Why the Capital High School T-Shirt Debacle Was Lose-Lose-Lose-Lose

Recently, my community witnessed an event that, in the scheme of things, was a tempest in a tea pot. Some graduating high school seniors defied the authority of their principal in the last few days of school, lost their right to march for their diploma, then regained the right to march. This was all over some t-shirts.

I don’t struggle much to define what I think about local events, but this one threw me for a loop. The butterfly effect of a series of choices by students, school leaders, parents, school board, and the chattering class kept the whole thing a moving target.

What went wrong?

In short, everything. There were so many bad decisions in play it was almost impossible to form an opinion as it went along. Today, the kids are graduated, the graffiti is scrubbed from city property, and we have all moved on.

The problem is, we may not really be able to start over as easily as we might hope.

My eyes were opened to some of the serious issues facing any administrator at Capital High School when I attended the funeral of its first principal, Mr. Clendenen. Clendenen presided over the consolidation of two power house schools in Kanawha County — Stonewall Jackson and Charleston High — into one school with strong identity and sense of pride. Many people thought that it couldn’t be done, that bringing together these long-standing rivals was too difficult.

In short, the Sharks and the Jets just don’t get along. Mr. Clendenen and the merging student bodies had a mighty task at hand.

What I learned at Clendenen’s memorial service is that we need to never take for granted the creation of a new and successful high school out of two former enemies. The very existence of one functioning school filled with academic achievement and student pride is a gift to our community. But from a historical perspective, it just happened.

From my armchair, I think the principal at Capital High School picked an odd battle to fight to the death. There is not much public disagreement about that. There are, however, a few more issues worthy of review.

A friend of mine put it well when she said, “You know who my parents would have been angry with over this? Me. If I were told five times not to do something by the principal and then I did it and encouraged others to do it, losing the privilege to march for my diploma, they would have taken it up with me.”

Requiring 18 year olds to face the consequences of their choices did NOT happen here. Parents and community members pitched a fit and asked the school board to intervene. Never wanting to miss a chance to lead a charge into an inappropriate drama, the school board asked the county superintendent to overturn the principal. Though phrased as a compromise, the principal lost. The kids marched, and then in an entirely predictable final act of defiance threw their victory in the principal’s face on stage. The adults in the audience erupted into wild applause.

It is a good thing when conflict can be resolved in win-win situations, but that didn’t happen here.

The principal lost: He was stripped of all respect and authority by the superintendent.

The parents lost: They can expect to get several phone calls from college and beyond asking them to come clean up their kids’ messes when they disregard life’s rules because they “just don’t agree with them.”

The kids lost: Not understanding the long-term consequences of what they did, they see themselves as heroes, and to many today they are. The sad thing is they learned the wrong lesson here, and leave town with an image of immaturity and privilege.

The community lost: The adults here tore down a good man. I can’t help but wonder how many people taking jabs at the principal would survive one day leading Capital High School. Though he may have made a tactical error, it was his to make.

Adults need to get a clue and rally around each other when the stakes are high. There were so many other ways this could have ended, not the least of which could have been an after-party for the kids where they wore their shirts and celebrated on their own terms.

I applaud the students for their willingness to take risk for their beliefs. The problem is, at the end of the day, the adults took back their real glory by erasing the consequences of their actions.

Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote letters from the Birmingham jail. As the saying goes, I’m just sayin’.

The Moment of Commitment

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back– Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too.

All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.

Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”

From The Goethe Society of North America,and I’m still not sure if Goethe said it, but it’s outstanding.  Image credit: Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World.

The Early Seeds of Self-Control

My dad told me years ago about an article he read detailing the (alleged) one factor necessary above all others to achieve financial self-sufficiency:

The ability to postpone gratification.

It made sense to me at the time, but because I was working in a field that was rife with the multi-dimensional aspects of entrenched poverty, I knew too much to be able to take this one element seriously.  It came across as too trite and convenient to say that people were in trouble because they couldn’t say no to things they wanted.  In my experience it was layered into a problem of wants and needs colliding into a miasma of issues.  I took note of the point, but have always looked at other elements of the problem as well.

A recent article from NPR opens up the conversation for me again, and for the first time I am starting to see the simplicity of the argument as more fair than it first appeared (For Kids, Self-Control Factors Into Future Success : NPR).

It’s all in the timing.

I think I can see it more clearly now because the stage for the drama is dialed back to early childhood.  We have so much opportunity in early childhood education, both in the classroom and at home, to support a healthy generation of human beings who have the best possible chance to achieve financial independence, loving relationships, fulfilling careers, and intimate spiritual lives; yet we often don’t dig in when our chances of success are the strongest.

Why do we wait so long to invest?  Why do we wait until people are adults trapped in patterns of needy desperation and personal management crises?  There are still opportunities to change in adulthood, but the consequences of not having a handle on yourself at that point are severe.  Time out?  Um, yes.  We call it prison.

