Oligarchy: The Future Is Now

June 28, 2012

“History Repeats Itself: The Robber Barons of the Middle Ages and the Robber Barons of Today”, Puck, Samuel Ehrhardt (1889), June 28, 2012. (http://http://www.library.gsu.edu). In public domain.

Though many of us have been fighting this long war against neocon, reactionary, even fascist elements in American society over the course of the past four decades, it appears that, like the Fire Nation in the Avatar: The Last Airbender series (2004-08), that we’ve lost the war. I’m not predicting that Romney will beat Obama in November. But this election will be closer than it ought to be, thanks mostly to the SuperPAC maelstrom stirred up by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision (2010) and our own get-rich-quick apathy with politics and responsibility in this country.

More importantly, though, is the reality that this election, even with an Obama win, is merely a chink in the armor that is our American oligarchy, now firmly established. With so much in regulations, social welfare, education, unionization, and other protections for the ordinary American rolled back, it’ll take at least a generation to undo the damage done since the Nixon years to our society, economy and environment. With so much wrong, though, it may well be too late to make course corrections without significant consequences for our nation and for the world.

That only in the past couple of years folks who weren’t staunch progressive or true leftist liberals have come to realize that the neocon endgame was a powerful plutocracy is testimony to the long, successful war of identity politics, wedge issues and other distractions that they have fought since ’68. The funny thing is, though, that for most of American history, our government has been a representative democratic oligarchy, especially for the poor or those whom are of color. How can you explain the history of slavery, even the half-century it took for non-landowning White males to get the right to vote?

“The ‘Brains'” Boss Tweed, by Thomas Nast (1871), June 28, 2012. (Vizu via Wikipedia). In public domain.

There have only been brief periods in American history in which the federal government has been responsive to the ordinary American citizen, a protector of the rights of the many and the minority over the rights of rich individuals and powerful economic interests. One of them came as a result of the Great Depression, the start of a nearly forty-year run where our government, despite its flaws and lies, frequently erred on the side of ordinary citizens. People can talk about the Clinton years being an oasis in the middle of a neocon desert, but between the vast expansion of credit, the tearing down of Glass-Steagall, NAFTA and other corporation-friendly policies, we now know that much of what occurred in the ’90s was a mirage.

What is different now — but not so different from the turn of the twentieth century — is the brazenness with which the rich and powerful flaunt their control over our lives. It’s as if they’ve drugged us, tied us down, and occasionally even tortured us, expecting no response or retaliation. And the media has played its role in this, too. From Kim Kardashian to the Real Housewives of RichLandUSA, and from American Idol to Mad Men to Dancing With The Stars. The rest of us just live vicariously through the oligarchy, or become raging and jealous while laughing at the folly of the rich in the process.

Even the wars we fight and the Supreme Court decisions made are steeped in oligarchy and the privileges of the rich and the corporate. That’s why we spent a decade in Iraq, billions on a military fighter we don’t need (F-22), and think that decisions that treat corporations as people and lower taxes for the wealthiest Americans are good for the country.

That’s why today’s Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act of 2010 — otherwise known as Obamacare — matters little in the larger scheme. Of course it matters that millions of Americans have access to healthcare. But even before the Supreme Court decision, the best most un- and under-insured Americans could hope for is a system in which they pay less for crappy health insurance. And health insurance isn’t same as healthcare, folks. Either way, the real winners long-term are private health insurance providers, and not ordinary Americans or the Obama Administration.

It is an unfortunate reality that over the past forty-five years, every aspect of government in this country has been infused with oligarchy. It takes tremendous and unyielding pressure for even a city government like New York (e.g., Rockefeller Laws, stop-and-frisk policy, decriminalization of marijuana) to bend to the demands of its own citizenry. Even then, protests, sit-in and petitions don’t always work (see Occupy Wall Street and the fifteen million protestors before the Second Gulf War as examples).

Mitt Romney Bain Capital “money shot,” October 13, 2011. (http://theatlantic.com via Boston Globe).

So, what to do? I haven’t given up hope, but I can’t spend the days I have left — whether it be moments or decades — waiting for the worm to turn. Next best thing is to hope that my son will drink of my wisdom and learn to fight against this kind of ruling class when he is old enough to do so.

Lightning On A Cloudless Day

June 25, 2012

When lightning strikes out of a blue sky, July 29, 2011. (http://news.discovery.com via Getty Images).

