Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Tuesday, April 2, 2013 10:14 pm

The Atlanta schools and crimes against children

Filed under: Evil — Lex @ 10:14 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Defendants reported to the Fulton County Jail today for booking on charges of racketeering, theft and making false statements. And because I’m deeply immersed in a management course this semester, I guess I have been led inevitably to wonder: Did the test-score scandal now unfolding in the Atlanta Public Schools (and, according to Atlanta Journal-Constitution data analysis, likely going on in other large school systems as well) result from public schools trying to perform too much like a business — or not enough?

My sense is that under the No Child Left Behind Act (which was never funded at anywhere near the levels the Bush administration assured Sen. Edward Kennedy it would be; without that assurance, Kennedy and other Democrats would never have supported the act), test scores, which used to be used as only one tool in assessing students’ academic progress, became an actual proxy for learning. Legislators convinced themselves that they were buying learning by buying test scores, and so that’s what they paid for. And the Atlanta Public Schools, at least, decided to supply what its customer had said it wanted.

This was not a victimless crime. In one case, a child who changed schools was found to be unable to read. His counselor eagerly awaited his test scores, assuming they’d be low enough for the child to be given special help catching up. Instead, when the scores arrived, they showed not just scores too high for help, but scores classifying the child as gifted.

Did teachers and administrators break the law to do what they were trying to do? So they stand accused. Did they misuse money for personal gain in the process? So they stand accused. Did they lie to officials in the process? So they stand accused.

Is this different from what happened when nonbank mortgage lenders, security ratings agencies and investment banks blew up the economy in 2008? Only in that in the Atlanta Public Schools case, dozens of people stand accused.

Friday, November 2, 2012 5:56 pm

“The Handmaid’s Tale,” our kids, monsters, and writing in blood

Just a little too late (and, boy, there’s both a pattern and a metaphor) for Banned Books Week, a woman named Lisa Reid has arisen here in Greensboro to complain that students at Grimsley High School shouldn’t be allowed to reid Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” She’s afraid high-school-age students will be harmed by the book, and she claimed that the Guilford County Schools have no standards for determining appropriate reading material for children.

Well, I take second place to no one in my hatred for the disorganization and clutter of the GCS website, whose search algorithm seems to have been written by developmentally disabled chipmunks, but, that hatred notwithstanding, I found such standards in less than 30 seconds. If Reid wants to argue that the standards are inadequate, we can have that conversation, as long as she’s willing to discuss what an objectively quantifiable definition of “adequate” might look like. But, sorry, she doesn’t get to lie.

Over at the collection of right-wing nut jobs playing journalist at the Greensboro Guardian, Joe Guarino, who, as a book critic, makes a pretty good physician, claims that the book “has numerous sexual references and graphic passages.  It repeatedly depicts promiscuity and multiple partner sexuality.  It contains cultural messages regarding sexuality and relationships that are potentially harmful to adolescents during their formative years. The book also glorifies drug use and dwells on suicide.  There is considerable profanity found throughout the book– which also contains unfavorable depictions of Christianity.”

Well, no. It doesn’t contain “unfavorable depictions of Christianity.” It contains the things he mentions as hallmarks of the kind of patriarchal, authoritarian crushing of liberty that Jesus Christ himself explicitly condemned. That condemnation  notwithstanding, that’s precisely the kind of religion to which Guarino adheres. He’s free to do so, but he’s not free to try to use the power of government to impose his beliefs on the rest of us, which is what he endorses.

I won’t go over the whole plot of the book here, but the conservative critics’ main problem with Atwood’s book is that although she wrote it as a cautionary tale about a dystopian future,  they want to use it as a freakin’ government instruction manual, as guys like Todd Akin, Joe Walsh and Richard Mourdock, and every single GOP national platform since 1980, already have demonstrated.

And with all due respect to Lisa Reid, if her own children are fine and healthy and unmolested, she’s blessed, but many of their peers, even at a “good” school like Grimsley, aren’t so lucky. As Sherman Alexie, author of the young-adult book  “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” writes:

 I can’t speak for other writers, but I think I wrote my YA [young-adult] novel as a way of speaking to my younger, irredeemable self.

