A Comprehensive List of Reasons We Aren’t Having Kids

Writing

Since getting married, people keep asking me and my husband if we want kids. Since neither of us has ever expressed even the slightest interest in procreation, it seems odd. But the really odd thing is when people argue with us about it after we try to politely demure. You could stop with the question when we say no, and I politely talk about how grateful I am that other people have them, but instead you keep interrogations going. Since we are getting tired of repeating ourselves, here’s the list of reasons.

Prepare to be horribly offended.

  • We don’t want to.
  • Kids will cramp our style? Why? Because our style is called “being irresponsible” and “sleep.”
  • You all frown on people who smoke weed around their children
  • People keep telling me how brilliant our child will be, and that might be true, if we win the genetic lottery. But they’ll also be insane, and we’ll possibly produce a Lex Luther.
  • Don’t you all think I’ve done enough damage to my body?
  • Listening to the cries of children gives me horrible flashbacks to my childhood.
  • I’ve already taken care of lots of kids, so I know better.
  • My husband straight just hates kids, you guys.
  • OR… we can both write.
  • We’re just a pair of selfish assholes.
  • OR… I can continue to play subversive aunt to all of your children
  • I literally can’t do it all without dying and frankly I like writing and activism better than raising kids.
  • Between my husband and I there is only one fully functioning adult and we both agree it’d be best to raise kids with two.
  • I wouldn’t wish my medical conditions and epic-genetic trauma on my worst enemy.
  • Just general laziness.
  • Neither one of us wants deal with the fallout of possibly having a douchebag. Which is to say, we’d have to hate our own child.
  • After 28 years, I’m finally getting good sleep. Fuck you for asking me to give it up.
  • Children aren’t fluffy and they expect to be fed more than twice a day on a regular schedule.
  • Our cat wouldn’t like it.
  • Christmas and Disneyland are usually involved in our descriptions of hell.
  • Do you REALLY think it’s a good idea? I mean, if you know us? DO YOU?!!
  • Because we are too irresponsible but also responsible enough to know we are too irresponsible.
  • It’s all fun and games to tell children to rebel against authority until you are the authority.
  • Children’s birthday parties.
  • Pregnancy, for either of us.
  • We’ll never like our child as much as we like each other and we’ll both also do a poor job hiding it because of aforementioned laziness.
  • “No, honey, Santa isn’t real. He’s just something some white people made up to get people to spend money. Sure, go ahead and share that information with the masses.” Do you really want my child in school with your child?
  • Children are like biological weapons factories and my body is basically virgin soil for the all the good my immune system does me.
  • I don’t actually carry the gene that makes me addicted to baby smell, because I’m a mutant.
  • I secretly hate taking care of kids even though I’m really good at it.
  • I’m also really good at physics but I have yet to see such a mass campaign to get me into scientific fields.

 

 

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How I Learned to Talk to Anyone, Including Ann Coulter Loving Conservatives

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My Grandma Amanda was the baddest bitch I’ve ever known. She crawled out of  a brutal depression poverty. She rode on a motorcycle through Prague when the Iron Curtain still divided Europe. She divorced her philandering husband when this was still a radical act for women in the 70s. She became a single mother and raised two incredibly unruly half white boys in the depths of poverty rather than endure the humiliation she had experienced under her husband. She had put that same husband through medical school while working at one of the most challenging residential programs for the mentally ill in the state. Her patients had killed people in fits of madness. My Grandma Amanda was a tireless advocate for the poor, women and the mentally ill. She stepped into my life at 15, when I was a very scared, very traumatized young woman on the cusp of making life ruining decisions in a place where the stakes were death and rape and sex trafficking. She took me under her wing, pushed me to imagine myself as so much more than I was and supported me through the rough years of Stanford as I tried to navigate a world of unimaginable privilege from a background where I was simply grateful for food. I would not be half the woman I am today without her.

 

She happened to be an O’Reilly loving conservative. She was so conservative that the first time I read Ann Coulter’s work was when she handed it to me at 16. By the end of high school I had gotten used to sitting at our kitchen table, her cigarette smoke surrounding me, as my parents, my grandma and I discussed the world’s problems and attempted to find common ground amongst our viewpoints. As I became radicalized in college, she pushed and validated me in a million ways over the holidays when I went home. Before I could make my points to my friends at Stanford, I had to make them with her. Very often, I won her over but more often she forced me to get better at my own argumentation.

 

As I went off to college, I had no idea how radical my upbringing had been. My parents were punk veterans from the 80s, my mom had refused to let me watch Pocahontas because she said it was racist. When I learned about Civil Right’s I learned about how important the Panthers were and I was raised in incredibly diverse neighborhoods. But for me, this was normal, and I was very used to having to make my perspective understandable to people because I had been trained to do so at my schools, and at my home. I walked into campus and found myself having discussions advocating, usually successfully, for resources for poor students on campus among some of the wealthiest people in my generation. You could find me at any frat party, drinking beer and slowly convincing people that activism for the poor and resources for the poor needed to exist.

 

I have my grandmother to thank for all of this, for her love taught me that most people are good and have good hearts. She taught me that I could be wrong, but also that I could be forcefully and respectfully right. She taught me to translate my words into things that anyone could understand and to find common ground. She implicitly taught me the rules and logic of argumentation, augmenting what was a natural skill-set from my working class roots where wit confers status and where “talking shit” is the highest art form.

 

As I entered the classroom, I thought of her often. I also thought of the boys I had left back home and encountered in the faces of my students. Those rebellious shitheads. I’ve always had a soft spot for them because I am one. They were right to push back against being told what to think. I wanted them to have that freedom, and I also wanted them to reach the right conclusions. I accomplished this goal by trusting them to be smart enough to reach it with the right information and with the training to think. After all, if my perspective was based in evidence, and it most certainly was, I should be able to make my case to just about anyone.

