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What Ferguson Says to Me

newI don’t normally proofread my posts more then once or twice, but talking about race in America is always a bit tricky, so this time I’ve done it a number of times. You always need to parse your words because few will give the benefit of the doubt. If you are African American you don’t want people thinking you’re angry, if you’re white you don’t want people thinking you are racist and if you’re Latino or Asian then you fight to get included in the conversation. That last statement alone will probably get me in trouble because we can’t seem to have a discussion about race without a heightened level of sensitivity. It makes an honest conversation extremely difficult, and something I wouldn’t normally attempt, but the events in Ferguson have moved me to take the risk.

I grew up a military brat and was around low income multi-cultural kids from birth. To me the idea that people would make judgments about other people based on the color of their skin is about the most ludicrous thing I can think of. Growing up and even now with friends, stereotypes are often traded as jokes among friends. Some of the comments are as biting as possible with no mercy shown by any of the participants, black, white or brown. Still there is always an undercurrent of sensitivity beneath it. A sadness that even such material exists. I can remember a time in high school, the jokes between a black friend and myself  went a little far and feelings got hurt. I learned that day that jokes are sometimes just thin Band-Aids over gaping wounds. A lesson that’s been ingrained in me since.

It seems that with each subsequent generation racism becomes less of an issue, yet institutional racism keeps a firm hold. When you start looking at statistics and really talking to people its easy to feel that in some ways we haven’t made any progress. Look at our schools, we’re still trying to find new ways to segregate them. The incarceration rates and death by violence rates of our young black men are mind numbing. Unemployment figures further continue to illustrate the point. Though I do believe institutional racism is more about poverty and keeping the impoverished divided then it is about denying one race or another their rights. It keeps those without focusing on their differences rather then their similarities and then demanding their fair share of the pie.

All my life I hear people say, “Do you know what its like to be arrested just for being white?”. I always answer with a, “Yes I do.” As a young long hair in the south I spent the night in jail for being white. I came out of a bar at 1 AM joking with a friend who was coming in and the police car that was passing by locked up the breaks and had me cuffed in the back seat before I could say, “Yes Sir!”. The next couple of hours were pretty uncomfortable. I was cold, someone offered to buy my sneakers, I was hungry, it was pretty much how those TFA corp members described their night in jail in Ferguson. I’ll never forget the words relayed to me when I was released the next morning, “Tell that Yankee he best watch himself down here.”

I also spent 8 days one time in Metro Jail which gave me a little insight into what it feels like when you don’t look like the people with power. I remember voicing some concern of mine to a guard who responded by telling me, “That’s no concern of mine. Not my job. My job is making sure your skinny little white ass stays alive while you are in here.” Message received loud and clear. I too have been followed in stores by people who took my long hair and leather jacket as a threat. So while I won’t pretend to understand what it feels like to live with that judgment based on the color of your skin, I’ve got a glimpse. Its also a reminder that we need to judge people on their individual experience as much as their collective experience.

As an involved citizen, I watch events unfold nightly on TV, and have to ask why do we only pay attention to these communities when tragedy strikes? There are 100’s of communities like Ferguson across the country. Paterson, New Jersey, Gary Indiana, Cuyahoga County, Ohio, Wayne County Michigan, all are similar. Suburban communities with large non-white populations and high levels of poverty. We are content to let people live in these environments without ever addressing the effects let alone the roots. When violence explodes like its pre-destined to, we latch on and use it to drive our own personal agenda.

Whether its racism, militarization of the police, poverty or whatever rings for us, we pick up the slogan flag and raise it high. We wave it as if our rage alone can solve the issue. How much greater an impact would we have if we actually had these conversations before people were dead and things were burning? What if we made an effort to have a discussion about what our governing boards looked like before they were in a defensive mode? These conversations never take place till tragedy forces us into the ring and even then all we do is retreat to our separate corners and read our lines like actors in a Shakespearean play. Then the tragedy plays out its life span and we retreat to our cocoons till the next incident. Meanwhile after the camera’s leave the citizens of these towns are left to try and put it all together in a town were nothings really changed except the relationships are all just a bit more fractured.

