The Competitioners


For the last two days I’ve been exploring the San Francisco public school system.

I’ve heard from different quarters that the schools here are terrible. They’re overcrowded, undisciplined, and rancid with low test scores. Independent of the merit of the local schools, though, I’m more disturbed by the fraught tone of the conversation – if we moved here and didn’t get our daughter into one of the few good places, she’d apparently be damned for life because the remaining schools are so abysmal.

We moved to the rez in part to escape that kind of noise. And as a consequence my daughter has pretty much grown up in Indian country. Our schools, if not at the bottom, are considered pretty far down there. Most non-native outsiders tend to move when their kids reach school age rather than suffer the degradations of the local system. And yet I’m pretty sure that our daughter has turned out just fine.

So how bad could San Francisco schools be? It’s a pretty wealthy urban area with a lot of highly educated people, after all.  With my radiation infused state of mind, I thought I’d poke around a little and try and find out.

San Francisco education options basically consist of private schools and academies, public schools that are ostensibly assigned through an ethnicity-based lottery, and public charter schools that have a highly selective admissions process.

Private schools have never struck us as right. Let’s face it. We send our kids to private schools because they’re, well, fundamentally private. And we like this because we like to think that we are somehow different, I dare say better, then the public. Our child is better because the other public kids are a) dumber, b) poorer, c) less well-mannered, d) have different values or religion, or e) perhaps something else. My friend described attending a private school orientation meeting early in the season. The auditorium was 95% white with a scattering of Asians and perhaps one black face. And the school administrators repeatedly emphasized how much they valued diversity. Which was odd. It didn’t matter that in the end the school attracted a largely white audience, that some of these parents may in fact have been drawn to the school because it was predominantly white. It’s okay, it’s all okay, as long as you value diversity.

And putting race aside, if the education is any better, it’s still mainly accessible to those who can afford it. Where is the fairness in that?

So how about the public charter schools? A handful of these have been recognized as being some of the best in the city. Test scores head and shoulders above the rest. High admission rate to college or academic high schools (more on this later). And they’re free. But there’s still a catch. It’s called the admissions process.

I first visit one of the KIPP Academy charter schools that dot the city. The secretary at the radiation oncology center described this particular one as the best school around. She lives in Chinatown, has struggled admirably as a single mom and has worked really really hard to do right by her kids. The middle school apparently brought the best out of them.

When I visit, the messaging throughout was great. A photo of the recent graduating class reveals a neat mix of kids largely of pan-Asian, Polynesian, and South and Central American ascent, a gene pool and cultural variance that my daughter would immediately feel at home with. Cheerful hall monitors stand at each corner to help corral the kids along. Between classes the kids, dressed neatly in blue slacks and academy shirts, move with quiet purpose through the corridors. The walls are emblazoned with the names and banners of upper-tier colleges, pictures of Obama, and dictates to try harder, to strive as hard as possible to succeed. We WILL go to college, one slogan announced. Another at the entrance of the school commanded simply: Be Nice.

I like it.

But things are not so simple. The secretary explains that there are gross inequities in the San Francisco school system, that it’s divided between the very rich and very poor and that this charter school was committed to serving underserved populations that might not normally be college bound.

Our school is highly competitive, she adds. You have to compete to get in.

I let this sink into my skull.

Okay. Time out. Let me tell you about my daughter’s first day of kindergarten. Six years ago we were moving to Hopi and being white-upper-middle-class-parents-coming-from-seattle-who-have-fraught-worried-conversations-about-school-systems, we had called the local school before arriving and asked what we needed to do to enroll our daughter. What was the admissions process? Could they please send an application?

Our question was greeted with a long silence. You just send your daughter to our school, the secretary finally answered.

So now six years later I decide I’ll enter the San Francisco competition. I fill out an inquiry form. I give our name and address and my daughter’s age. I hand it to the secretary. She nods her head and looks it over quietly. We accept most kids in 5th grade, she explains. And very few kids drop out, she says. It’s very competitive.

I try to decode this. Is it because we’re white? Because we’re economically or socially advantaged? Or because my daughter will be in 7th grade? Or because we’re coming from outside the district? Truthfully if my daughter is rejected on any of these grounds, it’s probably fair. There are probably a ton of kids in this city who are in greater need of a world-class middle school that will help them get into college. On what grounds should my daughter be so entitled?

The secretary smiles politely and I understand then that that’s the end of it.