The worst summer of my entire life began thirty years ago on this date, within hours of having survived the worst school year I ever had. Between unrequited love and low-level ostracism, Crush #1 and Captain Zimbabwe, I made a pact with myself on the twenty-fifth of June, the last day of seventh grade, to keep the humiliation that I endured that year from ever happening again (see my post “The Legend of ‘Captain Zimbabwe’” from May ’09).

After school that balmy Friday afternoon, me, Mom, my baby brothers Maurice (or Menelek, his Hebrew-Israelite name) and Yiscoc, and my older brother Darren’s “counselor” Mrs. Karen Holtslag went to Willson’s Woods Pool. The pool and the park were about two blocks from 616, the largest park in Mount Vernon. It included large picnic areas, a children’s playground, a large municipal pool (one of the few public pools in the city), and a concessions stand.

Mom and Mrs. Holtslag met to discuss Darren’s “progress” and his psychological needs (see my post “Summer Camp” from June ’09). The rest of us were there to have fun. It was one of those rare times where I got a chance to spend time with my younger siblings without thinking about their terrible fate, to have Maurice as their biological father. It would be like having Damien from The Omen movie series as the man of the house. Baby Maurice and Yiscoc needed this time out of the house more than I did, at least that’s what I thought at the time.

Vernon Woods condo community (once public housing or projects) on Pearsall Drive, 2012. (http://trulia.com)

I witnessed their father Maurice abuse baby Maurice and neglect Yiscoc on too many occasions. My stepfather once beat the six-month-old Maurice with a belt to keep him quiet because he was trying to sleep, and would forget to change his diapers while we were in school. Mom eventually found a babysitter to watch baby Maurice, but the damage was already done. Even though nearly three years old, baby Maurice had never said a word. The eleven-month-old Yiscoc had been stunningly quiet since his birth. Maybe Mrs. Holtslag should’ve been counseling Mom about them, not Darren.

Mom gave me a $10 bill to buy some snacks at the concession stand for everyone. As I walked over dreaming of hot dogs and mini-pizzas, careless me had the bill only half in my right hand. A big kid magically materialized, ran by and snatched the money from my hand. It seemed like God suspended the rules of time as soon as it happened. The moment that the thief grabbed the bill it felt as if a lightning bolt had ripped through the clear blue sky on that bright summer day. I knew deep down that my summer would mirror the previous fall, winter, and spring.

Chris Rock as “Pookie” from New Jack City (1991), June 24, 2012. (http://truthaboutit.net)

When my stepfather found out about my tragic error, he demanded that I tell him exactly who stole the money. “I’m not sure. I think it’s some guy named ‘Pookie’,” I said. Maurice walked over to me, poked me in the chest, and told me to get the money back from Pookie in two weeks. I said, “I can get the money from Jimme,” but he didn’t want to hear that, shaking his head in the process. I pointed out that Pookie was much bigger than me, and that I didn’t know where he lived. Maurice told me to “find out where he lives!” Otherwise I would get a “whuppin’.”

I spent nearly two weeks asking questions and running around the Pearsall Drive projects (now the more affluent Vernon Woods condo community, bought from the city and converted in ’84 or ’85) looking for Pookie after that. I learned that he was sixteen years old, about five-foot-ten, and lived with his mother on the fourth floor of one of the six buildings in the project community. I hadn’t seen him once in my eleven days of snooping since the robbery. I was terrified to be at 616, and too scared to be outside. I spent my afternoons when I wasn’t out on one of my Pookie hunts in 616’s stairwells and basements crying and thinking. I thought, “Why me?”

But not-so-deep-down, I knew why. I stopped acting like Maurice was my father and a changed man after what he did to Mom. This was punishment for not fulfilling the Torah’s law regarding fathers and mothers, “Honour thy father and thy mother, that thy days be long on the land that the Lord hath giveth thee.” “Yeah, right!,” I thought. We had no land, no promised land, and no prayed-for-land either. And Maurice, well, if he was my father, then what did that mean for me, Darren, and Jimme? Torah or no Torah, I swore that I’d never call my bastard stepfather “Dad” again.

It’s Been 25 Years

June 18, 2012

Me and My Uncle Sam, June 18, 1987. (Donald Earl Collins).

