Sunday, November 23, 2014

Is Anyone Else Sick of "Doing What's Best for Kids?"

A Platitude by Any Other Name Smells Just as Sweet. 

I‘ll admit it, I have had it up to here with doing what’s best for kids. I know as a teacher I am supposed to be warm, fuzzy and all giving all the time but this "doing what’s best for kids” thing has finally got to me. 

Just to keep things honest, I am one of those union big shots we hear so much about. I am the president of our local teachers union and my members pretty much march lockstep to my every desire. I own three cars, the swankiest a 2002 Volkswagen Jetta; I dine in the fanciest pizza joints that our community has to offer and I drink nothing but artisanal beer. Now that you know where I am coming from, I’m sure it’s clear that kids are way down on my list of priorities. But the fact that I obviously don’t give a hoot about kids personally, isn’t what drives me nuts about this “do what’s best for kids” mantra. 

What gets me is how the mantra is used by everyone from the president, to politicians, to voters, to administrators, to all of us educators ourselves, to show that our first concern always is with the kids whether it really is or not. I can't listen to the news, negotiate our contract or even go to a faculty meeting without just about everyone agreeing that education is always   about doing what is best for kids. 

But I'm first to admit it, I don’t always do what’s best for kids. I recently attended a teacher leadership conference sponsored by the Gates Foundation. I went in large part because I heard they put on a good lunch. And the lunch was good, with lots of snacks, chocolate covered rose petals, that sort of thing, and it was in a fancy conference center with waterfalls, valet parking and clean restrooms.

I was feeling a little guilty because I realized that if we really were serious about doing what is best for kids, wouldn’t all us teacher-leader types have met on the cheap? Wouldn’t we have brought our own sack lunches and met in some high school gymnasium or cafeteria? We still could have had the same conversations and discussions and sent that extra money to a homeless shelter or something else that’s really best for kids. 

Now of course I’m just a union lackey who always puts adults ahead of kids but there were a lot of non-union types there too, Bill and Melinda aren’t known for their support of big labor. And I would have thought they would have felt especially guilty being that they really want to do “what’s best for kids.” But it was nice, we got along great, eating chocolate, listening to the waterfalls and solving education’s problems all on Bill’s nickel.

But I really suppose I shouldn’t feel bad because who in the education business ever really does what’s best for kids? If we were serious about doing what’s best for kids, wouldn’t we all take a vow of poverty and live like Mother Theresa? Wouldn’t we be willing to step back to those good old days when teachers lived at the school, cleaned it and did the cooking too? And of course we would do it for a pittance.

 And as a country if we were really interested in doing what is best for kids couldn’t we do with one less $13 billion aircraft carrier or  a couple of $2.5 billion submarines and spend that money on early childhood education? If we were really interested in doing what’s best for kids wouldn’t we attack poverty instead of the poor? And if we were really trying to do what's best for kids, who would allow corporate America to set our educational agenda knowing it won't be good for anyone but their shareholders?

So I'm suggesting that we get real about helping kids and that means building new schools instead of new weapons systems, paying support staff a living wage and giving teachers the respect they deserve. And really being honest about just whose nest is being feathered. 

While I don’t think anyone is ready to start the “Let’s do what’s bad for kids,” movement, on the other hand, it's time to put this platitude to rest and do the best we can.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Good Story is a Terrible Thing to Waste

  As I was about to start my ninth grade physical science class a polite young girl raised her hand and asked me if I had ever been arrested. I was taken aback. Through the years I have been asked any number of personal questions, but never this one.

I responded, "No, not really. I mean I have had traffic tickets and things like that but no, I've never been arrested." Then I thought a little more and said, "Well maybe I have…"

