Indentured Teaching

Teachers are in revolt. As they should be.

The walkouts and protests have so far affected only states around the bottom of the rankings for teacher pay and overall school funding, and some of the worst, most tight-fisted offenders—think Florida and Mississippi, Utah and South Dakota— have escaped unscathed for now. But the unrest is spreading as more and more bloated government budgets turn out to be swollen with commitments only to priorities other than education, as more and more public resources are sacrificed to tax cuts and boondoggles, and as more and more teachers reach their personal and professional breaking points.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the woman who should be the nation’s leading advocate for public education is saying things like, “I hope that adults would keep adult disagreements and disputes in a separate place, and serve the students that are there to be served.”

And therein lies a clue to the attitudes she shares with others of similar privilege: in the Roman Empire, the task of educating the children was largely performed by private tutors, especially enslaved Greeks who were serving the nobles.

Things are admittedly a bit better in Arizona and Oklahoma: teachers are at least not literally enslaved.

But when Betsy DeVos speaks of the need to “serve the students,” she’s not contemplating the fiscal emancipation of additional funding and resources. On the contrary, she remains as committed as ever to siphoning public dollars out of our school systems and into private pockets. And the inevitable result, for men and women trying to pay off student loans on salaries that are declining, not growing, in real dollar value, is that teaching has to feel more like indentured servitude than the career they dreamed of.

The Best Defense

When you’re talking specifically about protecting students from an attack by an armed assailant, the best defense may not be a good offense.

A school’s responsibility—and each individual teacher’s responsibility, as well—is literally defensive: to protect students from harm. That’s it. There is no offensive responsibility. Nor should there be any: teachers should not be responsible for neutralizing the threat—and neither should the school. They should focus solely on keeping the students safe—and that can be accomplished with purely defensive measures like the ones at Southwestern High School in Shelbyville, Indiana. (If you’re not already familiar with what Southwestern High has done, you can access the NBC News story here.)

Can these measures guarantee the safety of every student in every situation? Maybe not, but neither could armed teachers. And at least, if the teachers aren’t armed, they won’t risk catching their students in a crossfire.

The Good, the Bad, and the School Board

At first, it was hard to believe the story in this morning’s newspaper. But then I remembered I’m living in Florida now—which is increasingly like living in the O.K. Corral.

Here’s what happened, according to the Sarasota-Manatee Herald-Tribune. After last night’s meeting of the School Board of Manatee County, the Board chairman and another member got into an argument (to put it mildly) outside the Board offices. The chairman, Scott Hopes, claims the other member, Dave Miner, was “about ready to run me over” with his car.

Well, Dave Miner has reportedly been aggressively confrontational—verbally, at least—on multiple occasions with multiple people in addition to Hopes. So I’m not inclined to leap to his defense.

But I’m dumfounded, on the other hand, by Hopes’s summation of the incident. “He’s lucky my gun was in my car,” he said.

He brought a gun to a School Board meeting?

It doesn’t matter that he left it outside. He brought it with him. To a School Board meeting.

This is Florida—the state with some of the least restrictive gun laws in the country. The state with the famous “stand your ground” defense. The state where a clearly unbalanced 19-year-old was legally able to purchase a virtual armory—including the AR-15 he used to kill 17 students and teachers on Valentine’s Day. This Florida, where the state House refused, as survivors of that massacre looked on, to even open debate on possible new firearms legislation.

Want to know why there’s so much violence in Florida today? Don’t worry about television shows or movies or video games—they’ve got those in other states too. In fact, they’ve got them all over the world. What other places don’t have is ostensibly rational adults, decision-makers occupying positions of power, who apparently believe they’re living in Tombstone. At High Noon.

Being the Target

This is about a 1965 school shooting—a shooting that never happened. If it had, I might not be here to tell the story.