 

My time in the classroom proved these lessons correct, as by the end of the year I had watched otherwise racist students become more compassionate and enlightened classmates. I watched kids who had felt apart from each other come together. And I had watched them bloom into brilliant thinkers and writers that I was proud and fortunate to be part of sending out into the world.

 

Thought leads to action, so at a certain point, I accepted the responsibility of the intellectual. That as someone with the incredibly rare access to the levers that create thought, I have a deep responsibility to my community to use that position to change the way they are thought about. I’ve come to learn that argumentation is the best way to do that, because that is essentially the underlying driver of culture. Culture is defined by our belief systems, and argumentation is one way those beliefs are shaped. There are a lot ways to persuade people of something, but for a world view to be successful it needs to be argued on all fronts, from the courtroom to the stand up comic’s stage. There are of course other, more violent and destructive, ways to change thought. Forced conversions, purges, massacres and on and on have all been used in the name of ideology to win the war of ideas. But my goal remains to fight for an ideology where these means are unconscionable for those actions are the very root of oppression. My goal is for everyone to be free, and I’ve never felt that that goal was somehow mutually exclusive with justice for everyone or mutually exclusive of the care of each other. I am also unwilling to trade one system of oppression for another.

 

This journey led me to the ultimate conclusion that I had a responsibility to craft my messages carefully. I’ve failed in this task over and over again as any writer and thinker does, but it is a goal I strive for. Although it brings me immense personal joy to write, to continue winning at the art of “shit talking,” and to do research, the main reason I feel this strong pull towards that goal is because I know how much power ideas and words can have. I know that there are very few voices like mine, that I represent more people than just myself, and that I have a responsibility to others to utilize my gifts for the common good.

 

I’ll never be the one to tell you how to think, but I hope that I’ve convinced you to think more deeply about your role, and more deeply about the work you produce as an activist. If it isn’t the best that can be done for the people, it is not serving the people. We have everything in our argument, evidence, logic, and values that one needs to win an argument. We do not need to resort to other means to get our point across because our viewpoint is that strong. But we cannot succeed in this task alone, we all have to work together to get better and better as if our lives and the lives of the people we work on behalf of depends on it. In many cases, in many causes that is no overdramatization. But we must approach this work from an ethos of love as well, for love is what we hope will be the guiding ethos for the world we create and if we wish to create it, we must create it in both action and deed alike. It begins with empathy, compassion and listening. It begins in those kitchen table conversations with the people who loved you even when they disagreed with you. And the people who heard your viewpoint even when it was terrifying and new. And the deeply flawed human beings who get up everyday and are often struggling in a million visible and invisible ways but who also demonstrate kindness towards their communities. Where there is a decent heart, its center can be reached by other decent hearts. Most hearts, I assure you after all these years of evidence to the contrary, most hearts are decent and beautiful and open to learning. But they cannot learn until they’ve been loved.

The Beautiful People that We’ve Ruined

Writing

It has taken months for me to figure out how to write this post. At first I ran away from it, avoiding it, burying it, rejecting it. Then I spent a long time trying to find a way to wrap it in a pretty bow and make it nice. It was always there in the background haunting everything I did. Eventually I couldn’t hide anymore and I decided that I just had to be honest and raw. That’s something I’ve lost in the last few years as I have adjusted to this new environment. I used to scare people like a monster with my mouth and the things that came out of it. So I learned to codeswitch and say it with a smile. But it wasn’t enough, my edgy-ness, my having-lived-life-ness was unprofessional and it was no longer socially acceptable for me to say what I thought. I began to see myself as something that I had to hide and when I couldn’t hide it, I hid from everyone.

So here it is. As honest as I can say it.

When I was a child I would walk through my house and get hit and ask why and the sociopath I pretended to be my father would tell me it was just for gp, general purpose. I got accustomed to it, it was actually one of the less terrible pieces of my existence. Being hit, I could deal with that. I could deal with the insults causally said to me in the house, slut, fat, bitch, whore. The best part of my years were my trips to my grandmother’s house where at least we’d have enough to eat, and instead of the beatings I just got called fat. These were the easiest parts of my existence, so when people ask me why I was successful in school, I don’t know how to tell them that school, with all its ridiculousness, with the lack of books and the food and the never fitting in, was the thing I fantasized about, because at school, I was undeniable.

My mom used to hide my test scores from my siblings to spare them the comparisons. I was the family scapegoat. When I asked her why she was so hard on me in particular she said it was because I could handle it and because she didn’t want me making the same mistakes. This is why my mother never felt the compulsion to tell me that there was anything I did well, she was afraid that if I knew my power that I would be an uncontrollable nightmare. When the sociopath went to jail I was 14, the beatings and the names didn’t stop, though the attempted rapes did and for that I felt blessed. I took the blows and the words from my sister and my grandmother because I knew that it was the only way for them to express their anguish. I’ve had people tell me that they were cruel to me because I was only one who could take it, a lot. That’s why by the time college rolled around, I could survive any critique. And I could also survive that treatment from the people who called me their girlfriend. I survived it by making myself numb, so numb, in fact, that I don’t really remember my childhood and now don’t even know when I dislocate my jaw or hip.