So maybe we’ll give up on the charter schools and throw our chit into the general public school system. If you want to attend a public school in San Francisco, the rules are kind of simple. You rank your top 5 schools, you enter the lottery and you go where they send you. Of course all of the upper-middle-class-parents-having-fraught-worried-conversations-about-the-school-system have researched the test scores and chattered amongst one another and sure enough they’re all ranking the same schools, the ones that they sense are the best.

I visit one of these schools in the Marina district. Again, it appears to be a great school. Expansive, orderly, great parent participation, pretty well funded – each year the PTA raises over a hundred thousand dollars to fund wonderful extracurricular programs.

I like it.

Best of all, I’m told by the office staff that the majority of kids go onto one of the few academic high schools. Academic high schools? When I was growing up they were all supposed to be academic. But I guess now in San Francisco, there are only one or two public high schools you can send your kid to if – hold your breath – you actually want them to learn something. And even though they’re public schools, you still have to apply. And the application process is very rigorous.

As for this wonderful public middle school that will help my daughter get into an academic high school? It’s also very competitive to get into.

But there are still ways to work the system. Other local parents counseled that you just need to choose the best school and fight to get in. Attend the meetings, write letters, make appeals – basically throw a well-mannered tantrum. If you want to get in, you need to be very nice to the school officials, a middle-school employee counseled. I conclude that victory favors those who are the most persistent and artful. If the student is already well equipped and perceived an asset, or if the parents are schooled in persistence and the right cultural mores and manners, they’re slightly better equipped to get in.

I ask the secretary to tell me about other schools – which are considered particularly good or not so good? You just have to go visit, she says.

I ask if there’s a time of year when their school grants tours. The secretary gives me a cold stare. We don’t give tours, she says. Very few kids drop out and very few slots open. So if our daughter’s going to be a seventh grader? She shrugs and smiles.

For my last stop I choose a middle school ranked online as being near the bottom. In the office I ask an administrator how other parents would describe their school: Nifty, medium, or uneven.

She doesn’t like the question. I have no idea, she says.

I try a different tack. I’m new to this area, I say. People tell me San Francisco schools are a mess. But I don’t know how bad it can get. What would make one school worse than another? Again she declines to answer my question. Are you a good school? I ask. We have a good school, she says with a forced smile and directs me to the parent liaison.

The parent liaison is a nice guy, but speaks carefully. Your daughter may have a hard time here, he explains. We have children from Asia, from Middle East, from black comm-

My daughter is the only white kid in her school, I say.

He smiles, visibly relieved. Oohh, he says. Then she will feel very comfortable here.

A group of students walk into the room. All are from China, most speak English as a second language. He asks them to talk about the school, but they are very shy. He explains that they have a special bilingual class in English and Cantonese.

Wow, I say, somewhat impressed. If my daughter wanted to, could she study Cantonese?

He looks at me a little puzzled. Why yes, he stutters, if she wanted to, of course.

And it dawns on me that no one has ever asked this before. This class is not really intended to teach other kids Cantonese.

All the kids, of course, want to go to an academic high school, he explains, but not many are accepted from this school. They will have to work very hard. He cites a school in Bayview – an economically depressed and socially underserved area. If your daughter goes to high school there, she’ll be able to go to college anywhere. It’s a very poor school, everyone else in the school is black and latino and doesn’t apply to college, he explains. Because your daughter is white she will apply and she will get in.

Not so artfully stated, but in the end I appreciate his honesty. And perhaps that really might be the best course. Send our daughter to what’s considered the worst school possible and if she can prosper there in that barren soil, then she can probably do well anywhere.

But still I’m confused. Why should any of the least advantaged be pushed aside? Are they terminally least advantaged? KIPP schools seem to prove not. They take a subset of that same pool of kids: the blacks or latinos or poor or underserved or disadvantaged or different or whatever you want to call them – that same block of kids that everyone fears and dismisses and they drop them into different conditions with a different set of expectations and they manage to excel. Their test scores are off the charts.

Which illuminates even more the tragedy for those who are not selected. Sorry. We only have so many lifeboats. And they’ve already been filled. Those in steerage are going down with the ship.

In the end my bottom-of-the-heap-middle-school-liaison says I can contact him anytime. He asks if I would like a tour and one of the girls, only a year nearly arrived from Hong Kong, shows me around. She likes her school very much, some kids are nice, but other kids are noisy and mean. The classrooms are packed to the walls, the overall feeling a little abraded and worn. Aside from the huge class size, it feels a little bit like home.