Today’s date marks a quarter-century since my Class of ’87 marched and graduated from Mount Vernon High School at Mount Vernon’s Memorial Field (see my post “It’s Been Twenty Years…” from June ’07). I guess that the seventeen-year-old version of me would look at me now and say, “Boy you’re old! What happened to you?” And the current me would say, “Life, you pathetic dufus!” in response.

I write this today a tired professor, educator and consultant. Tired from a week of scoring AP World History exams, grading students’ papers from my survey-level US History course, traveling to and from Salt Lake City. Tired from the vicissitudes of life, marriage and parenthood. At least, that’s how I feel sometimes. Most of the time, though, I feel like the person I’ve been for the past twenty-four years, someone who has a real bright present and even brighter future, regardless of how things may look from day-to-day or moment to moment.

That was and wasn’t the case twenty-five years ago. I really only had about three or four things on my mind on that hot and sticky 87-degree Thursday evening. One was about my family. Good, bad, and ugly all at once. My Mom, my idiot stepfather Maurice, my older brother Darren, and all of my younger siblings, and all going to my graduation. Getting myself and my younger brothers and sister ready was no easy task, especially without air conditioning.

Then, my Uncle Sam showed up, a pleasant and unexpected surprise. I hadn’t seen him since October ’84, at the one-time book store on Gramatan Avenue, where I used to buy all of my Barron’s test-prep books for the New York State Regents Exams, SAT, and AP exams. That was the only time I’d seen my mother’s brother since the picnic to end all picnic’s in August ’83 (see my post “Good Times, Good Times…Not” from August ’09). He still looked larger than life, all six-four and 240 of him, despite his bum knees.

Canadian Club bottle and goblet, February 12, 2011. (Craig L. Duncan via Wikipedia). In public domain.

My father Jimme was supposed to show up at 616 before we all left for the ceremony. And he did, just as I was about to pile into a cab with Mom, my sister Sarai, and Uncle Sam. Jimme was three sheets to the wind, liquored up real good, to celebrate my graduation. “Oh no!,” I thought, pretty much keeping my distance from him the entire evening. I already knew that Jimme would embarrass the hell out of me and Mom, not to mention any parent who talked with him.

Thought number two came in all of the folks to whom I said good-bye or good riddance as the ceremony came to a close. After throwing our burgundy and yellow caps in the air, we went over to our now former classmates — who were now friends, lovers, acquaintances, and in some cases, foes — to embrace and hug, to cry and scream and dance and twirl around in the air with. Along the way, A (of “The Legend of ‘Captain Zimbabwe’” post from May ’09) grabbed me and gave me a hug. “You made it, man,” he said. It startled me that he did that. The late Brandie Weston and I hugged, but not before saying, “You’ve changed a lot over the years. You used to be an asshole you know!”

I caught up with Crush #1, giving her a long hug and a mug as a gift. “I’m really going to miss you,” I said. I also gave a mug to H, V (the valedictorian in my post “Valedictorian Burdens” from July ’09), and Crush #2, telling them all that “when you’re drinking coffee late at night and trying to finish a paper, think of me.” When I gave a mug to Crush #1 and embraced her, T apparently was nearby watching the event unfold. I went over to her to say “Good-bye” afterwards. T snorted and raised her nose up in a huff, as if I’d given her the coup de grace (see my post “The Silent Treatment” from June ’10)

But the thought that has stayed with me over the years wasn’t something that I was fully conscious of that day, given all of the excitement that was and is a high school graduation. It had been in my head for more than five years. See, despite having erased much of the stigma that was me being me at twelve in 7S and at 616, I knew that I could never fully be the person I knew I could be while living in Mount Vernon. People think I’m weird now, but at least I know what it is about me that makes some dumb asses act that way about me. The dumb asses who thought that “book learnin'” and listening to “White music” was wack back then were too numerous and too vocal for me to avoid. Especially since some of them were at 616 or my parents.

Grandstand at Memorial Field, Mount Vernon, NY, November 28, 2007. (Anthony22 via Wikipedia). In public domain.

I knew that I had to leave. That’s what I thought about the entire walk home from Memorial Field. And I did walk, alright, for a full hour afterward. If I could’ve, I would’ve walked all the way to Pittsburgh that night, as I knew it wouldn’t get any better for me in Mount Vernon than a high school graduation. I’d already left my first hometown, at least in my head. It would take another fifteen months to confirm it.

