Archives for the month of: September, 2013

What Happens To A Dream Deferred

What happens to a Dream Deferred? The “crazy classroom” confirms that it keeps dreaming day and night, growing positively ravenous when left unrealized.
It certainly does not dissolve, make nice, comply or cooperate in its own destruction.

The math materials were left locked up because it was too much trouble to teach the children proper procedures for how to conceptualize, strategize, illustrate, investigate, compute and care for them.
Flat-boring worksheets were separated out into assignment piles by day of the week. These resemble the routine, abstract testing torture that substitutes for education here and the children have been subjected to them since they were in preschool!

Primary mathematics must be counted, sorted, weighed, compared, estimated, measured and observed up close and personal, so this class is just one big stumble-bumble mathematical misconception after another. They are being asked to describe grape juice having never taken the first sip.

What they do know has been rendered invisible, irrelevant and incidental. One day a literacy coach wanders into a room down the hallway and test drives a lesson on little ones she neither knows nor cares for. They must all huddle on a carpet and remain silent while she positions herself next to a tiny easel and “expertly” demonstrates for their teacher how to combine math and literature using a picture book about counting pumpkins. It is a baby-fied, boring business and the audience quickly grows uncooperative. Repeated chastisements ensue over the inattention, while tucked into a back corner high finance is conducted by the leader of a chatty gaggle of girls.

“Well if I had five bucks…If I had five bucks I know exactly what I would do. I would wait until the day was over and I would walk straight into the cafeteria. And I would ask the Canteen Lady, ‘How much did you say those suckers cost?’ And she would tell me that they cost 25 cents a piece. Then I would tell her to give me 20 because that’s how many kids are in this group.”

Suckers trump felt pumpkins!




We now have a generation of “teachers” raised up by a national policy that configures high poverty classrooms as streams of revenue.  Everyone is busy racing to the top of nowhere and leaving almost every child behind in the process.  These are students not receiving any opportunity even faintly equal to, or resembling that which is extended to those living and learning in America’s most affluent conclaves.  But that is okay with us because it is as it has always been.  Jane Addams would say that we are overdue for a new conscience on an ancient evil.  Do we agree with her and do we move into the ghost of Hull House to join her in the work of dismantling the deranged arrangement?


When children are objectified by reckless testing mandates, reduced to data points that add up to some lucrative budget number and shoved into corners of standardized curricula that never coincide with their lived experiences, they rebel.  It is as simple as that.  That rebellion is a healthy reaction to an inhumane itinerary across the stripped-down territory of the have’s and have-nots. 


Storage closets have a way of giving up secrets and the one I invaded was overflowing with shelves of bright, yellow Judy Clocks, GeoBlocks, trundle wheels, meter sticks, Cuisenaire rods, scales, Dienes Logical Blocks, Napier Rods, graph paper, measuring tape, tangrams, abacus, symmetry mirrors, thermometers, pendulums, geometric figures, stopwatches, globes, calculators, geoboards, attribute blocks, hundreds boards, unifix cubes, array boards, measuring cups and graduated cylinders.  On paper, the invoices must have looked good to some bureaucrat somewhere in the stratosphere but down on Mother Earth these math investigations were stashed away to insure that the “crazy classroom” was never transformed into a busy, lively, exciting engagement.




The second graders signaled danger straight ahead.  They were screaming, yelling, shouting insults at one another and in general, acting like patients straight out of Bedlam.  Who allowed children to behave in this fashion? What forces combined to shatter their spirits so completely that only self-loathing remained?  That is what I intended to discover, starting from bottom to top, tunneling like an excavator while searching for the fault lines in their stabilization.

A public school provides a social foundation for education and civilization.  It truly is a structural and symbolic anchor in a neighborhood, a community gathering center, a territory of commonality, inclusion, a place of progress and not estrangement or regression to meaner times.  But here it had all gone terribly wrong and I wanted to know how and why.

Someone was leaving but I won’t call her a teacher because I am sure she was not that.  She had a title, a contract, a salary and a baby on the way who was now in danger from the stress-inducing classroom.  An adult was withdrawing from the fracas and another was required to take her place.  It was a clinical substitution and I accepted it as such but it was also my initiation into their tiny house of horrors.

