Sunday, September 18, 2005

Bad Boys, School Superintendents & Wal-Mart

Last night, I ran into two of my former students outside the movie store. Brandon and Ricky were always in trouble for one thing or another during their three years in middle school. Both of them flunked almost every class but were passed on year after year, as is the habit in most middle schools. Ricky had a violent streak and was finally placed in an alternative school for much of his 7th grade year. It was mostly 7th grade macho stuff that got him in trouble. Like so many other lost boys and girls we see in middle school halls every year, he had virtually zero parental supervision. Brandon's mom tried to become more involved, but her son was soft and lazy, a follower who seemed hell bent on being cool above all else. Brandon had a good sense of humor and was one of the few in my class who understood my jokes, but he hadn't learned much academically since the third or fourth grade.

They saw me first as I pulled into the parking lot. "Hey, Mr. Smith." It's always nice to see former students smiling when we meet. So often, my memories of scolding them and sending them to the office for some transgression are all I remember. Ironically, some of the worst discipline problems are the friendliest when we meet outside the confines of school. They seem to know that I really did like them - even the bad ones (sometimes especially the bad ones). The two bad boys sauntered up to the passenger side of the car as I pulled in, and we talked through the window. Ricky had his ball cap on crooked and wore an open baseball jersey, the uniform of adolescent rebellion.

"So how's high school going?" I asked.
"We're not in school," Brandon said, smiling.
"We're doing home school now," Ricky said with a straight face. Home schooling? I had to laugh.
"Are you kidding me?" Both of them smiled just a bit, not wanting to completely admit that they weren't doing anything remotely related to school work.
"So, who's teaching you?" I asked.
"My mom," says Brandon.
They knew I didn't buy it, but I didn't say anything more. We said our good-byes, and they drove away in Brandon's beat up Taurus with the bass vibrating a loose muffler. Poor lost boys.

I remembered one parent/teacher conference. Brandon's mom had broken down in tears, pleading for advice on how to persuade her academically-challenged son that doing well in school was important. "He's a good boy," she said over and over.

And now this poor woman was home schooling them? I wonder how she's holding up. Their situation seems hopeless now. I hate it that they have chosen to separate themselves from the one place where they might learn something outside their usual realm - where they could associate with adults who cared about them and had some insight into the real world. The sad thing is, Ricky and Brandon were both reasonably bright, funny kids - especially Ricky. There were times when I knew that I "had them" during particular lessons. There was definitely some hope there - they just weren't in class often enough for anything to stick. When he came to school for a stretch, Ricky actually contributed to class and truly enjoyed doing a little math now and then. He even passed a couple of tests. I can remember how he eagerly shot his hand up when he had the answer to a math problem. Now it seems their education is a lost cause, but I'll keep you posted if there are any future Brandon and Ricky sightings in the 'hood.


Speaking of education, I met the new superintendent of schools the other day at an NEA meeting. He's an affable fellow, much more articulate than the last suit that flew into town to lead R-12 . . . and much funnier. All the principals like him, but I still haven't heard him say much other than "we must foster a culture of improvement", which seems pretty uninspired to me. Let's all agree to try to do better, okay?

This was his first meeting with Springfield NEA, and a couple of polite teachers lobbed softball questions. He was obliged to mention how awesome (a favorite adjective) the system was and how capable the staff was . . . but then somebody asked him what he thought about class size. Having just struggled through a year when my classes were jammed with 35-36 students every hour, I was interested in how he'd handle this one. It seems amazing to me that a big system like R-12 refuses to hire enough teachers to have optimum class sizes.

Dr. Ridder smiled and apologetically explained that he always gets a little "political" when talking about class size . . . He rubbed his hands together and said, "I've seen teachers do a terrific job with classes of forty and a poor job with classes of fifteen." And then he smiled and nodded as if to acknowledge that what he had just uttered was total bullshit. Exactly the kind of bobbing and weaving we've come to expect from administrative types. I was disappointed but not surprised. He has a nice personality at least. He's coming back in a few months, and I have already promised myself to ask him about the tax rollback. Should inspire a good soft-shoe.

One last thing while on the topic of home schooling and public education. Did you know that the world's largest and richest corporation, besides busting unions and offering low-wage, low-benefit jobs to the working poor, has been funneling all kinds of money to political action committees that are opposed to public education? Here are a few facts from an NEA article:

The Walton family dedicates the bulk of its philanthropy to pushing vouchers, tuition tax credits and charter schools, giving at least $250 million to such efforts over the past six years. (USA Today, 3/11/04)
Since 1998, the Walton Family Foundation has given more than $100 million to private organizations that finance vouchers to private schools, undermine support for public education, and are intended to increase political pressure for publicly funded vouchers. (
The late John Walton was the biggest paycheck in the anti-public education movement, providing tens of millions of dollars of his own money to support anti-public education ballot initiatives and organizations and sitting on the boards of the major pro-voucher organizations.

What can you do? My little family is boycotting Wal-Mart in favor of companies like Target and Staples, who generously support public schools across the country. In spite of all the problems in schools today, I sincerely believe that public education is the glue that holds our society together, as tenuous as that hold may be. For every Ricky and Brandon that drop out, there are also kids that are rescued from terrible situations and benefit greatly from their time in public schools.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Where's the Love?

The following is in response to Kevin Elmer's commentary in the News-Leader.

Kevin Elmer's one-sided and utterly simplistic commentary in Sunday's paper left me wondering when so-called "conservative Christians" will ever cut the rhetoric, take off the blinders and view the world around them.

