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I’ve been thanked a lot in the past 48 hours. By my kids’ teachers and the parents of their classmates, by friends, neighbors, fellow Heights grads who’ve since moved many states away, random people I had no idea were in favor of this issue. And while all that feels good, the thanks really go out to you. To every person who dropped lit, toured the high school, made a phone call, forwarded an email, donated money, displayed a yard sign, read our words, listened to our stories and came out to vote yes on Tuesday. I thank you.
This unprecedented victory (truly: I do not remember a time when a school issue has passed in this community with 59% of the vote) has taken the work of many dedicated individuals and groups, and the trust and faith of thousands, and it means so very much. I am proud, I am thrilled and I am exhausted. There’s a part of me that wishes we never had to run this sort of campaign again. That the state legislature would take up an issue they’ve ignored for far too long and finally, once and for all, fix the way we fund our schools. I wish we could take the energy, dollars and endless hours people put into these campaigns and instead direct it to the schools themselves: fund a field trip (or several) with those donations, turn the hours of lit dropping into hours reading with kindergartners, use our passion in productive ways right in our own buildings. But that’s not how this works, unfortunately, and in a find-the-silver-lining sort of way, we’re lucky for it.
We are lucky to spend two months every couple of years pounding the streets in support of our community’s children and they are lucky to see it. We are lucky to engage in meaningful conversations with so many people, friend and foe, and to make new connections and new friendships in the process. We are lucky to read and hear the words of praise that so many of our peers have to offer our district’s students and teachers. While there is incredible contention around every school bond issue or levy, there are also many moments of unequivocal celebration of our schools. For me personally, it means so much to hear from my neighbors and friends with children in private and parochial schools, to have them ask for yard signs or hear them say that they always believe that public schools should be a strong option. It means so much to meet the parent leaders at other buildings and have us work together toward a common goal. It means so much to see Facebook friends in Indiana and New Jersey changing their profile pictures and updating their statuses in favor of Tiger Nation. It means so much to connect with elected officials and candidates on a shared vision.
There are many lessons to be taken from this victory, not the least of which is that residents seem to want their leaders to work with their schools, not against them. I do not think it’s a coincidence that the top two vote-getters in the Cleveland Heights City Council race were the two who endorsed and campaigned for Issue 81. Nor do I think it’s a coincidence that the solitary candidate in University Heights supporting this issue garnered the most votes from that city. The time is now for the two cities to come together and make us all stronger by engaging with and supporting our public schools. The citizens want that. The citizens need that.
There is much work to be done (and I’ll be writing about some of that soon). We have many difficult decisions ahead of us as we guide our leaders and especially our students through the upcoming plans and transitions. But for now, for today, I feel only lucky.
And I thank you.
This will be the final installment in my Why You Should Vote FOR Issue 81 series, followed — I hope! — by tomorrow’s Thank You message. I had a couple other posts drafted in my mind but Halloween and pumpkin carving, muffin baking, costume crafting followed by Mark’s birthday complete with a party got in the way.
But I do feel like this campaign has covered every base we can think of, and I hope we have no regrets when those ballots are counted tomorrow evening. So, without further ado, my final plea:
In my last post, I wrote so much about the responsibility our school district has in educating poor children that it almost sounded like they are our only audience. Indeed, they are not. Our schools serve many children from highly educated, professional middle and upper middle class families. And they do it well.
The very thing that is our district’s greatest challenge is also its greatest strength: the extremely diverse range of backgrounds, cultures, abilities, needs, values, educational levels, priorities and perspectives of our students and their families. We are not just one thing to one group, pigeon-holed as a poor urban district or an affluent suburban one. We are a little of this and a little of that. And while that is difficult and expensive, it is also incredibly valuable. For every special ed teacher and guidance counselor, social worker, intervention program, or night school for teen moms, there is also an advanced science and math class, foreign languages starting in kindergarten, award-winning vocal and instrumental music programs, Power of the Pen, Model U.N., courses for college credit, and extra enrichment programming. And kids from all backgrounds participate in and benefit from those wide and varying opportunities. And it is this rich diversity, this microcosm of real world problems, challenges and achievements, that make our district so unique.