When my wife came to Mount Vernon with me for the first time during Christmas ’99, we walked through downtown and The Avenue. After ten minutes, she asked, “Are you sure you weren’t adopted?” Sometimes, looking back, I ask myself the same question.

The Last 616 Summer

June 15, 2012

Toni Collette and Nicholas Hoult, About A Boy (2002) screenshot, June 14, 2012. (http://www.movieactors.com).

Twenty summers ago was my last summer at home — 616 East Lincoln Avenue — for more than a visit. It was the long, hot summer of ’92, two months in which my master’s-degree-earnin’, twenty-two year-old-self reverted to my teenage years. At least, in terms of the responsibilities that I carried beyond taking care of myself, dating or clubbing, working or going to school. And it was a painful two months of submergence, revealing to me that I’d long since been on my own. Too long to be happy to play the role of big brother, young uncle, surrogate father, and my mother’s confidant all rolled into one.

I ended up in Mount Vernon that summer after an unsuccessful search for work in Pittsburgh in the six weeks between the end of the school year and the middle of June. At the last minute, I contacted the Director of Westchester County Government’s Department of Community Mental Health, hoping (and knowing) that he could toss me some work. From him, I found out that the work I’d done at the Mount Vernon clinic in ’89, though successful, hadn’t been followed up with improvements in the front office or in billing. Once again, I’d be working as a senior summer intern with Valerie Johnstone and a group of wacky psychiatrists.

I knew it would be a bumpy ride, as I’d only been home a total of thirty-five days in the previous two years. But I hadn’t counted on my mother acting like I was still a senior at Mount Vernon High School. Right from jump, I found myself constantly being nagged about how I trimmed my mustache, the “baggy” pants I wore, who my friends were, who I did and didn’t keep in touch with while I was back.

Boomerang (movie) poster, 1992, October 31, 2007. (Alessgrimal via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because this image is a low resolution copy.

That wasn’t all though. One Saturday night that July, I decided to go check out Eddie Murphy’s latest movie, Boomerang. It had more good reviews than bad, and I just wanted a night to myself, to just be myself. I told my mother that I’d be home late.

I didn’t get in until about 2 am. To my surprise, my mother was awake, in the living room, waiting for me. “Where havey ou been?,” she asked, as if I had a curfew. “I went to see the movie down in the city, I hung out, I walked around, and then I took the last train back,” I said, with shock. “When you said late, I was thinkin’ 12 o’clock,” my mother said in response.

I was pissed. As many Friday and Saturday nights I spent during the ’80s tracking down my father Jimme for $50 or to pull him out of some dive in Mount Vernon, the Bronx or in Midtown Manhattan. I was a teenager then! I’m an adult, and now I’m supposed to be home by a certain time?

It got so that on another occasion, as I was pressing my clothes to go out — anywhere really — my mother tried to take the iron out of my hand to iron my clothes. “Mom, I got this,” I said, not about to let go. “You ain’t doin’ it right!,” my mother half-yelled as she yanked the iron away from me to press my jeans. Then, I realized that she was about to put creases in then, I yelled, “Mom, stop! No one wears creases in their jeans anymore.”

I took the iron away, and finished what I started, all with the b-word in my head. My mother knew what was in my head, too. “You can think it, but you better not say it!,” she yelled as she left the room.It was the first time I ever found myself thinking that way about my mother. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last.

Of course, the word that was really in my head most of the last summer was weird. Everyone around me seemed weird that summer, especially my mother. She was overprotective, in my business, and talking to me about gettin’ filled with the Spirit more than usual.

Or was it me that had become weird? After all, I’d been in the role of the dutiful son for so long that it probably was weird for my mother to see me go out to see a movie, hang out with a friend, or go down to the city at night. Maybe, at least in my mother’s case, she simply wasn’t used to me carving out time for myself, to actually act like the adult male that I had become.

Origins of the Obsession

June 13, 2012

Obsession Night For Men, Calvin Klein, June 12, 2012. (http://www.dealsdirect.com.au).

To think that it’s been a quarter-century since I went into obsession mode over a girl. Not love, not so much a crush, but a bonafide obsession. Well, it’s a confirmation of how pathetic I’d allowed myself to become in the summer between the end of high school and my freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh in ’87.

