Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Fish Lives on (and I expect a new salary offer any minute)

I know you were wondering about the fish. It's great to be wrong for a little while longer. It's a minor thing, but it's such a downer when you have to use that little net they urge you to buy along with your "starter kit." And flushing down the toilet somehow just ain't right.

Meanwhile, no action at work, since I guess the various implications if not shock waves have to be plotted out. So, I'm in my familiar limbo. Public face and private knowlege.

Last time, I was heading a closing school but still had to carry on with public enthusiasm and fundraising and hiring and even recruiting. Because part of the board wouldn't give up while the other part with the deep pockets were working out the school's orderly dissolution. I was on the responsible side, but it cost me my appendix and several times nearly my life for a huge variety of reasons. For sure, the scars run much deeper than the one on my abdomen. I just ain't been right since then.

The appendix part is actually pretty funny, in a grim sort of way. I was living across the border from Buffalo in my parents' Canadian summer house, having just left home myself again. Leaving home was about the second time in my adult life that I full out cried. The first time was when my daughter whom I was now abandoning was born two months prematurely.  There is always laughter and pain at border crossings, I'm sure. Especially when they're forced.

I'd come home from a pep meeting with the alumni portion of the board. As I recall, there was some threat to the meeting, that I'd better not scuttle their efforts, and even more still carry on as chief cheerleader in charge. I know I did truly want, with all my heart, for the school to succeed, and had even developed a pretty elaborate business plan to make it possible. 

I worked very hard to fund that plan, but treachery must have been the name of the spot I occupied. I know that I acted earnestly and in good faith with all aspects of proper governance and reporting. But I was living on some variation of adrenalin, and holding in all feeling. And the lead funder of the plan pulled out the bottom card. I'd failed the confidence game, at least in part I feel, because I was familiar with the foundation director. Knowing me, I wouldn't quite trust me either.

That night I developed a pain in my gut, which grew in crescendo volume until I thought my body had become a siren in its pain and could get no higher but somehow still did. In retrospect, it was idiotic to draw a bath, but I needed some exit from the pain. Finally, very late at night or maybe early the next morning, sopping wet in final panic from the tub, I made my way crablike out to my little bouncy pickup truck. 

I had to endure what seemed a full half hour's grilling at the border crossing, since by all appearances I was putting on an act and must be up to something no good. The dramatics were intense for sure, and I still don't begrudge the fellow at Customs his disbelief. I would often run in to another had-been headmaster colleague who'd taken a Customs job for relief at that border crossing, and could easily see myself there too. I was grateful when he finally suspended his disbelief, and let me through, to speed in desperation through the slushy streets so thankfully barren.

And  after being parked in the hallway of that hospital for what seemed interminable hours, amid ambiguous signs of what was going on in my guts due likely to confessions of liquor, they opened me up, and I hear my appendix burst like a rotten tomato in the doctor's hand post harvest. (he was more skilled than the one who delivered my daughter, and who left her Mom chopped up).

It was Christmas Eve, and the papers were full of the anchorage boathouse where I'd kept my non-yacht, being sent up in flames by the mentally disturbed son of the abused chief boatwright. That man was smart! But not much educated. I'd befriended him as best I could across that clubby class divide, just simply because my boat was crude, ugly, and not very properly preppy looking. I had no proper sense of color with the paint either. 

He always regarded me with the same fundamental suspicion he did all the prigs at the club's myriad helms. Many of them with portraits along the admiralty wall, back eons almost to the days when this manly yacht club got its start as camping destination for canoe-craze outings across the lake before the Peace Bridge ever got built.

The ceremonial and maybe original canoe went up in the flames, as I recall. The boatyard chief had just been fired himself, and there must have been some sense of outraged justice to the torching. I remember watching this craggy and mostly toothless man build my own boat's cradle, most by eye, from huge timbers now rotten and gone, but then perfectly matched and tuned to the task at hand. He thrilled to do it. I marvelled at the result.

