Monday, February 29, 2016

Leaving. Letter #73

            I found out a couple of days ago that Barbara Hickman, Superintendent of Flagstaff School District, is leaving her position to take another job in Colorado. She’s been here since 2007. She weathered the global recession in 2008, the uptick of charter schools, the downturn in enrollment, the passage of bills to raise taxes to compensate locally for funds from which the state had divested. I don’t know much about her but she seems pretty dynamic, being able to manage such vicissitudes.
            I suppose that is one thing we, who serve at the pleasure of the state, should understand: Sometimes, you’re the tail. Sometimes, you are also the tail. Most of the time, it is you who is getting wagged. You don’t do much wagging. It would be nice to be the one who wags but teaching for the state has perks: it’s a relatively secure job, you have time during the summer to devote to research and reworking your curriculum, and you have some kind of autonomy in the classroom. Sometimes, you’re not the dog of the budget but you’re the dog of your days. Or, at least some part of your days, when the kids and the paperwork and the testing and the evals don’t get you down.
            Still, teaching in this state is its own beast. Bills are on the table to provide vouchers to kids who go to private school, further decimating the block of funding districts receive. The pot of funding public schools continues to get smaller and smaller. Through voucher systems, class size actually increases because if you take ten kids out of a school, you can afford to pay for one fewer teacher. The remaining teacher’s class size is that much bigger.
            I wonder how long Superintendent Hickman has been trying to go.  Maybe not long but possibly since the beginning. It’s possibly to want to get the hell out of your job and still do a good one. Who could blame her for hightailing it to a state that, though not perfect, doesn’t pretend that the recession of 2008 is ongoing and doesn’t claim businesses will flock here because we keep the taxes so low? Businesses really don’t want to move their families or hire from a population whose state per-pupil spending is 49th in the nation. I understand that it might be politically smart to keep people under-educated so they keep voting for you, but business leaders tend to want people who can think critically and who, you know, know stuff.
            Sometimes I worry that my favorite teachers will leave because they haven’t had raises in over 9 years, because the threat of budget reductions looms every year even though the state has a surplus and a rainy day fund, because their class size gets bigger, but, more fundamentally, because they work for a dog who hates this very tail.
            One of my favorite teachers takes workshops in the summer, attends conferences, learns new math-teaching techniques on her own time. She runs an in-class newspaper, elections to teach the kids how government works and how fractions work and how to think critically about books the kids read. She makes the kids dig deep into understanding how a book is composed by asking kids to write their own books. She makes the kids think math is a choose your own adventure story: you can do it this way. You can do it that way. There are four ways to figure out how to add fractions. I will show you each of them.
            What if she left? What will the dog wag now?  
            I have colleagues at NAU who are, according to my students, some of the best teacher they’ve ever had.  They serve on committees. They organize internships. They publish articles and books. They contribute some of the most cutting edge scholarship in the country.
            What if they left? Who would be the best teachers then? What’s the point of a dog without a tail?
            I love it here and I love my job. I would have a hard time leaving. I love my colleagues, the friends I’ve made here, the Flagstaff. I love the work  do but I understand why Superintendent Hickman will leave. It’s hard to stay in a place where you have to fight for everything and where, no matter how hard you fight, no one listens because you’re just a tail. Unless, of course, the people who believe in the good work of the tail rise up and get together and find a way to wag that dog.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Compassion. Letter #72

Dear Governor Ducey,
            I was listening to NPR after the New Hampshire primary. The hosts were discussing Kasich, who they said is the last of the “compassionate conservatives like George W. Bush” and I was like, if George W. Bush aka millions in Iraq killed over false reports of weapons of mass destruction then we are in a more Orwellian double-speak bind than I thought. Still, when I see pictures of your face, you seem like a nice guy. I look at Wisconsin’s governor, whose face is full of spite, and think, well, at least Governor Ducey smiles. But, it’s possible you’re just smiling because of the big checks the Koch Brothers deposit in your bank account. I wouldn’t write these letters, though, if I didn’t sense a compassionate streak. Nor would I write them if I didn’t believe in meeting compassion with compassion. My new friend John reminded me the other day that compassion and empathy is really the only way we’re going to make any changes.      
            John said he saw you at Martanne’s the other day, here in Flagstaff. He and his wife sat right next to you. John told his wife, I’m going to talk to him, which made his wife walk as far away from John as possible in small Martanne’s, understandably. Even though I write to you weekly, I think I’d get tongue tied to meet you in person. The gap between us is canyonesque. I feel like opening my mouth would release a torrent of insults and apologies and stammerings that would be considered only “compassionate” when the nurses at the psych ward process my admission papers.
            But John, possibly because he began with compassion, did not stammer or make strange bird noises at you. He said, “Governor, it’s nice to meet you. I’ve been reading about proposition 132 and I hope it does what you say it will do to bring funding back to Arizona. You know, I grew up in Louisiana where we would say we were always glad to have Mississippi next door—Louisiana always scored near the bottom of near everything but Mississippi scored lower. We could always point to Mississippi as the real bottom. Now, I’m raising three boys here in Arizona where we are the new almost-bottom. I didn’t think I’d be pointing at Mississippi from here to say, ‘they’re worse.’ So I really do hope that this new bill helps to bring the state’s education funding up but I have to tell you, even with that hope, you see my wife over there, paying the bill, not looking at us? She has worked for the public school system for 9 years. And over those 9 years she’s had a $1000 raise. $1000 over 9 years.”
            John says that the governor’s wife, over her plate of chiliquiles, puts her hand to her heart in sympathy. The governor shakes his head. It seems like there is compassion here. That these people understand that a $1000 raise over 9 years is $110/ raise a year. They understand how little money that is to raise a family on. They seemed to get that teachers are the ones building Arizona’s future.
            John meets compassion with compassion. He doesn’t harp on the governor. Ducey’s kids are with him. John doesn’t want to embarrass the governor or the governor’s wife. John sympathizes with his fellow human, feels a little sorry that he must encounter an unhappy populace wherever he goes. John empathizes with what must be the governor’s family’s disappointment: because people love to come up from Phoenix to marvel at the concept of cold and snow, he says. “Sorry there is no snow.” To which the governor replies, “No worries. We love Flagstaff, snow or not.”
            I wish I could have said, if I had been there, if I had been as brave, not being as smart and measured as John. I might have added, “I hope you love Flagstaff’s students too.”
            John jokes that he’s afraid the secret service had a bead on him the whole time. I told John that at Rita Cheng’s installation ceremony as president of NAU, Ducey was swarmed by secret service.
            “I didn’t have a single secret service agent assigned to protect me,” I joke.  