The funny thing was, it was an obsession with Crush #2, and one that almost didn’t happen. After all, I’d given up on seeing Crush #2 again after our graduation ceremony. So the week after, I began working at the General Foods’ (now Kraft Foods) scientific testing facilities in Tarrytown, just down the road from the GM plant and the Tappan Zee Bridge over to Rockland County. I was hired as part of their Operation Opportunity program, a summer internship program for students of color.

It was my first office job, and it showed. I had to take two buses to get to and from work and walk the seven blocks from the bus stop at the corner of North Columbus and East Lincoln to 616. I took the 40 or 41 bus to downtown White Plains and transferred to either the 13 or the 1W to Tarrytown. I was consistently late to work in the first three weeks, not even knowing to call in to let folks know I was going to be late.

About a week into the job, I boarded the bus for White Plains on my way home from work and decided to vary my routine. I got off at the White Plains Galleria, a state-of-the-art mall back then. It was five stories of concrete and a glass ceiling, of shops, eateries and a movie theater.

Mechanically processed chicken, the key ingredient in McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets, pouring out into small tubs, October 5, 2010. (http://huffingtonpost.com).

The mall had a mom-and-pop cookie store that had the best chocolate chip-walnut cookies this side of Mrs. Fields. They also had a McDonald’s, a luxury for me for most of the decade. I stopped to buy my ultimate pre-dinner snack: a six-pack of McNuggets with that sweet-and-sour sauce, small fries, a vanilla “milk”shake and two gooey and warm chocolate chip-walnut cookies. It was heaven-on-earth food for me. When I went outside to wait for the 40 bus back home, there she was. Crush #2 was standing there, also waiting for the bus. We exchanged “Hi”s and started some small talk about college, music and movies. It turned out that Crush #2 had a summer job in White Plains just a couple blocks from the Galleria.

Even as pitiful as I was, I knew I had a window of opportunity to get beyond the idle chatter to the “Do you want to hang with me?” question. But I just didn’t and couldn’t ask. Not on that commute home, and not on any coincidental bus trips after that. In all, I probably had about a dozen opportunities to ask Crush #2 if she liked me or if she wanted to go out with me throughout July.

A standard non-conversation conversation went like

“Hey, [Crush #2].”

“Hi. How are you?,” she’d asked.

“All right,” I’d say.

“How was work?”

“Okay. How was your day?,” I’d ask in response.

“Fine,” Crush #2 would say.

Then, there would be the occasional “Did you see…?” some movie, or a “Did you buy…?” the latest album or tape. Otherwise, it was like two ex-spouses attempting small talk before switching the conversation to concerns about their kids.

These bump-ins weren’t deliberate and not even “by accident-on purpose.” When I did see her, I didn’t get the sense of euphoria that I had when I saw her in high school. My heart didn’t go pitter-patter, and my throat and mouth didn’t turn dry. At times, I felt a sense of dread when I’d come out of the Galleria with my comfort food in hand and Walkman on, only to have to talk to Crush #2 without the cover of school as a pretext.

I preferred to think of Crush #2 from afar. On meandering walks that often took me through Crush #2’s neck of the woods. Or when I listened to certain songs, particularly love duets and Whitney Houston. I never once dared to walk over to her house, and I refused to call even though her family’s number was in the phone book — I did look it up, though. I couldn’t even quench my libido’s growing thirst by thinking of her and how she looked.

In the back of my mind I began to realize that my attraction to Crush #2 didn’t have much to do with Crush #2. Yet when I did bump into her, I tried through our short conversations to see if there was any “there” there. Anybody with about two years’ more maturity than the twelve-year-old in a seventeen-year-old that was me knew that I was on the short road to rejection and embarrassment. And that rejection would lead to six months of obsession over Crush #2, and stalker-esque thoughts, if not stalker actions.

But I couldn’t get that smile of Crush #2’s out of my head. Even if it was more fake than any Chicken McNugget I’d ever eaten. In a year filled with rejection, scorn and externally imposed invisibility, the eventual rejection I suffered from Crush #2 was a bridge too far.

Mitt Romney (via http://news.yahoo.com), May 10, 2012. (Charles Krupa/AP).


June 10, 2012

“Murder of Cain by Abel,” Ghent Altarpiece painting (1432), Jan van Eyck, January 6, 2007. (Paunaro via Wikipedia). In public domain.