“Control” can be a dirty word to many people.  We like “freedom” much more, but are we really free if we can’t control ourselves in a positive way?  The NPR piece makes an impression because it is quite specific to developmentally appropriate times and techniques for helping kids understand something many adults never do.  People can only actually have freedom when they demonstrate they can manage themselves and their responsibilities.

I’m not much of a Tiger Mother, I don’t think.  Maybe I should look into that more.  But I am very serious about my responsibility to my child to make sure she understands she is accountable for her actions and attitude.  It’s tough when you love a child so much and all you want to do is make her life as easy as possible, knowing that it will become very difficult very soon.

But it’s going to be a lot more difficult if she doesn’t learn her role in managing her own life.  I think this afternoon we will start practicing hanging up our own coat.

Image credit: CLIMB Theatre

Taking a Risk on Terrible Lizards

From “When Was the First Dinosaur Discovered?”

Way back in 1676, Robert Plot, the curator of an English museum, described and drew a thigh bone that he believed belonged to a giant man. Although that fossil disappeared without a trace, the surviving illustration suggests that it may well have been part of a “Megalosaurus.”  Later, in 1822, large teeth discovered in England by Mary Ann Mantell and her husband, Gideon, were thought to be the remains of a huge and extinct iguana. It wasn’t until 1841 that British scientist Richard Owen came to realize that such fossils were distinct from the teeth or bones of any living creature. The ancient animals were so different, in fact, that they deserved their own name. So Owen dubbed the group “Dinosauria,”which means “terrible lizards.”

My friend Sara hooked me up with this TED video that explores issues of schools and creativity – more specifically, does our educational system and prevailing philosophy create such a fear of failure that children are dis-incentivized to take the very risks of failure that lead to break through discoveries?  It’s a really good watch and listen, but my favorite part was this simple concept:

If you are afraid to make a mistake, you will never create anything original.

My child is deeply in love with dinosaurs right now.  As we were playing the other day and I explained the first dinosaur discoveries, how they were made, what people first thought, etc.,  I was overcome with how absolutely insane the first people to publicize theories about their paleontology must have appeared.  Talk about risk!

OK, we found these bones.  They are really big.  No, bigger.  A bit bigger.  Right.  That’s what I said, yes.  No, more like reptiles.  Not really sure yet.  Uh huh.  No, pretty sure they were in the air and water too.  Looks like just about all over the world.  How long ago?  OK………are you sitting down?

Creativity is not just about art.  Creativity is, as Sir Ken Robinson explains in the video, at its core about the willingness to be wrong; maybe more than a little bit wrong.  It’s that risk that leads to new discovery, to shifts in our understanding of what is real and possible that have the potential to change everything we think we can do.

This year, let’s support more students in their willingness to take risk, and to be wrong.  We may say that’s not what we expected, is it?   Way to go trying to figure it out on your own.

I’m proud of you for taking that risk.

Image credit: Land Use History of the Colorado Plateau

God Bless the Children of the Hollows

It’s a little cold in these parts this week.  We’ve been closing schools less for the ice and snow and more for the single digit temperatures.  I signed up to receive my county closings and delays by e-mail, and received an odd and amusing list of bus route changes yesterday.

Bus shelter built by parents for their children

Note: This list is incomplete, but I picked out a few personal favorites.

##### Bus Route Changes ####

  • Buses 1118 & 1111 will not run Bufflick Hill; buses will turn at Sweeney Hollow
  • Bus 1107 will not run Dodd Hill; will turn at rock quarry
  • Buses 602, 620, 631L, 624 & 401L will not run Dry Branch Hollow; students may catch bus at the mouth of the hollow on Cabin Creek
  • Buses 1014, 1004, & 1015 will not run Happy Hollow
  • Bus 1010 will not go over Mt. Carmel
  • Bus 1003 & 1009 will not go into Tate Hollow
  • Bus 1012 will not run Holmes Hollow – will pick up at mouth of hollow
  • Bus 1003 & 1009 will not cross Buzzard Rock
  • Bus 1002, 1004, 1015 will not run Hughart Hollow

Two things come to mind.  First, I’m not sure many of us truly appreciate how hard it is to get to school, still.  There is a lot of yammering about and criticizing of rural educational attainment rates, parental apathy, and lazy kids.  I don’t know about you, but if I missed breakfast (again) so I could stand in the freezing cold and wait for a bus that’s not coming up my road for the privilege of being picked up at “the mouth of the hollow,” I might stay in bed.  This is assuming I know the bus route has changed.  It is probable my parents don’t have Internet service in my home near Buzzard Rock.

By the way, I’m six years old.

The second thing is that I could have walked to my child’s elementary school yesterday, easily.  Some days when school is delayed or closed I feel myself becoming agitated that children are missing a day of instruction “over nothing,” and then I receive an e-mail like the above and I rethink the situation.

If we all can’t be there, no one gets to be there.

