The past few weeks have been nailbiters in TeacherBethLand. I’m never a big fan of electoral politics, but this year has been especially angsty. I live in a very progressive part of California, a state which has over the years gone from wide acknowledgement as a bastion of quality public education to its current placement at the bottom of the heap. The governor put a measure on the state ballot proposing to at least staunch a bit of the blood flow through targeted revenue increases: in the days leading up to the election, the measure’s fate seemed very uncertain, with some polls indicating that it would most likely not pass. At the same time, all indications were that the presidential race was going to be a historically close one–though the candidates themselves could in many ways not be more different, the numbers were almost identical going into the Tuesday vote.
I’m not going to describe Election Day itself. For me as a teacher, the best part of the election was the day after it happened, when each of us came to work knowing that our state was not gutting our school.
The first Wednesday of the month, we have an assembly on the playground that starts as soon as the bell rings. It connects to our schoolwide 4 Values campaign–the theme, each time, has to do with Respect, Responsibility, Honesty, or Compassion. Each grade takes a turn performing a song, or a couple songs, that dovetail with that theme.
Today, as the principal spoke to a cheering crowd about how thankful she was to announce that Proposition 30 had passed, I looked around at the families and the children, thinking about us all in light of the election. Marcus and Tyera, who had both been so excited yesterday about their parents being able to vote for Obama; a younger sibling, biracial like my own nephews, who I suddenly realized would go from birth to second grade only knowing a President whose heritage matched his. The two mothers of a first grader who comes to my lunch groups, and the first grader himself–I thought quickly of his careful writing in his journal, and lined it up with another piece of writing I’d seen. The rows and rows of students, as diverse as our state, as diverse as America. This one lives, I know, in a one bedroom apartment, shared by 9 people. That one has two doctor parents. Her mother is undocumented. They’re in foster care. His brother goes to a private school that costs $25,000 a year, but he’s on the spectrum and the private school couldn’t handle him: he gives me a smile and I smile back.
It’s not just the money that matters, today. It’s the recognition that the bulk of the voting public did something yesterday that affirms each of these children. Said, we have to do better. We have to stop doing worse. Education was identified as a good worth protecting: a commitment was made to move our kids forward. This morning, the first colleague I saw was the third grader teacher who almost lost her job during the 20-day rebalancing last month: this morning, we grinned at each other and hugged for the first time.
And right now, her kids are singing, as a volunteer plays the ukelele. It’s the Israel Kaʻanoʻi Kamakawiwoʻole mashup of Somewhere Over the Rainbow with What a Wonderful World. The students are adorably earnest, and I get a little shiver as my eyes pass over each of them. Gia, who had a full-blown panic attack last month during a computerized assessment; Jamal, whose grandmother fetched him from Los Angeles when his father went to jail for trying to kill his mom. Sweet, helpful Lillian; Jordan who screams in the hallway when he’s angry. The other third grade teacher, whose Down’s Syndrome daughter I taught two years ago, stands beaming to the right of her students, cuing them gently with small, expressive hand movements. Finn, who’s had a rough transition from home because Dad wouldn’t let him finish the computer program he was working on, is walking in circles around me, complaining below his breath about the cold. At the back of the crowd, I see my friend Lisa, and think of the tireless work she’s put in over the past several weeks to get the word out about the importance of Prop 30.
The song ends. As the fifth grade teacher talks about our composting program, Finn sits to lower his bare knees out of the cold; I toss him my sweater and he spreads it like a tablecloth. A kid from the counseling enriched/behavior disorders program bolts from the crowd and her teacher follows, collecting her from the principal, who saw her coming and blocked her from the gate that leads out of the school. Younger siblings toddle and crawl on the painted lines turning our yard into a track.
And the third graders are singing their last song for the morning, the song that will stay in my mind for hours as I go about my business, the day after the election where my state finally stood up to say how much schools matter:
I’m gonna let education turn me around
turn me around
turn me around
keep on reading
keep on learning
heading for the promised land.