I was weird for a Stanford student in many ways, but the one that seemed to interest people the most was that I was not an outcast in high school. I wasn’t universally loved, either. When I was 14 a group of girls decided that they were frustrated with my popularity and confidence and they shouted whore at me in the hallways and wrote me letters in which they told me how terrible I was. They threatened to beat me up shortly after I had finally escaped someone that had been beating me for the fun of it. I wish I could tell you that the adults intervened but in my neighborhood the only real adults were the more competent kids. So as my now former friends attempted to dethrone me, the black girls at my high school came to my defense and said “if you touch her, then you deal with us.” I was surprised to say the least. I was used to using that line to defend people, just 2 weeks before the mean girl shenanigans started I had a guy beat up for sexually assaulting one of the girls that now threatened me. For six months, this torment continued but it ended up just back-firing and making me more powerful, mostly because they were never able to get me to admit that they had hurt me. Instead I sent their letters back written with comments in impeccable satire. By sophomore year, I was undisputedly running things, and I was doing it from my home because my health forced me into independent study.

People at Stanford didn’t seem to have an explanation for my experience in high school. I never had the heart to explain everything to them and I don’t think they would have heard it if I did. My first boyfriend in college spent one night calling me a whore and telling me it was because I was the kind of girl who dated the kind of guys who beat him up. But I was not that girl, I had more power than any of the men at my school did. I had no way of translating that to anyone and it made people uncomfortable and so, once again, the people around me tore me down to make themselves feel better, and I let them because I was used to being the sacrifice. By the time I reached Stanford, I had no self-esteem. Unlike my peers, I had never had a point in my childhood where I was simply safe and loved. When I was an infant, my mother’s husband held a gun to my head and threatened to kill us all if my mom left him. No one was even at my birth except my teenaged mother and there are almost no pictures of me from my childhood because my grandmother was angry with me for being born. I never developed a basis of worth or a belief in myself. To this day, I only think of myself as having the right to exist if I am doing something for someone else, which is why it has been so hard for me to be ill. My fiancé has faced the uphill battle of teaching a stubborn, brilliant, and profoundly wounded creature to believe that she is a human.

My junior and senior year of college I dated a very confident and happy young man who was the picture of California’s finest. Behind closed doors, he hated it when I upstaged him. When we took classes together, I would spend the evenings afterwards trying to make him feel better about the fact that I was the stronger academic. In the logic class, I solved all of the proofs and he stole my solutions and was happy when a slight mistake in transcription of sentences, not the proofs-mistakes that I was making because my headaches were so severe-would cause him to get a higher grade. I met him after returning from China, an experience that had been painful for me. The people on the trip with me often made me feel excluded, the girls fed on my bodily insecurities and the most banal statements about my childhood disturbed them. I was drinking, heavily, 4 nights out of the week and waking up with tears streaming down my face. I was hurt by the first boy who understood where I came from and called me beautiful even as he fucked other girls to prove to me he could. When I got back from China, my little brother got his girlfriend pregnant while still a senior, and my 13 year old sister was raped. I hid these facts from everyone and so I found a boy who would take joy in my doing so and who hated me when I was most myself. My life only continued to spiral out of control as time went on, and by the time I returned from my first summer in Germany, where I acted as my boyfriend’s house wife, my one positive female role model was dying and I knew that was not going to be able to finish my honors thesis. Instead of understanding that this happened because I was human, I took on all of the culture, exacerbated by all of the abuse, that said that if you didn’t do something it was because you didn’t work hard enough. “No excuses”, I learned, only applied to poor children. For me there is no safety-net, there is no gap year, no rehab and no help getting jobs. It made me constantly aware that despite all I had done, I was always one bad day away from hunger. My failure to write this thesis conveniently made my very insecure and very privileged boyfriend feel much better and he continued to feed the fuel by calling me lazy and picking on my weight with his friends the summer after I graduated in Germany. Of course, he got a lot of help from me when it came time for him to write his honor’s thesis.

Do you see the pattern yet? Do you see how I’ve been torn down by so many people who hated my fire? So many people and so many times, that people made sure I had no idea what I was capable of so that they could feel better about what they weren’t. But this isn’t just a personal story, because I am a woman in a world that does that. When men are sold something it is in order to make them feel and be great, and when women are sold something it is to cover up their inadequacies. Advertising is fundamentally an abusive boyfriend no matter what your background is. I feel the sting of irony as an exceptionally talented historian, who pointed out that Disneyland was bullshit at 4, succumbing to this. On the outside, I was the snarky bitch who smoked cigars while wearing a trench coat and short skirt and told people exactly who they were. On the inside, I was a profoundly damaged little girl who had no self worth. And I wish I could tell you that the turning point happened after breaking up with that boyfriend, and in some ways it did, and in the more surprising ways it didn’t.

When I broke up with him, I promised myself that I would never let anyone do that again and for a while the only way I knew how to prevent that was to become cold and untouchable, so I started letting the image of me as a sassy cat lady build. I put into place what I needed to be in the right relationship, but I hadn’t yet found the way to build a life that would allow me to be my best self. I entered Stanford’s Teacher Education Program (STEP) and suddenly found myself in a program that had a fundamentally core belief that required them to make me feel like shit about myself, because you see in education ideology, people who have an easy time performing do so because they are more confident and take away from the learning of others. It is why as a little girl, I had trained myself to count to ten before answering questions. It was why as a little girl, teachers would relish in my failure, and wouldn’t accommodate me when I was sick. It was why as a little girl, I would get perfect scores and be told it wasn’t enough. Very few teachers were supportive and kind to me in school, which is why my behavior was often atrocious.

