogenized instruction is also affecting higher education. In a recent open letter, the Philosophy Department at San Jose University protested the proliferation of massively open online courses (MOOCs). They write:
the thought of the exact same social justice course being taught in various philosophy departments across the country is downright scary—something out of a dystopian novel. Departments across the country possess unique specializations and character, and should stay that way…. Diversity in schools of thought and plurality of points of view are at the heart of liberal education.
In university departments, public schools, and parks—all over the world—“unique specializations and character… diversity… and plurality of points of view” can fight totalitarianism, and stave off the monolithic glass and steel of malls.

Finally, the language used to describe the autocratic destruction of Gezi Park was shockingly evocative of the disenfranchisement recently experienced by Philadelphia students, teachers and parents. This article describes the contentious blueprints for the new use of Gezi Park as “a grand project ‘produced, not for the city residents, but despite them.’” This is an eerily apt description of the School Reform Commission’s prototype for the future of Philadelphia schools. The plasticized, sanitized version of Gezi Park was anathema to citizens of a democratic nation—not only because they undermined the symbols of democracy, but also because they undermined the processes of democracy. Similarly, while the School District holds public forums that ostensibly give community members a voice in their schools, these forums seem like a hollow charade. Parents, students and teachers—in other words, the direct stakeholders—have wept, protested, and been arrested in their pleas against school closure and charterization. Meanwhile, of the five-member School Reform Commission, there is not one Commissioner who is elected by the parent/student/teacher triune; instead, the Commission consists entirely of mayoral and gubernatorial appointees. This amazing article, entitled “From Istanbul to Rio to Philly, this Democracy Thing Is Broken,”glosses the mounting frustration felt by regular people in these so-called Democratic nations, as we realize that “it increasingly seems impossible to fix democracy and capitalism at the ballot box.

I’ve always believed that we, as a society, are only as good as our public schools. But before my conversation with Megan, it never occurred to me that we’re also only as good as our public space. It never occurred to me that the health of our public schools and the health of our public spaces are so inextricably intertwined—and that the same global trends are threatening both.

But here’s the thing. In the midst of my conversation with Megan—as I was facing the celebratory actuality of Cedar Park, as I was imbibing an immediate exchange of ideas—I found myself thinking, I should really post something about this on Facebook. After all, Facebook—the Internet in general—is, for my generation, what public squares were for generations of the past—a place to hawk all kinds of ideas, a place to barter gossip, a place to foment civil unrest. But Facebook isn’t actually a space… and it’s not entirely public either.

The walls in Gezi Park were artfully defaced with a sprawl of graffiti; they were a liquid, shifting palimpsest. The walls of the park reclaimed space from the icons of corporate marketing, showcasing the citizens’ polyglot resistance to the monolingual symbols of capitalism. Facebook walls, however, are actually the property of a massive corporation; their design is proscriptive and—despite the individual quirks or funkiness of profile pictures—basically uniform. Whether one is posting in Istanbul or in Philadelphia, Facebook pages—like neo-liberal public spaces—“all tend to look the same.” Our Facebook walls are papered—insidiously pasted thick—with advertisements; every time I log on to exchange various public declarations with my friends, I’m assaulted with grotesque “tips on how to lose belly fat” and hotel suggestions for whatever city I’d recently googled. Facebook makes “recommendations” for where I might live and where I might work; I once joked with a friend that, in the near future, it will begin recommending what our “relationship status” should be—and with whom. If my Facebook wall is a public space, then why is it littered with manipulative, invasive “suggested posts” for local spas and pet food stores? If it truly is the case that “politics in the 21st century is about private freedoms and public space,” then what political statement is my reliance upon Facebook making?

In the 21st Century, the concept of community is increasingly grafted onto an intangible space—faces fixed in restrictive, sterile boxes, comments detached from the timbre of the voices that make them. But it seems that, in Gezi Park, people were, by reclaiming public space, also reclaiming community: community that was actual and not virtual, community that was tactile—smelling of meatballs and cigarette smoke—and not ephemeral—fixed in the annals of some corporate entity.

Clearly, I am not a dedicated Luddite; this very blog is hosted by Google, and promoted on Facebook. I know that it would be ditheringly reductive of me to claim that social media is the only factor eroding the power and presence of our public spaces. And social media has revolutionized the scope of organizing—it has transformed #occupygezi into a worldwide solidarity movement, and it allowed students in Philly to—almost overnight—mobilize thousands for walkouts. However, according to one source,
public space, even a modest and chaotic swath of it like Taksim, again reveals itself as fundamentally more powerful than social media, which produce virtual communities. Revolutions happen in the flesh.

When I make the claim that we are only as good as our public space, I must also add that we are only as good as the public space that we choose for ourselves. If we identify ourselves solely with the communities demarcated by Facebook and Google, it is possible that we are actually complicit in the mechanisms of corporatization. If we prefer the infinite reaches of the internet to the finitude of our parks, we might actually be ceding away our democracy of particularity. If we live and move and have our being in the spaces created by our i-phones, then we must accept that we live and move and have our being in a privatized space. In that case, it should not surprise us when the localized spaces of our classrooms—the struggles and the victories that could be situated only in Kensington, only in Overbrook—are outsourced to Fill-in-Inspirational-Word, Inc. or Our-Stocks-Are-Always-Rising CyberCharter.

A few months ago—when news of Philadelphia’s budget cuts was first surfacing—students at my school organized a teach-in. Tables were arranged in a square, and a mélange of students, teachers and alumni encamped for hours after school, facing one another, piling on questions and answers and all sorts of discourse. We were, in effect, creating a sort of public space; even our seating arrangement was, in a way, the blueprint of what democracies are meant to be. We were speaking of the inevitable demise of our schools, but I felt strangely full of hope. What I thought about—what I referenced in my last remark—was Fahrenheit 451. When people think of that novel, they often remember a dictatorial society in which illiteracy was enforced upon the masses. However, the novel itself describes how—in the solipsistic pursuit of entertainment—people simply lost interest in reading. From there, the government was able to exploit this lack of popular investment, and forcibly, exploitatively, take books away from its citizens.

But my kids—our kids—from this specific Philadelphia—hadn’t lost interest in the future of democracy, in the future of education. They weren’t at home, subsumed by the ephemeral spaces of Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and Instagram.

Instead—as I told them—you’re here, in this actual space. You’re coming together, here. And here—this place—is where change begins.