I like it.

And what would they say at home? Why, they would say that everyone has a role. Puebloan culture values heterogeneity. Each and everyone of us comes from a different place. We each have different knowledge and different experiences and different perspectives on the world. And when we come together we share all that knowledge and experience. We each have a chance to contribute and we must respect the unique contribution that each of us is equipped to make.. And when we all come together, we come to comprise something unique. We call it Society. You might even call it a civilization.

When our daughter Mazie was a little girl in Seattle she sometimes would pretend to host little sports events. “The competitioners are all in their places,” she would eagerly announce. “Ready! Set! Go! And the competitioners are off and racing!”

But in Puebloan society people in general do not race. Rather, they run. And when you run, you run collectively, you run together for some higher purpose. In this worldview there are no competitioners. If you do run hard, you do so in part to encourage the fellow beside you to run even harder.

What comes from a world in which we condition our children to win? We’re talking here about the universal right to have your mind and body and spirit developed to the best of its abilities. A right for which none of us should have to compete.

In a world in which we’re taught to be competitioners, in which we triumph at the expense of others, then do we not err colossally? How collectively can we possibly win?

If we win, by definition there will always, always be someone who loses. And if my daughter is more persistent in her quest to get into the best middle-school to prepare her for the best academic high school, who in the end will be the loser? Probably some kid who did not get my daughter’s spot. But perhaps even my daughter.  Is my daughter any more deserving?  Probably not. And even if she were, at what cost?  And who will be the one to pay it?

Muni

I continue my love affair with San Francisco public transportation.  Last night I’m on the 1 California heading east talking with Patrick on the phone.  He asks what’s going on, it sounds like I’m in some kind of bomb shelter.

I’m on the bus, I tell him.  And boy does he need to get acquainted with the bus.  The 28 is sweet, I tell him.  And the 30 Stockton still has secret twists and corners yet to be discovered.

I tell him that in the morning I wanted to go to the Marina District – a straight shot down Divisidero from Mt. Zion.  But on Muni I walk 2 blocks in the opposite direction, catch the 38L Geary to Presidio, hop on the 28 north at Masonic and within 20 minutes (no longer than it would take to drive and find parking) I am swooped circuitously west then north, then east through the Presidio and dropped down right in the smack of Cow Hollow.  It was absolutely exquisite.

I have three responses, Patrick says.  One, that is perhaps the most boring thing I have ever heard.  Two, I feel compelled to transcribe it word for word.  And three, there is some clutch of men in some bar somewhere in this city, talking about exactly the same thing.

Such it is to be in love.

Brown Cake

I crossed Funston St. on the bus home today. I once stayed in a house near Funston and Haight. It was Christmas time, 1983 and the city was still irrepressably fresh and alive to me as if every possibility lay resident in this place waiting to be awakened. I was with my girlfriend Alison and we were with a girl Darcy and her boyfriend, Gierdon. I remember the cotton linens and the intense cold yellow light and the smell of incense and colorful fabrics, the warm morning caramel aroma of coffee, and hundreds of strange and exotic objects from faraway places.

I think of Gierdon pacing the rooms of the apartment madly, ravenously and then calling Darcy a fucking bitch, a fucking whore, again and again until she broke down crying. I think of his gaunt frame and hollowed out burning eyes and handsome unshaven face. He held up semi-precious stones between his fingers and twirled them in the light. Look at them, he said. Look at how beautiful they are. And I asked where they came from. Afghanistan, he said. I brought them with me from Afghanistan. I import gems from Afghanistan, he said.

On New Years Day we awoke to streets littered white with calendar pages and Gierdon he had been at the New Years show and at midnight Bill Graham’s gnarled face had appeared on a massive video screen above the stage intoning: THIS IS BIG BROTHER. AND YOU KNOW WHAT? I’M FUCKING TIRED OF WATCHING YOU GUYS. YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN, he said. And then father time descended in a spinning cloud of fireworks and the band broke into Big Boss Man and Gierdon was backstage, he said. How were you back there, I asked. I have friends, he muttered.

I think of the fight I had with my girlfriend and of how a friend’s mom drove me back to San Diego and of how this woman on several occasions saved my life. I think of how she saved my life and of how years later she was murdered by her husband.

