Friday, February 10, 2012

The Level Playing Field

Late in the afternoon, on a blustery October day somewhere in the American Heartland, an aging school bus leaves the highway. From a vantage point slightly above and behind, one hears the flatulent report of a rust-eaten muffler as the driver downshifts - descending the off-ramp to the feeder road, a series of black smoke rings bursting from the tailpipe. Inside two dozen young heads rouse from naps and close magazines and survey the approaching scene through fly-specked windows. Across a field, tidy brick school buildings and behind them the wedges of bleacher that flank a flat field like parentheses awaiting a statement.

The bus pulls into an empty parking lot, rolling the length of an enormous and nearly new gymnasium, coming to rest near the door signed "Locker Rooms". The bus rattles for a few seconds with pre-ignition, and falls silent with a wheeze. The doors squeak open. After a long moment, a boy steps down onto the asphalt. "Damn", he says, looking up at the towering mural above his head that shows a giant in a football uniform crashing though a block wall. And blazoned across the heroic scene - in letters as tall as phone poles - four words ... Home of the Titans.

His team-mates tumble out the old GMC and cover the short distance to the open door. They are twenty-five boys on the cusp of manhood, rangy and compact, lean and stocky, black and white and other colors less distinct. They carry worn gym-bags and scuffed helmets and trash-talk playfully as one by one they are absorbed into the concrete megalith.

Inside, a wide hallway leads them past several windowed offices. Their  doors are locked and labeled with etched brass plates. Team Physician, Nutrition Coach, Strength Coach, Defense Coach, Assistant Coach, Head Coach. Past these, two wide rooms expand out to each side.  In one, an astonishing array of gleaming weight machines, dumbbells, stair climbers, and treadmills; and in the other, padded benches arranged in crescents before a large movie screen. The boys from the bus wander slowly past these marvels, speaking in hushed voices. At the end of the hall are two doors under a wide banner that reads Lockers & Showers. Lettered on one, Visitors. And on the other, State Champs.

This is the world into which one team has entered. And inside which the other has grown up.

Later that evening, the visitors line up, in second-hand uniforms, flexing muscles built of fast food, mentally running the game-plan given them by a history teacher who doubles as football coach ... and face their opponents. The Titans - sons of past Titans - superbly trained and equipped, filled with the combined experience of half a dozen seasoned professionals, and drilled to second-nature perfection. Loved and encouraged and taught from childhood that theirs is the stuff of greatness.

And we look on from a safe remove. We trust that the rules of the game will be enforced showing no favoritism. We know that the team that executes the most key moments successfully will move on to greater challenges and send the other away defeated. And we know this too: the field is perfectly level.

Thanks for indulging me an extended metaphor. This is an imaginary match-up of course, but one that happens everywhere in sports every day. And it happens elsewhere too. It doesn't take a statistician to calculate the odds here. Or in the world that produces a Mitt Romney, an Al Gore or a George W. Bush. Logic tells us that those best prepared will win the day.

I grew up in San Gabriel, California. It's a strange place to be from. The third one of the California Missions was built there a few years before our nation declared its independence, and all of Los Angeles grew from that settlement. The San Gabriel Valley and San Gabriel Mountains are named for that old adobe, but nobody in L.A. ever seems to know where it is. I went to church at the Mission, and was taught by the nuns in its school. The town named for that Mission is sandwiched between Interstate 10 and San Marino. San Marino is one of the old-money neighborhoods of Southern California, a maze of curving streets that feed out of the southern border of Pasadena and are lined with enormous old homes, many behind iron gates and walls grown with ancient vines. As exclusive neighborhoods go, I imagine that San Marino is small potatoes these days, but when I was growing up ... that was where the rich people lived.

I'm reminded as I write of the old story convention of the dark house at the end of the street that all the kids thinks is haunted. We felt the same way about San Marino. We might ride our bikes to Lacy Park there, but we never saw the people who lived in the massive homes surrounding the park to the north. My family didn't know anyone who lived there. People didn't walk the streets. It was as if they snuck in and out in the dead of night. The source of their money was unknown to us. But their effect was felt nonetheless. If only in the FACT of them. That there was a privileged class of people nearby, got into our souls. And that knowledge informed us about who we were.