I am proud to send my children to these schools and I am proud to do it as a choice. I know many others who could afford to send their kids elsewhere but don’t because they know that they’re getting all they need and then some in CH-UH. I know families who have pulled their children out of the area’s most prestigious private schools precisely to access the academic rigor they’ve only found in the Heights Schools. Our district’s graduates go on to the nation’s top tier universities, state schools and community colleges. Some move straight into trades and others join the military. Some become or are already parents. These students represent the broad and varied world in which we live. And our schools are working hard every day to prepare them for it.
I sometimes wish the discussions around this bond issue focused solely on the physical realities of our buildings. But the conversations have veered, as they so often do, into the realm of what our children deserve. “Our” children, “their” children, “those” children. Blame has been placed on the shoulders of kids and especially teens who don’t always behave the way we want them to. I actually saw a comment on someone’s Facebook page that suggested that the district construct new buildings for the kids who “want to learn,” and use a GPA cut-off point to determine who gets to move into them and who has to stay behind. “Let the others earn their way to the nice stuff by improving their GPA in the existing spaces,” this woman said. And, because she just couldn’t help herself, she added, “They’ll only destroy the nice stuff anyway.”
Wow. Is that who we are? Is that who we want to be?
Let me tell you something about my own kids, who happen to be high achieving and well-behaved elementary students. If left to their own devices (literally and figuratively), they would sit on the couch and play video games all day. They’re not hard-wired with some “want to learn” gene. They do their homework and practice their instruments because I make them! Because my husband and I model responsible behaviors every single day and have since they were born. Someday, by the time they’re in high school, I imagine they’ll be self-motivated and self-regulated enough to do what’s right without being told. But if and when they get there, it will only be because we laid the foundation here at home.
There are plenty of kids without that. Who are essentially going it alone, without the guidance or role models that are inextricably linked with success. Some of these kids will find something deep inside themselves and will thrive against all odds. Others will squeak by, doing just the bare minimum. And some will be disruptive and even destructive, fighting back against a world that has always seemed unfair to them.
Leaving those kids in classrooms that are swelteringly hot, with leaky ceilings and moldy locker rooms, while waiting for them to “prove” themselves, is not the answer.
I believe that my two sons deserve physical spaces that are inspiring, comfortable, safe and healthy. I believe that they shouldn’t be subjected to wild swings of temperature or rusted, leaking roofs or over-stretched mechanical and electrical systems that are costing all of us way too much to maintain. I believe they deserve state-of-the-art science labs and modern technology, access to the best athletic, musical and performance spaces, and buildings they can be proud of. And I believe that the kid sitting next to them in class, the one whose mom works three low-wage jobs and may not have time to read to him or ensure his homework is completed, deserves the same kind of spaces. And even the kid next to that one, you know that kid? The one whose mother failed to show up at her scheduled conference — again — because she didn’t bother to read the reminder that came home because she doesn’t bother to read anything that comes home … I believe that kid deserves the best kind of spaces in which to learn. If we’re gonna make this issue about who deserves what, about how we value our children and the children of those around us, then so be it. I value all of them. Even the ones who are failing. Even the ones who screw up. And I believe that they all deserve safe, healthy, inspiring, comfortable and, yes, beautiful school buildings.
That’s why I will vote FOR Issue 81 tomorrow. And that’s why I’m asking you to join me.
You know I’m still here and I’m gonna keep posting on the Patch too. The naysayers (and that’s an awfully benign term to describe some of these people) are hurtful and nasty and not very smart-sounding and I’m trying hard to ignore them. Not that I’m unwilling to engage in conversation with people who have valid questions or concerns about the issue, but I certainly won’t engage with people like “Michael Schwartz” (who I’ve heard doesn’t even exist, but is simply some cold-hearted coward hiding behind an alias hurling insults). I actually haven’t read any of his comments since the first night, as I know it’ll only enrage me and I would much rather save my energy for this campaign than waste it on him.