If you want the attention of a classroom of ninth graders, telling them that you may have been arrested is a good way to start. I went on to tell them that I really wasn't sure. "What do you mean you aren't sure?" someone asked.
I explained that when I was ten or eleven, I had been picked up by the police and put in a little room for 2 or 3 hours until my parents came and got me, but I don't think I had actually been arrested.
"What were you picked up for?" several kids demanded. 
There was no retreating now, getting the class on task wasn't going to happen unless I told them the story. Which I did, honestly, and factually, and with little embellishment, at least as honestly and factually and unembellished as an event some fifty years earlier could be remembered. 
I grew up in a small town that we kids had the run of.  A new building that housed a drug store and a grocery store had been built out of bricks right downtown. As you entered the building the drug store was on the left and the grocery store on the right. In an effort to make a blank brick wall more aesthetically pleasing, the masons had laid every fifth brick or so standing about an inch out from the rest of the wall. This created a geometric pattern that ten or eleven year old boys could be pleased with and also a pattern that ten or eleven year old boys could immediately see was a pre-climbing-wall-era climbing wall. So that's what we did.  When we had nothing else going on we would wander down to the Nelson's Drug/IGA climbing wall and climb to the top, touch the overhang, climb down, and move on with the business of young boys in a small town. 
One Sunday morning my friend Dale Moore and I were roaming the downtown and came to the climbing wall. There were two other boys only slightly older than us there as well. We knew of them but we didn't really know them. And while we tackled the grocery store side, they started up on the drug store side. Dale and I both made it to the top and were headed down when we heard a crash off to our left. One of the other boys had touched the large plastic N of the Nelson's Drug sign and it had fallen to the sidewalk and shattered. 
There was a fellow sitting in his car reading a newspaper who had watched all this transpire. We stood on the sidewalk as he told the other two boys to go into the drug store and tell them what had happened. The man said nothing to us and we wandered off on our Sunday morning rounds. 
We were about two blocks away when a squad car pulled up and the policeman told us to get into the car. He drove to the police station and placed us in a small white room saying little. There was no sign of the other two boys and after an hour or so Dale Moore's parents came and took him home. I sat there for what seemed like a couple hours more until my folks picked me up. I don't remember being questioned about the event, but I am sure I was, and I was an honest kid so I am sure I told them just what had happened. 
"Were you scared Mr. Miller?" one of my students asked. 
"No, I what did I have to be afraid of? I hadn't done anything wrong except maybe climb a wall that every kid in town climbed." I replied. 
"So then what happened?" someone asked.
"Well not much. My folks took me home and I don't even remember being punished.  But when I got older I realized that those other two boys had gone into the store and told them that Dale and I had broken the sign, not them. We'd been framed. I was sent to the slammer for something I hadn't done."
My students all agreed that I had gotten a raw deal, and that those two boys were scoundrels and that I should have beaten them up. So finally I got the class back on track after this fifteen-minute diversion. 
About a week later, just as class was about to begin a different polite young girl raised her hand and asked if she could ask me a question. This  is always a red flag but I said, "Sure."
"So like when you were in jail did you get any tattoos?" she said with huge smile. 
I started laughing so hard I could barely choke out, "No! I didn't get any tattoos."
"Oh come on, show us your tattoos," someone shouted, "Everybody gets tattoos in jail."
Another kid chimed in, "Did you join any gangs, Mr. Miller? Did they make you join a gang?"
"What about the police, did you have to make some kind of deal to let you out of jail?"
The questions came rapid fire; I tried to maintain control but it was hopeless, a teacher doubled up laughing has no credibility. I don't know if my class had planned this ahead of time or not, but it didn’t matter, they had where they wanted me.  Kids love to get their teachers to this point. It's their ultimate victory, to make us join them. 
Finally after everyone settled down, I told them if I had ever imagined my little story would have made such a big impression I would never have stuck to the truth. I would have added the beatings, the interrogations under hot lights, the screams of the other inmates and of course the tattoos. 
But I guess I didn't really didn't need to, they made up their own version better than any that I might have fabricated.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Sleepless In Iceland

Children, Camping and Insomnia in the Land of the Midnight Sun.

Iceland summer 2:00 am
I have trouble sleeping, not so much getting to sleep but rather staying asleep. When asked, I euphemistically say that I have “sleep issues.” My son calls them my “night terrors.” But whatever you want to call the condition, nine out of ten experts agree that when one has trouble sleeping it is important to maintain a regular sleep schedule. So that is what I tried to do on our recent trip to Iceland. 
One thing that is really refreshing in Iceland are the children. They play outside. If it is cold, and this being Iceland that is not unusual, they just bundle up. You see them outside in the drizzle or the sun, or in the howling wind. They run and skip, and there is chalk drawn on the sidewalks where they play hopscotch. Our first morning in Iceland we watched a large group of kids sailing and rowing boats in a cold windswept harbor with just a couple of adults in inflatables keeping herd on them like goslings. I was wearing long johns while I watched them.

Arriving in Akereyri, the second largest city in Iceland, we learned there was a mixup on our room and it wasn’t available that night, so we set off for the local campground. It was a large one with fifteen grass fields for camping. Being the recluses we are, we found a nearly empty field with just one other tent. We set up camp well away from them and settled in. In my effort to stay on some sort of regular sleep schedule, at about 10:30 I got in the tent to read and then hopefully go to sleep. 

As I am winding down I hear a diesel truck coming roaring towards the tent. I am inside so I can only hear what appears to be happening.  It sounded like it circled our tent three or four times and then stopped and went back and forth at several attempts to find just the right spot before coming to rest. 