Of course, all during my childhood, would-be saviors tried to rescue my fellow tribal members. They wanted to rescue me. But, even then, I could only laugh at their platitudes. In those days, the cultural conservatives thought that KISS and Black Sabbath were going to impede my moral development. They wanted to protect me from sex when I had already been raped. They wanted to protect me from evil though a future serial killer had already abused me. They wanted me to profess my love for God without considering that I was the child and grandchild of men and women who’d been sexually and physically abused by generations of clergy.

What was my immature, childish response to those would-be saviors?

“Wow, you are way, way too late.”

My daughter, who, by the way, also attends Grimsley, is 14. She doesn’t know it, I don’t think, but for one of her good friends, the Lisa Reids of the world are already “way, way too late” — and, by the way, banning “The Handmaid’s Tale” wouldn’t have saved her. And that’s just the one I know about; statistically speaking, there almost certainly are others. For Reid to be worrying about this at this late date … well, that, in the immortal words of Charlie Pierce, “is a horse that has left the barn, run over the hill, sired twelve A-level stakes-race winners, and is now buried with honors on the backstretch at Keeneland.”

Moreover, one of the many outstanding characteristics of the kind of free country we imagine ourselves to be is that we do not let the most rigid pecksniffs dictate how everyone else gets to live, particularly when those pecksniffs have demonstrated an abiding inability to distinguish between “glorify” and “mention in any way, shape or form, even to caution against.”

We live in a country in which our high-school freshmen may be 18 months  from being sent to fight and die in Afghanistan or Iran or God knows where else. You want to argue that it’s not time to talk with them about life and death, in all their blood and suffering and glory and redemption and passion and reality? Good luck with that. That’s the kind of thinking that’s standing around this week wondering why the New York subway tunnels, dry these last 104 years, are now flooded, and it’s not just stupid, it’s an existential threat to itself and all the rest of us. I’ll give Alexie the last word:

Teenagers read millions of books every year. They read for entertainment and for education. They read because of school assignments and pop culture fads.

And there are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books-especially the dark and dangerous ones-will save them.

As a child, I read because books–violent and not, blasphemous and not, terrifying and not–were the most loving and trustworthy things in my life. I read widely, and loved plenty of the classics so, yes, I recognized the domestic terrors faced by Louisa May Alcott’s March sisters. But I became the kid chased by werewolves, vampires, and evil clowns in Stephen King’s books. I read books about monsters and monstrous things, often written with monstrous language, because they taught me how to battle the real monsters in my life.

And now I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons -– in the form of words and ideas — that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.

 

Friday, March 19, 2010 8:26 pm

From the vault

Filed under: Cool! — Lex @ 8:26 pm
Tags: ,

Just as certain songs and odors, long unexperienced, can bring memories flooding back when experienced once again, so can books:

At a bookstore, I had picked up a novel called The Black Obelisk by Erich Maria Remarque, the German author of All Quiet on the Western Front, which was published in 1928. The plot of The Black Obelisk, which came out in 1956, unfolds in Germany following World War I. It has historical veracity, sharply differentiated characters, Nazis, and, believe it or not, humor. I loved it for the first sixty pages—at which point I realized that I had loved it before, forty-odd years ago.

I was enjoying it so much the second time that I kept going to the end. My pleasure came in different ways: At the first reading I wondered what would happen; the second time around I was full of anticipation for what I knew was coming. I had the sensation that I was walking a familiar path, one strewn with long-undisturbed memories of my own life around the time of that first reading.

It was in 1964; I was seated at a café by a beach in Argentina, hearing Vaughn Monroe’s voice pour out of a scratchy loudspeaker, singing “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” A wild storm broke over the town of Miramar that night, where we were staying, my wife and I and our new daughter. I recalled hearing the waves crump like mortar shells on the beach.

Why, I asked myself, had I not retrieved these memories before? Why had I let them lie there, darkened by the decades that had fallen over them like soot? My mind, or the office within it responsible for organizing and filing memories, apparently decided to lock away those recollections for good. It took the late Herr Remarque to spring them. That these memories had nothing to do with the book itself suggests that anything buried deep in the brain, when dredged up, can have clinging to it things that have nothing to do with the object recovered.

The writer suggests that re-reading books we read long ago may be a way to help us protect our memories against the ravages of age. It’s true, although for a lot of older people, remembering things from 50 years ago is less of an issue than remembering what you had for breakfast this morning. Still, anything that exercises the brain is probably good.

Also, note to self: Read The Black Obelisk. Even though I haven’t read it before.

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