So, to you, “my dears,” I say thank you for your support, thanks to those of you who’ve been brave enough to venture onto the barren editor-less wasteland that is the Patch and post your own pro-81 comments (although I strongly advise against addressing the usual suspects in any direct dialogue), and thank you for encouraging me to carry on. Carry on, I will. The opposition is loud, but they are few. We have right on our side and I do indeed believe that we will win this thing.
That being said, here is installment number 4 in my why-we-need-to-pass-Issue-81 series:
Section 8. Yup, that’s what we’re gonna talk about today, the latest in a long line of sub-groups blamed for all society’s ills. If poverty is the third rail of school conversations in this community, as Sam Bell said so beautifully in his piece, then Section 8 is the third rail of poverty conversations. Throughout this campaign, I have heard and seen comments time and again like, “If only our city would stop letting in those Section 8 people,” or “The schools’ problems would go away if we got rid of Section 8 housing.”
And it makes me wonder: Is that who we are? Is that who we want to be? Are we really the type of community that says, “We don’t want you here. Go away and take your problems with you”? Should we build a wall up to keep the poor people out?
It happens to be illegal for a municipality such as Cleveland Heights to limit or prevent those people using Section 8 housing vouchers to move here or to prevent landlords from accepting them. We are required to allow their residence in our city. Not only legally, but, in my opinion, morally.
We happen to be an inner-ring suburb, first stop on the way up the ladder out of the urban centers. Families move out of East Cleveland and Cleveland into Cleveland Heights precisely because they know our schools are good. Because we are seen as a land of opportunity, a safer place, a chance for them and their kids to have a better life.
I think this is a good thing. It’s not easy, I know that. We all know there’s a higher rate of crime committed by those living in Section 8 housing than by the rest of the general population; the city’s statistics prove it. But this is our role today. This is, I think, our job. And it may be a burden, as our social service agencies have more and more people in need of the help they provide, and as our schools become the receiving ground for hundreds of children with few of the skills they need to succeed. It means we have to work harder. Not to keep them out, but to bring them up. Our schools have to work harder, designing programs and hiring extra intervention specialists, socials workers, special education teachers, and psychologists to meet the many and varied needs of these children. And we all have to work harder, to adjust our expectations and find ways to learn from and with each other.
Now I realize this sounds very noblesse oblige, let-me-in-my-infinite-middle-class-wisdom-teach-you-how-to-be-a-better-member-of-our-so-called-shared-society, but so be it. I believe that Cleveland Heights and University Heights have a unique opportunity to actually make a difference in people’s lives, to provide their kids with an enriching educational experience and open up the world of opportunities that all children deserve. That is what we do. That is who we are.
Of course, this should have very little to do with the facilities discussion at all. The buildings and their needs should be evaluated separately from the children inside them. But some seem to think that because most of those kids are poor, they somehow deserve less.
And I think that’s bullshit.
This is part three of a multi-part series addressing resident concerns about the upcoming bond issue (Issue 81) to fund facilities renovations in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District. Part 1 can be read here and Part 2 here. Please feel free to share any and all of these posts with any undecided friends, family, colleagues or neighbors.
The most upsetting argument I’ve seen against Issue 81 is the claim that our schools are failing. This is frustrating because it ignores the obvious physical needs of our buildings, but also because it simply is not true. The schools are, in my opinion, thriving. Our teachers are teaching and our students are learning.
Here is the reality: Our district serves poor children. This is not an excuse, nor a shift of blame. I happen to be proud that we serve poor children and I think we should all celebrate that fact. But, as research shows, children raised in poverty come to school less ready to learn, already significantly behind their peers on the first day of kindergarten. They often have smaller vocabularies, shorter attention spans and few of the pre-literacy or pre-numeracy skills required for learning to read, write and compute. These problems continue throughout their educational careers, which are often disrupted due to frequent moves in and out of schools and districts.