STEP got on me early. They would refuse to call on me. Take me aside and tell me that I was hurting the other students. Call me domineering when my adult classmates handed over group assignments to me to finish for everyone. Refuse to give me any credit for any group assignments. Relish and then refuse to help me when I struggled. Pick on me and tell me I would never be good enough. My classmates would come to hate me and tell our supervisors that I was making it hard for them to do their best. They would report when I was sick and take pleasure in tearing my assignments apart. The few who stood up for me would find themselves shut-down. I became a complete nervous shadow of myself, and at precisely the same moment, my body hit its limit. STEP was merciless. It was everything that I was promised would stop when I entered Stanford and when I was an undergrad, Stanford lived up to that. Most professors seemed to love having me in the classroom and encouraged me to be successful. And I wish now, that I had been more open about my childhood and that I had had more support because if I had, I might not be as ill as I am now. Unlike my friends, I had no direction and no networks to figure out what to do with my Stanford degree. I have always been able in the classroom to hide my insecurity with my intelligence, so I never let on that I was confused. I could be ignored because I was white and helping me wouldn’t result in the same kind of public relations coup. I went into STEP because even though I desperately wanted to write and do research, I was dealing with too much and didn’t know that I was good enough to get a PhD. I thought that my failure to write my honors thesis meant that I was incapable because I unable to get past the 3 deaths that happened in the fall of my senior year, while also being forced to run the first-generation low income community group, First Gen Low Income Partnership. But I had no support, no community, no help because I was poor white trash. The only people I ever knew that had college degrees were teachers and everyone kept telling me that I needed to continue my activism for poor students. My boyfriend at the time encouraged me to teach because he was the “better” fit for PhDs. So I went into education.

Education is a female dominated field, and I thought because it was going to be a bunch of people who cared about children that we were all going to be super nice to each other. Which made the shock of reality even more difficult for me. This time it wasn’t one professor, it was a program. It wasn’t one group of girls, it was nearly everyone except those that had to work closest to me. I was ignored, ridiculed and then made to sit in meetings where I was told to apologize for the honor because I was making people feel bad with my presence and words. They took a very badly wounded soul and pushed me into the ground. I guess that’s how I ended up in work environments that replicated the pattern. That’s why I had to leave the classroom prematurely.

My body paid the price for this. It took the damage, quite literally. It took the damage when I was beaten and when I fought as a little girl. It took the damage as I struggled through Stanford, fighting the whole damn way for everything I got. It took the damage when I taught four classes, vomiting in between each one and then sat in class vomiting in secret every half an hour, because I was too afraid to let anyone know that I was sick. It took the damage when a very scared little boy injured me. It took the damage all year, as I struggled to climb up the stairs and into my classroom. It took the damage when I pulled a 14 hour day to prove that I was teaching the kids because some of the women on staff felt the need to tell my supervisor that I was bad at my job because I showed them up. It has taken the damage, being the only consistent protection I’ve ever had.

It has taken it everyday that I’ve hated it for not being thin enough. It has taken it everyday that I joked about how grateful I was to be smart because I was not beautiful. It took it when a boy told me to lose weight because I “could” look better. It took it when a boy told me his friends thought I wasn’t thin enough. It took it when I didn’t stand up for myself when a boy fucked another girl because I thought it was what I deserved. It took it every night I drank so that I could endure the social interactions with my peers who thought appropriate party chatter included bigotry. It took it when I rushed to class after my weekly toradol injection so that I didn’t have to deal with any emails from my supervisors at STEP about how I couldn’t possibly be sick because I could come to class and perform. It took it when I went to work limping only to have to spend vital work time responding to constant emails demanding to know why I wasn’t failing the students like everyone else on campus. It took it every single fucking time.

And what bothers me most, is that my story is not isolated. It is trapped in context. My story is the story of a gifted woman being torn down so as to not offend men. My story is the story of a kind, gentle soul being made rough by women who were scared to find out what her existence meant for them. My story is the story of a passionate, caring individual being isolated because the color of her skin didn’t fit into the narrative. My story is the story of a beautiful, womanly young girl hiding her body because she wanted to be taken seriously.

And I wonder how many gifted, kind, passionate, beautiful people we’ve ruined because we were scared of their power.

Fuck You, There is No “New Civil Rights” Movement, You Haven’t Finished the Last One

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I hear a lot of rhetoric about how education is my generation’s Civil Rights issue. It’s a nice thing to say and hear and it makes elite graduates feel good about their two year commitments. And the thing is, I won’t use the rhetoric because of what it says about affiliations, but I do agree that it is a huge Civil Rights issue, one that deserves a good deal of attention from my generation. Here is the problem though: Brown v. Board was passed in 1954, schools are now just as or more (in some areas) racially and socio-economically segregated as they were in the 1950s. Laws requiring equitable funding and busing were enforced in the 1960s, and are no longer enforced today because white people don’t like them. Schools that have legal restrictions because of the rights gained during the Civil Rights movement are now losing funding to schools that have no such restrictions and expel, abuse, and ignore the most disadvantaged children among them. The issue is that this isn’t a new Civil Rights movement. You can’t call it a new Civil Rights movement when we still haven’t finished the one that got started 6 decades ago. This isn’t a new Civil Rights movement so much as this is a fight against newly sophisticated methods of keeping the same social order. We aren’t post racial, we are just racist.

It is really awkward for me to teach Civil Rights to the kids, because even in the liberal bastion that is California, it doesn’t take them very long to look around and figure out that several provisions of that movement have failed because they aren’t enforced. It is even more awkward when I have to explain that the schools aren’t integrated because white parents said it was unfair. But the most awkward thing of all is being in the Silicon Valley where so many of my peers benefited from a system that gave them every advantage at the expense of the lives of kids who never had a shot. If you think the poor kids in Silicon Valley can’t see what is happening here, you are either really naïve or don’t know anything about kids. In some ways it was better for me, given these circumstances that I grew up in an isolated poor neighborhood, because by the time I got to Stanford I had a strong working class identity that they couldn’t pry from my cold dead hands.

