In my teens, my cousins and I travelled to Wisconsin out of sheer boredom. We drove randomly towards strange-named small towns – our favorite was Muckwonago - and then video taped our misguided attempts to be funny in each town. We interviewed store clerks and pretended we worked for A&E. We thought we were so clever and mischievous! In reality, the result was more of a travelling Lawrence Welk show compared to the shocking stunts on YouTube coming from today’s youth. But, how could we dare treat these very welcoming Wisconsinites with anything less than respect? It would be unconscionable in the face of their unabashed kindness! Plus, we have relatives in Fondulac, and we couldn’t risk the embarrassment to the family name.
I lived a very sheltered childhood. We pictured ourselves as true rebels in this journey to all the “M” towns of Wisconsin, at least when we compared the trip to our day-to-day life of growing up in the suburbs of Chicago. For the most part, life was stable. Our parents stayed married. Our schools were safe. The only gang at our high school, was a group of geeky writers who wrote about a pretend gang – I know because I was a proud member of The Marauders. The only excesses at our high school parties consisted of shooting up too many chocolate chip cookies and dropping our inhibitions with streams of sugar-fueled sexual innuendos. But, my parents stayed involved in our lives, even when we did not want them there. They found a good balance of work and family time that was required for raising a family. I will not apologize for my luck at being adopted into a loving family with enough tenacity to stay in the game for twenty years consistently - to build our character and self-confidence enough to get through college and out into the world.
Unfortunately, a majority of today’s kids arrive in pre-school and kindergarten already behind in development. According to my favorite research book about children, “The Irreducible Needs of Children:” from the very start of life, children require sensitive, nurturing care to build capacities for trust, empathy and compassion. These interactions with care-givers teach communication and thinking, concepts of time and space, compassion and caring. Then, as they continue to develop, experiences must be tailored to the individual differences of each child. Each stage of development requires certain experiences – like interactive play and negotiations for social cues, and pretend play, opinion-oriented discussions and debates for creative and logical thinking.
But, these days, who has the time for all that?
The average 21st century family with the same social status as my family faces a much tougher battle for survival and success. Statistically, salaries for middle class have remained stagnant while the cost of living has continued to rise. And if you’re poor, every day poses an uphill battle. How can we expect a parent to work multiple jobs and still have enough time to provide much needed direct emotional contact with their kids? My parents didn’t really understand all our homework, but they were around to help us maneuver through the social struggles and emotional battles required to learn how to be a person, as well as the valuable skills of polka dancing.
Today’s society has all but made that sort of support a luxury item. Then, they get to school, and wonder why they cannot grasp the basics. Teachers must steer classrooms as big as 40 kids around icebergs of emotional issues dragged from home and language barriers. And the school system sets up standards for learning without the appropriate resources to accomplish the learning goals effectively. By the time kids reach high school, many believe that society has given up on them. It’s no surprise that children are failing in record numbers, and we all know the most effective way to solve problems in America: find a scapegoat!
I was fortunate enough to see WAITING FOR SUPERMAN as part of the Los Angeles Film Festival last year. I became enraged by one premise of the film: if only we could fire the bad teachers, everyone would start graduating! At the same time, my wife had just been let go by her public school due to cuts in arts spending in the district. At one point, they offered to keep her at the school, with her same paycheck, but not as a music teacher. That plan would put her in various tasks from shuffling papers to sweeping, but NO MUSIC FOR THE KIDS. God forbid she be caught whistling. Clearly our school system is broken. And the dysfunctional aspects of the unions have not helped.
I wanted to tie together my feelings about the premise of bad teachers in WAITING FOR SUPERMAN, and the attack on unions in Wisconsin. But, I failed several attempts. Ironically, I don’t have the education or mental capacity to complete that thesis effectively, mostly because it would require research, which would mean reading.
I’m conivnced I hvae dyslxeia (Sorry, I couldn’t resist). I’ve never been properly tested, but I do see letters switched all the time, and I often type letters and even thoughts out of order. When I’m editing my writing, it’s almost comical how I can cut and paste paragraphs in a different order, and suddenly the thoughts flow much more effectively. I can read, but only with time and concentration. I’m not one of those people who can sit in a talky café and relax with a good book, unless I’m using that book to shut up the opinionated trust fund baby next to me with a good swipe to the head.
I’m not complaining. I’m astonished to realize how my struggles with reading have impacted my choices in life. I believe it was my need to switch letters around that helped my brain adjust quickly to math, which led to my degree in Electrical Engineering. It was my instinctive switching of letters that made me piece together ideas and thoughts that don’t normally go together in a funny way, which led to my study of comedy at Second City. And finally, it was the pain with reading that drove me to make up my own stories, build my creative thinking muscles, and pursue the visual medium of film.
So, I proposed some ideas to my wife, a wonderfully brilliant teacher of music, to show how ridiculous the discussion of firing more teachers.
My theory: arguments to blame bad teachers changes the subject and prevents us from tackling the big issues. Don’t get me wrong – we’ve all experienced our own Mrs. Crabapple who happily let Ralph teach the class from time to time. But, labeling teachers as cartoon characters dismisses the reality that most people become teachers because they want to teach. They want to help kids learn. I doubt that anyone spends the time and energy to get a teacher certificate thinking “I can’t wait to be a teacher! Think of the luxury of an exuberant average salary of $45,000 while I coast through the system and eventually blow-off all classroom preparation. Suck it tax payer bitches!”
To my surprise, she actually thought that more teachers should be fired. If the administration followed the process of evaluation correctly, I wouldn’t have to worry about her job, since she’s already outshined her coworkers in so many ways – and I’m not just saying that because I need her to walk my special needs dog once in a while. But, she quickly spotted the real issue that I had been dancing around – namely, this argument is a waste of time. It’s like the computer in WAR GAMES, except this war involves Fox News fans with talking points. The only way to win is not to play.
Unfortunately, this line of reasoning highlights a real concern: the possibility that years of emphasis on national testing has prevented a large majority of Americans from developing critical thinking skills — so much so, that people believe corporate-funded propaganda as absolute fact without asking questions or thinking for themselves.
If that’s the reality of our current discourse, then reasonable people should not waste any energy discussing politics at all. Whether we wait for Superman, or we try to be Superman as a collective societal force, we face some serious kryptonite in the form of hypocrisy driven by greed. And those average, working Americans who feel cheated by the Wisconsin unions don’t even recognize how badly they are being cheesed. A very smart and strategic group of people have effectively hijacked the emotions of these patriots and fed them with little Dairy-based cubes of misinformation, thus tainting the dialog. Believe me, I’ve tried a few conversations via Facebook with my conservative acquaintances, but they always end painfully. I can only hope that some day reason and perspective enlightens them before their minds melt into a complete fondue.
Although, I’m not sure I want to be in the vicinity on that day. You think they’re angry now?