Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Be True To My School

Ok folks, I’m tired of it, and I wish that everyone would just quit ragging on my school.

No, I’m not talking about Manlius Pebble Hill, the private school where I teach. I’m talking about the school, or more precisely schools I went to. I’m talking about public schools.

My schools have been taking a lot of beating over the past few decades as people have talked about how they’re failing their students, how they’re doing a terrible job, how bad the teachers are, and especially what a terrible job city schools are doing compared to suburban schools.

I want it to stop now, and I want you to all shut up while I explain a few things to you.

Mark Twain once said that there are three types of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. Statistics are the worst, because they’re so easily manipulated and misunderstood; and it’s the statistics that have everyone thinking that public schools are so bad. It’s the statistics that have people moving from “bad” school districts to “good” ones.

I got to thinking about this because of a…statistic…that I heard on NPR a few weeks ago, according to Diane Ravitch only 18% of people think that public schools in general are doing a good job, but 77% of them think that their own kid’s school is doing an excellent job. Something’s wrong with these numbers. How can 77% of the population think that their own kid’s school is great when only 18% of them think that public schools are doing a good job? The math here just doesn’t work.

If you take the time to really think about it, this means that 77% of the schools are doing just fine, but that 82% of us are buying into the hype about everyone else's schools, without taking the time to take a close look at the situation.

Then there’s another statistic, cited by one of my 6th-graders (so we already know that that’s a little suspect). She said that at our school 99% of the graduating seniors go on to college, while in the City of Syracuse, only 50% do. Assuming for the moment that that statistic is actually true, I asked her if there was a difference in the people who went to those two schools. How many poor families go to public schools and how many poor families go to private schools? Are private schools a self-selecting population of families who truly value education? What would happen to graduation rates if you sent all the students from Syracuse to schools in the more affluent suburb of Manlius? For that matter, what would happen if you moved the students from Manlius into schools in the city of Syracuse?

And then there are the “official” statistics that I hate. The ones that people base where they’re going to buy a home on. These are the scores that show how well a particular school or school district does on certain standardized tests. It goes without saying that if Ashland School’s test scores fall below a certain number, then it’s a poor school, with bad teachers, and that you wouldn’t want your kid to go there. But these scores aren’t adjusted for how many students come from poor families, who might have other issues on their minds when they get home; they’re not adjusted to how many immigrant students go there, who still aren’t quite adept enough at English to do well on the standardized tests. Maybe when you adjust for these students, you’d find that these schools are doing an excellent job. And maybe, despite the many students there who are struggling, your own child would thrive there.

In fact, I’ve heard about families who intentionally move to a "poorer" school district so that when it comes time for college applications, their kid will show up at the top of the class, and have a better chance of being accepted to the college of their dreams than had they gone to a “better” school, and just appeared to have been average. These parents truly understand the system, but in a rather perverse way.

Yes, I love my little private school, with small class sizes, and where everyone seems to know everyone else, and where “99% of the graduating seniors go to college.” But I’m also proud of my roots, and believe that public schools aren’t the big sinkhole that bad statistics have led so many people to believe they are.

And that’s the end of today’s lesson. Class dismissed.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Laminated Card

We have a friend who claims that he and his wife both have “laminated cards.” Actually, they’re signed laminated cards, and they give each of them permission to “fool around” a little, to have someone on the side. He says that after 30 years, they both believe that a little variety is a good thing.

Now this isn’t a total free pass; there are limits to what each of them can do, and using the traditional baseball metaphor, it meant that they weren’t allowed to hit a home run with anyone but each other. Sure, they could get within a couple of inches of home plate and then turn around, but making it all the way home with someone else just was not allowed.

I was intrigued by this idea. After all, it’s not “cheating” if you have permission, now is it? But also, I got to thinking about the biblical story of Jacob and Rachel…and Leah…and Rachel’s maidservants…and Leah’s maidservants. I was once part of a Bible study group that talked about Jacob as a model of marital fidelity, and I said that if he’s the model, then we moderns have been being way too strict on ourselves. I mean think about it…anyone can be “faithful” when being faithful includes a second wife and all of their maidservants. It also means that no matter who has a headache, there’s always someone to play a little “sofa hockey” with. Maybe that laminated card idea wasn’t as far-fetched as it sounds.