His pricing reflected the budget he kept for his operation, and so far as I could tell never his own profit above what meager salary they paid. But I'm sure he ran afoul the admiralty, who'd somehow transmogrified from whisky bonfires on the beach to prigs who'd lost their sense of humor.  I shouldn't say, since I never knew any, and soon withdrew from the club in a kind of shame.

Though, and here's a strange true fact, my Dad and I did grace the cover of the Buffalo News Magazine one time for paddling down the river in our canoe. So, I guess there is return. (We were nowhere near the Falls, though they are always in your mind when paddling down that river). I head for the Falls again now, for sure.

This story is so hackneyed old, I can't even remember if I've ever written it or only told it umpteen times. And then there was that evening in the dim Demerol darkened light of my hospital room when I signed my final separation, and completed another border crossing to divide my life.

So now, still obsessing, I look forward only to these two three hours with you each morning. Or working out my book. It's what gets me out of bed, interrupted by my coffee induced morning regularity annoyingly, but there are worse ways to be stirred out of bed.  Shortly, I will have to start the increasingly grindy work day, and I'll  miss you until my return later on.

Meanwhile, the thought I'd meant to work out was this:  that I remain convinced of two twinned facts: (how many colons does it take to evacuate a thought?) The first: that offshoring of manufacturing is NOT primarily a race to the bottom for wages. Of course, there are many features of these decisions, including cheap shipping, cheap real-estate, inviting tax arrangements, lax environmental regulation, all along with cheap wages. Each of these alone is enough to constrain the hand of any decider, whose responsibility is to the bottom line, and to his stockholders.

Skirting the irony of the stock market crashing for just a moment longer, the fact I truly know is that the system which is global capitalism also wants docile labor, which gets defined by proximate fear of starvation.  That's always been a bottom line of the capitalist system, and it's bosses and beneficiaries have always been able to rationalize it away. Even while the university types struggle to connect the dots which allow the system to be blamed for creating the very misery its jobs, ostensibly, set out to resolve.

Parenthetically, I think connecting those dots convincingly might be as likely as cold fusion or winning an argument with my work colleague. He cheats in ways I cannot detect, nor master, and finally wins by wearing me out from the effort only to pay attention. I apologize that I do the same to you, dear and gentle reader.

The second fact I know full well is that our education system - the system now - is designed primarily to sort and categorize - as efficiently and perhaps as permanently as possible - its charges into those same alphas and betas which IQ testing was originally, and very militarily, deployed for.

The IQ test is the point of contention, always, both in the school I ran for "gifted" children, and in the community of educators more generally, since clearly "all children are gifted" (though not in the same ways, he whispered).  But it's more the gentle machinery of control and feedback which it seems impossible to grow beyond.  By suppressing the score, you don't make the score go away, and every child automatically and all the time knows it anyhow. It's what children do.

Now I've studied this stuff a little bit, but I don't want to claim any academic anything here, since I'm out to make an actual difference, which never felt very easy from inside those academy walls. That disconnect is quite matured, most clearly in the field of education, where what gets read and studied in the field has (or used to) almost no carryover to what gets read and studied in the ivory tower. The audiences and inspirational speakers just don't cross each other.

I'm pretty sure that I hate to my very guts that young D.C. Asian superintendent, but I might be wrong. I do know that the more purely competitive education of the Asian masses, where they don't worry so much about student/teacher ratios, does us better by some measures. And this young superintendent might be kicking ass in just the right way, though I doubt it. I have yet to hear an educator, outside the academy, who doesn't want better of the same. It's the metaphor that's wrong, I think.

We still take the lead for incubation of entrepreneurial talent. Bill Clinton's famous top fifty percent. I'm pretty sure I incubated some my very self. Some might even have gone on to use the Chinese I started them on. I haven't kept up.

But to the extent that the economy becomes frantic that we need a better educated workforce, my little jaded brain cries out, "yeah yeah."  Let's get accountability for those outcomes. Let's measure our students performances better. Let's computerize the classroom. Let's better instrumentalize the entire process. Isn't it computers we want to make of minds?