I am not saying that these children are unable to learn. Absolutely not. But they are expensive to teach. And our district is teaching them. As part of an innovative and transformational educational plan enacted by the administration several years ago, our 1st through 5th graders are now ability-grouped for two-and-a-half hour language arts blocks. Class sizes range from five to eighteen and include instruction by ELA specialists, who are experts in their field. This is expensive as it requires additional teachers on staff. But it is effective.
We are only now beginning to see the difference this plan is making, as this year’s third graders are the first to have had this experience since first grade. But even on the elementary test score data from this past year, improvements are noteworthy. Proficiency ratings on reading scores improved from the prior year among 3rd graders. Our district earned four A’s in the Value Added category with reading improvements seen among all sub-groups of students.
Touting that achievement is not an exercise in positive spin. Value Added is about student growth, the most important measurement of successful teaching and learning. Our schools added value to the academic performance of every subgroup of students on which districts are measured except Hispanic Students. This is significant and is the greatest endorsement the district could possibly wish for.
Consider this scenario, some version of which our schools face every single day: Imagine a 4th grader who moves into a CH-UH school from another district, reading at a first grade level. That child will be placed in a small class with a reading specialist and will learn the necessary skills to become a reader. Imagine he works extra hard, as does his teacher, and demonstrates one-and-a-half years of growth in that one school year. That’s awesome! That is better than expected and means he succeeded, with the help of his teachers, in moving from reading at a first grade level to reading at halfway through a second grade level. It also means, unfortunately, that when he takes the 4th grade Ohio Achievement Test in reading, he will fail. And that’s the result that people will point to in the newspaper to say that our district is failing. And yet, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The kind of growth that student demonstrated, as evidenced by CH-UH’s four A’s in Value Added, means one thing: the trajectory of student performance is positive.
I would also like to add that the bar by which we are judging our students is constantly being raised. The material I taught my students as a 4th grade teacher at Coventry School a decade ago is the same material my son recently learned in 2nd grade at Fairfax. We are continually asking our teachers to teach more and our students to learn more. And they are doing it.
Is there room for improvement? Of course! And the necessary renovation of Cleveland Heights High, Roxboro Middle and Monticello Middle Schools will not magically make our students perform better on tests, nor will it reduce the number of students we serve who live in poverty. But it will give all the district’s students the opportunity to perform to the best of their ability, in environments that are healthy, comfortable, inspiring and conducive to the best 21st century models of teaching and learning.
I showed my 4th grader a picture of the proposed high school and he said, “Wow, Mom, that looks like a college!” I do not doubt that our district’s children will hold their heads a little higher walking into a physical space that shows they are valued. I value every one of the students in this district, no matter their background or socio-economic class, no matter the actions of their parents, and no matter their test scores. I value them and I will prove that by voting FOR Issue 81 on November 5. I hope you’ll join me.
This is part two of a multi-part series addressing resident concerns about the upcoming bond issue (Issue 81) to fund facilities renovations in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District. Part 1 can be read here. Please feel free to share any and all of these posts with any undecided friends, family, colleagues or neighbors.
Another concern that has been voiced by a few people is, “Does this plan ignore the needs of the district’s 2,600 elementary students?”
Short answer: No, not at all. Long answer: Phase 1 of this plan, which is what we’re voting on in November, only funds renovations to the high school and Roxboro and Monticello Middle Schools. The elementary schools will be addressed in Phase 2, which won’t take place until another bond is approved in about seven years. The district would love to wake up tomorrow morning and have all of its buildings fully renovated. But it is completely unrealistic to do them all at once. Not only would it be even more expensive, it would be a logistical nightmare to oversee eight to eleven construction sites, not to mention figuring out what to do with all those simultaneously displaced children. As the plan stands, only one age group is affected at a time, allowing Wiley to consecutively serve as swing space for the next ten to twelve years.
