Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Bring me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses...EXCEPT...

I'm getting a little sick by the treatment of not just our own children, but children around the world.  Here in the US, our inner cities are inundated with gun violence.  Death by gun has simply become a part of life for kids who live in places like Newark, East St. Louis, and Chicago.  In addition, guns in our schools have become common place.  Going into June, we were averaging over one school shooting a week (1.37 according to data from Everytown for Gun Safety).  Summer came just in time to see images of angry people at our southern border chasing traumatized children from Honduras and El Salvador away (my personal favorites were the woman who held a placard reading "Not My Kid, Not My Problem", and a man with one simply stating "Who Cares?").

When the Puritans set sail for the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, John Winthrop gave one of the most famous sermons in American history: "A Model of Christian Charity".  Many believe this sermon is the crux of what would become American Exceptionalism - an ideal where many Americans believe we are the example for the world.  It's no coincidence that the Puritans themselves were trying to escape a corrupt Church of England, and sought religious and moral freedom in the New World.  Basically, they were looking for a place where they could be themselves.  An image from Winthrop's sermon has become iconic in our national rhetoric: "For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill.  The eyes of all people are upon us."  That image of a shining city has been invoked by many politicians; most famously Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.  It presents us as a beacon of hope for the rest of the world to see.  Perhaps this is what served to inspire poet Emma Lazarus when she wrote:
Bring me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door

That poem would be placed at the base of the Statue of Liberty.  When you see what's going on with the children of Central America, and you see how we have been treating them...those words hurt.  When did we go from a nation of "Send them to us!" to a nation of "They're not our problem!"  In addition, I'm appalled by the treatment of our own children.  I was with friends recently, and the subject of my former student, who was shot and killed in June, came up.  Someone asked about the city of Newark and why it's so bad.  I answered with one single word: Poverty.  Before I could say something else, a woman (who claims to be a devout Christian) snarled "Well there shouldn't be any poverty!  God knows I'm paying enough of my damn money to those kids!"

I look at Newark and Honduras and I see the same thing: two places ravaged by corruption, drugs, gang violence and poverty.  That's pretty sad.  I also see two governments who have turned their backs on their children.  No decisions or policies are put in place anymore with children in mind - and that's not just here in the US.  It's gone global.  The personhood of corporations has taken precedent over that of our own kids.  The welfare of corporations, and their shareholders, takes priority over the welfare of our children.  Think about that for a minute.

In September of 1924 the Geneva Convention produced what it called "The Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child".  This was issued in the wake of World War I when the world, collectively, demonstrated what horrific destruction we were capable of.  In lieu of what was called The Great War, we all stepped back and realized our youngest and most vulnerable were truly our most important.  So much so, they deserved their own rights - separate from those of nations themselves.  Take a second to read them and ask yourself if our children are being afforded these rights.  You may be afraid to answer.

1.) The child must be given the means requisite for its normal development, both materially and spiritually.
2.) The child that is hungry must be fed; the child that is sick must be nursed; the child that is backward must be helped; the delinquent child must be reclaimed; and the orphan and the waif must be sheltered and secured.
3.) The child must be the first to receive relief in times of stress.
4.) The child must be put in position to earn a livelihood, and must be protected against every form of exploitation.
5.) The child must be brought up in the consciousness that its talents must be devoted to the service of fellow men.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Its Time to Make it Stop

Yesterday we had yet another school shooting.  This one came at a High School in Oregon and claimed the life of a freshman boy.  The shooter then took his own life.

In addition to this, yesterday at 3:30 PM the first student I met on my first day teaching in Newark was shot and killed.  He was 15 years old.  He was a sweet kid who used to come in before school so I could give him piano lessons.  I used to tell my wife about how this kid's smile would light up the room.  One year he asked if I would help him find a job.  He was a good kid who got caught up in the nonsense of our inner cities.

I'm tired of this.  I'm tired of watching our children die for useless reasons.  I'm tired of guns on the street, and inside of our schools.  I'm tired of the fact that we, the greatest country in the world, have created a mindset that seemingly allows this to continuously happen.  I'm tired of the fact that our society seems to not want to stop it.

Where the hell is the anger?  How can we collectively sit back and watch this happen?  President Obama stated yesterday that we are the only developed nation on earth allowing this violence to continue.  Right now the US is averaging around one (1) school shooting a week.  That's insane.

When I met with my mentor group in Newark last Friday, I asked them to make a list of their best characteristics.  Of all the young men in the room five out of five included "I'm smart" as one of them.  They believe in themselves and want something better.

Let's get the guns off the streets and out of our culture.  Let's make our schools and neighborhoods safe for our kids.  Let's make this a priority so our smart, beautiful kids can grow up in an equally beautiful world.

RIP Couba

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Throwing Money at Everything But Poverty

There is an article in New Yorker magazine this week about Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million dollar pledge to Newark Public Schools.  The article talks about how the money is pretty much gone and despite this fact, NPS still rank at the bottom in terms of performance.  The piece also mentions how the issue of poverty was never tackled with any of the appropriated funds that Zuckerberg pledged.  What most of the money ($20 million) went to was consulting firms, public relations (?), and data analysis.  Many of the consultants hired were paid a thousand dollars a day.  What is there to show for it?