My first full-time job after college was teaching seventh- and ninth-grade English at a combined junior-senior high school in upstate New York. I’d turned 21 only a month before the first day of school, so there were lots of students who were only three or four years younger than I was. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the seniors, and maybe some juniors, were even closer to my age. (That’s probably why, within a month after school began, there were songs being dedicated to me and another young male first-year teacher—on WPTR, the Top-40 station in Albany.)

The school district was mostly rural, so most of the kids—and pretty close to all of the boys—had grown up with guns. Mostly rifles. Mostly .22 caliber. And on one of the first warm days in the spring, one of those boys brought his gun to school.

I found out about it later, after the situation had been handled—by Sal, the principal, and Bill, the boys’ gym teacher. It was Bill who told me about it.

“Did you hear that Vincent came to school with his hunting rifle this morning?” he said. (I think the kid’s name was Vincent. Maybe Victor. I don’t remember his surname.) I said no, I hadn’t heard that.

“Yeah,” Bill said. “He was looking for you.”

“For me?” I didn’t have Vincent in class. I didn’t know Vincent. I’d never encountered him in the hallways. I wasn’t even sure which of the hundreds of kids he was. I had no idea why he’d have been looking for me.

“Yeah, it’s probably a good thing Sal and I found him before he found you.”

I left that school at the end of the year, and I still don’t know why Vincent was looking for me. I’ve wondered whether maybe his girlfriend was behind those dedications on WPTR, and he was jealous. But I don’t know whether he even had a girlfriend; he could have been a classic mass-shooter loner. Nor do I know what ultimately became of him—whether he wound up spending time in jail, or getting killed in Vietnam, or maybe being elected to the school board.

But I think my memory of this incident is part of what’s shaping my response to the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High—and the unconscionable number of school shootings that preceded it.

My near-encounter took place in the Sixties, so I’m aware not only of the potential dangers that are part of being a teacher, but also that those dangers have existed for a long time—maybe forever. On the other hand, I’m also aware of the technological innovations and interest-group lobbying that have altered the parameters of comparable situations today.

So I’m glad Vincent had only a bolt-action .22, not an AR-15. I’m glad Sal and Bill weren’t armed with anything more than commanding presences and the art of persuasion.

And I’m especially glad that neither Sal nor Bill nor I was ever put in the position of having to draw a weapon in an attempt to kill a student.

Profit Motive

There’s a common thread developing in the right wing’s education policies. People like Betsy DeVos, on the national level. And Richard Corcoran, Speaker of the House here in Florida. They say we should:

  • Deal with struggling students by further crippling their public schools and then labeling them and their schools as “failures”;
  • Deal with educational “failures” by opening a proliferation of charter schools (that can pick and choose their students to make sure they meet test-score requirements) and private schools (that are exempt from test-score requirements);
  • Deal with growing teacher shortages not by improving autonomy, compensation and working conditions, but by opening more charter and private schools that don’t require certification or even training for their faculty … and by targeting de-certification of teacher unions;
  • Deal with constitutional barriers to public funding of religious schools by creating tax-dodge “scholarships” for students attending unregulated private schools;
  • And deal with school shootings not by restricting access to military weapons, but rather by arming teachers.

So what’s the common thread? An effort to convince us:

  • That our public schools are failing;
  • That our teachers are incompetent;
  • That what we need is “choice,” or at least the appearance of it, not improved resources for our existing public schools;
  • That charter and private schools are prima facie “better” than public schools;
  • And that everything they advocate is somehow aimed at supporting students, especially disadvantaged and minority students.

But what they’re really creating is a smokescreen, an ostensible justification for eliminating free, nonprofit public education and replacing it with ever-increasing profit opportunities for the education entrepreneurs. Ensuring that for-profit schools’ costs will be lower by exempting them from testing standards, curriculum regulations, and certification requirements. And guaranteeing a steady cash flow with direct and indirect government funding.

Why? Same motivation as always: to repay the people who donate to their campaigns and hang out at the same country clubs—by ensuring the sanctity of their profit margins.

