September 25, 2012

I suppose because it’s election season right now, I’ve seen a lot of talk about how everyone taking anything from the government is lazy. I’ve heard this even from supposedly liberal friends. I thought, given that, it might be a good time to share some personal stories…

First Story

My dad was poor. Dirt poor. His father served in the Navy in WWII and Korea. When he came back, he worked hard. Still, there wasn’t always food on the table. The kids went hungry a lot. The parents went hungry even more.

Second Story

When I was little we were poor. Both my parents worked, but sometimes my dad was laid off. They both had a hard time finding work. We always had food, but sometimes we could only heat one or two rooms of the house. My parents both worked very hard and yet, sometimes they missed payments on the mortgage. Times were hard.

Third Story

I went to a good college. A really good college. The year before I graduated, practically everyone who came out either had a good job lined up or they were going to graduate school.

Then September 11th happened. When I graduated, the economy was in the toilet. I knew one person with a job. He had been hired by the accounting firm Arthur Andersen. If you don’t remember what happened to them, just Google “Enron.”

I took the first job I could get. Door to door canvassing. I worked strictly on commission. During an especially slow period, I worked two 40 hour weeks and got paid $140. It sucked, but no one else would hire me. Either I was over-qualified and they were sure I’d leave or I was qualified, but hey, here’s this other person who has four years experience and just lost another job.

Eventually, I quit the canvassing job to try and make ends meet as a substitute teacher. That didn’t go very well, either. I did find a job, eventually. It took me six months, but I got a job doing editing work. It’s the kind of job I would have been qualified for when I graduated from high school, but it was a job. It paid the bills. I was, at this point, what would probably be called under-employed. I never stopped looking for another job, but I never found one.

Eventually, I went back to school (and took on a bunch of debt I didn’t need) so I could be a teacher. This represented a substantial raise over what I had been making and it was work that didn’t make me miserable.

This entire process took six years. Times have only gotten harder.

During the first year after college, I had a lot of help from my family. My parents supported me. They paid my rent. They bought my food. I lived with them for ten months.

I shudder to think what would have happened to me if I hadn’t had them.

Because I needed some kind of help. I was doing everything you’re supposed to do. Everything even Mitt Romney says I’m supposed to do, but if it hadn’t been for my family, I would have had nowhere to stay. It is entirely possible I could have ended up homeless. With a college degree. From a good school. And a willingness to do just about anything to pay the bills.

Fourth Story

If you’ve read this blog for long, you know I had surgery to remove a tumor when I was 18. My parents carried me on their insurance as long as they could and then they bought private insurance for me because they didn’t want me to have a “preexisting condition” dogging me for the rest of my life.

And then the insurance company dropped me.

Fortunately, I’d gotten a job with benefits and switched things over (though the coverage was pretty miserable). Otherwise, I would have been screwed.

What It Means

Look, I get that there are people who find a way to take advantage of the system. I get it and I don’t care. I think people who think of welfare recipients as getting an awesome free ride should look into it and see what they really think. I don’t know anyone who even has a concept of what middle class is who would rather depend on the government. I want those same people who don’t think healthcare should be a right to tell me why I deserved to very nearly have my life ruined by something totally out of my control.

There’s all this talk about how people should pick themselves up because we aren’t socialists and why are those other people so lazy?

My parents weren’t lazy. May grandparents weren’t lazy. Why did they have to go without heat or food?

I wasn’t lazy, but if I hadn’t had a family to help, there’s a chance I would have ended up homeless.

I had a conversation with a friend once and the very American notion that anyone can rise to the top came up. And, in one of my better moments, I said, “Anyone can, but everyone can’t.”

If everyone works as hard as they can, someone will still be at the bottom. In good times, that means working at McDonald’s. In bad times, it means losing everything. These are bad times.

I know that not everyone works as hard as they can. Few do, perhaps. But I also know there are many people at the top who did not work for what they have. I need look no further than the people who ran the company where I had my first real post-college job. They were incompetent. All of them. They were also the sons of the owners. That company went out of business not long ago. How do you think the incompetents at the top are doing now and how do you think the hardworking people at the bottom (and I know they were hardworking. I worked with them) are doing now? Who is better off? Who should be better off?

I look overseas, and every nation I can find doing better than us provides healthcare for its citizens. It often provides food and shelter for those who have nothing or some equivalent material benefit. It doesn’t ask for anything. It simply says, “you are cold and hungry. Eat this food. Sleep here.” I see that they have higher standards of living, longer lifespans, better education, and lower poverty rates and I think maybe there is something important about valuing every person, no matter how little they do. I think that maybe says something about your society and I think it maybe encourages your citizens in a way our “tough-luck” philosophy does not.

If you think that’s wrong, we disagree. I don’t want to live in a society where, “not my problem” is the response to other people’s struggles (go read A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer).