Something happens at the borders of the good neighborhoods; some of the prestige laps over into the adjoining towns. You've heard the term "Beverly Hills Adjacent"? Well in San Gabriel we had a version of that. If you lived in North San Gabriel, you could claim proximity to San Marino, and you were assumed to have a higher status than if you came from South San Gabriel. South San Gabriel was largely Mexican immigrant families then (the whole town is mostly Asian now), and they were the poor kids. My family lived a few blocks north of the railroad tracks, which could be seen as the dividing line. 'North' and 'South' were such ubiquitous prefixes for the name of our town that it wasn't till I was grown up that I realized that no such distinction can be found on any map. There is no North San Gabriel or South San Gabriel. The city planners never intended for there to be a class gradation street by street. We did that to ourselves and to one another. And as always in America, it had everything to do with money.

Our house was too far south to be North, and too far north to be South. I guess, socially we lived in the DMZ. I never interacted with a single kid from San Marino, but I knew plenty from N.S.G. And they were different from the ones I knew from S.S.G. Their fathers were professionals and it was assumed that they would be too. They were given cars at sixteen. Nice ones. Not like the old beaters we bought with our earnings from the kitchen at Kentucky Fried Chicken. They dated the prettiest girls. They went on skiing trips - whatever those were. They even seemed genetically different; square jawed and tall, with light eyes and clear skin. Their moms didn't cut their hair in the kitchen like mine did. They didn't wear Sears Tough-Skin jeans with the reinforcing patch in the knees.

By high school, I didn't even want to know what race of people lived north of Huntington Drive. I watched their football team savage ours just once before I gave up on ball games. But they whipped us every time.

My parents were hard-working and intelligent people. Neither had gone to college. My dad worked in an adding machine factory when I was young. How's that for an anachronism? Later, through a series of events unclear to me, he ended up working for Junior Achievement and ascended into the life of an executive, if only in the non-profit world. But he was always the fatherless boy from a hardpan farm in Indiana, and was happiest with a hammer in his hand.

And I, now in my fifties, can still not ask for what I need. I agonize over every painting bid trying to come in as low as I can. And when I do finally ask for a check, I feel like a beggar no matter how hard I've worked. This is my psychological legacy. And I grew up north of the tracks with smart, disciplined role models. How in the world does anybody ever break the bindings of poverty?

Since I began this series of essays, I have come under light fire from some of my lefty friends. They feel, that since I have criticized the recent tactics of the Democratic party, and the truly base vilification of conservatives engaged in by the Left's attack-dog fringe, that I have lost my feel for the poor. Such is the state of the political spit-fight these days. Once the talking points are lined out, a failure to accept them all like a good little zombie, can get you thrown out of the club. Of course the same thing is going on on the Right. I'm sure that I would be catching flak from that side too if I knew more hard-line right-wingers. But I am determined to take an honest look at the state of our society, and really don't much care how I am perceived while writing about it.

Let me jump back to my opening football team metaphor. Somebody reading through that will certainly get the point. I'm sure that it's obvious enough to all that, even when the rules are applied fairly and the field is as level as a billiard table, the fix is in. Because the game actually begins years before the man in the striped shirt blows his whistle.

And I'm not naive enough to think that I'm telling anybody what they don't already know. Why I bothered with the football analogy was because I wanted an example that had the right mix of physical and psychological elements. The team from the poor school lacked high-dollar coaching and uniforms and facilities. These are all related directly to the relative poverty of their school. So one might think that, by analogy, I am writing this to advocate for more school funding. I certainly believe that poor kids ought to have better resources, but I am really writing here about the psychology of it.

Aside from the material advantages, the Titans take the field with a lifetime's worth of non-material advantage. They have seen close-up the connection between effort and reward and how that reaches across generations. They have fathers and mothers who believe themselves worthy of a reliable car and a comfortable home, and have the knowledge and connections to make those things a reality. It's assumed that the kids will go to college. It's assumed that they will live well. They are winners in their heads long before they pull on a helmet.

But let's leave the football team behind us and talk in terms of general life success.

Success and failure are like communicable viruses. If the air you breath is contaminated with the assumption of a good outcome, you will catch it. If, on the other hand, everyone you know is carrying the disease of failure, only a particularly powerful immune system will fight it off.

