IN SEARCH OF THE ELUSIVE WHITE WHALE

“If you’re going to lead people, you have to have somewhere to go.”
S.E. Hinton, Rumble Fish

“It is simple to follow the easy and familiar path of personal ambition and private gain. It is more comfortable to sit content in the easy approval of friends and of neighbours than to risk the friction and the controversy that comes with public affairs. It is easier to fall in step with the slogans of others than to march to the beat of the internal drummer – to make and stand on judgements of your own. And it far easier to accept and to stand on the past, than to fight for the answers of the future”
Daniel Webster

I was 35 years old when I got sober. Looking back, it seems like such a young age to have to put the plug in the jug. But there was little doubt that the time was right.

Now 20 years in, I still reflect back on those early days of sobriety and the lessons learned. Despite recognizing the need, I didn’t initially embrace the sober life. I was angry. It didn’t seem fair that I needed to make changes while others were given a pass. Of course I failed to remember how many passes I’d been given, but that was another conversation.

Getting sober required changing my thinking and letting go of misconceptions that I clung to like tar to your feet on a hot day. The biggest of those misconceptions being my uniqueness.

Up until my mid-thirties, I was convinced that I was unique and share little with the general population of the world. Nobody felt the things I did. My highs were higher, my pains were sharper – no one could relate, because no one was like me. I used my perceived uniqueness to rationalize my behavior.

It was about my sixth week of sobriety and I found myself in a Saturday morning AA meeting over at 202. Those of you not familiar with Nashville, or AA, probably never heard of 202, but it was one of those old school meeting houses a couple blocks off of the Vanderbilt University campus. Being back in the day, meaning you could smoke in a meeting,. As a result, the walls were stained permanent nicotine yellow and the stench of tobacco was ever-present, a by-product of the chain-smoking addicts seeking recovery. It wasn’t pretty but it brought comfort.

It was a 10 AM meeting, and so I wasn’t fully alert. There were about 10 of us in the room, none of whom seemed relatable to me. I lit a cigarette, leaned back, and let my thoughts dissipate with the smoke. The sound of my fellow attendees sharing their stories faded into the background. I was marking time until the hour was up.

Suddenly I heard a phrase that struck a familiar note. I started to reel my attention back in. Words were being spoken that described exactly what was going on inside me. I was puzzled, had somebody new joined the circle when I was tuned out. Because none of the previous members could possibly share the same thoughts and feelings with me. The more that was said, the more I connected with their story.

My eyes settled on the woman in her 50’s who was sharing. A black woman who had not only raised children but was now a grandmother.  A ven diagram of our lives would show very few external overlaps, inside though we were remarkably similar. The fears, the desires, the worries, the joys, all of a similar nature. It was like a crack in the ceiling that suddenly let the in the sunshine. At that moment I came to a realization that should have always been clear, but for some reason wasn’t – outwardly we were all different but internally the similarities far outnumbered the differences.

That recognition suddenly made my path easier. I was able to draw strength from people whom in the past I’d separated my struggles from theirs. By focusing on the similarities instead of the differences, I was able to draw wisdom from their stories. Suddenly I wasn’t alone anymore, I was on a road filled with like travelers, drawing strength from their numbers. Without this epiphany, I don’t know that I’d be sober today.

I share this story because to me it relates to literacy, and the continual argument over what books kids should read. There are those that argue that the classics should be discarded because they are no longer relatable to young readers. Moby Dick is obsolete because it’s a novel about whale hunting written by an old white guy. To the young urban reader of color, there is supposedly no reflection of themself in the story. And if taken at face value, that argument may hold true.

But the classics are not considered classics based solely on the level of writing, but rather because of their expression of the universal human experience. Sure most readers will never hunt whales in their lives, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be consumed by obsessions and subject to the detriments that accompany those feelings. An unattainable pair of sneakers is no different than the fixation a rare white whale – both bring similar emotions and pitfalls for the pursuer.

Good fiction does more than hold up a mirror to the individual. It shows our connectivity, both to each other and the past. Through James Fennimore Cooper, I learned that for centuries people have sought adventure and struggled with the melding of cultures. Mark Twain revealed that I wasn’t the only one struggling with the definition of a friend. Hemmingway revealed that the longing of youth was not just something that beat inside of me. And the list goes on, the value of literacy is its ability to illuminates our universality regardless of wealth, color, or creed.

The best writing of today accomplishes a similar feat. When I read The Hate U Give, it illuminates that I’m not the only one who feels the need to be a certain kind of person depending on who I’m with and longs to live as authentically as possible. Refugee reminds me that all of us are looking for a place to call home. Again, the list goes on.

Reading just one kind of book raises the risk of thinking only one kind of person feels like me. Look around and it rapidly apparent that these days we can ill afford that kind of thinking. We need to tear down walls, instead of erecting silos. To that end, the classics need to hold a place next to contemporary fiction., and contemporary fiction shouldn’t be dismissed as an inferior form of literacy. Both have lessons to teach.