The doors slammed open and a swarm of children burst forth. Minutes later another vehicle comes dashing into the field  honking its horn at the children who were now running in all directions, apparently including in front of the second vehicle. This car stopped and another gaggle of kids jumped out joining their pals. Together they are all yelling, shrieking, bouncing soccer balls off each other, the tent trailers, the cars, and pounding the ground like a herd of wildebeests. They were having the time of their lives. Then someone starts playing a guitar badly.

I finally unzip my tent to see what is going on and there is one teenage boy, two or three preteen girls, and somewhere between five to seven first graders (they never slowed down enough to actually count) careening around like they are in a pinball machine, poking each other with sticks, going in and out of the cars and making sure the doors are slammed securely every time. There are three adults whose job seemed to be to yell at the kids now and then and at the tent trailers they were trying to assemble. 

The quietest one of the bunch was a big black lab that was tied to the first tent trailer. He probably knew that any noise he made was sure to be drowned out by the general din, so what was the point?

In Iceland in the summer at 10:30 PM it is bright enough to do brain surgery, so it was hard to blame them for all the commotion. I am sure they were just like my family when we went camping with my cousins as children. And they were dashing about with so much energy I expected them to crash at any moment from exhaustion. No such luck. At about midnight, it being still light enough to do an emergency appendectomy, they were still going strong. I wasn't. 

I gave them my best stink eye to no avail. I hated Icelandic children. I wished I could have handed out smart phones, earbuds and Big Macs to the lot of them so they could quietly text each other and play video games like good American children. 

Finally at about 12:30 a.m. I stuffed earplugs into my head, strapped on my eyeshade and while I felt a little like I was embalmed, I fitfully fell asleep with the thought that at least everyone would sleep in in the morning.
Well the dog wasn't having any part of it. At 7:30 am sharp he barked just enough wake me and several of the kids up and the whole thing started again. Ahh...traveling. Two naps later I was almost back to normal and we pressed on.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Learning to Swim- By Nearly Drowning.

After my sadistic PE teacher in high school ordered the class to swim the 50 meter length of the YMCA pool I should have realized I didn’t know how to swim. I weighed 145 pounds, was made of nothing but muscle, bone and stubbornness and I sank when placed in water. 

The rest of the boys quickly made it to the other end of the pool where they climbed out to watch me struggle slowly forward. I fought like a drowning dog and with nothing but a force of will I made it the end where the teacher glibly told me that he, “Wondered if I was going to make it.” 

Somehow I passed PE and graduated from high school and it was on Christmas break during my first year of college that I suddenly found myself upside down in in a world that literally takes your breath away. I had fallen into the winter water of Puget Sound. And while I may have convinced myself that I knew how to swim, the water didn’t necessarily agree.

I grew up with water. The beach was just a couple of blocks from my home and it provided my entertainment. There were three old boathouses lined up next to the ferry dock at the beach. They had little railroads sloping down that went out past the low tide line. Fishermen would rent kicker boats, roll them down on miniature flatcars out into the water. At the end of the day they would circle out in front until someone in the boathouse would send out an empty car to pick them up.

My friends and I built bonfires, made plans and explored under the old boathouses. Amidst the smell of creosote, we smoked cigarettes and explored growing up. We built rafts and would float on big boom logs in water so cold only young kids and grown ups in wet suits could stand it. We salvaged wrecked row boats, patched the leaks with tar and set out. We combed the beach and in a windrow of seaweed up to our knees, we found a burlap sack with six drowned pups in it. They were still fresh. You would have thought they were asleep after a bath except for how cold they were. 

My father had always admonished me to learn how to swim, to really swim. During World War II, the ship he was on had been bombed and he spent twenty hours in the water. Nearly 800 men died in that attack and one of the few stories he ever shared of that terrible day was of his shipmates in the water with him becoming quieter and quieter until they were no more. I assured him I knew how to swim. I sold newspapers on the ferry dock and when I was offered five dollars to jump from the dock with all my clothes on, I did it, splashed my way to shore and collected the five dollars. I was confident that I knew how to swim.

So it was on that winter break that I borrowed the kayak. It was fiberglass and homemade. Before kayaks became as popular as today, most of them were homebuilt. A mold would be passed from person to person and in a stinking mess in somebody's basement, the amateur boatbuilder would craft a kayak to the best of his ability.

This one may have been the best someone could do, but it only pointed out the builder's limitations. The kayak had never been finished or painted and had a translucent mildewed gray look. It was a bare shell, with no seat, no watertight compartments and the builder had simply jammed a couple of chunks of pink styrofoam in the ends for flotation.

In late afternoon approaching dark, I carried the kayak down to the beach. I had left my life jacket at home, so I just sat down in it, grabbed the paddle and pushed off. I had used a large sea kayak in the past, so I was confident of my abilities. But this wasn't a wide flat-bottomed sea kayak, it was a makeshift river kayak, narrow and rounded, built to turn quickly.