For my friend’s with parents who were around in the 60s, it must be really uncomfortable to look around and see their own parent’s failures. And it is those parent’s failures. It is the peers they went to college with, the kids who didn’t want to deal with the trouble, the kids who wanted to remain comfortable and watch the dogs and hoses take down children from their middle class existence. The kids who through the 70s and 80s decided that their own comfort and advantage were more important than the things that were fought for a decade earlier. I know this is angry and cynical, but it is nowhere near as angry and cynical as our continued system of racial and class-based oppression. You don’t know what anger and hate is until you are dehumanized by a system. You should be sad. You should be angry about this. I am not a cynic. I don’t write to release my anger. I write because I believe my generation can be the one to do the right thing. But we have to be willing to be uncomfortable. We have to give up our advantages. We have to love freedom so much that we feel chained while others are chained. And I want to make something clear, chaining black boys to desks is not really different from the chaining of the past. There is nothing new about this. This is as old as our Constitution. This is as old as slavery. This is older than America itself.

The Charter World’s Dirty Little Secret: “Counseling” Kids Out aka Getting Rid of the Kids We Don’t Like

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I am very protective of my students. I feel like a Mama Grizzly Bear and I feel like that about all of them. I call them “my kids” and I don’t even want to have my own kids. I love teenagers, I really do. I find something to love, something that is beautiful about each and every one of them. They get under my skin sometimes, and I may not always like what they do, but I try to look for the good in them. I am not unusual in this as a teacher. I also feel a great deal of responsibility for my students. If my friends at Facebook make a mistake, they might cost Facebook money, they might feel bad, it might not look good for a while, but it can be fixed. If I make a mistake, if I have one bad day, if I give a child the indication that I don’t love them, that I don’t believe in them, the consequences are dire. Every friend of mine has vivid memories of how they got the message that they couldn’t succeed, we remember those words. Sure the kid might not perform in my class, but that is not the more important concern. For some of my kids, one bad day, one use of the term lazy, or bad, or even the slightest messaging that implies that I don’t think they can succeed and I am putting the nail in a coffin. That is not a metaphor.

The charters I have been at have been on the progressive end of the spectrum, but even then I saw some of my kids “exited” meaning they were encouraged to leave and go somewhere else. They were told that they couldn’t be successful at that school. The charters are under no obligation to educate every child. The two I have been at were mostly good about this, but the reality is that both Summit and EPAHS are special places. The vast majority of charters follow the KIPP model. Some of them are doing some good work for some kids, but in the long run, even if they educate the few they do have well, some of their policies have lasting and incredibly damaging impacts on not only the students but also the community that far outweigh the fact that a small number of kids scored high on some tests.

A lot of people don’t realize what is going on. In the charter world, they call it exiting the kids. They tell SPED kids and ELL kids, and behavior kids, that they can’t be successful there, and they do this before the kids even walk into the door. If the students can make it past that gate then they have to deal with a set of rules, and if they don’t score high enough the charters will encourage or find a way to make them leave. It is an open secret that charters recruit kids before funding kicks in and then drop the kids off back into the public schools that make their lives difficult before tests happen. Comprehensive schools then have to pick up the slack with less funding. Charters serve a self-selecting and small population. A population of students that are told that if they follow the rules (including walking in lines, chanting when they are supposed to, doing work under unreasonable conditions) that they are good and that the other kids from their home community are bad. Charters already start with a self-selecting population because few parents have the cultural capital to apply to the charter. Then once the kids get there they leave in mass. There is a charter in New York that was praised in the media. They started with 55 middle schoolers. 16 entered their freshman year. That is a horrific attrition rate. KIPP, which is probably the best in the bunch, loses 40% of their kids. Charters get a lot of outside funding the publics do not get. Then they educate a much smaller percentage of kids, an already self-selecting group, and then they get rid of anyone who makes trouble.

I am not going to mince words here. If you have 55 kids and only 16 make it to 9th grade, and you also have more money than the public schools, I don’t care what the scores are. Any teacher can get 100% proficiency with 16 top performers, and on top of that, they also run their staff into the ground and have massive turn-over. If you have to run a slave operation on your teachers to get 16 well-behaved, higher performing, better resourced kids, to get proficiency, your model is not working. It is failing. That they have so many kids dropping out, have so many more resources, have teachers working under horrific conditions, and can only get a small percentage through, and that the percentage that does finish goes to but can’t finish college, then you are doing something horribly wrong.

This is all statistics and data to me, and it matters, but I want to talk about the emotional ramifications. These charters pull kids out of their home communities, isolate them, use awful tactics to train them to act appropriately privileged (a lot of them us SLANT which means Sit UP, Look at the Speaker, Ask Questions, Nod, Track the Speaker- follow them around the room- all things I don’t see many privileged kids doing anyway), tell the kids that they are somehow better than their friends from the neighborhood and that their neighborhood is the problem and that they are personally responsible. Then they have crazy discipline policies, some of which violate the Geneva Convention clause on group punishment (yes, seriously, I’ve seen the archives of charters applying to districts), and they lose their kids. Disproportionately, they lose their beautiful, brilliant, fun and charming young black boys. So let’s look at this from the kid’s perspective. You’ve just been told that your culture and community is bad, that if you fail it is your fault and that the charter is your only hope for getting out. Then you behave like a child, and your principal and teachers, your community, your only contact with mainstream society, tells you that you can’t be successful in the place that was supposed to save you. Just so we are clear, kids are getting kicked out for things that I did fairly regularly, things that privileged kids do all the time, things that are perfectly normal for kids to do. If you look at the behavioral contracts at some of the charters kids can get kicked out for defiance, for not going along with specific programming, for not doing homework and for not performing. So basically, if I had gone to a charter I wouldn’t be writing this right now.

