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'Be Less Afraid'

Dear Diane,

Every day, some new, unexpected voice pipes up confirming views on the quality of the tests in use to judge our children, their teachers, and their schools. The much-vaunted New York Regents math exams turn out to be shockingly shabby, etc. Ditto for new reports on the financial scandals taking place under mayoral control—hardly surprising. Ditto for the number of financial and other scandals in charter schools.

When we proposed a highly decentralized experimental zone in 1992 (with money from the Annenberg Foundation) there were two things we said should not be dropped: our obligations to the laws regarding civil rights and fiscal integrity. We also set up two independent university control groups to monitor our work and an independent board of experts. And, since we chose to remain New York City public institutions, we accepted the final authority of NYC's Board of Education and the state's department of education. It turns out that the present "marketplace" concept of "public" schooling gets rid of almost all of those safeguards. Should all this make me optimistic—a precursor to a turning of the tide? Or just a reminder that our democracy is not working well (note that odd victory in South Carolina—Green—who intended (so he says) just to be an irritant). Or the amazingly open role of money in politics. [Editor's note: Paragraph updated with correction to replace "centralized" experimental zone with "decentralized."]

But let me change the subject. Maybe once a month we should put out a fact sheet on these matters—reporting on newspaper stories and academic reports. They are rolling out daily.

While cleaning up the piles of mess on my desk, I came across a speech Susan Sontag gave at Vassar College's graduation in 2003, as reported by The New York Times. I consider it an incendiary speech, exactly the kind of troublemaking I so love. I recognize in her words my own aspirations for education and the degree to which they may not be shared by even my own friends, much less my fellow citizens.

"Despise violence. Despise national vanity and self-love. Protect the territory of conscience."

"Try to imagine at least once a day that you are not an American. Go even further: try to imagine at least once a day that you belong to the vast, overwhelming majority of people on this planet who don't have passports, don't live in dwellings equipped with both refrigerators and telephones, who have never even once flown on a plane."

That's Mission Hill's Habit of Mind # 1. Of course, to imagine also requires knowledge—deep knowledge—and the capacity to shift identities, however tentatively. (Read Playing for Keeps, from the Teachers College Press—just out!—by me, Brenda Engel, and Beth Taylor. This habit starts very young and takes constant practice.)

"Be extremely skeptical of all claims made by your government. Remember it may not be the best thing for America... Be just as skeptical of other governments, too."

That's Habit # 2: the habit of demanding credible evidence, beyond "I think." "I have a right to my opinion," etc.

Let me just type out excerpts from the rest, because I love her language.

"Be less afraid.

"It's good to laugh, as long as it doesn't mean you're trying to kill your feelings.

"Don't allow yourself to be patronized, condescended to....

"Do stuff. Be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration's shove or society's kiss on your forehead. ...It's all about paying attention...and not letting the excuses and dreariness...narrow your lives."

"Attention is vitality. It connects you with others." (Habit of Mind # 3)

And finally.

"Be a person who can be happy a lot of time, without thinking about being happy is what it's all about. ...It's about becoming the largest, most inclusive, most responsive person you can be."

That last part about happiness reminds me of 1985, the year we started Central Park East's secondary school. We were determined to be trusting and respectful and not condescending to each other, our students, or their families. But we were also determined not to be pushovers, to be strong grownups. So we fell back on a "slogan" that I enjoy. We posted it all over the school. When kids complained that "you never let us" or "it's soo booring," we pointed to the sign and moved on.

This is what it said: "It's not our job to make you happy, but rather to make you strong."

We knew it was corny but it was really, of course, meant for ourselves.

I'm amazed at our own daring—starting a grade 7-12 school that would be different than any public school we knew about—with permission to not count "credit hours" or give standardized tests. In Susan Sontag's words: "It's hard not to be afraid." And we often were.

It helped that nearly half the kids had been with us through elementary school in the 1970s. I have been the recipient of a mini-avalanche of mail on Facebook (which my son set up for me) from the first graduates of CPE elementary school's 6th grade. I quote just one about an often-forgotten aspect of good schools—the friendships they create for life.

"...the paradise in the photo was taken in St. John's in the Virgin Islands. We were there celebrating her big 40! See, Deb, relationships from CPE have lasted over 34 years. Our school created a huge extended family!"

Best,
Deborah

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