I pulled on the paddles, first left, then right, left... right...left... right. The water was absolutely flat with just a breath of wind. I made good time; left, right, left, right. Dipping first one side, pull... dip the other, pull... smooth water. I headed straight out from shore. In a short time I was past the ends of the little railroads, soon well beyond the end of the ferry dock, and finally outside the last of the black pilings stuck in the sandy bottom. About two hundred yards off shore in absolutely flat water all of a sudden I was upside down falling out of the boat. It had just rolled over.

Salt water stung my nose, the light above told me my head was at the wrong end for air. I spun and kicked toward the surface. It had 
happened so unexpectedly I hardly had enough time to hold my breath. My head finally burst through the surface, I gasped and tread water.

Maybe I had pulled too hard on one side, I didn't know, but I was out of the kayak in very cold water. The kayak was beside me. Lightened of its load, it rolled slowly over. A large bubble of air belched out of of the hatch, and one end of the kayak sank straight down. Air was trapped in the other end and it floated straight up and down, bobbing gently in the water like a single accusatory finger pointing to the sky. I spun around looking for the paddle. My first thought was that since I had borrowed the kayak I didn't want to lose anything. The water was painfully cold. 

I couldn't see the paddle but a chunk of styrofoam about the size of a Bible had become free and floated lightly on the water, gently sailing out of my reach. I now knew I was beyond my swimming abilities, I could easily drown out here, I thought. So I grabbed for the foam and my splashing pushed it out of reach. More gently this time, I moved slowly, got the foam and stuffed it under my arm. 

I looked towards shore, the boat houses were closed and nobody was going to send a flatcar out to pick me up. Lights had come on in several of the little cottages on the beach. Nobody was taking a stroll on this cloudy winter evening. I looked for the ferry, but it was closer to the other side and I thought about what to do.
Puget Sound is cold anytime of year, but in mid-December it is about fifty degrees. You have about half an hour in it before your body gets so cold that your mind doesn't care. I was familiar with hypothermia and debated whether to kick off my pants. Modesty influenced me and I kept them on. I knew I had to get out of the water. So holding tight to my chunk of pink salvation I started kicking and paddling toward shore. My pants slowed me down. I kept kicking, the shore seemed far away and more lights had come on. 

A girl I liked had written a quote from T. S. Elliot in my high school year book, "This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper." I thought about that as I struggled toward shore and I wished I had followed my fathers advice. I never yelled, I was a shy kid, embarrassed, and I didn't want to trouble anyone. I didn't think anyone would have heard so I kept paddling.

The shore was slowly getting closer, the pain of the water had been replaced by numbness, almost to the point of warmth. It was dark when my dead feet thudded on the sand and I could stand up. I sloshed ashore, my wet cloths hung on me stiff and clammy, little strands of green seaweed stuck to my sweater. Still clutching the styrofoam I headed up the beach. 
A middle-aged woman came out on the deck of one of the warm, lit up cottages, and shouted at me. "It's people like you, who drown... I've seen it before." I thought it was an odd comment, did she just watch them? Was she related to my PE teacher? I squished through her yard, down the parking lot to my car and drove to my house as fast as I could, shaking like a wet dog.

I stomped past my surprised parents with no explanation. In the bathroom I stripped off my clothes . I looked the color of the kayak, gray. I stood in the steaming shower, first warming only enough to shiver uncontrollably, then warming more until I could feel the pain of the hot water on thawed skin. I stayed in the shower until its water finally turned cold. Dressed and still chilled, I offered an incomplete and insufficient explanation to my parents. 

My father, never one to miss making a point, didn't. This surprised me, his nature was much more like the woman in the cottage and I expected him to rail against my stupidity. I have wondered since if he was remembering himself, floating amidst the detritus of war, clinging to a seat cushion in the warm South Pacific water. The young men floating face down in their life jackets must have been about my age. This may have been one lecture he couldn't give. My mother asked me if I was hungry. 

Eventually I recovered the kayak, replaced the paddle and returned it to its owner. In a heated pool I spent hours with a patient lifeguard friend until I could do the Australian crawl, the breaststroke and rest on my back indefinitely. 
Now I’m as old as my PE teacher and my own children are older than I was when I took that swim in cold water. Both my son and daughter have boats of their own and I admonish them to wear life jackets and they do. My experience paled in comparison to my father’s so perhaps I talk about it more freely and perhaps that is why my own children take cold water seriously. I don’t know. I haven’t set foot in a kayak in years but my life still revolves around water on the quiet bay that I live on. And when I look at the beautiful water  my heart skips when I think what might have been.