What do you think the consequences are for the children who get exited? Well, they’ve just discovered that school is not a pathway they can be successful on. Since school is the only legitimate way to get out, where do they go? Prison. Drug dealing and using. Prostitution. The streets. I am not being melodramatic, this is the reality of the situation. They are done. They will give up on school entirely. The small percentage that stays and gets a “good” education (high test scores, and access to resources the public schools don’t have because they get outside funding) would probably have been fine at a fully integrated and well-resourced comprehensive public school. The kids that leave should not be sacrificed on the alter for our unwillingness to honor our Constitution and our unwillingness to fund public schools. This is ultimately the thing that made me decide to not go charter this year. There are some good charters out there, EPAHS and Summit are both offering things the public schools in that area don’t have and filling a need that needs to be filled, and for the moment at least doing a good job of it. But wouldn’t it be easier to have comprehensive public schools that are dedicated and designed for equity? And Summit is an outlier, most fit into the No Excuses mold of that school I mentioned in New York and of KIPP. I love my kids too much to continue to watch this happen. The public schools are far from perfect. I went to one and it was awful, but it was also not integrated and didn’t have resources. We can’t get around the resource question. We can’t get around Brown v. Board of Ed. The consequences are too serious. If we want to fix education, we have agree that we have a responsibility as citizens of this democracy to provide a true meritocracy with equitable access to education. Rich parents have to stop trying to get around the rules to give their kids advantages. Frankly, since most of them believe that their children are geniuses who earned everything they have, maybe we should see what happens when they have to deal with real competition, because the system right now is rigged to make it as easy as possible for them to maintain their position. That is racism. That is classism. We have to stop dancing around the issue. Integrate the schools. Fund them equitably. Because right now, as far as I can tell, some of these corporate guys are funding the charters so they can continue to get around our constitution.

Activism: Git ‘Er Done

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I am going to do what I always do in these conversations and state my credentials from the get-go. I am going to do this because I am white. And because I am white, and grew up extremely poor in an urban area where I attended some of the worst urban schools in the state of California in a community that is one of the most ethnically diverse in the nation and am living with a Mexican American man I grew up with who told his dad that he had no interest in learning Spanish because “he didn’t want to be one of those Mexican kids who can’t read English” and who is half white but knows he gets stopped by cops all the time because he is Mexican, I am intensely aware of how this whole speech and my mere presence in the activist community comes off, and came off while I while an undergrad, to the very communities that I work with. So demographically, when you ask me to be extra specific, I identify as working class, first. That’s the closest I can get to being honest. I do this because, when I entered Stanford I spoke a non-standard version of American English, and maintained the kind of wit that can only be learned on the playground and lot of people thought I was being a crazy asshole. And I also do this, because I have the white privilege of not having to identify as my racial background. And because as a straight white woman I don’t have to identify as my sexual orientation either. But the fact of the matter is that the reality of my childhood more closely resembles that of poor folks who grow up in urban areas than it does the white peers I most closely resemble physically. On paper, people often assume I am black. This is because they are racist.

I am also an activist in urban education. I went to STEP for graduate school after being one of the founding members of FLIP and being heavily involved in activism for the low-income community while I was an undergrad. I was not well liked. Mostly because I am obnoxious, but also because I didn’t look like what we think activists should like, and I didn’t talk like one either.

As I said, I spoke a non-standard form of English. In fact, unless I am in a professional setting I still speak a non-standard form of English. This is important because when I came to Stanford my words were not typically well-received and I heard a lot of arguments by education reformers about how we need to train kids to “speak properly.” Now, I will tell you, that we do in fact need to train kids to speak in a way that allows them to be taken seriously by the elites who determine whether or not they get to escape the ghetto. I do this because I am an incredibly practical individual and I want kids to have the same opportunities my privileged friends do. But that doesn’t mean that I have to like it. I think the dialect of English that I happen to speak is beautiful. All of my friends who went to college back home (a tiny number, that as evidenced by my relationship with my significant other, cling to each other) are incredibly adept with the English language. That’s because the dialect I happen to speak, is all about quick thinking, metaphor and poetry. As a history teacher, I want my kids to have those skills, I just also want them to have the other skills too, because unfortunately I don’t currently have the power to decide which skills we value in society and I want my kids to be valued. I train kids to code-switch because I think their language is beautiful and because I think it is necessary for them to have choices in the world. Choice is the ultimate privilege. And I want them to have it. What I am saying is that it is fine to want to impart the skills that give people power onto others, but its not ok to pretend like those skills are inherently better or more beautiful than what they already have. You will never know until you can have love for both. I am glad I can sit in the classroom and debate the merits of Rousseau but I am also glad that I can handle myself on the playground. You have to love people and see the beauty in who they are, not who you want them to be. You can love people for what they are or hate them for what they are not, those are your options when you live/work in a community. And trust me when I say to you that you aren’t going to get anything done without love.

Even as I know my neighborhood well, I don’t presume to know everything about growing up poor in America. What happened in my neighborhood in North Highlands has commonalities with East Palo Alto, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, but it isn’t East Palo Alto. So when I went to work in East Palo Alto, I didn’t pretend to know everything about East Palo Alto. At first I just shut up and listened. I also did as much research as I could about the community and asked a lot of questions. This is the most important advice I can give as an activist, you have to listen and be willing to learn. Look, Stanford kids are really smart. We are smart and hardworking and these are admirable and good traits, but they don’t make us omnipotent. They don’t even make us better people. We aren’t Gods, we are just human beings with a slightly faster processor and a whole lot of training. You don’t know everything about the community you are walking into, you can’t assume anything about people unless you can read minds, and even then that doesn’t mean you can fully understand everything about an individual’s thoughts. Listen, and be grateful that someone is giving you the opportunity to do so.

