Uncensored: A Lost Article about the Save Our Schools March

Jose VilsonEducation, Jose

Jose Vilson and Pedro Noguera at SOS March

I don’t usually do this, but you’re my people. On August 2nd, GOOD Magazine published an article ostensibly written by yours truly … with almost half the article chopped off. I won’t get into reasons why things went missing because a) I still don’t agree with Michelle Rhee, b) the person who cut the piece in half isn’t the person I usually work with on these GOOD pieces, and c) I’m about to publish this joint for you all anyways. Enjoy the uncensored version of “A Bee You Cannot Eat: Education Reform After the SOS March.”

When five thousand educators, parents, students, and other denizens concerned with the state of education come to Washington, DC ready to respond to the call for change, you respond. When these people come together in a coalition for educational social justice and activist, you listen. When you’re prompted as a teacher to speak on behalf of these thousands and the many more who couldn’t show up, you stand up and represent them. More importantly, when students of all backgrounds deserve better, you fight for it.

Such was my charge this weekend at the Save Our Schools March and Conference in Washington, DC. I decided that the best way to respond was not to have a response at all, but to have a clear message about the lay of the land. It needed to be rooted in the realities of the everyday classroom teacher with a prescient knowledge of what’s happening in our country today. I needed to give pieces of this movement to take home with them, messages of fury and messages of hope. While I had the privilege of attending and speaking at this march, there were hundreds more who wanted to be there to unite with us, fully understanding the political stake we have in ensuring that our schools improve.

It’s less about international competition and college readiness and more about developing better people that will help grow our system.

While up there, I looked at this sea of concerned citizens and transmitted their energies to mine. Thus, my voice went from soft and nasal to gritty and airborne. Editor and writer John Norton referred to it as “… short about 2500 words but I can hear the howl – the best teachers of your generation.” I crafted the remarks after a few listens of Gil Scot-Heron’s “Comment #1” sample in Kanye West’s “Who Will Survive in America,” hoping I could evoke a similar sort of urgency. At some point on the stage, it became less about how I performed the piece and more about how many people would such a piece to even an increment more of action.

After finishing my poem “This Is Not a Test”  (video) in the Ellipse near the White House, I felt this charge shake my foundation. In 100-degree weather, anyone might have felt similarly. After the screams and handshakes backstage, and thousands of onlookers, I remember thinking that the movement can’t end here. I sat down, envisioning the lack of equity still profoundly shaking our schools. I didn’t just think of my 8th graders from my classroom that just graduated. I see barren classrooms in East St. Louis, overcrowded spaces in Detroit, windows boarded up in Atlanta, streams of Scantron sheets floating over Miami / Dade County, and students in line in front of metal detectors in New York City. When I got a chance to sit down for a second and gather my thoughts, I had a hard time believing that this many people showed up for the event. The meme is that teachers consider themselves neutral, and all they ever do is complain.
Apparently, we also have a say in the national zeitgeist, and we’re no longer settling for a passive role in our jobs.
University of South Florida professor Sherman Dorn shut down critics of the SOS March succinctly by pointing out that the march and conference weren’t intended to be policy meetings, much the way we can’t assume anything actually gets done with politicians have their local and national conventions. Unlike those conventions, where the pageantry only makes statements to re-affirm which candidate will represent their party, this march and conference let the world know, in no uncertain terms, that there’s a huge contingent of us who object to the policies these elected officials have set for our youth. Whereas before, shaking hands and meeting with a special representative might have quelled these voices, the new generation of activists seeks actionable items via protest and the vote.

Some critics of the march proclaim that education is the new civil rights issue and then wonder why the people this affects the most would take to the streets.

This battle for the state of public education won’t and doesn’t end with a congregation of some of the biggest luminaries, educators, parents, and activists we could find in the middle of summer. Names like Ceresta Smith, Pedro Noguera, Diane Ravitch, John Kuhn, Linda Darling-Hammond, Sabrina Stevens Shupe, and Deborah Meier don’t convene for such an event without knowing that there are very necessary next steps to the things we say and do. While Matt Damon and John Stewart made important contributions to the march, they’re amongst the people who regularly honor and revere the work that educators did to make their lives better. While we see concrete examples of creative assessment and equity for all students regardless of background, we continue to avoid them at the behest of those who prefer the status quo of hyper-capitalism.

There isn’t just hope. There is demand. It’s not just teachers saying this anymore. People all across the country have seen that the direction of this country lies in how well our education system works, and it’s become apparent that the messages they’re hearing from their local media don’t make sense for this country now. They see how corporate interest not only taints the political process, but the educational process for their students. At some point, through very concrete actions, we must see that change. Now that the first march is over, it’ll be less about marching for those that harm our students; it’ll be about marching toward the students we need to help.

Richard Whitmore wrote a book recently about former Washington, D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, whose dishonesty about her transformational qualities powers over districts is only trumped by the power of the media to pull their wind beneath her sharp wings, entitled The Bee Eater. As I saw the crowd that descended upon the nation’s capital this past weekend, I couldn’t help but laugh at this juxtaposition.

For a weekend, there was a swarm of thousands rallying together against ideas like hers. And I was a bee she simply couldn’t digest.

Jose, who, in any and all things, will let you know when he knows …