If we were to flip the current plan and start with the elementaries first, we would disrupt the education of students multiple times. Take, for instance, a current second grader. If this bond passes in November and next year is used for planning and design, that child would spend 4th and 5th grade in swing space while elementary schools were renovated. Then, construction would begin on middle schools, thus displacing the same child during 6th and 7th grade. There would likely then be a one to two-year break for additional planning and another bond. Lo and behold, that child would enter high school right as construction was set to begin and they would again spend two years in swing space, meaning they would be displaced from their home schools for half their educational career. That is unacceptable.
The board and administration have promised to do their best to provide as smooth a transition as possible during the construction years, maintaining current academic, athletic and extra-curricular offerings no matter where students are housed. But those years will no doubt be difficult ones, as hundreds of students converge on a single site with varying expectations, routines and loyalties. It is one thing to ask our current students to spend one or two years making that sacrifice; it is another thing altogether to ask them for five or six years. The current plan ensures that no single students is affected by building construction more than once, for at most two years. This is a shared sacrifice for the common good that seems reasonable and that most of us can swallow.
Furthermore, and this is important, the elementary buildings won’t simply be ignored in the years between now and Phase 2. They should, in fact, get extra attention. The district currently uses funds from a 2002 permanent improvement levy for facility maintenance and repairs. That dollar amount is not large and is spread across all eleven buildings, with the majority of it focused on the high school, which, as one of the oldest buildings, represents 40% of the total square footage in the district. If the bond passes and the new funds it generates are designated for the high school and eventually the middle schools, the permanent improvement funds are freed up to be used solely by the elementary schools. This is a good thing, and will not only provide those buildings with more money but also the time and focus of the district’s maintenance crew, who will be separate from those firms newly hired to do the construction.
One last thing, of considerable import: It is the current elementary students who will benefit from this plan. Our investment is in them and their futures. My 4th grader will spend his last year of middle school in swing space before moving into a newly renovated, state-of-the-art high school. And my 1st grader will spend his first year of middle school in swing space before moving into a newly renovated Roxboro, followed by the newly renovated high school. It is today’s kindergarten class, the smallest among us, who will be the first cohort of children to squeak by with no disruption to their educations and get to enjoy their full middle and high school careers in newly renovated spaces.
This plan does not ignore the elementary students. It is, in fact, for them.
I know I have readers spread out over the country and even (a few) over the world, so I apologize for the hyper-local nature of the upcoming blog posts, but home is what’s most important to me and this stuff needs to be said. If you care about public education in your own community, keep reading and always feel free to take my insights and use them as you see fit in your own education-equity battles.
Our school district has a bond issue on the November ballot to fund much-needed renovation and repairs of the high school and two of the three current middle schools. This is Phase 1 of what will be a two-phase ten to twelve year project that will impact all eleven buildings and all 5,500 students in the district. I have worked on this issue for two years and believe it is deeply necessary.
As with all contentious political issues, confusion, misconceptions and misinformation abound. I’ve been busily crafting a counter-argument to the most common concerns and have finally decided, in the interest of time and space and in order to get things published by our local media outlets, (most of whom have 200-word limits) to break this down and address them one by one. I will post every other day for the next week or so until I feel all angles have been addressed. And I ask you to please SHARE every one of these updates: Repost them on your Facebook page, tweet a link, email them to your undecided friends, colleagues and neighbors. Even if you don’t live within the CH-UH boundaries, if you know a single person who does, share share share. Information is our best weapon.
I do not claim to be the repository of all knowledge and facts regarding this issue, but as a member of the Lay Facilities Committee that recommended the plan that the school board ultimately approved and as an active member of the steering committee for Issue 81, I do know what I’m talking about. And I obviously care deeply about the future of our communities and especially our public schools.
So, with that long intro behind us, I present the first common complaint about this bond issue: Why are the buildings in such bad shape and whose fault is it? Has the administration ignored the needed upkeep, thus creating an ever-growing backlog of work?