I’ve written about the infamous Estelle Abel in my blog on this date (or at least, this time of year) for each of the previous five years (see “My Last Day,” “The Last Class,” “AP Exam Blues,” “Honors Coronation,” and “Twenty Years in a Week” for the full scoop). She was the chair of Mount Vernon High School’s Science Department while I was a student there, and remain so for years afterward.

As anyone should be able to tell from my previous posts on Abel, I have a bit of an ax to grind. More like a samurai sword, actually. The woman and her ten or fifteen minutes of berating me as both a student and as an un-Black young adult Black male ruined my last day of high school. Forgive me, then, for not being completely objective when it comes to the subject of Estelle Abel and her methods of teaching, motivation, and guidance on issues of academic achievement and race.

Though I’ve also forgiven her, I’m not God, and with my memory, I can hardly forget. But if there had been any chance at forgetting, I lost that opportunity in a conversation I had with my late AP US History teacher Harold Meltzer back in the ’89-’90 school year. Estelle Abel came up as a topic because of something that had occurred with one of his AP students. Apparently, this particular student, a female basketball player, had made the decision to apply to some predominantly White institutions, and had left HBCUs off her application plate. And apparently, Abel had gone after this student for doing so, all but calling her a traitor to her race by taking the route that a majority of traditional African American students have been taking since the ’70s.

Two Oreo Cookies, February 7, 2011. (Evan-Amos via Wikipedia). In public domain.

In all, it took Meltzer about twenty minutes to tell what would’ve been a five or seven-minute-story for the long-winded. That’s how much he could meander in the forests of his stories sometimes. Then I told Meltzer my Estelle Abel story from my last day of school. It sparked a conversation that I wasn’t quite prepared to have. One not only about Estelle Abel, but about the African American faculty at Mount Vernon High School in general.

For most of the rest of the conversation, Meltzer was in full gossip mode, telling me things about individual teachers that I shouldn’t have known, and mostly have forgotten, thankfully. But I did say to him early on in this part of the conversation that I really didn’t know much about the Black teachers at MVHS. The reason was simple. I didn’t have a single Black teacher as my teacher in four years of high school. Humanities classes — particularly the Level 0 and Level 1 classes — had few, if any, Black teachers, much less any teachers of color.

I didn’t say that exactly, but it was the essence of what I said and thought about while Meltzer yammered on about the disunity among MVHS teachers. To think that from Ms. Simmons’ math class in seventh grade at A.B. Davis Middle School until my history and Black Studies classes my junior year at Pitt, I’d gone without a single African American teacher or professor. I knew that some of the blame fell squarely on the shoulders of my guidance counselor Sylvia Fasulo, Humanities coordinators, MVHS’ leadership and the Italian Civic Association.

But how much of this was my fault, being so myopically focused on grades, college and getting away from 616 and Mount Vernon, I didn’t know. After all, I learned in the middle of my senior year that Dr. Spruill taught a Black history class, that there had been efforts to bring in more Black teachers and other teachers of color at Mount Vernon High School dating back at least four years.

Uncle Ruckus screenshot, from Aaron McGruder’s animated TV series The Boondocks, July 4, 2011. (Grapesoda22 via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of picture’s low resolution.

Still, none of that really mattered to me that year. I had already and unsuccessfully attempted to thread the needle between a cushy senior year and a year that prepared me for the rigors of college. Anything else, whether it was Black history, a trip to West Africa or a visit to some HBCU campuses, was hardly on my radar.

Whatever my lack of focus could be construed as in ’86-’87, it wasn’t because I wasn’t Black enough, or ashamed of being Black, as folks like Estelle Abel implied or accused me of in their thoughts and words, and with their eyeballs that year. Sure, I was weird, and readily admit to being weird, aloof, and emotionless in my MVHS days. But given the hell that I lived with at home and in that community in my last years in Mount Vernon, weirdness and a focus on getting out through college should’ve been applauded, or at least tolerated, without teachers like Abel staring at me as if I was demon-possessed.

That it wasn’t tolerated was the real shame. It took me years to get over it, that uncomfortability of being judged by other Blacks as too smart, too weird, too un-Black in their eyes for my own good.

