Here's the thing. I'm not going to talk about the 41st president, the first President Bush and his creepy scary address to school kids about guns and drugs in 1989. Nor am I going to mention his pitch for his education plan and where our educational system ought to be by 2000 (hahahahaha) in 1991 (but you can view it here. I'm not going to talk about the disturbing undertone of racism and the disgusting outright racism I've heard from people in this discussion about President Obama speaking to schoolchildren about education. I'm not going to express my disgust with the vitriol self-described conservatives are hurling right now -- seizing on every chance they have to be as nasty and vicious as they can be about our President and people with progressive beliefs and ideas. I will, however, note the distinction between debating IDEAS and attacking people and kindly request that those who believe themselves to be conservatives, Republicans, TCOT, neocons, etc sit down and contemplate that difference.
What I am going to address is the single coherent point I've heard from people I like and respect and who also happen to object to the president addressing kids.
I'll quote my good friend J, who I do so like and admire, and who brought up a relevant point of discussion, and my friend D, who brought up a similar point: these women, these mothers, feel uncomfortable with President Obama doing an end run around them (and presumably also around the schools and teachers since for many schools September 8 is the first day of school) and directly addressing their children.
As J sagely pointed out, it's irrelevant that nobody made an issue of it when it was done in the past. She wants honest and open discussion about the appropriateness of elected officials directly addressing children in schools.
What I hear J addressing is the larger issue of the communication breach between parents and schools. I'm on that topic like white on rice.
Schools claim an ownership of children once they reach school age. As soon as my first daughter entered kindergarten, we immediately began running into the Great Wall of Public Education. Time and again, I ran into the school's clear message that it didn't matter what I thought, or what my daughter needed: it is what it is at the school and we had to pretzel ourselves to accommodate them.
Family situation that necessitated travel and missing four days of school? I was required to present my case and seek the school district's permission to take my own child out of school. I had naively thought that simply sending in a note a week beforehand to explain we had a family situation so my daughter would be out of school for a few days and could I kindly work with the teacher to get the assignments for my kindergartner (5 years old) would be adequate, but it was not. The school made it plain that I had no rights to my child, period. It was...creepy.
The snowball picked up speed and size after that. Movies weekly, usually of a variety I had banned in my own home. Nutrition messages that seemed geared to create a nation of anorexic children who thought chicken nuggets with corn and gummie snacks were healthy meals. Constant pressure to consume, buy, and spend through what felt like monthly book fairs and fundraisers. Episodes of cartoons that were meant to count as music class. I'll stop there.
I quickly learned that the school decided what was best. No matter what. The end.
I expressed concern to other mothers with kids in the school. Most of them sympathized, and even a few were upset over some things such as the quantity of television watched in school, but all assured me this is just the way it is. In a way, I understood. The school was huge, even at the elementary level. Classes held at least 20 kids. There were over 800 in the school, I heard. That's bigger than my graduating class.
That's also a lot of parents.
I quickly came to understand why the parents mentality focused on the concept that to ensure your kid gets well-treated and a decent education, you had to participate heavily at the school and in the classroom.
Why not just homeschool in that case, I wondered?
I quickly came to understand why so many parents were helicopter parents; it was their way of remaining connected and a part of their child's educational experience, which was more and more indoctrinating all the way around, it seemed.
But public school has always been indoctrinating. We all must conform to basic ideals and standards to rub along in the schools, which themselves must conform to political standards and current modes of thinking. That explains why certain people always have free access to children in schools. Police, community members, professionals, medical personnel, other parents, authors, experts and so forth. People I didn't know regularly addressed my daughter in school -- sharing their particular message in their own way. Most of it was benign, much of it was interesting and meaningful. But not all. Some of it distressed me.
All of these events had one thing in common: the school never notified me in advance, never asked my permission, and never involved me.
I always learned about it from my daughter, who sometimes came home with worrisome ideas and misunderstood concepts.
I ranted annually about red ribbon week, for example. Let me quote myself from 2007:
"Hmm," I said, carefully, "I don't think so. It's usually orange for Halloween," I added, "Red is more for Christmas. But they couldn't promote or celebrate that anyway. So I don't know. This must be some sort of..." I bit back "out of line dumb-assed political statement."
"Some sort of what, Mom?" Patience asked.
"Some sort of special event I wasn't notified about," I said, not a little sullenly.
. . .
"Hi honey," I said nonchalantly, ignoring the sulk, "Come on in, let's have a look at what the problem is."
"It's this bracelet! It hurts my arm," she said fiercely, running to me in relief, grateful to have a Way Out of the sulk without losing face. "But I'm not allowed to take it off all week! But it hurts! But if I take it off I'll be in trouble." Her lower lip quivered. She tucked it into her mouth to hide that weakness.
I lightly held her arm and squinted at the red bracelet tightly encircling her wrist. It's like a club bracelet, or a hospital ID bracelet: tough, red plastic, snapped and locked on. There are tiny black words on it. I squinted harder.