Some may begrudgingly agree but raise the argument that time is too short, and capacity too limited, to waste on reading the less obvious choices. I’d counter that by saying, it shouldn’t be about the quantity. Sometimes it only takes one.

My mind didn’t suddenly spring open that Saturday morning because of 50 conversations, but rather that one voice cutting through my haze. The same holds true for literature. That one book, be it contemporary or classic, has the potential to unlock a door to a whole new thought process. But if you never crack it, because of preconceptions, you’ll never know.

WHAT PEOPLE CLING TO

Speaking of Moby Dick, it seems that Governor Bill Lee has adopted voucher legislation as his own white whale, doggedly pursuing implementation with little care towards cost or quality. This week he indicated that despite the ongoing pandemic, the state attorney generals singular focus would be on clearing legal obstacles to voucher implementation. In doing so he is placing priority on legislation that only effects 2 state municipalities while nearly half a million Tennesseans are out of work and reporting massive issues with the state unemployment insurance system. I’m hearing from state legislators that they are spending hours every day helping constituents receive benefits, yet the governor’s focus remains on fighting the courts over his personal agenda.

Yesterday paperwork was filed with the state’s supreme court to have them take over the case, and allow Tennessee to continue with implementation while the court’s review was pending. In one of their motions, the state argues,

“Losing the ability to offer those new opportunities for a full school year would constitute very real — and totally irreparable — harm for the State, let alone the students, parents, and schools participating in the ESA Program.” 

Under normal circumstances that statement may warrant consideration, but considering that we currently have no idea of what schools will look like come August the statement becomes completely moot. Furthermore, the Governor’s dogged pursuit comes with a cost that hinders the district’s ability to ensure that very real – and totally irreparable harm isn’t done to all of Tennessee’s students, not just a select few. Out of one side of his mouth, the governor voices concern for the 683 students that have completed applications and thus could be inconvenienced, yet he’s poised to deliver a double financial blow to the other 200k plus students who attend MNPS and SCPS.

Earlier in the week, his commissioner of education, Penny Schwinn, announced that the state would be following the recommendation of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and require districts to disperse funds to private schools based on total attendance as opposed to using the Title 1 model desired by Congress.  A position that raised the eyebrows of US Senator Lamar Alexander,

My sense was that the money should have been distributed in the same way we distributed Title I money. I think that’s what most of Congress was expecting.”

The move takes millions of dollars out of the hands of the states neediest schools and places it in the hands of private school operators, including those run by religious organizations. I’m still looking for what page in the Bible blesses that course of action. Pretty sure that there is not a verse that says, “taketh from the poorest and giveth to those with more in order to privitize the common good.”

Should the State Supreme Court rule in Lee’s favor, the state will rob public schools of even more money come the fall, through the quick implementation of vouchers. I am loathed to use the word “immoral” when engaged in policy debate, but in light of present circumstances, I think it is appropriate.

The  TDOE defends the following of DeVos’s advice by asserting that it “is one of the assurances that we as a state sign and agree to in order to accept these funds.” Not all states see it that way, Indiana has indicated that they will ignore DeVos and instead adhere to Congress’ intent. As communicated via email by Republican State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick,

This final decision ensures that the funds are distributed according to Congressional intent and a plain reading of the law, which prioritizes communities and schools with high-poverty who are at most risk and in need of the additional funds.

In addition, the recently released guidance from the U.S. Department of Education counters the President’s Executive Order. According to the Indiana Attorney General’s Office, “the guidance issued by the [U.S.] Department of Education is just that, guidance.”

Since announcing of the availability of the funds via the COVID-19 CARES Act, the TDOE has framed the process as one of application and approval. In reading the grant requirements per the bill, it’s clear that the application process was not intended to have guidelines, but not to be an overly rigorous one. Congress, it appears, recognized the dire need of our schools and took steps to get them aid as quick as possible.

DeVos and Schwinn have interpreted their role as being that of gatekeepers, a role not assigned by congress. Worse, they decided their personal agenda should take precedence over legislators’ intentions. When it comes to the Tennessee Department of Education that shouldn’t sound unfamiliar to anyone.

Even more concerning is the lack of guidance provided by the TDOE to LEA’s around the application process. LEA’s have one year to use the money, yet they’ve received no clear guidance on what the application process will look like. Last Sunday, an informational video was uploaded to the department’s web site but was quickly taken down and, and as best as I can tell, has yet to be replaced.

This week, Eve Carney, the state’s chief districts and school officer, told superintendents that Tennessee expects to submit its application this week. I’m assuming that got done, but based on the 30-day approval process afforded the USDOE, it could be June before funds are even released to the state. It’s been my experience that submitting paperwork right before a 3-day holiday does little to expedite the process, which means that Tennessee could be bumping up against the 4th of July as well, further delaying the release of funds until mid-summer. Not good when schools are expected to reconvene at the end of July amid a plethora of unknown challenges.

