Saturday, July 29, 2006

No one can terrorize a whole nation, unless we are all his accomplices.
-Edward R. Murrow

I was watching Good Night, and Good Luck last night (God bless Netflix), and I started to put two and two together as far as the inner workings of my brain (yeah, yeah, egotistical, I know...but I do draw the line at contemplating my navel.). It seems to take longer to do so as I get older, but anyhoo...

I guess I got to the heart of my ambivalent feelings towards becoming a teacher in the past week or so. The ban on ghost stories came flying back into my face once Maccabiah week began at camp. The camp director said in a staff meeting some things to the effect that kids must get used to the idea that we can't win 'em all in this life, and that the games all the campers would play over the next few days were about fun and good sportsmanship rather than life or death. I mentioned to a fellow counselor that we can't scare the kids with ghost stories, but we can expose them to the agony of defeat. It occurred to me then that the reason for ghost stories is to present us all with a warm-up for a truly subversive activity - that of facing our fears and, in so doing, overcoming them. To present our kids with competitive situations minus that sense of fear, the readiness for it, the strategies that allow us to live and even thrive another day once the fears and the losses are faced...well, it makes the defeats that inevitably happen so much more distressing and tougher to overcome.

Which is why Ed Murrow's willingness to face McCarthy's Communist witch hunting head-on, and the behind-the-scenes support he received, really spoke to me in the movie. At a time when any "red" activities in anyone's background could break their lives, even through association with relatives or friends who might have had any Communist sympathies, no matter how miniscule, one man risked government persecution and corporate sponsorship to examine with microscopic, eloquent clarity how one man's claims and lust for power could wield such power over the American public. Good Night does a fantastic job of showing in subtle and overt ways the pressure cooker Murrow, producer Fred Friendly, and the others who worked with them were stuck in.

What makes that pressure cooker in any way relevant to me? Kids, by their very natures, are inquisitive, experimenting beings. It's the way they learn about the world. Parents, caregivers, and teachers are charged with channeling such questioning and experimentation in socially acceptable ways - it's okay to ask, so long as it is of relevance to the tasks at hand; it's okay to experiment in a controlled environment; it's all right to compete and to aspire, so long as the rules are understood.

The question for me, if I choose the teaching path, is, is it acceptable to me to live with a certain amount of what on good days is a paradox, and on bad days is hypocrisy? I qualify the controlled exploration contradiction with positive and negative connotations simply because in the past seven weeks of camp, I have had great days and days when I want the good Lord to stop the world because I want to get off it in a mad hurry. I have had days when I think the people I work with and the supervision I have is great and days when I could give them all a kick in the pants for one reason or another. A recent book I read by Esme Raji Codell, entitled Educating Esme, recounts her first year teaching in diary entries that don't hold much back. She struggled, too, with kids in her class while doing one heck of a job in getting them interested in learning about basic subjects in school and life outside of the classroom ( for more on her continuing life and ideas, check out - I highly recommend it), and, at the same time, tussling with the administrators at her school over big and small matters. Some of the administrative struggles were truly ludicrous, such as the one over why the kids called her Madame Esme rather than Ms Codell. Like that is really going to mess with kids' minds.

What messes with my mind now more than ever is that if I choose the teaching path, the stakes are higher. Working as a glassblower before all this... well, it was about manipulating the material over and over again in the same way, and then selling the product and managing the day to day stuff that came with that. I wonder now how I could ever have taken that so seriously, other than that I was determined to make it a go of making a living doing glasswork. Teaching these days is more of a calling now than ever before, largely because the pay is godawful, for the most part. The particular circumstances of my geographical surroundings also require that those taking on a teaching position down here must have a certain amount of missionary zeal (not necessarily "I'm going to teach these kids if it kills us all"; more like, "I'm going to teach as though what happened last August has made us all stronger and more respectful of nature.") and the strength to bear with an organization or two or three or four or six or twenty-some-odd or more in chaos. If you take the job and then decide to shove it, that is one tough mother of a decision you have just made. Have you opted out for a better job situation, or have you abandoned a struggling school system to a lesser fate... in effect, have you left needy children behind?

Woo-hah. Welcome to the rock and a hard place that is now the teaching profession. Post-Katrina greater New Orleans has simply added recovery trials and tribulations to the huge pyre that represents a national problem that has to be addressed, and soon. Our little ruined corner of the world gets attention on this front simply because it is perceived as having a clean slate on which to inscribe a new and better educational model. And, as I have detailed in previous posts, three different organizations/business models in charge of a system that was in trouble well before the storm adds up to my two cents on that supposed clean slate: Yeah, Right.

And I am thinking about all this because, though I have had plenty of days where I can truly understand why some animals eat their young, I must say that, overall, I've enjoyed the camp counselor thing enough to where I am seriously considering full-time teaching. I've been so immersed in the kid universe that hearing information about a kid and his wedgie from the kid's mouth doesn't faze me much at all. With some exceptions, the majority of the kids I've worked with come in with an open mind and a willingness to take on most anything. Most would argue that we had a really tough group of kids behaviorally throughout the whole summer, but things actually got better as we went along.

And after three-plus years of rearing a young 'un to the entry point of his formal learning years, it might be time for a different challenge for me. My bone to pick, that whole horror and humiliation juggling thing, might well be a good starting point. And one of many things I've learned myself, working with such characters, is that you never know what their brains will absorb and how a teaching will manifest itself in a child's life.