If you think you couldn’t easily be one of these people, you suffer from a lack of imagination.

Teachers Are People

September 12, 2012

It seems like something happens every six months or so that compels me to write about how teachers are being treated by the general public. This week, it’s the strike in Chicago.

To hear the media (even the supposed “liberal” media) tell it, teachers have walked out for no good reason and they don’t care about the kids and they are just greedy and lazy and we all wish they would go to hell except then who would teach the chillun’?

So let’s look at what the teachers actually want:

1. They don’t want their evaluations tied to student test scores. Why? Because socioeconomic status varies widely from class to class and school to school and this is the thing most closely linked with student performance. Teachers, rather obviously, have no control over this and thus, not nearly as much control over test scores as everyone wants to believe.

2. If a school closes down, they want experienced teachers at that school to be at the top of the list for schools that are hiring. Schools often want to hire new teachers because they are cheap. They are also not as good as experienced teachers. Now who doesn’t care about the kids?

3. They want basic supplies like books and, yes, toilet paper. Assholes.

4. They want to paid more if they are going to be made to work a longer day.

5. They want a raise that isn’t immediately offset by increased healthcare costs.

I don’t know how or why teachers and teachers unions have become so demonized in the US. Go around the world and look at the countries doing better than us. They are almost all unionized. Look around the country. States without teachers unions do worse on average than states with teachers unions. These are facts. It doesn’t matter whether you like them or not. They show, pretty clearly, that unions are not the problem.

The problem is that we don’t take care of the poor in our country.

The problem is that schools in rich neighborhoods get more funding than those in poor neighborhoods.

The problem is that many, many rich people send their kids to private schools. Those kids are important resources because they come with support networks and expectations that kids from the lower classes often don’t have.

The problem is that our country is so focused on test scores we haven’t noticed that test scores don’t correlate with success in life.

I’m tired of it. You want to fix the schools? Tell me how anything ever got fixed by fighting against the people doing the work instead of working with them.

You want to call me lazy? Kiss my ass.

Right now, on average, I’m after school three or four days a week. I run a writing program that I started. Twice this year, I will be teaching what amounts to two classes in one period because I have a handful of advanced students who want to learn more about writing, but I don’t have a class to put them in.

And you know what? All the crap? All the ridiculous accountability that the federal and state governments push? It makes my job harder because I have to spend time on pointless paperwork and other silliness when I could be teaching.

Teaching is my job and I love my job, but I think all the time about getting out. It’s not the students. It’s not the challenges. It’s the way I’m demonized daily no matter how hard I work. Hell, if the right person saw it, they’d probably gripe about this post and wonder why I wasn’t “doing my job” instead of writing this.

I’m a person, that’s why. I get to have interests outside my job. I write. That’s what I do. I’m doing it right now. In a minute, I’m going to go heavily annotate 50 pages of The Sun Also Rises so I can be ready to discuss it with my class on Friday. Early next week, I’ll be spending my “free” time reading 60 or so short stories from my writing classes.

You don’t think I’m doing a good job? You don’t think I deserve what I make? You do my job and tell me I don’t deserve it. I’m tired of being treated like part of the problem when I spend everyday trying to find the solution. You want to gripe about the teachers in Chicago? You can go to hell.

Under the Stars

September 6, 2012

Last night, I was half-laying on the bed talking to Cate when Simone came in, sat on me, and started jumping up and down. “Faster, horsey, faster.”

“What are you,” I asked, “a cowgirl?”

“Yes, I am a cowgirl! Faster horsey, faster!” More jumping. She took off her hat (a Hawaiian bucket hat, in the long tradition of all cowfolk) and waved it in the air. “Yee-haw! Faster horsey faster!”

It was bedtime and she was charged up, but also adorable. I had an idea.

“Simone, do you want to set up a cowgirl campsite and sleep under the stars like a real cowgirl?”

“Yes! Yes! Yes!” More jumping.

For probably a decade, I have had these glow in the dark stars (the kind we all had on our walls when were kids) that a friend gave me when I was in college. I couldn’t get rid of them because, well, those things are neat, but I hadn’t used them either. Now was the time.

I got the kid ready for bed. We stuck the stars up on the wall above her bed. We hung her cowgirl hat on her hitchin’ post (her bedpost). We found her stuffed horse (“Daddy, do real cowgirls sleep with horsies?”), and I covered them up. We read exclusively books that featured stars or the moon on at least a few pages. Every other page, she stopped me to tell me she was excited to sleep under the stars like a real cowgirl. She wouldn’t let me turn her nightlight on because “I want to see the light from my stars.”

I make a healthy use of my imagination. That’s all fiction writing is, after all. But I am always amazed and envious of the way Simone (and all small children) can be so completely carried away by her imagination. It’s glorious and I learn from her every time I see it.