Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The DeVos Debacle, Part 1

On Friday, September 15, 2017, controversial US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos visited our school, as part of her "Rethink School" tour. She's a billionaire, with no experience that one would think would be necessary for this job (but then, the one who appointed her has no experience necessary for his job either), and has made it very clear that she is terribly disconnected from the reality that non-billionaires live in, nor how her plans would impact children, families, or society as a whole. She's also demonstrated a clear disdain for LGBTQ equality, an ignorance of science, reinstated heavy financial penalties on students who've defaulted on their loans (because that makes sense) and, the week before her visit, announced her plans to basically gut Title IX protections of sexual assault victims on college campuses, because the accused perpetrators have been so unfairly treated.

I could go on and on, but you have Google.

We'd had a couple weeks' notice that she was going to come. We were told to keep it under our hats for a few days, probably because she's received so many threats in her first seven months in office that she now travels with armed US Marshals.  Just a guess.

Anyway, when it was made public, I got a flood of questions and information requests about the visit, from friends, many of whom are public school teachers, artists, queer, and/or any number of other traits that she's shown clear disrespect for. I knew little: arrival time, a rough schedule, and departure time.

That, and a group of organizations had pulled together to organize a protest. I only knew about this when I was invited to attend.

But I couldn't, really, because I had asked to be part of the "roundtable discussion" with DeVos herself that day.

The days leading up to her visit were very tense. Generally, our students are very politically astute. They'd been waiting to hear about her confirmation in February, and got very angry when it happened. They knew her positions. They did their research. They knew she wasn't supportive of them. They wanted to make their positions known, so some teachers found themselves in positions of dropping everything to come up with a positive way of expressing their views.

Student self-"expression boards" included statements and images of what's important to them. In this collection: Love is Love, Black Lives Matter, no racism, transgender rights, DACA, toast (because, come on, toast is great),
and the strangely moving "All 3 of these Pokémon have no gender."

"No More Families Torn Apart," "Protect DACA," Black Lives Matter, "Obama!", puppies, Canada,
"If it's not your body, it's not your decision," breast cancer awareness ribbon...

"The people start to think," "Embrace Creativity,"  "We're all full of gooshy red stuff," "Why can't we all just use one bathroom?", "Am I go forward...or am I go back?", "Born in Violence,"
and possibly the truest statement ever made, "This world needs weirdos."

I was in on a little of that, but mostly, I found my own classes so full of questions about DeVos, and protests, and armed guards, and her policies, and her impact on our school, her impact on other schools... And anxiety. Lots of anxiety, worry, tears, "What if," and so much else. I ditched all my lesson plans, because students were consumed with concern about the visit. I thought that the most important thing was making sure they felt safe, and addressing their fears was way more important than learning where downstage was.

So very many people in my life wanted details. I, too, was overwhelmed - before, during, and after - so I wasn't able to just sit down and say what happened that day in one fell swoop. Small chunks was the only way I could deal with it, so I posted installments on Facebook. The following are those installments, including the original post dates, in their entirety.

Please note: I'm not finished with these diary entries. I'd already scheduled auditions for the school play when we got the news that she was coming, for earlier that week. Between DeVos, trying to get my classes back on track (I figure I lost easily a month of instruction time, because of all this), my other jobs (because I teach at a tiny private school), rehearsals/performances of the school play.... I had to put the rest on hold. I'm hoping to finish this week of winter "break," which, all teachers know, only means that you work in your pajamas, but do at least as much as when school is in session.


Sun, 9-17-17
I'm having a hard time getting started. I'm still trying to process. Maybe I can do this if I take it in small chunks.
I am, weirdly, still shaken up by the events on Friday. I was hoping I could catch up on work yesterday - the work that I'd shoved to the side for a couple of weeks, in order to prepare myself and my students for Betsy DeVos' visit to our school. But apparently, yesterday was made for staring into space, rocking back and forth, and taking unexpected naps. This thing depleted me. 
It was obvious from the beginning, of course, that she was not interested in listening to us (students, teachers, parents). I couldn't completely figure out her angle, though, until the press release. At that point, I knew for sure that she was using our loving school community to twist into sound bites and photo ops to further her agenda. I know, I know... But I had this silly little Pollyanna flicker of hope that maybe she really did want to learn. 
I've more or less stopped wearing makeup, but you know, the press was going to be there, and who knows what was going to happen, so I thought I'd go all out and wear eyeliner *and* mascara. The whole time I sat in front of the mirror, I felt like I was putting on war paint. I was preparing for battle.
I really had no intention of actually saying anything. I wanted to give the precious little time we had with her to students and parents. But when it was time to start, no one else spoke up. So I did.
By then, I was so worked up with worry, anger, excitement, a fierce sense of protecting that which is precious to me, a barf bag full of anxiety, a strange air of desperation, and the distinct feeling of betrayal... well, I don't think I was terribly successful at easing into the conversation. I said, "Well, I'd like to hear about Title IX. Go ahead." 
And then I got *really* mad.