I have written here a lot about the effects of poverty on children.  This is the one issue that no one seems to want to discuss.  Being poor and/or jobless does terrible things to an adult's self esteem.  Imagine what it does to a child?  I can tell you (because I've seen it) that it does horrific things.  Too many of the the children in Newark (and other American inner-cities) come to school hungry, dirty, stressed, and with an incredible sense of low self esteem, and this is all because of poverty.  You can take a billionaire like Mark Zuckerberg, have him throw millions of dollars at a problem school district like Newark, but if you don't address poverty and joblessness...what's the point?

Part of me is cynical when I read how people like Mr. Zuckerberg throw money at Newark.  I look at what's going on with poor people in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, and how housing prices are driving them - literally - onto the street.  Zuckerberg's Newark gesture was grand, but what about beyond that?  Was the gesture based in philanthropy or making sure his tax rate doesn't increase?  The young billionaires in that region of the country seem less concerned with the poor than they do about getting a Tesla, and they have our government in the palms of their hands.  What do they know or care about poor people in our inner-cities?

I go to my old school in Newark and meet with two groups of young men/boys just to talk with them and see what's going on in their lives.  Two weeks ago one of them had a bandanna around his neck with a picture of a young girl and the letters "RIP" printed on it.  When I asked him what it was, he told me it was his tribute to a friend who had been shot and killed.  This boy is 14 - the same age as my son.  That same week another boy told me how his weekends are spent inside his house.  He goes home on Friday and pretty much stays there for the next two days.  When I asked him why he said "I don't wanna get shot."

These boys live ten miles away from me and, yet, their lives are vastly different than my children.  Why?  Why can't we fix this problem?  Maybe it's time for people like Mark Zuckerberg to give money directly to people on the inside.  People like teachers, coaches, community leaders, and churches.  These are the people who are with these children every day and see the effects that poverty has.  We also see the faces of young people who could very well be the next Mark Zuckerberg...if they're given a chance.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A Little Bit Goes A Long Way

I left my school in Newark back in 2012, but I never really "left".  I stayed in touch with my old teacher friends, and went to visit the school regularly.  Last summer the ruling in the George Zimmerman case was handed down regarding his shooting of Trayvon Martin.  As we all know, Zimmerman was found "not guilty" and this pissed me off.

In that time period I thought a lot about my old students.  Far too many of them are not aware of who they are or who they can be.  I saw too many of them in Trayvon Martin, and the thought of these bright young men going down the wrong road or being on the wrong end of a gun made me sick.  I decided to do something.  Last Friday I returned to my old school in the capacity of a mentor.  I will be going every Friday to just sit with some of the boys and talk to them.  My goal is to make them aware of their potential, and keep them on the right track.

Last week I saw two old students, and they made me so proud.  The last time I went to visit, these two were not doing so well (one was under house arrest and wearing an ankle bracelet).  But after sitting and eating lunch with them, I soon discovered they were back on track.  At the end of lunch they even expressed concern about another classmate, and asked me to speak to him.  This boy is in a bad way, but the fact that two others wanted me to help him says something.

I sat down with the other boy, and I could see the frustration in his eyes.  He looked tired and almost worn down.  This is a fourteen year-old child.  To my shock, he remembered my name - even though I had not seen him in two years.  I asked how he was doing and he shrugged.  Conversation did not come easy.  Finally at the end, I got a glimmer of hope, when I asked "Do you want to sit and talk next Friday?" he looked right at me and nodded yes.  Clearly he needs someone.

If I can help those three boys, that would be great.  That's my goal: Three.  If I can get more...?  It would be unreal, but I have to start slow.  Just saying a few kind words, and letting these young, black men know someone cares could change their lives.

We'll see...

Friday, February 28, 2014

Step One

Yesterday President Obama held a press conference to announce the launch of My Brother' Keeper, a Federal program aimed at giving young American men of color more opportunity.  In essence, this program is about building up young black and Latino men - something that has needed to happen for decades in our country.

President Obama spoke candidly and emotionally about his own experiences.  How he grew up without a father, and the subsequent anger and frustration he felt.  These emotions led to his making of "bad choices" and "...not taking school as seriously as I should have".  The biggest statement he made was "Sometimes I sold myself short."  These were powerful words from a man of color - the first to be elected President.  What made it even better was he stated these things with a group of young black and Latino men standing behind him.

This is a great first step.  When I was teaching in Newark I was an eyewitness to the anger and frustration the boys and young men in my school had.  I had countless conversations with them in my classroom about their lives.  Many told me about fathers in jail or who were just absent.  The ones who did have men in their lives didn't just differ emotionally and intellectually, but also physically.  It was unreal.

