STEP

A few weeks ago my wife and I were able to attend an early showing of the movie Step. What made it extra exciting is our friend was one of the executive producers in the making of the film. Step highlights the senior year of a high school step team at an all-girls charter school in inner-city Baltimore. It was an extremely well done and thought-provoking film and as it had to do with a group of young women’s experiences in school and life I had a few thoughts come to the surface that I thought I would process here.

My first thought (which I’ve written about before here) was to reinforce how absolutely crucial public schools are to the development of the average American young person. The charter school in the film facilitates countless activities to get all their students graduated and into an institution of higher education by the end of their senior year. They start the year with a convocation ceremony that reminds the student body of the importance of senior year (which will be this school’s first graduating class after starting 7 years ago). They have informational meetings for parents to keep them up to date on college application details. The school has an entire day dedicated to filling out all those college applications and financial aid forms. The school guidance counselor is striking in her relentless drive to push these young women to do what they need to do to get into college.

What I saw in Step was a public school serving its community in critical ways. It goes without saying that without their school community, a large percentage of these young women would have not made it to college, at least not immediately. A school like this is why whenever I hear the phrase “government schools” I cringe. This school was not out to indoctrinate children. It was there to serve them and to assist where their families were unable or unwilling. This is to not to fault their families, many who are portrayed in the film as hardworking and supportive people but to note that where society can often ignore the needs of communities, schools often fill those gaps. I believe parents have a right to choose the type of school that’s best for their child but denigrating public schools never helps.

The second thing this film made me process was my feelings toward charter schools in general. We had a heated, publicized, and grossly over-funded ballot question debate in Massachusetts this past fall about whether to expand charter schools. As a public school teacher and union member, I voted (without much enthusiasm) against the expansion, which ended up failing. I did not think the charter school proponents were clear enough about their ultimate aims and who was actually funding them and my bias for traditional public schools ultimately won the day. But this is hardly an issue I would write a polemic about and after watching Step, I have a newfound appreciation for the good many charter schools do. In many inner cities, charter schools are the best option for students. Where that is the case they should be supported and expanded all the while continuing to find ways to make the public districts improve as well.

My final thought is that in a time of utter polarization anything that can be seen as “bipartisan” is probably worth reaching for. Incredible, supportive, and innovative public schools of any type are surely one of those things. Go see Step. I suspect you’ll enjoy it. And afterwards maybe check out what the schools in your town and city are up to.

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Speaking Up

Two summers ago I went on vacation to Colonial Williamsburg with my wife’s family. As a history teacher I was excited. The sites of the Battle of Yorktown, Jamestown, and  (a fictional rebuilding) of Williamsburg itself are all in close proximity to each other. While this popular area has been built up considerably for the tourist sector I had a great week exploring history.

One morning I found myself checking out a gun display in one of the Colonial Williamsburg museums. After I did this I sat down on a bench nearby and struck up a conversation with a retired teacher from Tennessee. As we learned we were both teachers we both enjoyed talking about the importance of history for a couple of minutes. She then said something quickly, almost in passing. I do not remember the exact quote but she noted that “some people want to get rid of our history. Some people where I am from are trying to get rid of statutes of General Forrest.”

She was referencing the trend for states and communities to take down statues of confederate war heroes. Even still, if I hadn’t read an article about General Forrest a few weeks prior I probably wouldn’t have known who he was. But I had. Let me tell you a couple things about Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest.

During the Civil War a group of soldiers he led was responsible for the Fort Pillow Massacre where an overpowered group of mostly African-American soldiers were brutally shot down even after the battle was won. These Confederate soldiers were not particularly happy for African-Americans to haven taken up arms against them, you see. After the War, Forrest was named as the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

This perfectly pleasant woman I was talking to was mistaken. Mr. Forrest deserves to be studied and remembered as an actor of hatred and a reminder of what the Civil War was fought over. But statutes and memorials to him all over the South? That is nonsense and deserves to be corrected.

Now I am a reasonably well spoken adult. Surely I could sort out how to tactfully and respectfully to explain to this women why her view was mistaken. I have a strong sense of justice and what’s right. So that’s what I did.