I wasn't alone. Protesters outside KCA.
Mon, 9-18-17
My apologies. I realize now that I should have started earlier in the story of De(Vos) Day.
I fretted a long time over what to wear. If nothing else, if I did not speak, I knew that my choice of attire could stand as communication of my views. Several teachers had decided to wear black, in protest, but I'm not that subtle.
I finally settled on one of my KCA t-shorts, the one that has a huge orange square on the back that says WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO SAY? Seemed appropriate, but I underlined "YOU" in sparkly stick-on gems, just to be sure I clearly communicated the message. I also put on the black armband that I've been wearing on and off since January, and nearly every day since school started last month. I wore rainbow earrings, for my LGBTQIA students, and took the buttons that I usually have on my purse - "#illgowithyou" over a trans flag, and the one with Fannie Lou Hamer's quote, "Nobody is free until everybody is free." -  and pinned them to my shirt, along with a safety pin (signifying "If you need help, I am a safe person"). I slipped on my Human Rights Campaign bracelets, and one I just bought in Atlanta earlier this year inscribed with  Laurel Thatcher's Ulrich's famous quote, "Well-behaved women seldom make history."
Then I packed my pussy hat. I didn't want to wear it before the meeting, just to be sure I wasn't going to be told to take it off before it started. 
A friend had invited me out the night before, but I declined, wanting to go to bed early, as I anticipated not being able to sleep. Good decision. I was awake at 4 a.m.
I was in knots as I drove up and saw all the police officers walking around the school grounds. I parked, and invoked my white privilege to unhesitatingly ask one if we were (please please please) expecting a boring day. He said that they weren't worried.
It was about 7:15 a.m. Protesters were gathering across the street. Some friends had asked me to live-tweet the day's event as it happened. I knew I also had a ton of people on Facebook who were awaiting details, so I took a photo of the early crowd: "It's started."
Walking in to the school - a side door, rarely used, was our point of entrance - was like walking onto a movie set. Not that appearances were different, really, but there were small groups of people all over school, going over plans, and a strong air of anxious anticipation. If you didn't know something big was about to happen, you would still know that something big was about to happen.
I used the restroom. My zipper broke. Because why not? I was about to be in a roundtable meeting with the United States Secretary of Education, so of course I'd meet this billionaire with my fly down.

Tues, 9-19-17

Prequel, Part 2:

From the last episode: Tara was minutes away from a roundtable meeting with billionaire Betsy DeVos, the US Secretary of Education, and the zipper to her thrift-store pants had just broken...

It apparently wasn't actually broken, but stuck down inside the little pocket at the bottom of the zipper. I left the stall (and washed my hands!) so I could have more room to maneuver. Another teacher walked in on me, wrestling with the damn thing, in the middle of the bathroom. She suggested I go to my office, where I could actually take my pants off to fish out the zipper pull. She led me there, walking in front of me "to cover" my crotchal area. It was all so ridiculous, I had to laugh.

Office. Pants off. Zipper fixed. Pants on. Down to the meeting room.

I walked into the room at the same time as one of the student representatives to our school board and another teacher. I jokingly said, "I need to sit next to someone whose hands I can squeeze when it hurts." They laughed. Wait, did I say it was a joke? Yeah, okay, maybe it was.

Most of the teachers and students who were coming to the meeting were there. I was so nervous, I felt sick. I figure that, at these times, other people are feeling similarly, so the job I've taken on in my life is that of comedy relief. So I asked all of them so come together for a photo, and said, "Show us how you really feel." The result is a picture with mostly smiles, although a couple seem exaggeratingly tense. One person is sticking their finger down their throat. One person is making an expression that I can only describe as "angry Barney Fife in the headlights."

This is not that picture. This is more like... a Tuesday.

A couple more minutes of milling, and one student rep came in and said, "She's here." 

Places, everyone.

I put on my pussy hat.

I had taken a seat on the far side of the room. When Betsy DeVos entered, she started around the circle of tables, shaking hands with each of us, in the direction that put me toward the end. I suddenly remembered that we'd been given advance notice that she was up for selfies. When she got to me, I shook her hand (a good, firm handshake, by the way) and introduced myself, then whipped out my phone for a photo. The first one was pretty "normal," in that she's smiling at the camera, and I'm making my usual selfie face, which is an overly-excited, open-mouthed expression. Then, I realized that this was the billionaire US Secretary of Education, who was working to dismantle our public school system and take away protection rights of a large percentage of students, so I didn't want a "normal" selfie. So I immediately made a stupid face at the camera, and she glanced at me, and click. That's the one I will share.

BFFs. Obvs.

We all sat down, and she asked our principal if he was going to join us. He said, "I hadn't planned to, but since there's an extra chair..." which happened to be right next to her, so he sat down at the circle of tables.

