Thursday, March 31, 2011

Sexism: Alive and Thriving in 2011

I was going to excerpt the blog post below, but the whole is worth reading, especially as it speaks, in general, to empowerment versus resignation. I wonder if as Quakers, where, mercifully and grace-fully, in my experience, women are not subjected to routine sexism, we can coalesce around speaking truth to those who stereotype women as "whiners." This is not about politics, "rights," or controversial issues, but simply about speaking up and saying that women are fully human, fully adult, and, whatever your specific religious language, made in the same image of God as men. And maybe we can laugh along the way--even at ourselves, but not at the caricatures of us that others invent. :)

Monday, March 28, 2011

Without a vision ...

When I've looked at old high school pix, I've noticed that before the 1950s, high school graduating classes were often small--fewer than 50 students total. I'm imagining my home state of Maryland dotted with small high schools offering individual attention to every student.

These small high schools are housed in old buildings that have been restored rather than demolished, saving resources. (As Polly Bart, a green builder once said to me, the greenest way to build is not to build but to use what you have.) An old building also connects students with the past. Maybe some of what the students do is study the history of their buildings and the community around it ...

In a talk on Colonial Maryland I heard once, I learned that in the early days, water was the main means of transportation. The colony was so densely wooded, clearing lands for roads was difficult. The big farms and plantations backed to rivers so that goods could be shipped in and out easily. In the 19th century, the Jones Fall canal ran into Baltimore from the north. Today, it's a highway.

The idea of traveling around Maryland on the many waterways that crisscross the state captured my imagination. What could be more peaceful--or green--than floating down river to one's destination enjoying the warm sun and the song birds?

Of course, as I pictured this beautiful scenario of small schools and river barges, reality intruded. Not everyone, I remembered, would want small schools. Many would still clamor for the large institutions. Well, I thought magnanimously, let us build one or two large high schools and admit those who qualify. But if students need to qualify--to show they can be successful in a school without individual attention--then those schools will be come the desired elite prize. Students in smaller schools will feel lesser. And then, with or without the big schools, the small schools will start competing with each other and a hierarchy will form, with some schools more desirable than others ... and people will start to move into those school districts ... or if we do away with school districts, the richer parents will start paying for tutors to help get their children admitted to the best schools ... and we will be back to the starting point.

As for floating down rivers in holy solitude with the sun shining through the leaves and the bright blue dragonflies landing on our knees--wouldn't such isolation invite piracy and crime? Look at what happened to Huck Finn and Jim--they were faced with a constant run of charlatans and shady characters as they floated down the Mississippi. And wouldn't people who weren't thieves nevertheless insist on stealing the serenity with loud motorboats to get places faster? Wouldn't collisions, accidents and drownings start filling the news? What would happen when the rivers froze?

And yet ... despite people with all their problems of ambition, the drive for superiority, the lust to get rich quick even if it means crime or to watch one's child triumph over the rest ... we know we can build a better world because every once in a while we do. At least two people, old now, have spoken to me of the day Martin Luther King spoke on the Washington Mall. Something happened that day that was so important that people remember it for a lifetime. Olney Friend School stays quietly alive. The Catholic Worker movement, started during the Depression, feeds and houses people, capturing the imagination of thousands. St. Francis preaches to the birds, dances joyfully and gives his money to the poor. George Fox has a vision on a hill and gathers a people to serve God. Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Mount. We hang on for centuries or millenia to these glimpses of the Kingdom of God breaking through into our world. Often I get depressed as I read the newspapers and think the forces of evil are taking over ... so I ask, are there other examples of alternative kingdoms alive around us?

Smaller Schools

When I worked as an education reporter some years ago, my coverage area had unexpected crisis: a sudden surge in high school enrollment leading to massive school overcrowding. This was driven, in part, by the growth of the immigrant community, which threw off the county's model for calculating population by living in larger households than the average American family.

The school board and central administration had two solutions: adding on to six existing high schools to raise their student populations from about 2,000 to about 2,500 and building a new, 2000-seat high school for between 70 and 80 million dollars.

