Saturday, May 09, 2009

Differing realities? Dimensions? What gives?

I suspect that it is the gift of being able to remain in the now that controls the phenomenon, but whatever it is; I'm experiencing a new awareness that excites me down to the molecule level. It rivals time travel in ways that are undeniable:

It is possible to attend a meeting of seniors almost anywhere in the liberal Greater Bay Area and find myself amid hard-working, thoughtful, caring white-haired liberal/radical/progressives who are striving for equality at all levels. They can be found standing on street corners with picket signs damning war and demanding peace in our time. Stalwart members of the NAACP and the Civil Liberties Union are valiantly supporting their causes come rain or shine on any given day. They have surely been found at the gates of San Quentin protesting the inhumane death penalty. Life would hardly be worth living did I lose sight of their presence in my life. I've surely spent enough time during my long lifetime sharing and/or acting on those concerns. But they're but one reality in a life filled with complexity. Among primary concerns has always been racial equality -- something to be achieved at all costs.

Yesterday I spent a part of my day with the combined fourth grade classes at Joaquin Miller Elementary School in the East Oakland hills. It was African American Day, and the children had recently completed a unit on "the wartime migration of African Americans in the 40's"; intended to fulfill the requirements of the California History standard. I'd been invited by a member of the faculty (referred by the Oakland Museum) in my park ranger role to help to add life to their studies. The visit was to include lunch (typical African American menu of macaroni and cheese, potato salad, chicken wings, yams, mustard greens, corn bread and red soda water). In celebration of the day the children were costumed in the working garb of the period with little girls wearing colorful bandanas, the signature of the Rosies of WWII. It was pure delight to find a photo of myself (a laminated copy of the front page story in the Oakland Tribune) in their exhibit right along with the icons of the Civil Rights struggles.

I sat with the children during lunch and watched and listened quietly -- trying to figure out just what I could possibly say to them that might bridge the vastness of the space between their youth (9 & 10 year-olds?) and my 87 years. How on earth could that be possible? And if I couldn't build that bridge what purpose could my visit contribute to their learning?

Then through half-closed eyes (while sipping red soda from a paper cup) I suddenly saw the rainbow before me. This was surely one of the most racially diverse audiences I'd ever experienced. And it was all completely natural. The teaching staff as well as the children represented the full spectrum of the demographics of this remarkable American city.

Suddenly I realized that there was a congruence, a continuum of experience that meshed those white-haired activists working so hard to make right the world and these beautiful children with whom I was honored to share the day. It was this. They represent separate dimensions. Neither is aware of the existence of the other. Those sincere elders are still working hard toward goals that have already been achieved! The children in the All-Purpose room at this elementary school were the end result of that heartbreaking effort of the past decades of struggle. The questions and the answers were at hand in the here and now. And I was the bridge! Because I'm able to remain in the now, I'm experiencing both realities simultaneously!

Were one to question these children about their feelings about the election of the first black president, they would probably have no idea why we were even asking such a silly question! For them, the conversation is hardly worth engaging in. Were people ever so silly as to believe that they could own other people or lynch men because they refused to step off the sidewalks when confronted by another man or woman on the same path -- or that we would refuse to allow some people to ride in the front of the bus or that we would confine some to only the lowliest of labor because of a difference in skin color -- or, be so uncool as to refuse to share drinking fountains or attend the same schools because of race?

How to let them know what they'd taught me yesterday ... I tried in a small way by starting off saying, "... I'm not sure how to make the bridge that I'll need to tell you about my life -- I'm 87 years old. My great-grandmother was born into slavery in 1846 and my mother in 1894 and I was a little girl before there were ball point pens, bridges across the bay, push button telephones, or television or Harry Potter or cell phones -- etc. What is it that you'd like to know about me?" And from there the questions flowed.

It worried me that I may have been talking over their heads, but even if they were having to reach a bit, I felt connected to them, and even if I couldn't tell them that I'd discovered the differing realities, dimensions, and connections between the work of those dedicated elders and the perception ... that I had -- in a crazy few seconds -- slipped into a dimension where the questions and the answers had blended into a unified whole -- in a single moment of time -- in an instant that defied the limits of time and space ... .

As I was leaving after some picture-taking (which I'm hoping will be forwarded soon), it was clear that the teachers had heard me. It's possible that ... if my words were obscure -- maybe they'll evoke different questions from the children in days to come, and that new learning may occur because new thoughts have been introduced. I don't really know. I never know, really, except that I can sense viscerally when that human connection has been made.

