Sunday, September 30, 2018

Brett Kavanaugh's Anger-- And Mine

I admit that the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings the other day were compelling television.  And I'm sure that folks on each side saw exactly what they expected to see:  if you were in favor of Judge Kavanaugh before, his performance probably reinforced your belief that he was a good and decent man who had been wronged; he had every right to be outraged and to defend himself from partisan smears.  If you were opposed to Judge Kavanaugh before, you probably came away questioning his judicial temperament, wondering why he was so belligerent (he even used a number of Donald Trump talking points as he lashed out at every Democrat in the room), and wishing he'd tell the truth about his past drinking problems.

On the other hand, if you were female, your views of the proceedings may have been somewhat more complicated, no matter which political party you were from. As many of you know from my past posts, years ago, I endured two very difficult experiences of sexual assault:  one during my first year as a teacher, in the early 1970s; and the other during my time in broadcasting, later in the decade.  I'll spare you the details, but in the one case, the man who assaulted me was a principal; in the other case, he was a record company executive.

In both cases, I was warned not to say anything; I was told nobody would believe me even if I did say something; I was asked what I had been wearing or if I had led the man on in any way; and in the end, I was advised to just get over it-- after all, if a guy behaved inappropriately, that meant the woman hadn't done enough to keep him under control. Guys couldn't help themselves, I was told. Boys will be boys, I was told. And for several decades, I didn't talk about it. I just lived with my memories:  feeling helpless, feeling angry, and knowing that in neither case would the men who tried to force themselves upon me suffer any consequences at all. (And both probably did the same thing to other women, something tells me.)

Flashback to my sophomore year in college: I go into in the ladies room and I see a girl standing by the mirror, sobbing. I ask her what's wrong. She tells me she just found out she is pregnant. Her boyfriend, a star athlete and an influential member of his fraternity, wants no part of it. He basically blames her for it, tells her it probably isn't his, and says she'd better not try to ruin his reputation on campus. Instead of being upset with him, she blames herself.  

Flashback to when I was working at a radio station in Washington DC and a drunken rock star grabbed me and tried to put his hand up my shirt. I pushed him away, but what stays with me even today is how all the guys who were watching thought this was hilariously funny.  I did not. And I was told I needed to develop a sense of humor.

Watching Dr. Ford testify, I had a profound sense of deja vu. My experiences occurred in the 1970s and early 1980s, yet here we are in 2018, and what has changed?  These days, the mantra is "believe the women," but in the wider world, many men did not believe Dr. Ford. Some of it was partisan, yes; but as with Harvey Weinstein or Donald Trump or other powerful men, there are guys who will not accept any responsibility for their own behavior.  There's always a "yes, but," always an exception.  These guys always want to blame the woman ("But she was drinking" is one I heard about Dr. Ford--  although NOT about Judge Kavanaugh). When she says "no," they hear that as a potential "yes." And whenever a woman is upset with their behavior, they become indignant, or enraged. I've seen it before. And so have many of you.

Some of the comments on social media were depressingly familiar: the guys who claimed that most women regularly make false accusations against men; the guys who claimed she was promiscuous, or called her a liar, or said she was crazy.  It took great courage for Dr. Ford to tell her story to an entire nation, not knowing if anyone would believe a word she said, not knowing if the man who did this would ever be held accountable. For those who insist she identified the wrong guy, I don't think that's the case. I believed her. And I believe she's telling the truth. But whether our country can handle the truth is something that still remains to be seen.     

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Showing Teachers No Respect

On the cover of this week's Time magazine, there is a story I know about from first-hand experience: how little most teachers are paid. As the teacher on the cover says, "I work 3 jobs, and donate blood plasma to pay the bills."  She's not alone, and she's not exaggerating. In lots of cities, teachers (many with Master's degrees) are paid such low wages that they can barely make ends meet.  And it's not because these teachers are spendthrifts with expensive tastes-- far from it. Many are not only barely getting by-- they are forced to pay for school supplies out of their own pockets, as budget cuts affect some of the most vulnerable in our society... the kids who are trying to get a good education. 

While certain politicians boast about our great economy, they're omitting an important fact: wages in many industries have remained flat.  And nowhere is that more true than for teachers.  Reports from the non-partisan Department of Education show that teachers are one group of workers whose wages have stagnated the most.  In fact, when we adjust for inflation, teachers are earning less today than they did in 1990.  In some fields, educated professionals are seeing their wages rise.  But teachers in all too many cities are seeing theirs decline.  Worse yet, per-pupil spending has also declined, leaving all too many students stuck in dilapidated buildings, using old books. (And as I mentioned before, I know for a fact that many teachers have to pay for supplies themselves, or their students will go without.)  You can read more about the situation here:

I am a big fan of a charitable organization called Donors Choose, which allows people to donate money for school supplies and books.  I donate often, and I'm happy to do so; I'm glad I can help some hardworking teachers to get materials they need for their classrooms.  But I have often wondered why adequately funding our schools, and paying teachers a respectable wage, is something many states have decided is not a priority.  In some states, it's political: there are many conservative politicians who oppose teachers' unions and dislike the idea of public schools, and as a result, they have waged a war on public school teachers. But in other states, it's simply the result of wrongheaded decisions that waste money on some areas while depriving others of much-needed funds.

I understand that it has become customary for some folks to criticize public education. I wish they wouldn't.  Public schools have long been a part of American life (we have one in Boston that goes back to 1635), and many of us have benefited from attending them.  I wouldn't be where I am today if it weren't for the public schools, and I don't think I'm the only one who would say that.  And yes, I know there are some poorly-run schools, and yes I know there are some bad teachers-- but they are NOT the majority. All over the country, devoted and hardworking educators work tirelessly to make a difference for our kids. They are often not just teachers but mentors, counselors, and even mom or dad surrogates.  Teachers not only receive inadequate pay, but as a society, we rarely express our appreciation for what they are doing.   

Frankly, I think our priorities are somewhat skewed. We will spend money on building a big stadium for the local pro football team; and we will pay a college football coach triple what the average teacher (or professor) makes.  But when it comes to education, somehow there's just not enough money; and when it comes to new books or school supplies, some districts provide them, but others don't. And caught in the middle are the kids who want to learn, and the teachers who want to teach them.

This shouldn't be about politics, and it shouldn't be about public schools versus charter schools. While policy-makers debate where the money should go, the first priority should be improving all the schools, and giving all students the opportunity to learn.  But in too many places, educating our kids is treated like a burden or an expense. It shouldn't be either; it's an investment in our future as a society.  Few teachers get into education expecting to become rich; but a living wage would be nice, as would enough school supplies.  I can't think of a more important calling than being a teacher; if only our policy-makers agreed, because if they did, they'd show teachers a lot more respect.