Containment or holding cell was the first impression.  There was nothing there for them and there was nothing of them anywhere to be seen.  No proud math papers, no skillfully rendered drawings of friends and family, no framed illustrations from children’s literature, no dictionaries, no maps, no picture books, no chapter books, no poems in poster form, no science curiosity center, no flashcards, no nothing.  I’d seen this environmental emaciation before and knew it for what it was. Elements of beautiful, uplifting, intriguing, scholarly or exemplary establish an atmosphere and an expectation for learning.  This was an isolation tank intended to separate out the riff-raff so they did not taint the LECB bottom line.

Sadly, the politics of Leave Every Child Behind had run its intended course, educational euthanasia, otherwise known as institutionalized infanticide, pure and simple. Fledgling lives are troubled when forced to persist amidst the pathological elements of abject poverty. Together they are snuggled up on a civic teeter-totter with a dislocated fulcrum, forever out of balance.  We could even it out but we don’t and why is that?


Septima Clark

Brave and Beautiful Septima Clark



I stumbled across Eva who could not read a lick.  I found her tucked up in an empty classroom, sound asleep.  She was snoring peacefully in second grade.  No one knew she was missing in action and no one cared that she was alone, separated from the herd and dozing on her lunch hour.  
Despite her illiteracy, there would not be any intervention for her, no tutoring, no read aloud, no big books or story dictation.  In fact, there would be no reading instruction for her of any description.  Second grade does not count on the accountability scoreboard and therefore, is not heavily proctored   
Thousands will be spent this year on a series of no-nothing, “school reform” consultants, who themselves know zippy-zero about reading as a process or a passion.  They will wander in and out like the contract zombies they are, drawing down dollars triggered by testing mandates for 3rd grade and beyond.  
Helen Keller could have told them back in September who would be failing come January. But everyone at this location turned blind, deaf and dumb when it came to the cause of Eva. Since Eva knew hopeless when she experienced it, she responded by curling up in The Back Of The Bus and surrendering to a dreamless sleep.  
Years of here, there and everywhere leave children like Eva undisturbed and unlettered. She has been allowed to float like a beautiful flower in a big pond, not a ripple approaching from any direction to dislodge her and prevent her from sinking into the treacherous waters of insensitivity and indifference.  
Had she been growing up in the Sea Islands back in January of 1957, she might have been scooped up by Civil Rights pioneers Esau Jenkins, Bernice Johnson or Septima Clark and taught to read at the back of a beat-up school bus or in the midst of a busy, beauty parlor.  Their make-do movement imagined literacy and democracy walking hand-in-hand and it ultimately exploded into a nationwide uprising against the entrenched, Jim Crow suppression of voting rights.  But Eva is enrolled in a data-deranged Public School, not a South Carolina Citizenship School and she will never chase Esau Jenkins across the sandy, marshy low country of Johns Island.




Christopher is 4 years old and frequently grown-up angry.  One morning he stomped out of his classroom and into a restroom area down the hall.  Suddenly aware that I was nearby and watching, he turned to me with a jerk and shouted, “If I am mad at somebody, I just look at them and say, ‘Hey Bitch!’”
I clamped my hand over my mouth to keep from laughing and considered carefully before responding, the fewer words the better.  “Guess I just never say it.”
“What?” he replied in a rapid-sharp voice.  “What do you mean you don’t say it?”  Surprised I wasn’t reprimanding him?  Wondering if I was telling the truth?  Curious if I had an alternative to his harsh way of talking?
“I simply don’t speak to people that way. It does not come out of my mouth.” 
I delivered this with a silent, shoulder shrug and pretended to get interested in a developmentally inappropriate, preschool worksheet stapled to a bulletin board.
Since his outburst didn’t provoke me, he immediately abandoned it and became absorbed in the water fountain, turning it on and off and diverting streams of water with his tongue and his fingers, in other words, exploring the properties of water.  It was a soothing diversion and ultimately calmed him enough that he could walk back with me to rejoin his friends.  Too bad there wasn’t a water table set up as a workstation for this little man with the mouth.  But those also have gone by the  Leave Every Child Behind wayside.