And that’s the motivation behind their school safety proposal too. There are more than three million public school teachers in the United States. If they deal with the threat of more school shootings by arming teachers—even if they arm only 20 percent of them—they’ve just handed the arms manufacturers and their NRA lobbyists something like $300,000 in additional sales.

And they’ll likely get the added benefit of eliminating some of those pesky teachers, too—either because they’ll resign rather than carry, or because their handguns will be no match for the active shooters’ still-legal assault rifles.

Another School Shooting

And, inevitably, another blizzard of legislative leaders blaming it on mental illness.

“It’s not the guns,” they say. “They can always find a way to kill. They can make explosives out of fertilizer. They can drive trucks onto sidewalks. They can use machetes and knives and box-cutters.”

Well, yes, it’s true that people afflicted with mental illness—at least the homicidal ones—will always be able to find a way to kill. But it is the guns. Specifically, it’s the semi-automatic assault rifles.

It’s not likely Nikolas Cruz could have killed 17 and injured another 14 in less than five minutes with any weapon other than a semi-automatic rifle. Nor would Stephen Paddock have been able to kill 58 and injure more than 400—at a range of 450 meters—in less than ten minutes. Semi-automatic weapons like these were specifically developed for only one purpose: to kill or grievously injure as many people as possible as rapidly as possible.

Semi-automatic weapons are suited specifically and explicitly for killing people—human beings, not deer or elephants or inanimate targets. And they accomplish that very well—just ask any veteran who’s been trained on an M-4.

I admit it’s unlikely we’ll be able to eliminate all mass shootings by eliminating semi-automatics. But maybe we can at least make such shootings less common. And maybe that will give us time to work on our mental health problem; maybe, if we can stanch the proliferation of semi-automatic weapons, we can at least reduce the number of casualties while we search for ways to treat the underlying mental illnesses.

And that will take time. Not all mental illness is presently preventable; not all cases lend themselves to timely diagnosis and treatment; and not all illnesses can be effectively managed, much less cured. And it’s worth pointing out that mental illness affects people in other countries too. And it affects women as well as men. But mass shootings occur disproportionately in the U.S. And the perpetrators have been more than 90% male.

The Fourth Irony

It may be that only English teachers know there are three kinds of irony—verbal, situational, and dramatic. (It’s likely that only English teachers care about any of that.)

But it turns out there’s a fourth type, which is the inevitable result of the Florida legislature’s passage of a law that allows any district resident, not just parents of students, to challenge any instructional material used in a district school—on such eminently predictable grounds as teaching things like evolution and global warming.

But a petitioner in Santa Rosa County seems to have retired the cup by challenging the inclusion of Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 for profanity and violence. That temperature—451oF—is of course the ignition point for paper; Bradbury’s novel was created as an urgent warning about the dangers of banning books.

So the Santa Rosa County attempt at censorship-by-wackadoodle makes it clear that there’s a fourth kind of irony—at least in Florida, at least in Santa Rosa County. The question is whether to call it educational irony, or intellectual irony. Or just plain stupidity.

A Monumental Proposal

Maybe we don’t need to remove the Confederate memorial statues.

Maybe we only need to remove the plaques that say who they were—rendering them appropriately anonymous and allowing them to slide into the same kind of obscurity that’s befallen most of the civic sculpture littering the American landscape today. Or maybe, if the statues really are necessary for the preservation of history, then we should rewrite the plaques to get the history right.

For openers, every plaque should begin by saying “This is one of the soldiers who lost the Civil War. His failure—the defeat of the Confederate Army—allowed the United States to remain united, grow, and become one of the most prosperous and influential nations on earth.”

Additional inscriptions might include thoughts like these—

“In his battles against the Union forces, he was literally an enemy of the United States. Just like the British soldiers who opposed the Colonial forces during the Revolution—and who, apparently through some oversight, have never been honored with statues like this one.”