Ahhh. The red ribbons. The red bracelet. It's an anti-drug message.
I rolled back onto my heels boggled by the fury that flooded me, flushing my face.
"Mommy?" Patience inquired.
"It's the kind that locks on," I said, "Locks on! I can't figure out how to pop it and it's on so tight we can't get it over your hand." My anger is upsetting her again.
"It huuuurts," she cried, escalating agitation to near panic, "Get it off!"
"Wait here," I told Patience, and I strode to the office to get scissors. She looked calmed by my resolve.
As I moved away from her, I swallowed rapidly. My heart was racing. I was furious. I am furious. I wanted to strip off that tag the school locked onto my daughter without my permission. I wanted this bracelet---this crap bracelet, this ridiculous symbol representing the wasted effort in the war on drugs, and all that bothers me about this country right now---off my baby's arm.
As I wised up, I took it at face value that I was going to have to spend a lot of time discussing messages my daughter received at school -- both sanctioned and unsanctioned by the school, forget being sanctioned by me -- or else remove her from school.
That's public school.
That's also why I both understand that parents are upset that a major address is happening at school, circumventing them, and am totally not comprehending this sudden outrage.
That has been the sum total of our experience in public school: a person addressing kids directly, totally circumventing parents.
I'm also not comprehending why people are so outraged and concerned about the President addressing kids about committing to education. Of all the benign and potentially useful messages, this rates pretty high. I'm a lot less concerned about the possible messages here, than say the strange messages my kids have come home from school with about sex, drugs, music and religion (yes at public school). I'm also well-prepared to discuss this with them. I've read through the letter from the US Department of Education about this, and scanned the suggested classroom activities and discussion points.
For the first time, I've got a heads-up about a message being delivered to my kids as well as potential activities and discussions they'll have about it.
I feel more and better informed than EVER BEFORE. I feel more a part of this than EVER BEFORE.
But this is why I do not understand why people are so up in arms about the President's address to school children about the importance of education, his dreams for them for education, why he hopes they'll commit to working hard in school and graduating, and potentially a launch of his "I Am What I Learn" initiative.
It sounds like a good message, and even if there are parts I disagree with, I can discuss it with my kids. I'm well used to that, anyway.
I'm actually relieved that this time I'll simply have to discuss with my kids (again) why education and trying hard in school is important. I actually sort of want to say HALLELUJAH.
I've had to deal with truly negative and problematic messages from school before. This is positive, a cakewalk.
The irony is, my kids are now in private school and may not even see the Presidential address.
All this, though, goes to my friends, who I like and respect and who are simply being the conscientious parents I know them to be. J and D aren't being disingenuous. They are being sincere, with a valid point.
There are others not so respectful. There are others who are spouting messages that make me sick to hear them. others who plan to keep their kids home. Others who are pretending that President Obama is the first to ever speak to schoolchildren, that he is up to no good, that there has never been a messages put directly to kids without including parents, and far, far worse. These are people who are hanging their vitriol on any hook, taking any chance to derail this Administration and President. Their hatred and counter-productiveness is distressing, to say the least. Their clear racism even worse.
At the end of the day, here's what we have and I hope people think about this:
- We have an African-American president in office who is progressive
- He wants to improve education, and I believe he's going to really focus on improving it for minorities
- The majority of conservatives or conservative pundits who are vocal or visible (such as radio or TV) and widely-read or listened to is white. And male.
- They are asking their viewers -- also mostly white -- to ignore our African American President and his message of hope and education for minorities.
President Obama's ideas for educational reform are essential because:
- barely half of African American and Latino students graduate from high school
- In 2006, African American students represented 13.4% of graduating seniors in U.S. public schools, and represented only 7.9% of students enrolled in Advanced Placement courses
- In 1970, the United States had 30% of the world’s college graduates, now has only 15%
- By 4th grade, Black and Latino students are on average nearly 3 years behind their White and Asian counterparts
- One in nine black men between 20-34 are incarcerated; a black male is more likely to be in prison than to have a post-graduate degree.
- 90% of incoming freshman at the top 150 colleges come from families in the top half of U.S. annual income
- 20% of teachers in high poverty schools are inexperienced vs. 11% in low poverty schools, and 21% in high minority schools vs. 105 in low minority schools
Go read more statistics here: Education Equality Project Facts
I want to hear what the President has to say. I want to hear his plan. I do not find it odd in the least that he will speak directly to schoolchildren. He's not setting a precedent, and I suspect he has something valuable to say to them. I have thus far been impressed with his eloquence and intelligence.
If we want to battle something? Battle drop-out rates. Battle inequities in education. Battle the over-institutionalization of public schools.
But battling over a president addressing school children about education -- especially based on the large amount, the unprecedented amount, of information we have in advance does not make sense to me. All things considered.