Alternately, Jorge healed himself at a water table.  He arrived for a visit, having lived in 10 different foster homes before his fourth birthday.  His hyperactivity and anxiety were so extreme that no family could soothe him or survive him, therefore he rotated from one placement to the next.  Prescribed a steady dose of Clonidine, you wouldn’t have known it from the way he ran directly at a solid wall, smacking full force, face-on and then collapsing in a fit of giggles.
It was the water table that drew his attention.  The girls usually commandeered it, washing baby dolls or dishes, transferring liquid back and forth from tea kettles to jam jars.  Most days, boys weren’t allowed but somehow everyone knew Jorge was different and for him the rules did not apply.  He spent two weeks standing behind the crowd of girls listening in on their conversations.  He always wore a smile, sometimes nodded his head in agreement with an opinion expressed but never edged past the periphery of bodies to join in the fun.
Then the earth’s orbit shifted and his hands slipped into the delicious drench.  There was no budging him after that.  He was polite, always patient and ever alert for that perfect moment when it would be okay to slide into place.  He had figured out the human arrangement and was careful to comply in ways that guaranteed access to the dreamy drink.  There he would vibrate in endless delight, stuttering less and speaking more, solidifying an identity and a circle of friends who did not fail him.  In the water he learned how to become.





We have been told that this student is not legally entitled to any more “Special Treatment”so we are returning him to Kindergarten.  At this Title I school, a four month sentence in administrative isolation is called Special Treatment.  J-Block is what they call it in the adult prison system.
A five year old boy shut up in a tiny room from November to March.  Imagine!  Each and every day meant no recess, no Circle Time, no eating at a big table with other children.  The simple, socializing joys that he so urgently needed were extinguished before ever being experienced.   

His special treatment was a purgatory called In School Suspension where he was cycled through the same worksheets day after day, memorizing how to count and color Pilgrims, Native Americans, cornstalks and hay bales.  On a b&w gingerbread house, he graphed crayon-coded gumdrops, candy canes, sugar plums and butterscotch wafers.  He cut and pasted columns of numerals in ascending and descending order.  Over time, he got very good at this flat work. 
In the early days of his confinement, he defied the ruling junta by grabbing a chunky-chubby black crayon and scribbling over every detail with such ferocity that he shone with perspiration before finishing.  One day I pried the frustration from his fingers and smoothed his determined grip into a relaxed receptivity.  “Let’s start again and make one of these beautiful.”
We began by taking turns, bent over and absorbed as if collaborating on a paint-by-number, John Henry Man Versus Machine. We chatted away like the most synchronized of study buddies.  “I think I’ll make my sky mostly blue with some white mixed in.  May I borrow the green when you’re finished with it?  If we cut right along the big, fat line I think the teacher will be able to read the numeral.  And remember we’re only using baby dots of glue.  Baby Dots Not Glops! That’s our motto.” 
This was satisfying work, repetitive but civilizing and the only preparation there was for a return.  It took all of November to gentle him and after that he followed every rule of customary deportment but still was not permitted to even visit the Kingdom of Kindergarten until the end of February and only then with me as bodyguard. 
But then came the March Declaration of Special Treatment when he was abruptly dropped behind enemy lines, told to sink or swim, and forced to jump with no back-up parachute.  It was a perilous insertion.  I would hear him wailing in protest across the vast, central rotunda., screaming and kicking in protest as he was drug, adult escorts on either side, always back like a boomerang, no matter how successful the launching. 
I can safely say that he remained in this disruptive dance until May. Another boy from the same grade level remained in ISS from November until June, a total of six months. No field day for this one, no end-of-year picnic, no parade through the hallway with happy noisemakers and hip-hop music to celebrate the going home.  The piped in soundtrack was joyous and my young sidekick sparkled with an excited grin as he showed me his talented dance moves while dutifully stationed in his chair. 
Most importantly, this was all off-the-books.  The district software repository for registration data, grades, attendance records and disciplinary infractions revealed that none of the in-school months of classroom separation were ever recorded for official eyes. Intentionally, the long haul was virtually untraceable by state and federal authorities.  No one will ever know that no one knows what they are doing.
This organization hurts children.  It retards growth and it injures spirits. The logical conclusion of its terrible trajectory is a chaotic country full of incapacitated citizens.  But the reality is that situations like this are scattered across poor neighborhoods throughout the United States.  Led by CEO’s/Chief Education Officers and propped up by well-paid corporate consultants, policy wonks and super-rationalized schematics for “school reform”, these folks don’t intend to be re-fashioned or fixed.   In fact they financially benefit in a very personal way from funding formulas that follow their failure. Here, terrible is profitable and a good way to go. 
We can whenever, and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need, in order to do this. Whether we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.
Ron Edmonds Telling It Like It Was And Like It Is!

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