It's not enough, in other words, to build a brand new school in a bad area. We've done that a lot, and it isn't working. Our expenditure per student has doubled since the seventies, while test scores have flat-lined. A new computer lab is helpful, as are sharp, climate-controlled buildings. All of this is lovely. But it isn't enough.

There is now a growing number of charter schools in our country that are revolutionizing education. Are they further shrinking class-sizes (an obsession of the left), or setting up these schools in high-tech facilities? No. They are not. Are they paying their teachers more, in accordance with the idea that more money attracts better teachers? No. Are they cherry-picking the kids, only taking the smart ones? Nope. So what are they doing? Well, they are returning to a hard-work, discipline model. They are eschewing the coddling and phony self-esteem that has crept into education. They set tough standards and expect the kids to live up to them. And guess what ... the kids do live up to them. Even kids from the most deprived homes. This is not some flowery version of education cooked up under a shade tree in Berkeley in 1967. This is old-school school. With an added layer of family accountability. And it's kicking ass.

Why are we even arguing about it when programs like the Harlem Children's Zone and KIPP are taking kids from the ghetto and sending them to college at unheard-of percentages? I think it is because we have politicized education like everything else. And because - wherever party politics lives - we are more interested in our side winning than we are in pragmatic solutions. We only want the solutions that will make our side look good.

Somewhere along the line, we developed the habit of group-think. It is the most natural of human traits to identify who is "with" you and who is - potentially - against you. Desmond Morris called it in-group, out-group thinking. It is an artifact of our long evolution as hunter-gatherers, and for survival in the bush, it's the hot ticket. But in a modern society, we have to keep a tight rein on that stuff or we end up like the Sunnis and Shiites; killing each other over an interpretation of the book they both revere. Just as these Muslims - so very alike in our eyes - have located enmity where none should be, so have we Americans. We have hypnotized ourselves into thinking that a Democrat or a Republican is the enemy.

Hey ... wake up. You were just having a bad dream. None of that was real.

Every one of us wants children to succeed. The notion that the rich WANT you to be poor might have made for a dynamic George Carlin rant, but it's a poisonous thought to live with. If you are poor, you can't buy gasoline from oil companies. If you are poor, you can't pay credit-card fees to the banks or interest on home loans. The rich might want to be richer than you, but they don't want you poor.

And you over there on the Right. The liberals don't want to destroy America. They will support the military and are happy to see businesses rise and flourish if those businesses play fair with their employees and take care not to destroy the environment. We're not so far apart as we think.

Some of what is needed to break the cycle of poverty costs money. Some of it has to do with the types of societal values that money cannot buy. We need to engage both mechanisms, without regard for whether either might be more associated with a political party we habitually oppose.

What has happened is that, as the debate has raged in these last forty years, we have - on each side - grabbed certain values for ourselves, and ceded certain values to the other side. So if, for instance, hard work and discipline is touted heavily by one side, the other side - in an attempt to disassociate from those bad people - will speak of that value less often. And if caring about the underdog is held as a central theme by one side, the other side - for the same reason - will let that value fall down it's list.

So, in effect the Left and the Right have divvied up the whole batch of values that used to be known as American Values. So now, asking much of a black kid is called racist even when the asking is an attempt to call that kid to his best self. And advocating for more investment in the poorest among us is seen as one more example of the "nanny-state". The loudest, least cooperative voices on each end of the spectrum are in the grips of a thought-behavior loop that goes back to before we made tools. And we have to understand it and get control of it.

Remember how Grandma used to say, "Don't cut off your nose to spite your face."? Remember that?

The charter schools and wider reaching programs like the H.C.Z., are such a perfect first step to re-uniting the values that made us the greatest country in the history of great countries. None of them is flawless, but the founders of the best of these schools are clearly trying to help children. And pulling it off. They are obviously not racists. Or greedy bastards. Or goofy academics trying to socialize America. They will enlist "conservative" ideas and techniques as readily as "liberal" ones, in doing the very good work that they do. They are, in effect, saying "Shut up ... all of you ... I have a school to run."

I say we pay attention.

Dave Morrison, February 10, 2012

Here is a link to an enlightening interview done by Katie Couric with Davis Guggenheim, director of "Waiting For Superman", and a panel of educators.

This is a link to "Waiting For Superman" on Youtube. It's in 11 parts.

1 comment:

  1. Nice work Dave - I probably agree with you on many many things. Catch you on FB.