The most alarming thing to me about all of this is the apparent loss of faith in our public institutions. When something like Ferguson takes place we don’t for one minute believe the police, the courts, or any other civic body will do the right thing. We instantly treat them as if they are enemy combatants. We never consider for one minute that this incident may have been the result of one tired, scared police officer who when placed in a situation that would test him, failed miserably. Instead it instantly becomes about the racist militarized police force. There are certainly shortcomings in our institutions but this is not a healthy place for a democracy to live.

The only way this whole democracy thing works is if we all buy into the institutions we have collectively created. We have to believe  that our courts are just. That our leaders have our interests at heart. That the police are there to serve and protect. At this point in our history I’m not sure that the majority of us can say that. We’ve spent decades tearing at out institutions with out ever putting effort into making them stronger and now when we need them they are powerless. This is on all of us.

Did we really think that there would be no consequences to painting teachers as selfish and lazy while creating separate schools because the public ones weren’t equipped to serve us? We constantly talk about the militarization of the police but never once do we discuss the militarization of criminal element. We notarize the politicians that lie and cheat but rarely celebrate the ones that work as true public servants. We are taught to question everything but perhaps the better lesson would be to question everything but make sure you bring some possible solutions.  This lack of faith in our institutions is going to leave us in a very precarious position.

As I watch events unfold, I can’t help but ask, what’s the end game. Will arresting and prosecuting the police officer quell the violence? Will firing every police officer and council member improve lives? Do we marginalize a different group in order elevate the one that was previously marginalized? At the end of the day unless we take collective action before the burning starts we are only doomed to repeat it. Unless we rebuild our trust in our public institutions we won’t have them to lean on when needed. It’s got to be an investment by all of us.

Personally, I believe that a renewed commitment to our public education system would go a long way to restoring faith in our democratic institutions. Show children that the collective matters and that we are all in this from the beginning and they’ll carry that forth into adulthood. Support our teachers and invest in our schools. Stop painting public servants with the broad stroke of being lazy, corrupt and filled with self interest. Maybe I’m wrong but all I have to do is turn on the TV to see that what we are doing now is not working.




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First Day of School

photo (106)It seemed like just yesterday we were bringing my daughter Avery home from the hospital for the first time and now it was time to send her off to her very first day of kindergarten. Time had literally flown by, but I wasn’t concerned, I was under the misconception that this was going to be an easy day. After all she’s been in day care since she was 6 weeks old. This would be the same, just sending her to a different building. So why was my stomach in such knots?

Avery had been blessed to attend a day care or as we referred to it, school, practically since birth. We were fortunate that we had found one that offered great care and instruction and allowed her to be surrounded by a great group of kids for five years. When we dropped her and her brother off in the morning we always knew she was going to be in a safe environment, surrounded by teachers that loved her and would always look out for her best interests. We had frequent interactions with the staff and it was always apparent that my daughter was getting a strong curriculum that included lots of play time.

In April we enrolled Avery in the school near where her mother taught. We were very excited by the upcoming transition, but as the summer stretched on and we didn’t hear anything from our school district, it began to dawn on me. This was not going to be a continuation of past experience. This was going to be completely unique. We were now part of something much bigger and it was a little unnerving.

School was about three weeks from starting and we still hadn’t heard anything since about a month prior when Avery tested into the gifted program, so I called. “Why no Mr. Weber. She’s not on the roster? Where did you enroll her?” Those were the words that started two days of phone calls and emails that ended abruptly when she was suddenly on the roster. Yes, we were now suddenly part of a much larger system that would take a bit to learn to navigate.

That’s one of the things I think parents need to keep in mind, and I needed to remind myself. Public school systems are massive organizations with multiple moving parts. Its very easy to feel like your concerns are not being addressed. We just need to be patient and stay after it. While we are cutting some slack to the school system though, the school system needs to work on its user friendliness. Too often the pursuit of innovation leads to the neglect of the fundamental. Executing fundamental operations is every bit as important as innovating, yet nobody ever talks about that aspect. I wonder what the narrative would be on a school that had very little innovation but through execution consistently had high test scores. Would they be celebrated alongside the innovators?