The buildings are in bad shape because they are nearly one hundred years old, plain and simple. If anyone is to blame, we can only point the finger at Mother Nature and Father Time. Maintenance and upkeep is done every single day on every building by a team of dedicated custodians and laborers, whether they’re repairing a leaky roof or ensuring that classrooms are heated. The “backlog” list which is often referenced is not a static document, sitting untouched on a shelf. It is constantly changing and every single time an item is completed and moved off the list, another new item is added. The piece-meal, patch-work quilt of maintenance we’ve relied on for the past four decades simply isn’t enough anymore. It wastes tax-payer dollars on expensive and inefficient systems and doesn’t give us anything better for our efforts. We need a massive overhaul of our buildings and Issue 81 will give us that.
Most of us live in old homes and know that maintaining them is an unending process. I am a good homeowner, but my house just turned 93 and we feel its age every day. We recently had a pipe burst in our second floor bathroom. Naturally, it leaked, causing damage to the wall and ceiling in the entryway below it. To replace the pipe, the original plaster and lathe walls and ceiling had to be broken into and then majorly repaired. This was both expensive and time-consuming. Did it happen because we were somehow irresponsible? Were we mismanaging our money, turning a blind eye to obvious needs? No. It happened because my house is old. Period.
Our schools are old as well. The eroding and corroding electrical, HVAC, and plumbing systems at the high school can no longer be subjected to band-aid repairs. The district has some funds, from a 2002 improvement levy, designated for the constant upkeep of its buildings. Any other discretionary funds the district has had over the past few years have been diverted away from maintenance to use for innovative and necessary academic programming. That is why the so-called backlog never seems to shorten. Our crews are like gerbils on a treadmill, constantly running but never reaching their destination. The time is now to do one, big, bold renovation to fix these problems for the next fifty years.
Come to the high school this Wednesday, October 16 at 6:30pm for a tour and see the need with your own eyes. You’ll have the distinct pleasure of visiting the boiler room, which reaches 110 degrees in the winter, viewing the Pit of Death from which we pay someone to remove the pigeon carcasses twice each year, and braving the moldy, mildewy locker rooms below the pool. The buildings are old and they are falling apart, with no one to blame but time.
The need, my friends, is real.
The Boston Marathon is special. I’ve never run it. But I watched it with great intensity all of my undergrad years at Tufts. I would wake up early on Patriots Day, pack myself a lunch, hop on the T, and settle myself roadside right around mile 22, at the top of the infamous Heartbreak Hill. And I would stand there hour after hour, often with tears streaming down my cheeks, cheering til my voice was gone and my hands hurt from clapping. This event is truly unlike any marathon I’ve seen, as either a runner or as a spectator. I’ve run in awesome marathons, including twice in Chicago which is a total party from start to finish. But it is nothing like Boston. Boston is special.
It’s starts at least a week early with daily human interest stories on the local news and in the Boston Globe. These are your typical tug-at-your-heartstrings,-look-at-all-the-obstacles-this-runner-has-overcome-to-be-here kind of stories. The oldest runner, the youngest runner, the disabled one, the one running for his/her dying parents/sibling/spouse/child/friend, all tinged with an Olympic hero quality, except that this is Every Man and Every Woman, strapping on their running shoes and finding glory. I love that shit.
The day itself is filled with moments, both public and personal, large and small, stories of immense personal sacrifice and triumph, all embodying the strength of the human body and the strength of the human spirit. I once saw a young man running with the words “Will You Marry Me?” scrawled on his t-shirt dropping to his knees right at mile 22 to propose to his girlfriend on the sidelines. He’d been carrying her ring in his sweaty hands for twenty-two miles. Numerous times, I’ve seen Dick and Rick Hoyt, the now famous father pushing his grown son in a wheelchair the entire length of the race. And I’ve seen thousands of ordinary men and women who have dedicated months to training and are literally on the road to their life’s greatest accomplishment.