But I drove away - back into the afternoon traffic on the Warren Freeway -- grinning to myself and feeling well-fed and affirmed in the knowledge that the world is in good hands and that those lovely children now growing into the process of democracy are being well-prepared by a diverse team of adult graduates of Sesame Street. That it took us all to reach this place, and that those caring elders may or may not ever know that they(we) were more successful than we could ever have dreamed. (I hope you're catching all this, Jim Henson, wherever you are!)

None of this will make sense tomorrow -- but this day, Saturday, May 9th, in the year 2009, I learned that I'm able to navigate differing realities and dimensions almost at will -- and as it is destined to be -- those distances between here and there and then and now will continue to narrow as the years taper into oblivion.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Thinking about Justice Thurgood Marshall and the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling -- 1954 ... .

I've been including in my talks lately, the fact that one of the gifts of aging is that one knows how all the stories turned out. True. An octogenarian view of history makes possible this period of summation, only now that the patterns are visible. Every now and then there are flashes of insight and the implications are inescapable. Each time I find myself watching news coverage about the plight of public education, the tiny pieces of incremental change add up to a reality that is disturbing. We've experienced a downward spiral and lost control of the way we're schooling our young. And, how else does a democracy survive except with an educated electorate? After 55 years of living with the results of that much-heralded decision, has the system of public education been successfully dismantled?

I'm not at all sure that those who championed the cause for equality won that one. In fact, it seems more and more evident that we may have lost that battle resoundingly. Recent studies show that segregation is more evident than ever and that we're a long way from achieving the goals of the mandate of 1954.

Just after the order to desegregate came down from the Supreme Court (by the way, a racist decision since it was the first time in history that a ruling was not immediately adopted but included the words, "with all deliberate speed") the disintegration of public education began. This meant that we allowed enough foot-dragging for the forces of resistance to organize and defeat the intent of the ruling. Black children who were attending all-black schools lost their teachers for the most part since our educators could not follow the kids into the newly integrated schools due to what was considered inadequate training. Our children were suddenly tossed into a world where everyone with authority was white, while black teachers who had been held in high esteem in their own communities were unceremoniously purged from the system.

Most white children throughout the southern states were moved into tax supported private "academies" created to keep them out of what was believed to be "harm's way." As the result of sometimes violently protested busing programs, schools everywhere were gradually re-segregated since demographics now followed housing patterns and racism determined where families of color could live. The great suburbanization of the Fifties withdrew much-needed tax dollars from urban school systems throughout the next two decades, a financial loss to inner city schools that has never been regained.

Over time, we've forgotten the genesis of "academies," and they've moved out of the south and been transformed into "charter schools" a change that has -- over time -- re-directed funding away from public education and into often untested and highly-specialized voucher-supported or privatized corporately-run institutions. And though often credited with introducing important innovations, accountability is often overlooked. We appear to have completely forgotten their genesis or why they exist at all. I felt a ripple of concern upon hearing our president speak out strongly in support of charter schools, and found myself wondering if his relative youth had shielded him from making the connections with the past?

Meanwhile, graduate schools are by now so costly that only the relatively wealthy can afford to attend. With teaching so poorly paid in comparison to other careers, repayment of student loans has become impractical for most students, black or white. In time it's my fear that -- whether or not we ever achieve racial equality -- it will be those who can afford the education who will continue to lead in all fields; a further extension of white privilege.

Why am I mulling this over at all? I discovered in a conversation a few nights ago that my son, David, is working frantically to find some way to finance his two young daughter's (11 and 13) tuition in Catholic school. Would you believe that for a semester it will cost $23,000 for each? This is not some exclusive educational institution for special kids; it's just your ordinary neighborhood parochial school for ordinary Catholic children. And beyond that first semester -- what then? In the urban public school that they currently attend, participation in the vollyball program had to be skipped since it would have required a payment over $700 for each for the season. Could the fact that the junior proms and senior balls -- that used to take place in specially decorated school gyms and that now involve limos and grand hotels and week-long spring breaks in Cancun or the Caribbean -- suggest a profitable arrangement by school districts with travel agencies and the hotel and visitor's bureaus in major cities? Should we be thinking "kickbacks" or is this grandma's paranoia?

Am I the only one who remembers my own introduction to the arts and music and literature and science came from public schools that were funded by us all? The PTA may have funded band uniforms with car washes and bake sales (and I'm not even sure about that), and the local grocery stores and gas stations collected coins in a jar on the counter for field trips, but it was all there. It seemed effortless. I can't recall my own parents ever being concerned with anything beyond making sure that I fulfilled my obligation to attend classes on time and neatly dressed for the day.

What have we done?

... and, how can we begin to find our way back?