            We laugh at the idea. People in Flagstaff don’t get, or need, secret service agents. We have snow and compassion to protect us.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Brain Surgery

Dear Governor Ducey, 

A fundamental element of the dissolution of support for Higher Ed comes is the attack on the Liberal Arts of which Creative Writing, which I teach, is definitely a part. I do love to teach creative writing but sometimes I wish I could teach lessons that have a more palpable outcome. Teaching someone to ride a bike is awesome. You run. They pedal.  You run. They pedal. You let go. They fall. Rinse. Repeat until you let go and they ride on without you. I like to teach my kids how to read. How to cook. I would like to teach brain surgery or mushroom identification. It’s obvious how they turn out. Patient lives! Good job. Mushroom tastes good and patient lives! Another good job.
            Teaching writing is more nebulous. I tell the students as much concrete information as I can. I show them Brian Doyle’s essay “Leap.” Doyle describes two people jumping out of the window of the Twin Towers on 9-11. I read this sentence aloud as I walk the steps as if in on a floor in an office with windows looking onto Liberty Street: “Maybe they didn't even reach for each other consciously, maybe it was instinctive, a reflex, as they both decided at the same time to take two running steps and jump out the shattered window, but they did reach for each other, and they held on tight, and leaped.”
            I stop at what would be the edge of the windowsill. I pause and then keep reading. I feel like if I can make their bodies imitate what they read on the page then they can put on the page what they want their readers to imagine other bodies to do. It’s not the same as teaching brain surgery where I can put my hand over theirs and guide the knife, but I hope I give them something palpable—something they can hold onto with those visible footsteps and audible breath.
            I was teaching Max to ski last Sunday. I screamed for him to slow down. He kept speeding up. I clicked my skis together, pointed my toes downhill and tried to catch up. I couldn’t. His head hit the ground first. I saw one ski fly off. Then the second. He was crying when I finally reached him.
            “I am not putting my skis back on. I hate skiing. I hate it I hate it.”
            “Come on,” I said. “Let’s try it again. If you do this run one more time, you will hate it less.”
            “I won’t. I won’t,” he repeated all the way up the chairlift and all the way back down the mountain.

            The next day, 23 students stared at me as I pulled three oranges out of my bag. It looked like I was going to give them each one. I wasn’t. I only had three. I was trying to cure my cold. Instead of filling them with vitamin C like a good doctor, I started talking about my forthcoming books, Micrograms and Egg, which was embarrassing, but then we started to look at the essay “Swerve,” by Brenda Miller, we’d read for this week & it stopped being embarrassing because my students had smart things to say. Phoebe pointed out the images of lights and Hannah pointed out the images of darkness and Zia pointed out the tone. Allison noted the glass. Andrea read the piece aloud. I pointed out the eggs. Since I couldn’t give them each an orange, I gave them each an assignment: Write two paragraphs. The first should be a close up scene, cinematic, like a movie. The second paragraph should read like a collage to make it feel like time has passed. Choose an image register like building materials. Like oranges or snowglobes or lemon fresh scent. Make them as palpable as surgery. If you note one of your images comes off in the first paragraph, take that image off in the second like mountains take skis off six year olds. Weave a thread from the first part of the essay through the second part of the essay. I know you will hate it at first but when I notice you on the lift again, crying but writing about bricks and stones and citrus, you will hate it less and less and, although I am not that kind of doctor, you have learned a practical lesson about the effects of oranges on students in winter.