Except it’s not.

After a glimmer of recognition of who Forrest was in my mind I mumbled uncomfortably and said nothing. A few minutes later the conversation was over. Now there’s a lot of reasons I could use to excuse to explain my lack of action. I’m a shy introvert who does not love confrontation with people I know well, let alone people I just met. But those excuses would be just a smokescreen. I did not speak up that morning because of of my privilege.

In a great number of ways, my life is a textbook example of white privilege. I won’t go into all of the ways here but my point is this. I have NEVER spoken up much about current issues of race or racism in the past few years, either in conversation or on social media. It has felt too contentious and I have felt like taking sides would be too difficult. But mostly I haven’t spoken about these things because I haven’t had to.

My privilege insulates me from feeling strongly about these issues. It’s incredibly difficult for me to admit this but it’s true. I have opinions or thoughts about events of the past years but it does not feel near to me. Our society insures that it rarely will. Those who have lost family members or feel the reality of racism daily enjoy no such luxury.

I sincerely regret not speaking up that morning to the woman. I suspect that she was a perfectly nice and professional teacher during her career. But she harbors attitudes that allow protests like this past weekend to occur in Charlottesville. This does not mean we demonize each other. It does mean we recognize racist attitudes when we hear them and see them and call them out. I am a nerdy, WASPy, teacher with glasses. I won’t always get everything right. But I will commit to writing more and when I see racism I will do my best to speak up.

Moving

Many young people are now taking a gap year between high school and college.  A year to travel, work, do something worthwhile, or just take a breath before they decide what they want to pursue next. I took a gap year as well except mine came after college and stretched into 3 years being overseas and at home. After college I flirted with being a missionary because that was the only career I saw myself trying at that time. I was an intern for a year with a missions organization in South Africa and then followed that up with a year teaching English in the Czech Republic. Yes I know those are wildly different and yes I’ll be happy to explain why I went there if you ask dear reader.

Ultimately I decided to return home and get my teaching degree and license but I bring up those experiences to say I was basically constrained in having stuff those two years to what I could take onto a plane: two checked bags, a backpack, and my laptop. Of course I acquired goods overseas and even brought some home with me. What I remember at the end of those two years however was packing up my stuff, cleaning, sorting, and dumping things I no longer needed. I enjoyed that process and it was not that difficult.

And then I came back home. To America. And got married.

I’ve moved 3 times since I got married. First from my parents house to my wife’s apartment, second from that apartment to a new apartment, and mostly recently from that apartment to our new house. The first move was not that bad. Our first apartment was already furnished and she had being living there almost a year. I brought my clothes and a few other things and that was that.

The second move was…rough. We had to move it all in one day and that meant getting everything in boxes and ready to go beforehand. I confess to being a little clueless about how to pack up the entirety of a small apartment. My wife did the lion share of the packing and was amazing but on the day of it was just rough. Our new apartment was on the third floor which meant getting things up two flights of stairs. We had furniture at our parents houses which necessitated trips to both those places on the day. Our box-spring did not fit upstairs which meant we spent our first night on an air mattress surrounded by boxes. Did I mention we both dislike change? It was an overwhelming and exhausting experience.

Less than three years later I was quietly dreading another move this time with more furniture, more stuff, and more reasons to feel angsty about the whole process.

The process is not quite complete but as I sit typing this in my new dining room I can say this move has been pretty amazing. Not perfect or without stress but it has gone really well. There’s a number of reasons for that. First we have been able to spread it out over two weeks because we still have our apartment till the end of the month. Annoying but ultimately helpful. This allowed us to bring stuff to the house by car for a week before doing one final big push this past Saturday to get our furniture and other remaining items. It also allowed us to clean and paint a bit before getting all our stuff in as well.

The other big reason was all the help we had. We had friends just kill it this past Saturday with packing, unpacking, and organizing our stuff. New church friends, old church friends, no church friends, and family all combined to make our move relatively quick and simple. It’s hard to express how good this move was compared to our last one. And it’s hard to express how grateful we are to all the people in our lives who gave up hours and days to help us start here well.

So cups up to friends and family! I think I need to go paint something.