“He was fighting against the unification of states that had been won piecemeal from not only the British, but also the Dutch, the French, the Spanish—and, of course, the Native Americans. He was fighting for an approach to government that defined our country not as a union, but as a confederation of still-independent states. Sort of like Iraq. Or the NFL.”

“He was fighting against the inexorable progress of technological and economic changes that began in the Industrial Revolution—which meant he was fighting mostly for the benefit of the wealthy plantation owners, struggling to preserve an antiquated agrarian economy that depended for its viability on an abundant, unpaid labor force.”

“He was fighting not just for the preservation of slavery, which had existed in one form or another throughout history’s previous millennia, but for the perpetuation of the Confederacy’s ‘peculiar institution,’ a unique perversion of the practice based on the dehumanization of an entire race.”

“He was fighting not to justify the taking of slaves as spoils of war—as the Roman Empire did to the Greeks, for example—but to sanction the enslavement of an entire race with the rationalization that they were somehow inferior, even subhuman. He was fighting for economic expedience, and against biological truth.”

“He was fighting against the course of human events, against freedom and democracy, against life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He was fighting against America.”

No Attaboy

There are times when language matters. There are times when what’s said, and how it’s said, and by whom—and what’s not said, and by whom—all matter a lot.

And you can trust an old English teacher to notice those times. This is one of them.

The president’s first statement about the violence in Charlottesville, as lots of people immediately noted, contained an ad-libbed escape clause for his alt-right constituents: he blamed the “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” Looking up from the prepared statement, he repeated “on many sides.”

There were, of course, only two sides—the alt-right “rally” participants on one side, and the counter-protestors on the other. But words like “alt-right,” “white supremacist,” “K.K.K.” and “neo-Nazi” never crossed the president’s lips.

The criticism of that rhetorical failure was pretty close to universal, with the only notable exceptions being the supremacists themselves. And yet it took another two days for the president to condemn those groups by name (something like twenty times longer than it took him to condemn Ken Frazier when the Merck CEO resigned from his manufacturing council).

He identified them, reading robotically from the videoprompter, as “criminals and thugs, including the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”

And people immediately started lining up to give him credit for finally doing the right thing.

But he did not do the right thing. His delivery was wooden, expressionless—in marked contrast with his usual rhetorical excesses. He was, as several people have noted, clearly speaking in the manner of a hostage with a script his captors have demanded he recite as the price of his continued survival. Sort of like those old movies in which the American POW cleverly inserts some code words that tell the home folks he doesn’t really believe what he’s being forced to say.

In fact, there were code words—even in this second statement. There was yet another escape hatch for the white supremacists—more subtle in its wording, but still an escape hatch. He blamed the violence on “the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups.”

Other hate groups”? Doesn’t “the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists” kind of cover it? Who’s left?

Oh, right. The same ones as in his first statement. The counter-protestors. He still doesn’t deserve an attaboy—from anyone but the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, and white supremacists.

Whither Expertise?

According to a front-page story in yesterday’s New York Times Sunday Review, “The Diplomats Can’t Save Us.” (An accompanying story says “The Generals Can’t Either.”)

As the story continues on the jump page, there’s a series of quotations from career diplomats “asking if their services are still valued”; describing “a toxic, troubled environment and organization” and “complete and utter disdain for our expertise” and “a slow unraveling of the institution.”

I understand that looming international dangers become ever more urgent when the State Department is dominated by neophytes and amateurs, and that those dangers can include human rights abuses, terrorist attacks, and even war. And I am appropriately frightened.

But that doesn’t keep me from noticing that those jump-page quotations could just as easily have come—with absolutely no editing required—from teachers in America’s public school districts.

We seem to have blundered into an era in which expertise is demeaned and incompetence is ignored—not only in the State Department, but also in the Education Department, and in many local Boards of Education. Not to mention the West Wing.