Now if only that money thing could be adequately and effectively addressed. Teacher's unions don't really seem to be cutting it. Concern for the kids is holding many teachers hostage, using their goodwill against them, and it is at cross-purposes to formal education as a whole. Yeah, kids will suffer if there aren't good teachers for them. Kids will also suffer if the good teachers and their resources are stretched beyond their means.

Whoo, I'm seriously thinking about getting into the middle of this?

Well, I moved back to New Orleans, didn't I? Talk about stretching the good and the resourceful.....

Sunday, July 16, 2006

A few weeks ago, I started to write a post, which appears below:

Week Four of counselor-ing has begun, and... I couldn't be there for the first day. My son has received a nice sick jolt in the form of a stomach bug, puking approx. 3-4 times just for my husband's homecoming benefit. C'est la vie, as I am wont to say these days. Fellow counselors didn't anticipate many kids showing up, due to the probability of parents taking advantage of a long weekend presented by the Fourth of July being on a Tuesday. Still and all, I felt bad about having to miss it. A large part of it is missing what the kids will do next - the ones that are my fellow counselors and the group I supervise. Another part of it represents an escape from the grimness of our surroundings.

I find myself very happy that I am not dwelling on the newspaper articles presented daily by the Times-Picayune too much, because the local news has had some unifying themes lately, and not all of them good. The National Guard being called in didn't prevent two more murders from happening not far from where the massacre of the five teenagers occurred, the final straw that caused the Guard to arrive here in the first place. A nearby church burned down, causing the preservationists to have more palpitations about the city's historical structures succumbing to destruction on top of all the other things that happened to the city thus far.

Seeing what I wrote now, I am struck by what hasn't changed, although I am feeling better, thank you. My preservationist palpitation comment was to begin a comment about the double-edged sword that is preservationism. It's all well and good to avoid disasters such as the demolition of places like the old Penn Station, but the other side of the coin is that having a landmark house or owning one in a preservation district means that any improvements or renovations to what you think is your home are decisions that are out of your hands. A fantastic home not far from us on St Charles Avenue is now being demolished, and not because of the storm, but because anyone who has tried to do anything with the house has come under the intense scrutiny of the preservation societies, the little parrot on one's shoulder that carries the real power in what you can say or do about your property. The church that burned had apparently had its parishioners petition the preservationists to have it condemned, and the building itself was not being used much. To be sure, I myself am not sure why the church burned, but I can tell you, seeing that house on St Charles in ruins is awful.

Yes, nobody wants to be told what to do. Good numbers of kids in my camp group are not enthused about being told to quit goofing off. A junior counselor for my group was not enthused about being told to shape up with regards to the kids. I was less than thrilled about having to fill out evaluations for my other counselors' performances, and I'm really not happy that I will most likely be evaluated, too. It all almost makes me want to crawl right back home and retreat into being just mommy once again.

Heck, I still go back and forth internally about whether or not ghost stories are really forms of child abuse. Not that I'm going to run around and tell those stories to all the kids just to stick it to authority, but most of the ghost stories I heard when I was at the age of the oldest campers at the camp where I work were stupid. Anything of that nature nowadays is perceived as child abuse because it could cause the kids to be afraid of going to sleep, afraid of the dark, afraid of enclosed places...and yet I'm counselor to kids who are already aware of kid horror writers such as R.L. Stine, who read Harry Potter novels, and are watching cartoons such as The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy and Naruto, cartoons that have more scary situations and violence in them than any Monkey's Paw story could ever contain. And I'm not even mentioning the ruined neighborhoods around and about this city. I guess it comes down to a question of parental control. Most parents find it easier to lambaste an educator, counselor, or camp director on these issues than to monitor their own child's TV or book choices. The issue here isn't the kids, but the supervisory accountability.

Which makes me hesitant about going so far as to teach in the schools here. They do need teachers, and my husband has brought up the fact that they would be in the market for an art teacher with a background like mine. I cringe at the politics involved on the administrative level, however, and at the added pressures of parents who decide to involve themselves to a point where they might as well teach the class themselves. With three different operational models in play down here (state recovery, Orleans parish schools, and charter schools) seems to come a whole new rats' nest of politics as usual, on top of it all. All I can say is UGH.

My friend Justine commented on how politics as usual is coming into play in local government here, too. A recent public meeting with her city council representative also featured a lawyer that has been prominent in city politics, a man who called on everyone at the meeting to attend civil and criminal court proceedings and observe the judges at work so that the judges will know they are accountable to the public at all times on the job. Granted, the judges and the nice breaks they have been taking for classes they barely attend or have already received credit for at conferences in places like Jamaica have been in the news, but boy, it all adds up to how little things have changed in the political landscape here. Our esteemed mayor has spent very little time in the city since he was elected, too. Maybe he wants to get away from it all. If he really wanted to do that, though, he should have dropped out of the elections. Eventually he will have to return and to do some work in the public eye.

Eventually I will have to as well... beyond this summer, that is. Get a job. Do something outside of my house and my family, much as I love 'em all. If accountability is the price I have to pay, well, so be it. Jury's still out on whether or not it is worth it for me to be accountable to higher-ups in the face of my audience of young campers, though. Campers that make it a point to guess my age and then tell me I look way younger than their parents, though I am that age. Who love, love, love some of the projects I give 'em. Who hug me just to hug me. Who think it's cool that I know their Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon shows they like to watch, too.

It makes accountability so much harder when you care...