Two days before school we attended an open house. We found out who Avery’s teacher was and where her classroom would be. Its funny, when you picture a kindergarten teacher you always picture them to be exceptionally warm and fuzzy. Avery’s was not but several trusted sources spoke of her as a high quality teacher. Once again pre-conception and reality were clashing. The important thing was Avery liked her and felt comfortable with her.

There was a bit of talk about “data” and “having her writing sentences by Christmas”. I explained that I thought that would be wonderful but I wasn’t putting to much stock in benchmarks. The biggest thing I was looking for from this year was for Avery to  get bit by the learning bug. I wanted her to establish a base of excitement for learning new skills at whatever pace. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times, we are trying to raise life time learners not benchmark masters.

The first day arrived and Avery was extremely excited. She’d even taken the time to make an “I love you” card for her teacher. We got her dressed in her uniform and strapped on her little back pack. After posing for some commemorative pictures, we loaded up as a family and headed off to school. As we walked her to her classroom amongst all the other little children the enormity of it all started to hit me and the realization was a little staggering. I really started to understand what it meant to send your child to a public school, one that had a high poverty and EL population. I’ll admit I started feeling some self doubt.

Its not a secret that I’m a huge supporter of public schools. I believe that they are learning labs for our whole society and therefore they should reflect that society. The lessons learned outside of the classroom are just as important as what’s learned in the classroom. It’s my view that we are stronger as a nation when all children attend public schools. Those make fine intellectual thoughts but the reality of what that means in relation to your 5 year old child is a whole lot different. I’m ashamed to admit that for a couple minutes I allowed fear to take root in the pit of my stomach.

That’s the beauty of our public education system though. It is not there just to educate the child. Our schools serve as a vehicle to educate the community as well. Under a system designed by reformers I could send my child to a charter or private school where everybody looked like her and had the same economic background and all the while spout off about diversity and how important culture is. It wouldn’t be honest though and it wouldn’t help my child and I grow. Public Schools force me to confront my fears and dispel them.

Public schools make us interact and learn to overcome our prejudices’. Trust me I don’t like for one second admitting that I have a moments hesitation in placing my child in a truly diverse environment. It doesn’t jibe with the narrative I’ve created for myself, but if I’m truly going to raise my child to be the best person possible its important to show them that we all have misconceptions and unfounded fears that we need to conquer. I guarantee that when Avery leaves for middle school in six years I will have a completely different perspective. That’s the beauty of public education.

I had lunch with the local head of Teach for America last year and she made a statement that resonated with me. She said its important for wealthier white parents to remember that the poorer child of color is not in the school to be your child’s cultural experience. When I initially heard that I agreed and thought it was an important tenet to remember. After spending several months reflecting on it, I disagree. That child is there in part to be a cultural experience for my child and my child for that child. They are going to need that experience in order to keep a future society functioning in unity and not further stratifying. Denying that as part of a child’s education reduces the role of public schools to just factories for teaching measurable skills. It plays right into the privateers argument.

Avery had a good first day. She learned a lot from her new teacher. She made several new friends, some with names she couldn’t pronounce but she’ll learn to. She was especially fond of being able to go to the cafeteria and choose her own lunch. They won’t all be this good though. I anticipate that she’ll have some bad days in the future. That’s all right because that’s how we grow. Growth is seldom possible without discomfort.

Schools should be a reflection of life. There are days that are filled with joy and there are days of self doubt. There are days that we practice our vocabulary skills and there are days we hone our problem solving skills. I reflect back to days when I thought I wasn’t  learning a single thing only to now realize the importance of what was being taught. Public Schools are big, messy, cumbersome frustrating entities but then so is democracy and both are essential to a high quality life. In that spirit, I  just want to take a moment before we head out on this journey together to give a big thank you to Avery’s current teacher and principal and her future ones. Its only been a couple of days but I think she’s in pretty good hands and I wouldn’t want her anywhere else.