She made pleasantries, and asked about the school garden, stuff like that. The principal said, "So, does anyone want to start?" and opened it up to the floor, specifically inviting the students to talk. There were murmurs of "nothing right now" and "I don't think so." I was sitting between two student reps, and one of them is the most outspoken person I know. Neither said anything. I had already resolved to keep my big mouth shut, if a student wanted to talk. This is about them, after all, and I wasn't going to eat up any of our precious 25 minutes (more like 20, if you take out the intros and the garden talk) if they wanted the time with her. They're not dumb. They're very savvy. They know what's going on in the world.
So, now I think I'm caught up with the first installment of this story, the one that starts with, "I'm having a hard time getting started. I'm still trying to process. Maybe I can do this if I take it in small chunks." It ends with:
"By then, I was so worked up with worry, anger, excitement, a fierce sense of protecting that which is precious to me, a barf bag full of anxiety, a strange air of desperation, and the distinct feeling of betrayal... well, I don't think I was terribly successful at easing into the conversation. I said, "Well, I'd like to hear about Title IX. Go ahead." 
And then I got *really* mad."

I wasn't the only one who wanted answers: Protesters outside KCA.

Wed, 9-20-17

Episode 4: Back to the Present (which is actually the past, but at least it's not a prequel)

In our last episode: "I said, "Well, I'd like to hear about Title IX. Go ahead." 
And then I got *really* mad."


DeVos looked at me and stated, "About Title IX."
"Yes. Title IX. Go ahead."
"Okay," she said. "Well. I will take a step back and say, more broadly, I think every student should have an opportunity to find their place in a school that is right for them and works for them, so I'm really excited - I know this is a non-traditional school in, you know, the rest of the world's review, but I think this is terrific that you guys have found a place that is right and fits for you, and I couldn't be more happy and pleased for that, and really want to see that opportunity for all students across the country. We've been on a Rethink School tour this week, starting in Casper, Wyoming, and making our way across the heartland of America, visiting lots of different schools that are doing things creatively and differently, and the encouragement is really to rethink school, because for too many kids, they're starting their academic year in a setting that is very similar to what they did a hundred years ago, and that doesn't work for everyone. So we're highlighting and learning from a lot of different schools that are doing things to meet students' needs and help them find their way and become everything they can be, And so, again, I'm really pleased to be here at Kansas City Academy."

And then she stopped. And looked at me. 

It was a stock answer, obviously memorized by rote. It was practically a press release. But maybe she just forgot the question? Did she get so wrapped up in the introduction of her big tour that she went off the rails and didn't know how to get back on? 

So I figured I remind her. "Great. So what about Title IX?" 

And she asked, "Well, what about it?"

Really? Is she saying that she answered my question? Does she think she did? It was one week ago that she made the incredibly controversial announcement that Title IX "wasn't working" in sexual assault cases on college campuses, and that she intended to overhaul it so that the accused got the benefit of the doubt. Which they overwhelmingly, obscenely, nauseatingly do anyway. I mean, she gave a 30-minute speech about it, citing a handful of anecdotes as proof that the thing needs to be torn down and built up again from scratch. The story was everywhere. The public was furious She couldn't be that dense, right? I strongly believe that she's tragically unqualified for the position she holds, but it didn't occur to me that maybe she actually lacks intelligence. Or focus. Or both.

So I said, "Well, okay: What are your feelings? What are your thoughts? What are you wanting to do about that?"

"Well, I - again - I think that every student should have the opportunity to be in a school and in a
learning environment is that is welcoming and is nurturing and safe and that every student should
be able to pursue their learning in a place that is building up of them and - "

At this point, it's obvious that she's just playing dumb. She's trying to avoid answering. She's dancing around the subject, in a little presentation called "How Could I Possibly Know Which Part of Title IX You Were Asking About?" She's using the tried-and-true hot words, like "opportunity" and "different" and "individual," as well as her catchphrases, which include "learning environment" and the ever-popular "rethink school." 

Politicians love this. They love talking and not actually saying anything, because they want to get reelected, so any chunk of the population they might piss off, by saying something actually honest, is precious to them. So no pissing off allowed, which is why election campaigns sound overwhelmingly alike. 

It's a lame ploy, and it makes me really angry. Stand up for your beliefs or shut up and give someone else your time. Even more lame though: DeVos was not even elected. So she hasn't polished up her evasion tactic. She isn't good at it.

Whereas before, I was confused and only somewhat annoyed, she's now removed all doubt that she's trying to play me. Play all of us. Does she really think she's that clever?  Does she really think that I think that she's saying anything of substance? She sucks at this game, and I won't pretend to play it anymore.

So screw it. Screw her. If she insisted on playing cutesy, then I owed it to my students, all students, their parents, and my fellow educators to nail her to the damn wall. I was done playing nice. 

I interrupted her. "Okay, so, do you know you're not answering the question?"


To be continued...

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