What is most special about that day is the overwhelming feeling of camaraderie that pervades the city. People don’t come out to root for the stars like at most sporting events; this is not about cheering on overpaid professionals, who may be perfectly good at what they do but do not always earn the hero moniker. Every one is there rooting for people they don’t even know, people they’ll never know. It’s not like that at all marathons. I can tell you from experience that there are long stretches of the Cleveland Marathon where fans silently line the streets and crane their necks looking down the road for that single particular person they know, completely ignoring all the struggling runners right in front of them. The last time I ran it, in fact, I found myself shouting at the spectators, “Cheer for everyone! Cheer for everyone!” thinking, “Who raised these people?” It obviously wasn’t my mom, who instilled in us a don’t-stop-cheering-until-the-last-person-crosses-the-finish-line mentality. She had her own Boston Marathon moment, running it in 1979 when there were still relatively few women on the road. She said that as she neared the halfway mark, a veritable scream arose from the women of Wellesley College and it was a few seconds before she realized they were screaming for her. There she was, in her early thirties, with that trademark long white hair blowing in the wind behind her, keeping up with the big dogs, running with mostly men as she let the feminists of Wellesley carry her forward to her best ever finish of 3 hours and 4 minutes.
Boston is part of my lore, the state in which I was born and city in which I was educated. As it is for so many runners, it remains the single marathon I would ever allow to lure me back on the road for that kind of distance. It is special. And it will continue to be so, even when we feel helpless and vulnerable, sad and angry. Braedan and I are running in a 5K next week, his first ever road race. I like to imagine that someday he might decide to run the Boston Marathon. And if he does, I’ll be right there at the finish line, cheering him — and everyone else — on. Because that’s what we do.
You’ve heard it all over the media these past eight days: The teachers in Sandy Hook were heroes. And they were. No doubt about it. But they were also just teachers; they were doing — in a most basic and ordinary sense — what teachers do, all over the country, each and every day.
Teachers support and protect and nurture the children in their care. No matter what. I know, I’ve been there. My first three years of teaching were in an elementary school in the City of Compton, outside of Los Angeles. And while there were many stereotypes about Compton that were proved wrong by my students and their families over those years, it was nonetheless an impoverished city besieged by gang violence. And so, of course, there were shootings. Not school shootings, in the sense we now know them. But shootings right outside our school, that we could hear and, one time, even see. Gun violence that definitely placed me and the eight and nine-year-old children in my care in grave danger.
I learned pretty quickly what to do when the code red alarm would go off. I’d check outside my door and grab any child walking by (which one time caused great stress to the teacher who had allowed a little boy to go to the bathroom right before a shooting) and lock my door. Then we’d sit on the floor on our reading rug, under the windows that lined the back of the classroom, facing a residential street. We were close enough to the windows that if stray bullets came through, they would fly over our heads — or so we hoped. I’d read and sometimes the kids would share their stories of friends and neighbors and cousins who were shot, the way my sons talk about their summer vacations. We’d wait, with no cell phones and not even an intercom or building phone to contact the office (these schools were lacking in so many ways). And after a while, the All Clear bell would sound and we’d go about our day. No heroics, just grown-ups keeping children safe and calm, acting like the teachers they were.
In the last month of my last year there, I was coaching soccer after school on our asphalt playground. And we heard gunfire. More than I’d ever heard before, so much that I almost thought they were fireworks. I looked about, at the kids running across our “field,” enjoying their last moments of practice, and at the moms with their baby strollers lined up on the wall, ready to walk them home. One nodded at me (she knew the difference between gun shots and fireworks) and I blew the whistle and started to gather up my kids, right when the Code Red alarm sounded. I stood on the ramp to the trailer that served as our library and shooed the moms and the children, strollers and soccer balls, into the door. It was automatic. I didn’t fear for my life, standing out in the open as I was. I simply did my job.