College Isn’t For Everyone

June 7, 2012

Sterling Memorial Library (cropped), Yale University, New Haven, CT, September 3, 2008. (Ragesoss via Wikipedia). Permission granted via licenses with GFDL and Creative Commons cc-by-sa-2.5.

In May ’05, I attended a conference in DC hosted by the Council for Opportunity in Education on college access and college success. Jay Mathews, an education columnist with The Washington Post, was a guest speaker. Mathews spent most of his talk telling educators that the public doesn’t care for our extensive analysis of what does and doesn’t work in K-16 education reform. “Readers only care about two things,” Matthew said — testing, and “how can I get my kid into Harvard, Yale or Princeton?”

I certainly didn’t like Mathews’ smug and dismissive talk, but he was right about one point, however inadvertent on his part. That most Americans don’t think about education news unless it either confirms their worst fears — that public education is a waste of taxpayer dollars — or confirms their highest hopes — that an Ivy League school (or the near equivalent) accepts Tyler or Courtney as students. Little else matters for most of the American reading public, because columnists, reporters and editors like Mathews have long since abandoned the idea that education is a playing-field leveler for most people. “College isn’t for everyone,” is the common refrain in Mathews’ world, and in the world of most right-thinking Americans.

What does go unreported and underreported, though, is that most Americans with the money and knowledge to give their kids every advantage possible, and do so in a rather ruthless fashion. All while denying other kids in their community similar opportunities, deliberately or otherwise. Over the past thirty-five years, property taxes and other taxes that cover the costs of a public education have been slashed, as taxpayers revolted in places like California and New York in the 1970s and 1980s.

That alone has meant two things: the contributions of the federal government to public education increased to make up for these long-term tax cuts, and the ability of most American school districts to provide all of the necessary resources for students has gone down. This opened the door for the politicized hammering of teachers unions as too powerful, and the growth of the testing mandate since the early 1990s, further weakening public education. Need I even mention public charter schools as the suggested alternative for Americans of lower-income?

Gated community, Houston, TX area [but virtual gates in education for years], February 13, 2012. (Chelsea Lameira via http://www.houstonagentmagazine.com)

But that’s only part of the story. There are plenty of parents who take even more advantage of loopholes based on money and knowledge. They hold their kids out of school a full year before kindergarten, giving them an extra twelve months to become proficient readers before they’ve ever stepped into a classroom. They pay for tutors and Kumon early on, but not because their kids are struggling with reading, writing and math. No, these parents pay for this extra help to give their students the ability to score in the top percentiles on tests that will label their children as “gifted.”

Some parents even transfer their children to different schools within a district with the “right” demographic mixtures to ensure their student’s success and their ability to be noticed. Some parents will begin the process of preparing their kids for the SATs and for AP courses via Kaplan or Princeton Review as early as fifth and sixth grade. And all to ensure that, in the end, their kids will have the post-high school choice of an Ivy League school, or at least, an equivalent elite school, like a Stanford or Georgetown.

These parents, the majority of Americans who would only readily agree with Mathews’ worldview on education news, aren’t evil. But, then again, we all know what the road to Hell is paved with. And in this case, these advantages on the one end point to the severe disadvantages on the other end, no matter how rare it is for the likes of Mathews to write about.

I’m not talking about poverty from birth to eighteen per se, although I could go there in detail. No, it’s the end result, the young adult or over-the-age-of-twenty-five person who finally decides after years of educational neglect to take advantage of the twenty-first century, to go to college after struggling to finish elementary, middle and high school. Most of these students never knew a tutor, never had a parent who understood the loopholes in public education of which to take advantage.

These adult students come into college — often a for-profit institution like University of Phoenix, a

University of Maryland University College administrative offices, Largo, MD, July 2, 2010. (Donald Earl Collins).

community college or a public institution like the one in which I teach now in University of Maryland University College — as raw and unpolished. These students are often long on enthusiasm, yet short on the skills and especially knowledge they need for success. And they have a sharp learning curve in order to get there. One in which these students have to learn in a year or what it took the most advantaged Americans eighteen or nineteen years to learn. The graduation rates of these institutions illustrate how difficult it is for most adult students to climb Mount Everest in their shorts, and all in the middle of a blizzard.

“College isn’t for everyone,” I hear Mathews and millions of other smug Americans say. Of course it isn’t. Especially when you make sure that it isn’t, through money, knowledge and cunning politics.


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