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Archive for February, 2011

“Don’t criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins”
~Native American proverb

Today, I got my first experience as an inner city parent. I suppose a little background information is in order.

Every year, I write letters to all of my students encouraging them with the meaning of their name, telling them what I see in them and challenging them to grow. Their last journal entry (which I keep) allows them to say goodbye to me. Some of them choose to take that opportunity to write what they appreciate about me. Last year, I had a student who came in as a transfer. He was smart and literary, so we discussed books a lot. About a month before school ended, he started calling me “mom.” I thought he was just being the typical goofy junior higher, so I called him “son” when he called me “mom.” This was his end of the year letter to me:

“Dear Miss Brailey,
My mother and I were never close. So, my whole life, I never felt full. Strangely, and then again not so strangely, that hole in my heart welcomed you so fastly and strong. You seemed to favor me as I favored you. “Mom,” you mean very much to me. I feel sometimes that in your presence I feel safest. You will be a mother one day and a fantastic one at that. Now, I’d like to challenge you. I’d like to challenge you to never change. Always stay the kind, smart, holy, and utterly beautiful woman you are. I love you, Ma. My heart hurts when I write this. So I shall do it quickly. Farewell and Godspeed, Ma. Forever yours…(Name)
P.S. “To the world you may be one person, but to one person you may be the world.” With this quote, I want to tell you that you were my lantern in the darkest times. Thank you.

What I had assumed was goofiness was a kid’s deep pain looking for connection. I sent him a letter over the summer thanking him, telling him I was committed to his success, and letting him know that if he ever needed a mom for an event, I would be there.

Today, I got to live those words. I saw him in the hall, gave him a hug, and asked how he was doing. “Horrible.” He proceeded to tell how his girlfriend had played him for a new kid and how hurt he was. He wanted to fight the guy, but promised me he wouldn’t do it at school. (The best I could hope for…) I told him, as I always do, to “Be smart.” Eighth hour he came in to talk to me. My class was behind, so I couldn’t spare a moment. “Come see me after school.” I said, and he left. Many kids “drop in” from time to time, so I didn’t really think anything of it until after school.

Another group of kids came into my room and said, “(Name) was in a fight after school.” My heart sank. “No way! What happened?” I asked. The fight had happened near his house (So he technically kept his word about not being in school.) The kids thought he’d been arrested because he was still on school property. Great. I felt horrible because I knew he had come to see me eighth hour trying to calm down, and I hadn’t had time to help him, so he exploded.

I called his dad to see if he was home or still at the police station. His dad hadn’t heard yet. So, I headed to the station. All of a sudden, I was in their shoes. So many of our parents have kids they love who make stupid choices and then they have to go pick up the pieces. “This is what it feels like,” I thought as I walked up the ramp to the station.

It turned out, he hadn’t been arrested, but had gone home. Since he has a history of both suicidal stuff and cutting, I wanted to make sure I saw him so he didn’t do anything stupid. I drove by his house, and he came out: Cut knuckles, busted lip, and feeling like crap. Again the thought, “How would I feel if this were really my kid?” He thanked me for calling his dad and talked a bit about how he was feeling. He said he’ll be smart, and that he’ll be okay. I told him the next time it’s really an emergency, communicate that to me, and I can make arrangements for my class. I gave him a hug and left, with a new understanding and a little less judgement for the parents in our community.

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I was recently re-reading Lewis’s Screwtape Letters and came across this quote. It is scary how accurately he has summed up our educational system. For those unfamiliar with Screwtape Letters, it is a series of letters from a senior demon to a younger one on how best to ruin the human race.

“In that promising land the spirit of I’m as good as you has already begun something more than a generally social influence. It begins to work itself into their educational system. How far its operations there have gone at the present moment, I should not like to say with certainty. Nor does it matter. Once you have grasped the tendency, you can easily predict its future developments; especially as we ourselves will play our part in the developing. The basic principle of the new education is to be that dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils. That would be “undemocratic.” These differences between pupils – for they are obviously and nakedly individual differences – must be disguised. This can be done at various levels. At universities, examinations must be framed so that nearly all the students get good marks. Entrance examinations must be framed so that all, or nearly all, citizens can go to universities, whether they have any power (or wish) to profit by higher education or not. At schools, the children who are too stupid or lazy to learn languages and mathematics and elementary science can be set to doing things that children used to do in their spare time. Let, them, for example, make mud pies and call it modelling. But all the time there must be no faintest hint that they are inferior to the children who are at work. Whatever nonsense they are engaged in must have – I believe the English already use the phrase – “parity of esteem.” An even more drastic scheme is not possible. Children who are fit to proceed to a higher class may be artificially kept back, because the others would get a trauma — Beelzebub, what a useful word! – by being left behind. The bright pupil thus remains democratically fettered to his own age group throughout his school career, and a boy who would be capable of tackling Aeschylus or Dante sits listening to his coeval’s attempts to spell out A CAT SAT ON A MAT.

In a word, we may reasonably hope for the virtual abolition of education when I’m as good as you has fully had its way. All incentives to learn and all penalties for not learning will be prevented; who are they to overtop their fellows? And anyway the teachers – or should I say, nurses? – will be far too busy reassuring the dunces and patting them on the back to waste any time on real teaching. We shall no longer have to plan and toil to spread imperturbable conceit and incurable ignorance among men. The little vermin themselves will do it for us.

Of course, this would not follow unless all education became state education. But it will. That is part of the same movement. Penal taxes, designed for that purpose, are liquidating the Middle Class, the class who were prepared to save and spend and make sacrifices in order to have their children privately educated. The removal of this class, besides linking up with the abolition of education, is, fortunately, an inevitable effect of the spirit that says I’m as good as you. This was, after all, the social group which gave to the humans the overwhelming majority of their scientists, physicians, philosophers, theologians, poets, artists, composers, architects, jurists, and administrators. If ever there were a bunch of stalks that needed their tops knocked off, it was surely they.

As an English politician remarked not long ago, “A democracy does not want great men.” It would be idle to ask of such a creature whether by want it meant “need” or “like.” But you had better be clear. For here Aristotle’s question comes up again. . . . For “democracy” or the “democratic spirit” (diabolical sense) leads to a nation without great men, a nation mainly of subliterates, full of the cocksureness which flattery breeds on ignorance, and quick to snarl or whimper at the first sign of criticism. And that is what Hell wishes every democratic people to be. For when such a nation meets in conflict a nation where children have been made to work at school, where talent is placed in high posts, and where the ignorant mass are allowed no say at all in public affairs, only one result is possible. The democracies were surprised lately when they found that Russia had got ahead of them in science. What a delicious specimen of human blindness! If the whole tendency of their society is opposed to every sort of excellence, why did they expect their scientists to excel?

It is our function to encourage the behaviour, the manners, the whole attitude of mind, which democracies naturally like and enjoy, because these are the very things which, if unchecked, will destroy democracy. You would almost wonder that even humans don’t see it themselves. Even if they don’t read Aristotle (that would be undemocratic) you would have thought the French Revolution would have taught them that the behaviour aristocrats naturally like is not the behaviour that preserves aristocracy. They might then have applied the same principle to all forms of government.

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