My Brother's Keeper is a first step.  President Obama himself said "It's going to take time.  We're dealing with complicated issues that run deep in our history, run deep in our society, and are entrenched in our minds."  In addition to complicated issues faced by our young men of color, there is also poverty as well as mass incarceration.  Trying to get a handle on improving self esteem as well as responsibility and potential, again, is a great first step.

We will see what happens.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

What Are the Most Important Things?

According to section one of the Fourteenth Amendment:
"All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.  No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of the law; nor deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

If you notice, the word "person" appears three times within the text.  That word is key as it caused much debate in the post-Civil War era.  What is a "person"?  Who is a "person"?  When you read that you tend to think of a "person" as someone like you - a living, breathing human with a job and/or hopes, dreams and goals.  Perhaps you have a family or a wife.  Maybe you have neither and are single.  If you do have a family, they are also "persons" and therefore are entitled to the same rights listed above.  What you may have not known is that corporations are "persons" as well.  They, like you, are entitled to the privileges and immunities that we - the citizens of the US - are.  This means that Walmart, Goldman Sachs, and Citigroup are, in the eyes of the Constitution, "persons" like you and me.  This is known as "corporate personhood".

This is a strange thing.  A corporation like Goldman Sachs (as one example) has access to teams of lawyers and, I'm assuming, much more money than most people reading (or writing) this.  They also have access to lobby groups, "super pacs" and government officials just because of the aforementioned money and legal professionals.  This means that, at the end of the day, corporations have many more rights and liberties than the average "person" here in the United States, and they have taken significant advantage of this.  They are now the most important "persons" in this country.  They control the media, due process of law, our electoral process, our system of government, and the food and drugs we put into our bodies.  Now, they also want to control our schools.

On February 27th, 2012 there was a shooting at Chardon High School in Ohio.  An assistant football coach and teacher named Frank Hall is credited with saving the lives of many students that day.  He chased the gunman out of the cafeteria and into the parking lot preventing further shootings.  He then went back into the school to comfort three young male students who had been shot as they lay dying on the floor.  Frank Hall stated recently: "We need to make a stand right now that our schools are the most important things we have in this country, not Wall Street, not Capitol Hill, our schools.  We need to determine that in our minds and heart that our school and our children need to be the most important thing we have.  That's the bottom line."

Sorry Goldman Sachs, but Frank Hall is correct.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Made In Their Own Image

In the latest issue of Time magazine the cover depicts the back of a graduate's head with the words "Just Hired" taped to her mortarboard.  The accompanying headline reads The Diploma That Works.

The cover story is about Sarah Goode High School on Chicago's South Side, which is a very poor section of the city.  The South Side is also infested with gang violence as well as failing schools.  Sarah Goode is new in many ways including the fact that it is a six year school.  The students take courses that focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) classes and when they graduate, they do so not just with a diploma, but also an Associates Degree.  This is an amazing idea as well as a way to get kids in our inner cities out into the world earning money using skills that are severely lacking.

There is just one problem: Sarah Goode is a school whose "corporate partner" is IBM.

I don't have a problem with inner city kids being educated in ways that will accommodate our economy.  In fact, I am gung ho on the idea.  How ever, I must ask the question: Why can't state, and/or  Federal education create these schools and programs?  Why does corporate money have to be involved?  How deep does IBM's influence run?  Do they mandate the curriculum?  Do they sell books and materials directly to the school?

The idea of six year High School is not new.  In fact, there has been a rallying cry in terms of the way we are educating our kids for the future.  But again I have to ask: Why do corporations need to be involved?  As I stated yesterday, Newark Public Schools are now embroiled in the issue surrounding the fate of their public schools.  Superintendent Cami Anderson (along with Gov. Christ Christie) is attempting to turn the entire district into a "public charter" system.  Like Chicago, they have committed financial help from a corporation: the Walton Family Foundation who own Walmart.

Back in 2010 Rupert Murdoch's News Corp (owner of Fox news) hired former New York City School's Chancellor Joel Klein.  A few weeks later, News Corp purchased Wireless Generation - a New York based education technology company.  Murdoch has stated his "interest" in helping improve public education, but in the wake of the Wireless Generation deal he also stated "When it comes to education, we see a $500 billion dollar sector alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed..."  In other words, he sees dollar signs.

Do we want corporations making American kids in their own image?  Large corporations already run our government through special interest and Lobby groups.  They have their grubby fingers all over our electoral process and have ruined our media.  Now they want to run our education system?  I thought we were supposed to be a country of free thinkers and innovators.  The men and women who built this country were rebels at heart who also chose to color outside the lines and think outside the box.  Now Rupert Murdoch is telling our kids what to study?  Do you want Walmart - a company who won't pay American citizens a living wage and imports most of its inventory from overseas - shaping the curriculum of our children?  And while IBM has a massive amount of insight into what skills are needed today, that doesn't mean I want them walking the hallways of our schools making sure the "individuals" who come out are cookie cutter and ready to go to work...for them.  How do we know that IBM or Walmart or News Corp won't make our schools "too big to fail" and then threaten to pull their money unless we adhere to their standards?

This is all getting a little too Big Brother for me.