As I stated above, I am aware that I receive a number of white privileges, and now I am also extremely well educated. I knew when I was a kid that I had white privilege. You’d have to be blind to not figure that out when every time a cop is around one of your non-white friends gets hassled. Also, I studied history. And if studying history taught me anything it was that white people have privilege. I wish this weren’t true. I wish I could give back all the ways I benefit from my privilege and share them such that everyone benefited. I spend my days trying to find ways to do this for my students. But I have it, and wishing it would go away isn’t going to make it go away, the only thing that will make it go away is if white people start accepting and finding ways to tear down the structures that make it so. Am I pissed off that we have to wait for people who have the power to wake up and realize this and be ashamed of it and fight to distribute it more equitably? Yes. But, I am a practical woman and this is the reality of the situation. And there is also this, at Stanford people from my class background are in the minority. Most of my classmates are better off than my wildest imaginations could possibly create as a child. And we live on campus together and they are my peers and my friends. We have to live in this society together, I want them to be part of the solution. So I want them to acknowledge their white privilege at the same time that they choose to do something about it, and I want to help them by acknowledging my privilege and being incredibly patient while they figure it out, so long as they are trying to figure it out.

As I have said, I am a practical woman. In the words of Deng Xiaoping “I don’t care if it’s a black cat or a white cat, I just care if it’s a cat that catches mice.” He was referring specifically to whether or someone was Communist enough to serve the country because during the Cultural Revolution the conversation became a bunch of college kids shouting “I am more radical than you” instead of sitting around and saying “hey, we have all this power and privilege and there are people suffering, what can we do about that?” His leadership in China was marred with blood, but I am using this quote because he is right. I don’t care who gets things done, I just care that they are taken care of. I don’t much care who progresses human rights, I just want them to progress. My family, friends, and students don’t have time to wait around for the perfect “savior” to come along. Studying history has taught me that they rarely do. MLK had many affairs, he has a record that suggests that he was less than progressive towards the woman in his life. For me, that doesn’t change the power or importance of his message. The same goes for my personal favorite, Malcolm X, because even though I don’t agree with all the things he said or all of his methods, he was often right about very important issues. I have my own tremendous blind spots. In the 1950s Stanford sent one of the largest contingents of participants in Freedom Summer. This is a legacy we should all be proud of, but we should also remember the reasons for Freedom Summer. Black Civil Rights workers had been fighting and dying for a long time in Mississippi by the time that Stanford students traveled down there. The plan was to bring privileged white children to work down in Mississippi so that when one of them was murdered or beaten people would actually care. That this is what needed to happen for the American populace to care about the plight of black people in America is horribly racist, and profoundly disturbing. But do you know what else was horribly racist and profoundly disturbing? Mississippi in the 1950s. We live in a society that is still racist, classist, sexist and heteronormative. It’s hard enough struggling against those things without the infighting that occurs when we start making sure the ranks of activists has the right composition and purity. I will say this again, the people I love most in the world don’t have time for that. We need to stop asking ourselves if people who want to help are good enough to do so and start asking the only question that matters: what is the most efficient way to make things better? Because we have a job to do, and where I come from that’s the only thing that matters.

This was originally posted by the lovely people over at Stanford’s progressive blog Static. The link can be found here: http://stnfrdstatic.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/on-responsible-activism/#more-2906

How I Got to Stanford and What that Means for Education

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When you grow up poor you face an entire social structure that has the same force as gravity. It is there to drag you down until you reach the center of the earth and know your place. I get asked a lot how I managed to escape gravity, and the honest answer is that I am still doing everything I can to process and figure that out. But the fact of the matter is that it requires a very special kind of intelligence to come from where I came from and to go where I did. I’d like to rewind and tell you the story of me as a little girl.

My mom has some really fabulous, I knew Heather was a weirdo from an early age stories. I am going to tell you my top three. The first involves me as a toddler. When we were little we lived at my grandma’s house, despite my mom’s best efforts to get out in her own right. That house had a staircase. Every day, my mom, just 19 and 20 at the time, would wake up bleary eyed and find me sitting with my hands at the table waiting patiently for my oatmeal. She couldn’t figure out how I managed to make it down the stairs, so one day she woke up early and waited until I woke up. I was still in a crib at the time. She watched as I stacked the pillows in my crib, hopped the “fence” of my crib through a force of engineering and physical strength and climbed down the stairs and up the big chairs in the kitchen where I would wait in silence until she came down the stairs. All through school anytime she offered to help with my school projects I would tell her to go away because I didn’t want to have to relinquish creative control.  My mom is really into crafts. So what I am saying here is that I was fiercely independent, already had a tendency to see obstacles as mere engineering problems, and was already used to being successful at carrying out my missions enough to trust my own intelligence better than I trusted my mother’s, who besides being working class and kind of messed up at the time, was a member of MENSA.