Elmer builds a flimsy argument that Islamic radicals love death over life, while we in the U.S. prefer the inverse - and then neatly concludes that this Islamic fatalism is the big difference between them and us. They love death; we love life.

I would argue that many Americans, even devout Christians like Rev. Pat Robbertson, are quite selective about their love of life. It depends on whose life it is - or the stage of development. From conception to birth, we're all about the sanctity of life - but for babies being born into abject poverty, like many of those left behind in New Orleans, well, they're on their own. We build bigger and better prisons to house those kinds of people. They aren't really part of the economy. They are expendable. Nixon advisor Henry Kissinger called them "eaters".

Mr. Elmer also states that 9/11 was the event that "ensured that (Al Qaida) would grow beyond a small group into an inspired movement." He might recall that the entire civilized world condemned the 9/11 attacks and rallied to support the U.S. No, it was the misguided U.S. invasion of Iraq that most certainly boosted the rolls of Islamic fanaticism - virtually every Mideast leader cautioned the Bush Administration on this.

I do agree that the victims of the 9/11 attacks "were not soldiers armed to protect . . . they were innocent." But are the 25,000 Iraqi civilians who have died since the U.S. invasion of their country any less innocent? When asked about civilian casualties, an American general said, "We don't do body counts." Where's the love?

It's always great to hear somebody cheerleading about how the U.S. is the greatest nation in the world. USA! USA ! But right now, after the veneer has been stripped away in New Orleans and with the continuing death and destruction in Iraq, I don't think we're gaining many converts worldwide.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Used Syringes

Today was a first. I've lived in this neighborhood for 14 years, and although there are a few shady characters renting houses a few blocks east of here, it's always been a quiet neighborhood of dog-walkers and kids on bikes. Sure we have our share of teenagers in their baggy pants and slightly askew ball caps trying to look tough, but they're just kids. Right?

I was cleaning up some stuff in the yard today, picking up what people typically throw out of their cars - a couple of fast food cups, a plastic grocery bag. But the grocery bag had something in it. I opened it up and looked down on somebody's discarded meth kit . . . three syringes, one still had a few cc's left in it, and a couple of spoons.

After thinking about all the little kids that live next door and across the street, I decided to call the police. I didn't really think they could do much, but I figured it might confirm what they already suspected about a certain house - maybe a red flag that might get them patrolling the neighborhood more often. I guess that's a good thing. The nice lady on the phone told me SPD didn't send officers to pick up syringes anymore - too many calls, I suppose.

She told me to very carefully place the syringes and spoons in a milk carton or some closed container and throw it in the trash. (This caused me to think of Mayor Carlson's son, whose arrest we talked about a few months ago. One method of investigation the police used in that case was sifting through the suspect's trash. In fact, they did find seeds and stems that served as a basis for his arrest. Now, the nice police lady is telling me to go ahead and throw the syringes in my trash. I guess the police can tell you to throw drug paraphernalia away, and it's all okay. I think there might be a dusty old bong in the attic - might as well toss it in for good measure.)

But seriously, the discovery of this stuff laying in my yard was a little unsettling. I haven't told the neighbors yet. Children ages 11, 6, 5 and 2 live in homes surrounding the dumping spot. Imagine one of them pulling dirty syringes out of bag - gives me chills.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Drowning of New Orleans

The following snip is from Scientific American, October 2001:

New Orleans is a disaster waiting to happen. The city lies below sea level, in a bowl bordered by levees that fend off Lake Pontchartrain to the north and the Mississippi River to the south and west. And because of a damning confluence of factors, the city is sinking further, putting it at increasing flood risk after even minor storms. The low-lying Mississippi Delta, which buffers the city from the gulf, is also rapidly disappearing. A year from now another 25 to 30 square miles of delta marsh--an area the size of Manhattan--will have vanished. An acre disappears every 24 minutes. Each loss gives a storm surge a clearer path to wash over the delta and pour into the bowl, trapping one million people inside and another million in surrounding communities. Extensive evacuation would be impossible because the surging water would cut off the few escape routes. Scientists at Louisiana State University (L.S.U.), who have modeled hundreds of possible storm tracks on advanced computers, predict that more than 100,000 people could die. (end of snip)

While many thousands were evacuated, it makes you wonder . . . scientists have warned of this calamity for years, and yet the Army Corps of Engineers and federal officials did nothing to prepare for or avert a disaster of monumental proportions. Monster hurricane Andrew missed the Big Easy by a mere 100 miles in 1992, and in 1998 hurricane Georges was making a beeline for the city before veering just a few miles east at the last moment. Katrina veered a little at the end, as well, but the water surge following the storm broke two levees, and now we see the dreadful images that back up what scientists predicted years ago. (Now, about global warming . . . )

The human suffering going on down there is just unimaginable from our comfortable vantage point here in the Ozarks. These are the kinds of things that only happen in third world countries, right? The truth is, we've always had a hidden third world subsisting within our borders, and events like this only make that truth more evident. Have you seen the faces of the people trapped in the Superdome?

You can expect the rolls of the poor to continue to grow as the struggle to maintain a middle class becomes more and more difficult. The Louisiana coast supplies 1/5 of the nation's oil and 1/4 of its natural gas. We've already seen gas spike to $3 a gallon. Everybody feels this calamity, even here in Springfield.

And we were worried about terrorists.

The Words of a Prophet 2019 A.D.

Prophet of God I was called upon by God* today to visit a Christian church in Springfield, Missouri. I don't care if you don'...