And yet, it’s also not as easy as it sounds either. If you have that laminated card, you’ve been given a great responsibility. It was enough that you were responsible for not hurting your spouse, and it’s wonderful that you trust each other to give each other permission to “sample elsewhere,” but what about the people you’re sampling with? What’s your responsibility to them?

Going back to Jacob and Rachel…and Leah…and company, this was also one of the great biblical tragedies. After Jacob was tricked into marrying her (and probably even while the ruse was taking place), Leah spent the rest of her life knowing that she was second place…if she even made it that far…in Jacob’s mind. As the holder of a laminated card, you’re responsible for not “using” anyone or leading them on. That was simple enough when you were just prohibited from having anyone on the side because of the standard rules. But if you’ve got the card, you have to be very careful with the emotions of whoever you’re seeing on the side, and making sure that they know that they’ll always be #2, with no chance of advancement. That can be very tricky. But then again, some people are perfectly happy with simply being an occasional #2.

And what of your responsibility to the relationships of others? It should go without saying that you can only use your card with people who are single, or married people who also have laminated cards. But there should also be a sense of respect for other people’s relationships, whether they’re duly noted and registered by the County Clerk or not.

You know, this whole “laminated card” idea seems like a really great idea at first – until I think of all the ways it can be abused and misused by unthinking people; and how easily people can be hurt by it. Maybe that’s why we have the rules we have – because most people just couldn’t handle this kind of responsibility without causing a whole lot of heartbreak.

But there undoubtedly are those who can; and I hope that our friend is one of those people.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Don't They Know It's Not the End of the World?

Back in 1988, right around the time Cheryl and I were getting married, a pamphlet hit a lot of the religious bookstores across the country. It was written by Edgar Whisenant, a Bible student and former NASA engineer, and titled 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. He was so sure of his calculations that the world as we knew it would end during Rosh Hashanah of that year that he said, “Only if the Bible is in error, am I wrong…”

His predictions were taken seriously by many in the Evangelical community, and as the date approached, regular programming on the Trinity Broadcasting Network was interrupted with special instructions on how to prepare for the great event.

And all this despite the fact that Jesus said in Matthew 24:36 that no one will know the date or time of his return. Of course, Whisenant and his followers had an answer for this: they only knew the rough date, he didn’t give the exact hour.

I don’t think I need to tell you that he was wrong.

Undaunted, he revised his predictions, covering himself by saying that he had made an error because of a fluke in the Gregorian calendar, and that the Rapture was really going to occur in 1989.

And 1990, 91, 92, 93, and so on.

This wasn’t the first time that fellow Christians have predicted the end of the world, and obviously, it wasn’t the first time they had gotten it wrong. Saint Paul himself felt the end was imminent, there were predictions that the world would end as the year 1000 approached (something about that nice round number), and most of us remember how neatly the whole Y2K computer issue tied in with predictions that the world would end.

And now Harold Camping says that Judgment Day and the End of the World will happen this weekend – on May 21.

Here we go again.

What is it about some of us that we are attracted to the latest prediction about the Second Coming, the Rapture, the End of the World, whatever? And especially those of us who listen to people who are supposed to know better, people who are supposed to know that no one will know the date or time, but keep coming up with reasons why they know it?

And why do these people go on making the rest of us Christians look like idiots?

William Miller and Samuel Snow preached that Jesus would return to earth on October 22, 1844. When October 22 came and went, followed by the 23rd, 24th, 25th, and so on, the period afterward became known as the Great Disappointment, which was marked not only by the obvious disappointment of the “true believers,” but also by them being held up to ridicule by the rest of the population.

As much as I believe that Camping is wrong, I really don’t want to gloat when what I believe is the inevitable Great Disappointment of 2011 arrives on Sunday. Those who believed will find their faith to be severely shaken, and they will likely question everything they’ve ever learned. Instead of this being a time for the rest of us Christians to gloat at how gullible they were, it should be seen as an opportunity to minister to the disappointed.

It should also, however, be a reminder to all of us that we are to try to live every day as if it would be our last.

And no, that doesn’t mean running up the credit card bill.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

You Never Know

I remain totally amazed at how many people have told me within the past few years that I was one of the bright lights in their life at times when I didn't know it, and could've used a penlight myself.