I think of 1980 on the grass in San Diego stadium up front waiting for the Stones to come on pressed in a pack of people. I had lost my shoes and boots crushed my feet and I burned my soles on glowing cigarettes. It was so hot, burning crushing hot and Bill Graham strolled onto the stage in a cut off t shirt and sprayed us again and again. He sat on his haunches and sprayed us.

I think of the Simon and Garfunkel reunion concert in Oakland Coliseum and again being there with my friend’s mom and of how she wanted to talk to them and how the stadium had cleared out and a lone figure made his way down the rows of thousands of chairs cramming the field and how I raced down the steps and hopped the railing onto the field and how I moved down the rows in parallel with Bill Graham slicing the plastic bracelets linking the chairs and I asked him why are you down here doing this? I pay twenty fucking thousand dollars an hour for this place, he said. I want to get out of here as fast as I fucking can, he said. I cut the bracelets and we talked. I loved this man I admired this man and I asked this man where Paul Simon was staying and this man stood up and stared with such fury. Do you think I’m stupid? he shouted. DO YOU THINK I’M FUCKING STUPID? Get this kid out of here! he bellowed. Get this FUCKING KID out of here!

I think of when the Dead played the Warfield in spring 1983 and I had driven up from Irvine by myself and it was cold that night and I had no ticket and I pleaded at the door explaining that I’d been inside and that I’d gotten sick and my friend had my ticket stub and if they would just let me in I’d take them to my seat to my friend to my ticket and the bouncer escorted me in and I led him to the balcony to a stranger whom I implored to hand me a stub but he couldn’t understand me and the yellow jacketed bouncer dragged me through the lobby right past Bill Graham who glared and hissed to me, to the bouncer, to no one, get that FUCKING kid out of here.

I think of Walodja Grajonca 13 years old before he had even reinvented himself as Bill Graham and his sister younger yet and their parents burned in the ovens of Auschwitz and how they had walked across France hiding stealing until they eventually came to Spain and his sister died there and he came alone on a ship to America. And of how he came to study business in a Bronx community college.

I think of his offices decades later torched and burned to the ground by people who hated him. I think of those final moments when his own body was consumed by flames after his chopper hit powerlines as he surveyed the Oakland fires.

And I think of the kid in the Russian class I was failing. Three days a week I was bullied by the authoritarian Gospodin Hramov a bitter White Russian who hated shitheads like me and this kid a hippie kid who spoke better Russian than me and the kid told me how that weekend some cops had found Jerry parked in his limo in Golden Gate Park and he was shooting up, he was there with all his works and when the cops realized who he was they just let him go, the kid said. Isn’t that cool man, the kid said. They just let him go. Yeah, that’s cool, I said. But even as I said it I began to think it wasn’t.

And I think of that morning that Jerry died. He was in rehab in a private clinic and he was trying to make a go of it but it was too late by then and his heart could take it no more. That morning the news had run across the ticker of the New York Stock Exchange and I had been up all night on call at the San Francisco VA with Anna not yet my wife and Danny Feikin, the only one among us who was a doctor. But there we were all three of us in blue scrubs rounding on patients pretending that we knew what we were doing. Jerry had died and I made my way across the city to the spontaneous gathering in the park and his kids and recent wife stood on a stage and his daughter said to the mass of tweaked out kids: get a life, she said. And thank you. You put me and my siblings through college.

I think of those fields and fields of crimson poppies still growing in Afghanistan. And I think of now, of this once unimagined year, of our boys, our soldiers, of the pinch and the prick, their veins lighting up with gems of china cat, with cakes of Jesus’ Son.

I think of how horrible this world is, of how truly crippled we can be, and of how strange that we can find beauty in it yet. I think of how in this wide universe none of these stories have existed except in my own head, except they now exist perhaps in yours. And I wonder what’s left when even the ashes have burned. And as I find myself being burned each day in this she-goat chimera of a city, I wonder when ones stripes have finally been earned. Does it come with being incinerated?

Eriks Ievins 5.18.30 – 8.31.09

Eriks

You were a crucible for memory now extinguished.

And you once said that one could only stand so much in a battleground, no matter who you were, before you were damaged.

