Monday, March 18, 2013

The Lottery Ticket

This weekend my state was divided by basketball.  The two major universities in Kansas competed for the conference tournament championship title.  While we watched from our living rooms and bars, cheering, cussing at officials between mouthfuls of salty snacks, a woman walked.  She walked for the children and educators of this state.  She is walking for three days to the state capital to offer her input on the current climate of what can only be described as a war on the children of this state. It is a soft war, a quiet war, one we could easily ignore, what with the sporting events and all. More about her in a bit, first let’s talk about this quiet war. Okay, I don’t want to sound hysterical, so let’s not call it a war. Let’s call it a sneaky backdoor prank perpetrated by our governor and senate republicans. Oh, those jokesters are at it again, trying to rearrange the very structure of our state government to reduce the amount of power anyone but themselves might be able to grab.

Generally, in a democracy, what happens in the legislature is supposed to be a reflection of what The Majority values at street level. Right? In short, representatives represent. So I look first to the street, and my own observations there, to try to make sense of something so blatantly dickish as the Kansas Senate moving to have the state constitution amended to give them the unbridled authority to adjust (lower) the per pupil dollar amount they are required to allocate for public school funding. That is what is happening, if you hadn’t heard. Our state senate, the people who represent us as a body of voters, as a collective voice, think that funding public education is so unimportant to us (I really wanted to capitalize that, but it’s against my writing religion. Just so you know, what I wanted to say there was that they think funding public education is SO UNIMPORTANT TO US, all caps underlined and highlighted with a glitter pen) that they voted to amend the state constitution to reflect that belief. When it was determined that the state was underfunding public schools by the amount required by the constitutional statute, our state senate decided they didn’t like that answer, didn’t like the way the constitution was written, and set about to change it. They say they should be the ones who make that decision, unchecked, and with no possibility for any more lawsuits wherein they are found guilty of shorting the schools. 

Wait, what? This is the legislative equivalent of that kid who starts a game of tag and then changes the rules in the middle because he's losing: no running around trees, and everyone who's blonde has to take their shoes off, and if you step on a leaf, you're out!

Where does that come from? Do they think they're representing The Majority? Do we as a people, as a body of voices, project our distaste for small people so pointedly that the folks who represent us feel that they are genuinely acting on our behalf? I believe the majority of my constituents dislike short people in general and don’t care if teachers have to pay for all the extra chalk and kleenex and deal with behavior issues themselves because the people of this great state would prefer not to fund in-school counselors. That’s what peer pressure is for. And we shouldn't clean the classrooms every day and the school nurse can answer the phone in between nosebleeds. Why, when I was a boy, we didn’t have any of this namby pamby hot lunch business. We packed sardines in a sock and ate that, even the sock.

I myself have been subject to unsolicited judgement on my decision to have four kids from total strangers in the grocery store, to which I quip that I only decided to have the first one.  After that, I guess I just made the decision to accept three more surprises with an open door and an open heart. And I’m not sorry. If four is too many, I wonder which of them you’d have me do away with, stranger in the grocery store who tsk-tsked me last week and commented that the world was “getting pretty full.” Pretty full, indeed, perhaps you’d like to step aside and make room for my polite children. And to the not-total-stranger who suggested that maybe my husband and I should get a tv in our bedroom, I offer that we do in fact have one. Maybe that’s the problem. All that porn, you know.

I recently read an essay by Barbara Kingsolver in which she lamented the isolation and scorn she felt subject to when her daughter was young. In contrast with the lavish attention showered on her daughter by Europeans when she spent a year in Spain, she perceived Americans as not only intolerant, but downright abrasive toward children.  She’s right that we are a far more independent society than many others. I’ll admit to creating a somewhat insular family dynamic as a working mother who is protective of my time with them. There are cultures in the world where every child is shepherded through from birth to late adolescence with guidance from not only their own parents and grandparents, but every member of the tribe. They are made to feel valued and important, because they are valued and important to the members of those societies. Whole communities work together to feed babies and protect toddlers and educate children. Even in most industrialized nations in Europe, new parents are granted the resources to help them properly welcome every small person into the world. There is an assumption in some cultures that unlocking the potential of every child is beneficial to the collective, something about a better butcher, a better baker, a better candlestick maker. Ah. So these societies must place a certain value on every position, on every contribution that keeps the wheels of the machines turning. It’s not just about creating a place where the wealthy might flourish off the sweat of the working class in exchange for a few public accomodations, not necessarily including health care or education for children.

From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes more sense for humans to protect, encourage and educate children as a collective society. Unlike antelope, it doesn’t help the survival of our species to thin the herd of its weakest and most vulnerable members. That only benefits a species whose survival depends on passing on the strongest, most physically adaptive traits. For us, I’d wager that our survival depends on innovation, and you can’t tell by looking, nor by income level, which members have the potential to contribute the most of those brainiac traits. The safest bet is to educate all of them. That old “the cream will rise to the top” adage does not apply if every child is not given an equal shot at a great education. If we sacrifice the most vulnerable members of our herd, low-income children who rely on public education, in some cases for the most nutritious food they’ll see all day (that isn’t saying much, and you know that if you’ve ever had lunch with your kid at school!), the most attention they’ll receive from an adult all day, and the best chance they have at unlocking their creative, athletic or academic potential, we are dead men walking.  Sure, not everyone is going to be a rocket scientist, no matter how much money we throw into public education, but don’t we, as a collective, want people to reach the top of their potential in every field? Don’t we want great butchers, bakers and candlestick makers?