The second story takes us a few years later. They made the mistake of taking me to Disneyland. My mom wasn’t happy about it because she knew what would happen and I spent most of the time hanging out with her and refusing to go on rides and talking about my observations. At one point, my mom turns to me and says: “Heather,  look there is Mickey Mouse, don’t you want to go say hi?” and I just looked at her like she was an idiot and said, “that’s not Mickey Mouse, that’s just some guy in a suit.” I was four. So I was already the kind of kid who looked around and saw things for what they really were and called it out and asked real questions and refused to be lied to. This is a related but also short story. My grandma thought it was a good idea to take me to the circus. My mom had warned her, I was 6 at this point so she knew what was going to go down. We got there, walked past the tiger cage and I immediately had a complete nervous breakdown. We lasted 15 minutes because I was enraged about that tiger being in such a small cage. I kept asking my mom; “why are the tigers in such small cages, they shouldn’t be in cages, they should be free. They are big!” Epic tantrum ensued. So I also already had an incredibly strong sense of justice and was prepared to stop a whole family outing in order to get my answers about what is happening. To this day it’s a bad idea to take me to a zoo or Marine World.

The third story happened when I was about 7. My mom had a visitation agreement with my dad. I am not going to mince words, my dad died last year from a drug OD. He was a heavy meth addict and highly abusive to my mother and to us. Anyway, my mom dropped us off and about a half an hour later got a phone call from me. Hi Mommy, I am coming home, you need to come get me. Everyone is asleep here and there are bottles everywhere. It’s yucky. No, Amber is not coming. That’s ok, I will wait for you. No, now. K. I see you soon. When she got there I was sitting on the curb, with my little bag reading a chapter book. So by the time I was 7, I could look around and know that what surrounded me was messed up and that I needed to get out. I had the presence of mind to find a way out and I had enough intelligence to figure out what was going on. That’s an impressive level of meta-cognition for an adult, much less a seven year old. Did I mention that I started reading entirely of my own accord at 3?

So what is my point in all this? The problem is that our schools weren’t designed for kids like me. If you think with all of that that I just sailed through school, you’d be wrong. Academically I always did fine but most of my teachers thought I was a real pain in the butt. Some of them actively hated me, trying, even in elementary school, to embarrass me and find things I couldn’t do. By the time I got to junior high I was a nightmare in the classroom. Defiant, angry, lacking in all respect for authority. As an 8th grader I told my science teacher that if I were trying to take over her class I would have already done it, when she pulled me out of class to yell at me. I was starting to drink and smoke, having grown up in a house where both were plentifully available. I was absent all the time either because of my headaches, my home life, or because I simply decided I didn’t have it in me that day to attend. I started having sex at an early and dangerous age. So if you looked at me, you were looking at an incredibly high risk kid that you would have predicted would have multiple kids by now and would be stripping. I was frequently bored in school, but curious enough that I still read when I was home, and my mom made sure I read. This is one of the things that saved me. At 11 I was reading 1984 and having discussions about it with my mom, who as I have already mentioned is painfully brilliant. I would read my science books cover to cover, using that in class to torture the aforementioned teacher. She didn’t expect anyone to read the textbook. By junior high I was reading about 3 novels a week, in addition to doing my school work and getting in trouble in some of my classes. I hated school but I loved learning with a maddening ferocity.

Our schools aren’t currently designed for kids like me, especially not in the poor areas. If my mom had had money, I probably would have been in a magnet gifted program, but that wasn’t an option for us. With zero tolerance policies and the general attitudes towards poor kids that I keep encountering, my intelligence was seen as more of a nuisance than something that should be praised. When I was a freshman, my college counselor told me there was no reason for people “like me” to go to college. I had the highest test scores in the school by a huge margin. I watched, as time and time again, kids who were brilliant got treated in the same way, and I see it now on my interviews. I’ve been told that I am “too brilliant” to be a teacher. That’s ignoring the fact that I became a teacher precisely because I remembered the thing that saved me at the end of the day. It wasn’t a good school, that wasn’t an option. It wasn’t a testing regime, I rebelled every time they tried to implement those and still messed up the averages. It wasn’t technology, I had little interest in something I didn’t have access to at home and didn’t seem any more interesting to me than Orwell, Camus, Hurston, or my science books. At the end of the day, it was the few teachers I had who recognized my intelligence and differentiated to me, or at least emotionally supported me. It was those teachers who fought for me in the parent teacher conferences, and sent the message that I wasn’t made for this life. It was the teachers who spent the weeks before college applications were due and used their free time to talk out my essays and encouraged me to be painfully honest. It was the teachers, I saw, some of whom never formally taught me, that continued to throw books at me and have conversations with me at lunch. It was the last school I went to, that wanted nothing more than to set me free and loose. I went to Stanford and for the first time in my life, I wasn’t bored and most of my professors (except the few classist and sexist ones) loved what I brought to the table, because it was exactly what Stanford wants from its students. It was exactly what was required to reach that level.

We are so obsessed in education with maintaining order and the polite, easy kids that we forget about the kids like me, and that might be why so few charters working in the poor areas get their kids to the top tier. I wouldn’t have lasted a day in a place where I had to follow strict and arbitrary rules or get counseled out. Not that I couldn’t and shouldn’t have been tamed, but a much more effective way to do that was to have an honest conversation, like some of my teachers did, about how my continued good behavior would get me out. Because I did eventually “calm down” and “play the game” enough to stay out of trouble, but that was because of that conversation. I saw this in STEP too. Folks who shall remain nameless told me I shouldn’t be a teacher because of the way my brain works. They worried a lot about my ability to reach all kids despite my excellent track record with the SPED kids; they forgot that I had been translating my whole life. There were a few people who saw what I was and took me under their wing, fighting for me every step of the way. And for that, I am as always eternally grateful. But most of all, I grateful for the consciousness that I was born with and the people along the way that not only encouraged it but threw more wood into the fire. I hope to return the favor. And maybe if I am really lucky and work really hard, I will light some fires too. Because some of my kids come in with that already stomped out. But the wood is there. Be the match.