All my instincts screamed that both of these were the wrong solution. What the school system needed to do, I thought, was acquire small buildings here and there and set up perhaps 10 new high schools of about 500 pupils. The community I covered had a charming old brick school building, that would have been perfect for such a project, needing a few million dollars for a new roof and other repairs. (This versus $70 million for a new school ... $3 million each put into ten smaller buildings would be ... $30 million ... at least something for the frugal to ponder.) The high school in that community, which was slated for a 600 "seat" (not pupil, but "seat") addition, was already well past what experienced people agreed was its former its optimal size of about 1,200 students. It was, in many ways, dysfunctional despite the best efforts of teachers and administrators to run a good school.

While I couldn't "prove" anything, what I saw, in both the above county and a neighboring more affluent county, was that once schools pass a certain size, they tend to become impersonal, bureaucratic places. Administrators can't know all the students, and kids end up herded through the system in the most efficient way possible, which often doesn't meet their individual needs. I sometimes witnessed students being treated rudely by harried school staff. I could hardly blames the staff, but also had the uncomfortable feeling I wouldn't want my children spoken to that way.

Yet, parents clamored for the larger schools with all the bells and whistles. To send a child to school without the same state-of-the-art gym as the best school in the county, and without a full-blown music program and six languages to choose from was seen as unacceptable. To have all these amenities in one place meant building large schools.

But are these the most important things? I often feel as if I am sister from another planet, and somehow miss seeing life the way the rest of the world does, but how is a state-of-the-art gym better than a small, caring community dedicated to knowledge and to knowing each student personally? Obviously, it would be ideal to have both, but as Gym Ex illustrates, students' bodies can be well served through the simplest exercise technologies.

I wish we could focus more on the soul of our schools than on their material attributes. Are students nurtured and known? If that element is in place, and academics are taken seriously, learning will follow. Quakerism, in general, with its emphasis on "small is beautiful," is well-placed to be a leader in this alternative way of thinking.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Olney Gym Ex and the Quaker testimonies

Every year at this time, Olney Friends School holds Gym Ex, a gymnastic exhibit. I love Gym Ex, because it so completely expresses the Quaker testimonies:

Simplicity: A 70-year-old gym, floor mats, a hand-made pole vault, jump ropes, and a trampoline are all the students need to put on an hour-and-a-half show of athletic ability and coordination. It's an impressive and unvarnished display of physical ability using the simplest of equipment.

Community: Gym Ex is the point in the year where the students show they have coalesced as a community. Community emerges as they work together to dance, jumprope in groups, do gymnastics together and build human pyramids. It's expressed as they applaud and urge each other on. It reaches a high point when the girls file in at the end of the evening holding candles and serenade the boys with a song they have a chosen. This year it was "I want to Hold your Hand." Community is expressed too in the continuity of Gym Ex from year to year. It's a tradition handed down person to person going back at least a century.

Equality: Everyone is equal, Everyone works with each other. Girls are as athletic as boys. I'm impressed at GymEx, as I always am at Olney, at the girls' ability to be the strong humans--in body and character-- that they are. I never hear the word "feminism" or the term "woman's rights" spoken at GymEx, yet, harkening back to the earliest Quakers, girls are treated as fully human. Maybe when that acceptance is part of a culture, terms like feminism can fade away. I wish there were a way to spread this respect out more widely into a culture that sexualizes women so totally. I could say the same for race, ethnicity and nationality: they are celebrated and yet don't matter because there's absolutely no shred of hierarchy. This is a Quaker model at its best, and I wish it could be shouted out to the world.

Peace: This is more subtle--and there's even friendly competition to see who can jump highest over the pole vault-- but GymEx is a peaceful display of athletic prowess.

Integrity: When the above four interact, integrity is the outcome.

As I have since I arrived at Olney, I wish there were a way to push this model of education out into the wider world. What perplexes me is the difficulty of spreading the simplicity of what the school offers. In a time when we are handwringing over the high cost of public education, this model is inexpensive, were the boarding school portion removed. (Feeding and housing students and offering 24/7 care does add to the tab.) None of what the school offers requires spending huge amounts of money. It does require establishing small educational communities with an emphasis on relationship building and the Quaker testimonies. Yet it seems to me by using simplicity to encourage academic ability and good physical health, trusting students and building respectful relationships, the school is doing what is most important towards nurturing the kind of functioning, whole people who can enter the world and make it a better place.

Why do you think it is so hard to replicate this model? This is what baffles me--its seems as though schools like this should be everywhere, and they're not. I would think parents would cry out for this model of humanity over a bigger chem lab or more language offerings, but for some reason, we don't. I wonder why not?