Tuesday, September 18, 2012

I'm Tired of Elephants

I'm tired of elephants. Everyone's always talking about 'the elephant in the room'. In the current debate over who's right and who's Darth Vader in the Chicago public education system everyone thinks they've got the elephant pegged. 'The elephant is poverty!' declare some. 'The elephant in the room is greed,' intone others. 'It's not about money. It's about the children!' Some are wont to suffer alongside more than one elephant.

All of that is horseradish.

The elephant, if we must, is that we don't care. We may care for a few minutes on Facebook this week. We care if someone challenges whether or not we care. But, really, we don't care and it shows. How do I know? Because the problem - the afterthought prioritization of public education - has persisted. It is a solvable problem that remains generation after generation.

We don't care about poor children or black children or special needs children. We don't care if their little faces get red and their necks get sweaty in a 90+ degree classroom. We don't care if they get restless with no time to stretch or run in a six-hour day. We don't care if they sit in a hallway on the floor. We don't care if the bathroom smells like urine and sewage and we don't care if there are gangs waiting outside the school gates. If we cared, that room would be air-conditioned, that recess would be scheduled, that classroom would be staffed and stocked, that bathroom would be repaired and cleaned and that perimeter around the school would be safe to walk. This is not complicated stuff - richest nation on earth and all that jazz.

But let's call it what it is, please. The face we put on public education in Chicago is an entitled, grammatically challenged teacher with a disheveled, Cheetoh-fingertipped student, and parents who neither speak nor care to speak proper English. That is the truth.

Except it's not the truth. That isn't the teacher and those aren't the children and I'm not that mom.

Those teachers speak eloquently, train passionately and work relentlessly. Those children aspire, even at the youngest ages; they carry heavy backpacks so they can do their homework; they get butterflies before tests and their parents - I - have dreams for them, just like you have for yours. Those babies don't want to go into a stinky bathroom, they're afraid of those gangbangers and they want to read good books. So what are we going to do about that?

When the strike has ended and in order for this debate over public education to have meaning we really don't need parades of red downtown or posters or press conferences. We need to care and we need to care after today. We need to attend Local School Council meetings and Board of Education meetings and we need to stay, even when the meetings are boring. We need to pay attention to how budgets are written and ask ourselves if public education is getting the priority and forcing the accountability we want. We need to vote for policymakers who will make that happen and who will really address poverty and crime in the city. We need to not be afraid to ask questions. The folks in charge, clearly, are not smarter than us. They don't know more than we do and they don't matter more than we do in the conversation. If our goal is truly to create a system for public education that will serve as an example for others to follow - taking those poor, minority, troubled (and many perfectly average) children and opening the world to them, possible, reachable, real - we can do it!

But first, and most desperately, we need to shoo the elephant out of the room. We need to care.

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