As a side note, I find the image of Commissioner Schwinn and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos marching in lockstep amusing in light of the extraordinary efforts the former has undertaken in order to never be in the same room with the later during her previous Tennessee visits. Schwinn’s antics in avoidance are the stuff of legends around the halls of the TDOE. It’ll be interesting to see how she’ll avoid posing for a picture with the Secretary should a request for an image of cooperation be put forth.

MNPS BUDGET

Yesterday MNPS presented their proposed 2020/2021 budget to the Mayor’s office. The public was invited to view proceedings which were conducted via a digital platform. In the past I’ve viewed this process, but yesterday I did not. For the most part the event is an opportunity for political gamesmanship and grandstanding by politicians. I’ll review the presentation this weekend and share any observations.

However, around the budget, there are several points that bear reiteration. First of all, it was revealed that MNPS is on the hook for roughly 5 million dollars in costs associated with feeding families in recent weeks due to the pandemic. That is unconscionable. MNPS should be commended for taking on a task that should have been the responsibility of others, not penalized. If Metro Government refuses to assume the financial cost than surely a private entity can help erase that debt. However it happens, that tab needs to be covered by someone other than MNPS.

The budget presented yesterday is approximately $15 million higher than what Mayor Cooper has indicated he is willing to dedicate to schools. Board members, after hearing Dr. Battle and her team’s presentation earlier in the week, chose to fight for the additional monies out of an agreed-upon necessity. Hopefully the Mayor will agree as well.

As predicted, there is no additional money in the budget for new ELA textbooks. There is a little wriggle room though. Last year’s budget included just under 4 million dollars dedicated to purchasing textbooks. Since, per maintenance of effort rules, this budget can’t be less than last year, that money should be available this year. That number is about a third of what was projected to be needed this year. The specter of private money being available for textbook purchases has hovered throughout the Spring. That said, I would offer caution in using private money without full vetting, as it usually comes with strings attached.

Over the next month the mayor and council will continue budget conversations with a final verdict being delivered by July 1.

RANDOM HITS

Thursday marked the official last day of school and most parents spent it retrieving items from their children’s schools. It was an odd way to say good-bye but by all accounts a relatively smooth one. Teachers, as they have throughout the last couple of months, did their best to provide students and their families as much closure as possible.

May is usually the time to hand out individual accolades to teachers. This year was no different as MNPS announced a record-setting list of Blue Ribbon Teachers. Congratulations to this year’s deserving winners.

This year the state of Indiana decided that they wouldn’t have just one “Teacher of the Year”, but rather 65K. They chose to recognize the collective work of all in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.

“The COVID-19 pandemic brought new complexities and challenges to schools with no advance warning,” said State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. “Teachers across our state have displayed a level of flexibility and commitment, underscoring the fact Hoosiers really are #INthisTogether.”

Tennessee teachers have done no less.

Speaking of the coronavirus crisis, this week saw the release of the CDC recommendations for the reopening of schools in Fall. Recommendations that created quite the stir. Luckily education and teacher, Peter Green read them and offers some interpretation and after dissecting them concludes,

You can see that the guidelines aren’t quite as humanly impossible as they’re made to seem in the blue meme– just mostly impossible. It would certainly not be out of character for a school to say, “Well, this is the gold standard, and we view it as aspirational and will come close in several areas, kind of.” This will depend a great deal on states, since the federal government is apparently happy to basically sit this whole thing out and didn’t want to release these recommendations at all.

Much of what the CDC recommends will be impossible because of either A) human nature or B) expense. Many of these recommendations would be expensive, and schools are already expecting to be financially strapped in the fall. So critical questions will be what will the states actually require, and what will schools actually implement. The most important question will be what balance of practices will parents accept. Parents will want schools to feel safe– but that also includes not feeling like a gulag. And, of course, some parents will not have much choice but to send their kids back, and they are rightfully going to have some feelings about that, too.

And of course, we can talk about this all day, but September is still three months away, and three months is, right now, a long time. Remember three months ago? February? Boy, those were great times.

If you’re looking for a smile, check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page, where we work to accentuate the positive.

If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to deliver is always welcome.

A huge shout out to all of you who’ve lent your financial support. I am eternally grateful for your generosity. It allows me to keep doing what I do and without you, I would have been forced to quit long ago. It is truly appreciated and keeps the bill collectors happy.

If you so desire to join the rank of donors, you can still head over to Patreon and help a brother out. Or you can hit up my Venmo account which is Thomas-Weber-10. I don’t need much – even $5 would help – but if you think what I do has value, a little help is always greatly appreciated, especially this time of year when my contracted work is non-existent. Not begging, just saying.

Make sure you don’t leave before answering this week’s poll questions.

 



Categories: Education

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