Monday, September 13, 2010

A Different Kind of Class Struggle

I'm driving Highway 18 from Monahans to Fort Stockton, one of the most desolate 40-mile stretches of scrub brush, cactus and oilfield litter this side of Mercury, on my way to an in-service for the Region 18 Education Service Center. People out here love it, but I can’t understand why.

“Live out here three years and you’ll love it too,” a teacher in Midland tells me. Not likely. I grew up in the Piney Woods. I like trees.

It's mid-morning, and I'm listening to talk radio because I can’t stomach screaming preachers or today’s pale imitation of country and western, and I’ve lost the oldies station out of Odessa. I don’t much care for talk radio either, but at least I can listen and laugh or fume. The host is Neal Borsk, or something like that. I’ve never heard of him, but he’s one of the Limbaugh clones. He’s ranting about the very people I’m en route to visit: school teachers.

“They’re teaching communism in government schools,” Neal bellows. (He doesn’t call them public schools. They’re government schools.) Neal knows this because he read a newspaper article about a second grade Georgia school teacher who required her students to share their crayons. Knowing what we know about media accuracy, I’m sure there was more to the story, but Neal’s one of those guys who never lets accuracy stand in the way of a good tirade.

“Government schools are out to destroy the free enterprise system,” he blusters. It’s a slippery slope. First, kids share crayons. Then fig newtons, and eventually, the government will force everyone to share lawn tools and time-share their lakeshore property. Oh sure, perhaps you like your kids’ teachers. Maybe your school isn’t brainwashing students, perverting them into junior Marxists and SandiƱistas. But you can bet your hot tub and SUV that the rest of these unionized, government school teachers are, and it’s pretty much left to good people like you — yes, you, Mr. Talk Radio Listener — to stand up and be counted and stop this creeping communism because if there’s anything we learned in Grenada, it’s that if you don’t stop communism at the seashore, pretty soon the Reds be in the hotel lobbies and pools, brainwashing the lifeguards and wait staff.

So I decide to act. I decide that in my back-to-back sessions, I will promote the extracurricular academic program as best I can (“students who compete in math/science contests have less acne and fewer cavities”), review any rule changes as they affect academics and outline a few general directives, essential deadlines and basic eligibility standards. But then once I’ve dismissed all that, I think I’ll confront these government teachers. “Stop forcing kids to share crayons,” I plan to instruct them, as if it’s not just a sound free market principle, it’s a mandate from the state office itself!

“Are you just trying to turn the Trans-Pecos into a commie rat-hole?” I'll ask.

Well, that was the plan. But then the general session begins, and the people packed into the Pecos County Convention Center look nothing like Joseph Stalin or Chairman Mao. They look like my Uncle Paul, who was a dairy farmer in Muenster. He died a couple of years ago, and he didn't look anything like Lenin or Marx or Ho Chi Minh.

At any rate, the teachers sit on uncomfortable medal folding chairs, listening to Larry Gatlin’s sister sing songs from the 1960s and ‘70s (my favorite: You’ve Got a Friend). “Who sang it?” she asks. “James Taylor!” the Baby Boomers cluck in response. Lots of the women teachers my age and older swing and sway in their chairs, laughing, singing along and clapping in the slightly goofy way that triggers husbands and teenage daughters to roll their eyes. They get lumps in their throats on cue. They wear dresses from J.C. Penney’s or Wrangler jeans. They have big hair, some in buns, and deep suntans and glasses that went out of style two decades ago. They don’t shop at Banana Republic or the Pottery Barn. They laugh at all of Larry Gatlin’s sister’s jokes, especially the one about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, and then act guilty for doing so, as if they shouldn't have gotten the joke in the first place.

The guys wear tight jeans and cowboy shirts and carry cell phones on their belts that look like miniature 6-shooters. The superintendents, decked out in their navy blue pin-striped suits, mill around in the back of the room, chatting among themselves. About what, who knows, but I doubt it has anything to do with workers controlling the means of production. I wait for Larry Gatlin’s sister to sing the Internationale, but she never does. She sings a Karen Carpenter song instead, then closes with a sweet anecdote about a private family event that resonates powerfully with the audience because it reinforces everything she has already said and sung but in a more personal, concrete way that prompts glassy-eyed teachers to turn to the glassy-eyed teacher next to them and sigh.

Then everyone eats a nice barbecue lunch and goes to class. My sessions are not particularly large. Chances are, if you’re still reading, you’re thinking, “little wonder.” Fair enough. My first session includes one principal, two teachers and a parent whose son is on his school debate team. “I just wanted to see what it’s all about,” she said.

Second session is larger but not a whole lot so. I trot out the standard dog and pony show both times, although truth be known, my stock performance is no competition for Larry Gatlin’s sister. But at the end of the day, I feel like I have accomplished a lot. I have reached people who live closer to Saltillo, Mexico than they do Austin, Texas, people who work in tiny Big Bend schools with children of illegal aliens, old hippies and anti-government types who listen to Neal Borsk and believe everything he says, especially about government schools and creeping communism.

These teachers have a tough enough job. Coaching extracurricular contests doesn’t make it any easier. But they choose to do it because it brings them closer to their brightest, most ambitious students, allows them an opportunity to establish special bonds with them, to provide them a warm and safe harbor in what can sometimes be an impersonal and scary school. Public schools succeed because of dedicated educators like them. So folks — all of you who coach, sponsor and/or direct these activities and others like them — I admire you and I salute you. . . comrades.