As I stood there waving my arms, “In, in. Faster, let’s go” (in English and Spanish), I looked up over their small heads and saw a guy on a bike racing down the street on the other side of our fence. He was pedaling furiously and looking over his shoulder with his hand at the waistband of his sweatpants . . . where he was holding his gun. It was a bike-by, for crying out loud. And I was close enough to see his face. Suddenly, three guys from a house across the street burst out their door, jumped off the porch and chased after him, on foot. (What exactly they were trying to accomplish is beyond me.) My last kid was whisked through the door and I was safely behind them, though I already knew that the danger had passed.
The next day, the police came to school to record my statement and I easily picked the guy out of a photo line-up. A month later, I was packed up and on the road to San Francisco (not a moment too soon, according to my dad, who’d spent the past three years being nervous for me when I wasn’t nervous for myself). That fall, I received a phone call from the Prosecutor’s Office and they flew me down to LA to testify against this guy in court. A known gang banger, he had threatened a young teenager that morning for telling his friend to say no to gangs. Payback, that very afternoon, was getting shot in the face and leg (thankfully, he did survive). It was the shooter’s third strike and in California, that means you’re out. I was, as you might imagine, a very credible witness, white teacher lady and all. When it was the defense attorney’s turn to cross examine, he mocked me and my story, “Oh, I’m sure you were veeerrryy heroic, standing out there and letting all your students inside before you, while you just calmly surveyed the scene,” and on and on as if I’d embellished my role with undue heroics.
“No,” I told him. “I wasn’t playing the hero. I was doing my job.” What I did that day on that playground was automatic. I didn’t think about it, I did it. When you are a teacher, your students really are your “kids,” and you will do whatever it takes to keep them from harm’s way.
Victoria Soto, Rachel D’Avino, Dawn Hochsprung, Anne Marie Murphy, Lauren Rousseau, and Mary Sherlach did not intend to be heroes when they walked into work at Sandy Hook Elementary last Friday. They intended to be teachers.
I know many of you, like me, have felt hopeless in the face of such tragedy. Wondering what you can possibly do to ease the pain and suffering of the families in Newtown. The answer, sadly, is little. There are no words strong enough to bring their children back, no teddy bear that could replace the joy of a brother or sister, no flowers that can bring beauty back to these dark days.
But there are things we can do. Even if we can’t take away what happened last Friday, we can work this day and every day, to ensure nothing like this happens again. I know that sounds like talk, just happy hopeful words that pundits and politicians like to use when we don’t know what else to do. But I really believe that kindness matters. And that kindness can make the world a better place.
I’m not going to get into gun control, which I happen to believe is (and always has been) an absolute necessity, nor will I specifically address access to mental health care, although I think it’s pretty obvious our society has failed on that front. But I will share Ann Curry’s plea that we all engage in 26 Acts of Kindness. I’m calling for 27 acts, because as much as we want someone to blame and as irresponsible as her gun ownership may have been, Nancy Lanza was nonetheless a victim. And besides, one additional act of kindness can only help.
Here’s a link to some of the things people have been doing, some specifically related to Newtwon, such as calling the local coffee shop and paying for 100 cups of coffee with your credit card. But many of them are more local, donations made to local organizations, paying the toll for 26 cars behind you on the highway. They speak to the inherent kindness in people and they give us hope and provide light in the darkness.
This afternoon, my boys and I are buying 27 canned goods to donate to the local food shelter. We’re sending some extra money to the Hurricane Sandy relief funds. We’re gonna squeeze some extra time out of our very packed weekend to make and deliver breakfast to the pediatric oncology floor at the hospital, for those families who stuck there instead of home for the holidays. We already have and will continue to provide Christmas presents for a family we know who have struggled mightily over the past year. And we will make and mail 27 snowflakes, inscribed with wishes, to the Connecticut PTSA who is collecting snowflakes for Sandy Hook, in an effort mighty similar to Austin’s wishing stars.
It doesn’t take away the hurt, it doesn’t bring children back to life. But, in our own small way, as we begin the shortest day of the year, it lights the darkness. We can each light the darkness.