Computers will never think, hello! And brainy kids don't often make any creative genius cut. Schools used to be cheap because they had no administration. And kids controlled each other, maybe, so the teacher didn't have to.  Our schools now lag in their structure from the industrial age, now so fully outsourced (drive sometime along the dreary Monongahela in a thunder storm at night, having done it a first few short decades ago when the superstructures were all lit up!!)

This is what gets heatedly debated in the academy, where the facts are all full known. Even as they must prepare practitioners. (another funny factoid: I ran into my former student teaching supervision supervisor tuning in to The Corporation, the other day.  Along with the business manager of yet another private school, who'd long retired from his post, and left from the film before I could say hello. There must be something in the air).

There are no good metaphors for school. It should be messy, involve lots of travel, foreign languages, and preserve good boundaries between teacher and student. School, for liberation, should be a root metaphor itself, not likened to anything else, nor trued by any comparisons.

That's what's become impossible anymore. But two things are in our favor now. The first is that there is broad general recognition that investments in education might make the best long term stimulus.  Except for those robot Republicans who don't have any other recording to play when you pull their strings, most people think that the government should do more and better than just to feed the gaping black hole maw of the financial economy (that pairing of terms just cracks me up!)

I don't necessarily want the ivy-logoed technocrats to stop doing that, mind you, because I'm not nearly smart enough to understand what they do and why. I only know that whatever glimmering Demerol (no, I don't do drugs. It's just a metaphor) hope for retirement I might have been nursing has now fully evaporated away. (I hear that health and retirement benefits were incentives from a time when wages were controlled for the commonweal - what a concept.  That standardization should stimulate creativity. Regulation by any other name, a different colleague brilliantly points out)

But for sure, we don't want all those college age kids clogging up the employment markets, especially as devalued and uneducated and interchangeable hands.  Such creatures are commodity exports from most of the world already, despite our border fences.

Just as we don't want too many unemployed declaring bankruptcy when their appendixes burst, I think the ultimate fact of socialized medicine (let's call it "standardized" for fun) and free public higher education stares us in the face.  Let's get on with it.  It's not just real-estate values that have collapsed. It's the whole shooting match.

But meanwhile, we should clear a space again for that school I ran into the ground, because it was far too messy, and like me, too far ahead of its time (my Chinese evaporates too). It cost near nothing to operate, though income versus outgo never could be matched. I guess the same might be said of any institution which had so little administration. (ho ho ho, let's say of any institution which asked so much of the guy who also rang the bell, as they say in China about heads of small schools). On both scores.

Kids need to be put alongside other kids who stir them is all. Among teachers who inspire and respect them as fully human (beleive me, that last is not so common in schools). Reading writing and rithmatic need almost never be taught, since kids pick up these things on their own if they aren't disabled from it by schooling.  

You have to work really hard to prevent a child from learning to read, expect perhaps at a school for the dyslexic, but that's another story for another time (I can't afford to laugh that hard right now).  You have to present arithmetic in the most abstract disabling recipe style confusing fashion to prevent kids from learning what a bunch of manipulative tiles can help them figure out almost on their own. You have to almost invent computers to prevent children from doing things with pen and paper.

We're damn good at what we do, sadly.

I went to school alongside kids who were a lot more like that boatyard man than they were like me. They knew lots of stuff I'll never learn nor understand. Can't we liberate them as well from dreary sessions at the back of classrooms hot roddishly talking about their AK-47s, likely to impress the student teacher's supervisor, while the actual supervising teacher was about to be led off for sexual abuse, result of a clever sting run by some pissed off cagey girls?  True story, that one.

I don't see why kids can't mix and match and still compete at their own level. There are many different fields of competition.

But we'll get the world and the economy we want. I'm still very excited by the ways in which we can smart our various grids in an information economy. But I really really don't want to live in anything even slightly resembling the dreary housing which its architects do build. I am no inhabitant of any warren, nor does my thinking even vaguely resemble something computable.

And I got my education not just in kindergarten, but by running one.  That Yale dipoloma's just for show (for Mom).

Oh, damn, drink up please, it's time. 

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