If you envision all the children of the state of Kansas in a group, in a herd, in the middle of a field somewhere, the current policies have them arranged so that the least needy, the children of wealthy parents and the kids whose parents can send them to private academies, are collected at the center of the group, well sheltered from predators by the more vulnerable. My own kids are somewhere in the middle, as I am available and eager to supplement the deficiencies of the public school system with my time and effort. The kids on the outside ring, the ones most likely to fall prey to the ravaging teeth of crime and neglect? In the current climate, they are never going to get a chance for protection.

Now imagine that each of those kids is a lottery ticket, randomly assorted in the group. Each of them has the potential to be great at something. Some of them have the potential to be great at something that means something to you. And some of them have the potential to be... great. I mean, like, really great. Brilliant, talented, amazing kind of great. Changing the course of human history sort of great. But there’s no way to know which one might be a brilliant artist or a genius bio-physicist without scratching every ticket or running every number to see which ones hit. If you had the chance to scratch off every ticket, wouldn’t you?

A few snarky comments aside, I have not shared Kingsolver’s experience as a mother in America. Please don’t ever tell her because she’s absolutely one of my favorite contemporary authors, but I’m about to make a bold dissension from her premise that Americans don’t like kids.

You do, and I know you do.

At least you like my kids, and you’re helping me make them great. I can’t count the number of people who have immersed themselves, knowingly and not, in my kids’ little psyches. Some are friends, some are relatives, others are strangers that we might only have a brief interaction with. A couple of weeks ago, my two oldest kids came to work with me for the day. While bussing tables at the diner, my 12 year old son had a short conversation with a K-State offensive lineman. This guy doesn’t know it, and might never know it, but a moment like that for a kid like mine is fucking life-changing. Just like that, someone who could have just as easily gone about his day, instead put his hand out, gave my kid a high five, then talked football with him for a few minutes. And what that did for my son’s self-worth (which is in there somewhere, but we’re still chipping away to get at it) is immeasurable. He felt visible. He felt important. He felt valued. He was, in that moment, not a nuisance to anyone, but a legitimate member of a community, doing a job and talking to a guy who is a really big deal!

I could go on and on and on about the friends who encourage my kids and make them feel special, about the co-workers who watch my tables while I sneak into the bathroom five times a night to pump breast milk for my baby, about the other mom at the soccer game who took my kid to the drinking fountain because my hands were full with said baby, about the strangers in the grocery store who tell my daughters that they are beautiful. The point is, I don’t for one second believe that the majority of the people of this state would deny my kids a great education. I’ve felt the effect of a community’s kindness and love for them, for their potential. I’ve seen them shepherded by my enormous family and my wealth of friends and total strangers alike.

By my observation, a very small minority in this state (mostly just a couple of stuffy broads who object to anyone having so much sex, and some grumpy old guys who write letters to the editors of small town newspapers complaining that they shouldn’t have to pay for public education because they don’t have kids in school) would support this move by the state senate to re-write the state constitution, to let themselves off the hook for having to properly finance a decent education for every student in the Kansas public school system.

And to those few I pose this scenario: let’s pretend that the not-too-distant future, say fifteen or twenty years from now, is a foreign country. Let’s pretend you’re a pilgrim, and someone offers you choice: you can have a free ticket for passage to a country where the people are less educated than your current home. The crime rate is higher as a result. There are a few very successful individuals and a majority who struggle to maintain a comfortable standard of living. There are few academic resources available for the children of those who are not born into some sort of fortune. The other ticket is to a country where people are able to set goals and meet them, where a good education is attainable and teachers have the necessary resources to teach, and to identify the skills and talents inherent in each child, resulting in a skilled butcher, a well-trained baker, an enthusiastic candlestick maker, and every once in a while, a nobody kid comes from out of nowhere and blindsides the world with his imagination, his talent, his brilliance, because his community believes in his worth. But you’ll have to pay a little more for that ticket. Which country would you prefer, Mr. grumpy-letter-to-the-editor-guy? Where would you rather languish in your final years?

But seriously, fuck that guy. There’s no reasoning with that guy. I believe there are more of us, and as the Kansas House of Representatives considers supporting this amendment to the constitution, they need to hear from us. By us I mean you. Yes, you. I mean that you need to write a letter, or send an email, or go to their office and tell them in person. That’s the only way they’ll know how many of us there are.

As it happens, the woman who is walking to Topeka to tell them what she thinks is a Jayhawk basketball fan. She said this is how she does March Madness. It’s March, she said, I’m mad. Her team beat my team in the tournament, and I felt happy for her. Happy for her kids, that their mama is such a badass. Happy for Kansas that there are people willing to go to such lengths to protect its kids. Happy for my own, because they will benefit from her effort. But I want her to know that she’s not walking alone. Here is where you can learn more about some of the issues facing public schools in Kansas right now.  Here is a list of representatives.  Find yours. Call, write, email. Tell them this is bullshit. There is no more fat to be trimmed from the school budget.

We are divided as a state by a game of tall young people bouncing a ball in exchange for an education. What if we all spent a day cheering for the short people? All the short people, not just our own.

Kids are like a lottery where every ticket has a redeemable value, but you can't tell what that might be if you don't check the ticket. If you had the chance to scratch every ticket, wouldn't you?

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