You left Poland on January 22nd, 1945 in the late afternoon or evening. There was snow yet on the ground, minus 20 degrees Celsius. Your sister, my mother, sat in the wagon or was walking. You walked and drove the wagon all night long. At dawn’s light you stopped in an abandoned village and found food. You ate frozen bread and sausage from Gneisen. You stopped and rested the horses. It took 3 days and 4 nights to get to the Oder. All roads were clogged with soldiers and refugees, all of you fleeing Soviet artillery. The world itself was burning.

The air smelled like California, you said. You would later see it yourself when the flames tore through the chaparral in Pendleton. Smoke and fires and explosions.

In some way you muddled along hoping the bridges across the Oder would not be blown by the time you reached them. You crossed near Gistrien along with other refugees coming in from Prussia and others out of Poland.

Across the river, one of the Sulcs relatives pulled your father Julius aside. Well Julius, he said, you need to get out of range of the artillery and away from the river. Go south of the main road, the village will already be abandoned. On the road you had lossed Valja and Janis. Behind you, you had left your mother’s grave. Here though, you managed to get the horses in a barn and get yourself under some sort of roof. You had food, vegetable soup it was. And here, you found rest.

Thy portion is the goat: with heat consume him: let thy fierce
flame, thy glowing splendour, burn him.
With thine auspicious forms, O Jātavedas, bear this man to the
region of the pious.

The Sun receive thine eye, the wind thy spirit; go, as thy merit
is, to earth or heaven.
Go, if it be thy lot, unto the waters: go, make thy home in
plants with all thy members.

Away O Agni, to the Fathers, send him who, offered in thee,
goes with our oblations.
Wearing new life let him approach his offspring, and splendid, be
invested with body.

-from the Rigveda

Food on a Sunny Day

The day broke with sunlight this morning.  And warmth even.  Eating on the porch looking out over the Headlands, I actually felt pretty good.  If I chew on the left side of my mouth, Cowgirl cottage cheese tasted like cottage cheese.  A bit of tamale tasted tamale-like.  I can drink Pellegrino water (I wonder if the carbonation pushes it toward alkaline and so boosts the pH in my mouth…).

I ate piki.  I could taste that deep old corn taste.  The piki came from  Shungopovi.  I thought of a woman making the thin batter and of her prayers.  I thought of the man who grew the corn and the other man who burnt the salt bush to make the ash.  I thought of the saltbush and the corn and the springs.  I thought of the rock and the fire beneath the rock and the wood that fed the fire and the woman’s hand moving deftly across it.  I thought of layer after layer after layer of infinitely thin batter being spread, lifted and folded.  We call this food.

Afterwards I brushed and cleansed my mouth and still no mucusitis.  I’m tired, but I’m still without sores or sore throat and I don’t know whom or what to thank for that.  Perhaps the salt and bicarbonate of soda.  Or perhaps the piki.  Or perhaps all of you.

I think of all those things, sentient and otherwise, that create food, that create a community of health.

piki

Hooverville

I spoke with my friend Evan this morning.  Tomorrow he starts back teaching third grade for a great school in Oakland Unified.

They notified him yesterday that instead of the promised 20 students in his classroom he’s going to have 32.  I guess it’s some weird inversion of downsizing – the consequence of a bankrupt state, a failing economy and apparently a failing school system.  How is that even tenable?

He was thinking that he could have 6 students at a time rotate out of the classroom and stand in the hall for a few hours. Perhaps he should declare the theme for the year to be “Great Depression”.  Post a sign outside the door saying “Hooverville”.  Transform the lunch line into a bread line.  Teach the kids to glean fruit from the neighborhood fruit trees.  In math develop some neat exercises to illustrate what happens when you spend more than you make.  Teach fractions by showing how much you need to put down to by a 700k house and what happens when you put down less and what does it mean to be “leveraged”?  Have a counting exercise to see how long it takes to get to a trillion.  Try for a week to see what it feels like to go unwashed and unfed.

Spend a whole week just looking at the photos of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans*, and an afternoon reading Agee’s paean to a lantern flame† until the kids drift off to sleep.  Wonder why the pictures work and Agee’s dense prose perhaps does not.

But the lessons are great:  There is nothing to fear, but fear itself.  We’re all in this together.  The first step in recovery is learning how to give.  Keep it on.  Keep it simple.  Take care of ourselves, but not at the expense of others.

*”a conspirator against time and its hammers; his pictures testify to the selfishness and waste that caused the ruin, and they would salvage whatever was splendid for the survivors.” – Lincoln Kirstein

“A country letter” in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men