In spite of our broken democracy


You know the warning on your car mirror: “Objects In Mirror May Appear Larger Than They Are”. This phrase reminds me of the distorted ways we sometimes see and experience this world. I was asked the question the other day, “Pearson and Company cleared six billion dollars in profits this year on their production of standardized tests, will students or teachers ever see any of that?”

All I could think of was how distorted, how terribly grotesque, our world view becomes when some corporate bodies, combined with policy makers in the highest places, believe they know the truth, believe they are accurate in their assessment of the largeness or smallness of certain aspects of students’ lives compared to others. And then another thought struck me in answer to the question: Pearson considers those who take, grade, pass, fail, shut down, are given a make over, as mere widgets in their factory of educational measurement.

We are objects to them. So, no, to those who wonder about this, no, you were never intended to receive any cash from Pearson, not in any way.

The farther away one is from the actual experience of those who work in a field day by day, the less likely they are to understand one hundredth, one thousandth of what goes on there. I do not know my doctor’s life experience, her complex estimates and decisions each morning before I am up. I have no way of knowing how a lawyer thinks in order to defend some of the people he defends or prosecutes. I can read a story in a newspaper about the police in my community and what they have done over the long Memorial Day weekend and have no idea what goes into their calculations. Pearson has no idea what the life of our schools is like, how some in them struggle for funds to support their athletic team, or the clever way staff members organize food shelves in their buildings so that students’ families can have something to eat over weekends without school breakfasts and lunches. Yet Pearson has much to do with how these schools succeed or fail. The evaluations they devise, the procedures, the questions they ask, may have much to do with whether a school is supported or punished by its district or its city.

This is at the crux of a horrible mismatch that has come about over the last decade. We have ceded to this company such power we are now unable to interrupt its momentum.

So where does this leave us, those who teach and administer schools, those who actually do know what it is like to face forty students in a classroom made for twenty-five? For years I have struggled with policies like the test craze that has dominated our policy, our educational politics and our kids’ lives. I have ranted in this blog, I have written on Facebook and I have posted other critiques of the inordinate way that testing has come to dominate our schools, testing that is designed at a great distance from those it affects. It dawned on me, after working in the Homeless Connect event at the Minneapolis Convention Center recently, that I feel the same despair about homelessness and hunger as I do about the lack of humanity in our schools, the regimentation and lack of support for those who need it most.

I have come to the conclusion that while we may write and speak and work at changing those policies that leave a young boy’s stomach growling because he gave the small amount of dinner to his baby sister, or that leave a mother of two without a constant space to raise her babies, we will feel deep bitterness as witnesses to this if we do not change our focus. If we do not see the way the smallest change, the simplest action can bring about a result that lessens the grief or despair in a young persons’ life, an old person’s outlook, then we will be paralyzed by frustration.

Many wise people have said to me to focus on the local, because that is where you will see that you have some agency. I have given this lip service until now. At this time, I have so lost any faith in those who run not only the educational system in our country, but who decide on whether those who work for minimum wage will receive enough to live on, or those who decide whether their poorest citizens will have medical care, that I must rely on the community– the tutors, the mentors, the men and women and young people who live their lives where policy affects them, affects us, to point me in the right direction. Because I have lost faith in some deep way with our democracy.

So when Johnny, who was twenty-eight and homeless, put out his hand to shake mine the other day, and we listed the services he needed, and began to work our way around to those who might be able to provide them, I understood that this is where I feel the most useful and this is where my sanity resides. When we arrived too late to get him in for an eye exam but the ophthalmologist looked at him and unpacked her equipment to fit him in, and her technician took off her coat to do this preliminary testing, I understood this is where work gets done. When it was determined that Johnny could barely see at all and a free prescription was given him for glasses which would be ready in one week, I understood that this effort is where work gets done. These objects, the glasses, the ID card, the haircut, that Johnny received that day, are the ones that are large and are not distorted in any mirror. They are close. They are detailed, They feed and even help people see.

Pearson Corporation will not give out its billions to all those it has regimented and undermined. Those who make rules and pass laws that deny human beings their very lives, may even get re-elected. Instead of being in a constant state of anger and sorrow about this, however, I am more convinced than ever that we waste our own power by taking a stance of hopelessness or cynicism. We waste the time of the teacher who is teaching students’ parents to read to their young ones. We are wasting the time of the food shelf organizer who picks up food for his store room at midnight in the back alleys behind restaurants. We are wasting the time of the young man who wants to pass his GED and apply to community college.

We can write and march and object and get our letters published. Yet when we get no results, or when fifty more schools are closed in Chicago in the poorest sections of the city, we lean back into the daily work we know how to do. We go where we are close to it and have some power. We watch as Johnny puts on his glasses, sees things clearer, not distorted, not larger than they are, but in real proportion. We work where we can be closest to the actual truth of things.