Every day another piece of very bad educational news. And every day I have this terrible growing sense that this idea of education as a spiritual calling; the seeing of education as the single most important transformational empowerment tool for those who are left out, least wanted and last to be served; is dead. We have I fear, entered the age of the professional Black educational entrepreneur/careerist. Or maybe we have always been in it, I just never received the memo. And it’s not like I haven’t been warned: 12 years (a slave to my own naivete?) ago In Albany a very prominent politician once shared an understanding in a way that only a politician could see, and understand the world: “Your problem Michael is that you always champion the causes of people who can’t protect themselves, let alone, protect you”. I heard an early version of this as superintendent of CSD 29 Queens NY. At the time the Southeast Queens school district had the highest concentration of children living in temporary housing in the city. Over the years these students were ignored by the district, “herded” into 3 schools without any additional social support services. In fact those schools were starved (Their PTA’s not being politically connected) for operating funds. Predictably these school were overwhelmed and academically underperforming. There was just no way that these schools, no matter how valiant the staff, could be successful without a strategically funded response to all of the problems and challenges the children faced because of growing up (many for years) in temporary housing. Of course I had to dramatically change that situation(“Trying Conditions For Kids In Shelters” New York Newsday; 3/24/2000). A very astute elected official informed me: “You are doing the right thing, but you should know, the reason those children were ignored and mistreated, is their parents are the least politically active; in fact they don’t even vote!” When you engage in the same action, again and again; it is probably safe to say that these are not mistakes, but instead, those actions reflect core values and principles. I can’t seem to be able to change my approach to education; even when it clearly hurts personally.
Once having lunch with the New York State Commissioner of Education; he ask me: “Who were some of the educators who had the greatest influence on your educational philosophy?” After I named them, he stated an observation that somehow was never apparent to me. “Do you realize that all of the people you named, are people who were controversial and/or got into some kind of (good) trouble?” It was that moment of metacognition (the thinking about one’s own thinking) that good teachers live to see in students. I was amazed at my own thoughts, as I had never seen them in that way. But how could I see them in that context? Starting at the age eighteen I had a well-paying job at the post office that lasted throughout my undergraduate college days; and so leaving and gong into education actually meant I took a drop in pay (not very Ayn Randian of me). And so it was not strange that the educators that most captured my philosophical imagination like: Paulo Freire, Ron Edmunds, Barbara Sizemore, J. Jerome Harris, Lorraine Monroe, Adelaide Sanford, and Asa Hilliard, never seem to have a career enhancement-advancement, money making-plan; in fact, it could in a sense be said that; their rejection of crass opportunism, the urgent desire to speak the truth for those who won’t, or who were unable to speak, did not endear them to the educational disenfranchisement class. It could be said that in their uncompromising passion to truly serve children, they made all of the wrong career/financial enhancing decisions.
I remember a conversation I once had as a NYC principal, with the then supervising superintendent of high schools, John Ferradino. On that day he gave me one the most empowering piece of advice I have ever heard in my life. He said: “You remind me of why I went into education; and for the sake of the children, don’t ever lose that”. And so I receive that blessing; knowing that even dinosaurs can leave powerful, lasting impressions in this world.