This is the beauty, and the frustration, and the agony, and the glory of the public school system.  If we can’t figure out a way to pick you up and get you there — you, the one child on at the mouth of X Hollow — we will wait for you.  If conditions are so bad that we can’t find a way to get every last young’un to the school house, we will all stay home.

I posted a few of these bus route changes on Facebook and an old friend immediately recounted, “Remember in 1976, when Kenna Elementary lowered ropes down to the foot of the hill to help kids climb up to the school one winter?”  This was not my school, but this was my West Virginia growing up.  School was important, and grown ups did crazy but wonderful things to make sure we arrived there and that we wanted to be there.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was this spirit of we all go together.

We don’t have the system where it should be.  There are more than a few things that are not right in terms of policy and process.  The energy around we all go together, however, is still there; I remind myself that is a good thing in the Big Picture per the values of our country when I start to fume over inefficiency.  We need to keep that spirit, but find a way to not let it keep us at the lowest common denominator of everything all the time.  Upgrading our system to year ’round schooling would be a solid launching pad for getting our priorities as well as our values back in sync.

In the meantime, it’s very cold again this morning.  God bless the children of the hollows.  Amen.

Image credit: I.D. photo show on architecture, lost and found

How D’Ya Like Them Apples? IQ and Education

Someone asked me last week if I think the bell curve of intelligence quotient scores is even across political parties and political positions.  Without hesitation I said yes.  I don’t see any reasonable explanation for why IQ scores would necessary correlate to a person’s political opinions.  I do think, though, that the likelihood that our nation can even out with some moderate positioning on a range of issues is hampered by our struggles with educational attainment rates and public education dynamics in general.

How can we ever expect to communicate with each other to achieve more balanced and reasoned understanding when test scores and drop out rates indicate we are failing to establish even basic language skills?  And if we never leave the communities where we grew up to learn in an environment with a diverse representation of people from around the country and even the world, how can we develop appreciation for diversity and what people different from ourselves have to teach us?

In the midst of my pondering, I turned to Will.  Will always helps me figure things out.

Good Will Hunting is a favorite film in our house.  We ping back to it often, from personal reasons to conceptual storytelling to a love of Robin Williams in dramatic roles.  A quote that gets a lot of play on a regular basis is, “How d’ya like them apples?”

Photo credit: E. Gaucher

If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll recall Will (Matt Damon) is trying to get the attention and admiration of Sklyar (Minnie Driver) in a bar frequented by Harvard University students.  An arrogant pretty-boy tries to embarrass him by asking him questions about books he’s sure Will has never heard of, let alone read.  Much to his dismay, Will knows the books.  Very well.  Well enough to end up humiliating the other guy, and well enough to get Sklyar’s phone number on a cocktail napkin before she leaves.  Outside the bar, Will knocks on the glass to get stuck-up’s attention.  “Do you like apples?” Will asks.  “What?”  the guy insides replies.  “I said, do you like apples?”  The guy shrugs and nods, confused.  Will slams the napkin with the newly inked phone number up on the glass and into his face.  “Well, I got her number.  How d’ya like them apples?”

The scene is a classic illustration of the disconnect between education and intelligence.  The entire movie pivots around questions of what it means to know anything.  In the apples scene, Will comes out on top.  He has exposed himself to great works of art, and he has a photographic memory that allows him to regurgitate on cue lengthy analyses of everything from sculpture to political theory.  What’s brewing underneath his cocky persona, however, is anything but educated.  We find out later in the story that he has, for good reasons, completely isolated himself from real life experience.  He lives in his head with the thoughts and lives of others running roughshod over his courage to engage life on his own terms, and to have a true education.

Sean (Robin Williams) nails him on it with this memorable monologue:

So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny… on every art book ever written. Michelangelo? You know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations. Him and the pope. Sexual orientation. The whole works, right? I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling. Seeing that. If I ask you about women, you’ll probably give me a syllabus of your personal favorites…… But you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman… and feel truly happy. You’re a tough kid. I ask you about war, you’d probably throw Shakespeare at me, right? “Once more into the breach, dear friends.” But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap… and watched him gasp his last breath lookin’ to you for help. You don’t know about real loss, ’cause that only occurs when you love something more than you love yourself. I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much. I look at you. I don’t see an intelligent, confident man. I see a cocky, scared sh*tless kid. But you’re a genius, Will. No one denies that.

Will is a smart kid.  Smarter than smart.  But he is lashing out with information as a weapon rather than being willing to let other people teach him anything, and rather than allowing himself to be vulnerable to the many possibilities that he doesn’t know nearly as much as he thinks he does about what life is really about.

Intelligence can be a wonderful thing, and fortunately we know now that there is more than one way to measure it.  Intelligence of any kind, however, requires the humility and depth that only participating in a shared environment of respect for real learning can deliver.  It starts in school, but it hardly ends there.

Actually, if you do it right, it never ends. And that mindset is the one that has the unique power to moderate the sound and fury of today’s political climate, regardless of what else a person believes.