I posted that to my Facebook profile a few weeks ago, after I ran into a friend from college whom I hadn’t seen in over 30 years at a local theater performance. Actually, she ran into me. She said that she saw me in the audience, and figured that it had to be Keith Gatling. I’m still amazed, because looking at a picture of me from 1978 and a picture of me now, I’m not sure I’d see a resemblance, but she did, and picked me out immediately.

Anyway, we became Facebook friends, and in the subsequent correspondence I found out that I was one of the “bright lights” of her time at SU.

Wow. That was number three.

What do I mean by that? Within the past two years, two other people told me that I was a “bright light” in their lives. One was from high school and one was from elementary school. And all three times that I was being the bright light for someone else, I could’ve used a penlight myself because of how incredibly lonely I felt. This was during my “Charlie Brown” era, and I would never have guessed that I was that important to those three people. Three people who, coincidentally, I hadn’t seen in over 30 years, and had gotten back in contact with thanks to the miracle of the Internet.

And then a funny thing happened. Other people started responding to my little status update, telling how much I meant to them. Really, I didn’t post that to fish for compliments from people. I was simply commenting on how you never know who you’re influencing and who you’re important to, even when you’re feeling your worst. But still, the responses came in.

One from a college friend who said I was the best housemate she ever had, after all, who else would let her butter the kitchen table and pour beer in his spaghetti sauce (yes, you read that right). Another from a high school friend who said that she can’t think of Shakespeare without hearing the rock opera version of Macbeth that I wrote as a senior project. Wow, I didn’t know that anyone but me remembered that…and, by the way, I can still play it.

I’m well aware of the influence I’ve had on people for the past 19 years that I’ve been a teacher. But I’m still always just a little amazed at finding out what I meant to people back when I wasn’t sure that I meant anything to anyone at all.

And the point here is that you never know. You just really never know. You may be feeling the most depressed you’ve felt for months, you may feel that you don’t mean anything to people outside of your own family (and they’re contractually obligated to care about you), yet you’ve done some little thing that helped to brighten someone else’s life, something that keeps them going, against all odds, day after day. And you may not find out about until many years later.

So if you’re feeling like I was 30 years ago, just hang in there…because you never know.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Walk Him Up The Stairs

OK, I know I only put out new stuff on Tuesdays, but with the momentous news of Monday, I figured that this couldn't wait, and I really didn't want to bump what I had already written for yesterday. So here you have it; an "extra edition" as it were.

Growing up in North Jersey, we weren't far from New York City, and this meant that we could head in to Manhattan to see Broadway and Off-Broadway plays. In fact, my parents were regular theater-goers, and often brought home copies of the Playbill for the shows they had seen. But my sister and I didn't get to see a Broadway show until 1970, when they took us to see the show Purlie.

The show opens with a funeral in a black Baptist church. Now as if that weren't strange enough, it's a funeral for the most hated man in the county; Ol' Cap'n Cotchipee, who ran the plantation that the sharecroppers worked on, and despite the fact that emancipation had occurred 100 years earlier, still kept the workers in virtual slavery by the way he ran the "company store." Ol' Cap'n had done the black community a great favor by "dropping dead standing up."

But wait, there's more. This funeral was not a celebration like you would see in the Wizard of Oz, celebrating and gloating that the witch was dead. Quite the opposite, as much as every person in that church hated Ol' Cap'n's guts, the preacher talked about asking God to do the seemingly impossible, by redeeming him, and the opening number was a rousing gospel number titled Walk Him Up the Stairs. Yes, as sure as they were that Cotchipee would be frying in Hell "like a fresh-caught, fat-whiskered catfish in the skillet of the devil," the preacher goes on to say "that it would not be Christian for us to not pray even for what we know is impossible...his redemption."

So with the news that Bin Laden is finally dead, there's a large part of me that wants to join the Munchkins in singing, Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead, however, there's a much larger part of me that knows that I should be joining the people in that old church somewhere in rural Georgia, singing a rousing chorus of Walk Him Up the Stairs, and praying for what we feel is impossible.

And yet...this is no wimpy, feel-good forgiveness coming from me. You see, I believe that sometimes the cruelest thing you can do is to forgive a person; because then they're always looking over their shoulder, waiting for the other shoe to drop, not quite able to believe it. I'd also like to believe that meeting the people whose deaths he was responsible for, and being forgiven by them, would be almost unbearable to him. And worst of all, to have God tell him personally that he screwed it up big time...well, that's gotta hurt.

No...there are sometimes when I believe that Heaven can truly be Hell for someone, and I'm hoping that this is one of those situations.

But...I know that this isn't the right way either. I shouldn't be wanting him to be tortured by forgiveness. I should want him to be changed by it, and to truly understand the great evil he was responsible for. I know of people who've said that if Hitler made it to Heaven, then they wouldn't want to be there. But what they don't grasp is that if Hitler did indeed make it, it would be a greatly changed version of him.

So with that in mind, I'm praying for the seemingly impossible; that Bin Laden, as well as Hitler, and, of course, Ol' Cap'n Cotchipee, made it.

And I will sing Walk Him Up the Stairs!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Missing the Wedding

OK, I know the royal wedding was last week, but I’m going to write about it now anyway. Why? Because I missed most of the hoopla and hype. In fact, I missed the entire wedding itself. While other people were getting up at ungodly hours to watch Kate and Prince William tie the knot, I was nestled all snug in my bed, getting my beauty sleep. The only effect the Royal Wedding had on my life is that it resulted in my in-laws cancelling their long-planned trip to England because air fares had tripled as the airlines saw an opportunity to gouge people who wanted to be anywhere near the event (even though they would’ve had better seats in front of the telly).

Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not one of those curmudgeons who complained about all the press this wedding was getting, especially all the press it was getting when there were other, “more serious,” things going on in the world. I’ll be the first to admit that it was an event that comes along only about once in a generation.

The thing is…they weren’t talking about my generation.

That’s right, this wedding didn’t fit my demographic.

I set my clock for the wee hours of the morning and got up with my housemates to watch the “first” Royal Wedding 30 years ago, when Diana and Charles got married. This was the “fairy tale event” for my generation, when the commoner like us hit the jackpot and got to marry the prince. And everyone who was planning their own wedding, or hoped to be planning it soon, wanted to see this.

30 years later, those of us who got up early to watch it, sadly know how it all turned out in the end, and hope that a few things have been learned by everyone in the succeeding years.

But this isn’t about cynicism, or “realism,” as some people would like to think. It’s simply about my disinterest because I’ve already seen my Royal Wedding. But that doesn’t mean that I begrudge the current generation their obsession, I mean fascination, with it. As I said, this isn’t one of those things that happens every day, and Royal Weddings are known for the effect they have on weddings for generations to come. Just consider the wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1840. She’s the one who started the tradition of wearing a white gown and using the music of Wagner and Mendelssohn. I wonder what new ideas will have come out of Kate and William’s wedding.

But as for those realists, those cynics, those curmudgeons, for whom it wasn’t enough to just sit quietly at home and ignore the whole thing, but who had to complain about the coverage it was getting, I think they should lighten up a bit. The people who complained that the American press was giving this more attention than was the BBC don’t understand that we don’t get to see a whole lot of pageantry here in the “colonies;” in fact that’s exactly one of the things we visit Great Britan to see. So when an event like this occurs, the American media goes after it whole hog, while the Brits, having lived with this day in and day out, tend to be a little more restrained about it. Think of the native New Yorker who has never seen the Statue of Liberty.

And let’s not forget those who complained, “Why is this wedding different from any other wedding…besides the fact it cost the taxpayers a fortune? And why do so many people care about this when there are more pressing things going on in the world?”

Well first of all, I’m pretty sure that these people wouldn’t be so snippy about their own weddings or the weddings of their children. Why do so many people care about this wedding? Because even though we don’t know the couple personally, we’ve heard about them, and have followed them in one way or another for quite some time. It may be a false intimacy, but it’s a real interest.

And as far as the issue of “more pressing” things going on in the world, I recall reading once that in Jewish tradition, when a wedding procession and a funeral procession meet at the same intersection, the wedding has precedence, while the funeral has to wait. Why? Because there’s always time for grief, but joy should be celebrated when you can.

So even though I didn’t get up early to watch the ceremony, I say to all the curmudgeons out there, “Get out of the road, you’re holding up the wedding party!”

And let’s hope that things work out a whole lot better for Kate and William than they did for William’s parents!