The Systemic Problem with Public Education Today

I didn't get in, mom, my daughter called me hysterically crying from school on Monday.

What? She couldn't be talking about her talent show. She insisted she'd get in, no problem, as last year a boy got on stage, threw a top hat at the judges, and he got in, she'd told us.

They didn't want me, mom, she managed through quick gasps. I wasn't good enough. And then she crumbled, lost to herself, and her value.

My heart in my throat, I told her I'd call the school and talk to whoever was in charge and find out why they didn't want her in the show. I insisted multiple times she WAS good enough, regardless of what her elementary school said. I had listened to her practicing for a week, and the last several days she was on tone, her voice strong, clear, resonant. It was mind-boggling why she didn't get in, I told her, and promised again to find out what was going on before we disconnected.

I contacted the school directly. Made the front office aware my daughter was very upset. I left messages for the principal, as well as the teachers involved with the talent show. Apparently, helping me deal with the child's heart they broke was less important than lunch, as no one got back to me, and I was unable to give my daughter any information when she got home. No one at school bothered to speak with her either.

She tried to put on a brave face--pretend it didn't really matter, though insisted she'll never try out for a talent show again. Usually singing softly to herself, she was quiet all afternoon. A few tears spilled when she thought no one was looking. Crushed me to my core.

A practiced pianist and singer, she'd wanted to try out for the talent show for years but had been too afraid to perform alone. This year, 5th grade, her last year of elementary school, two classmates asked her to do a song and routine with them. She was thrilled, especially having secured few extended friendships beyond school in her six years there.

After weeks of practicing on the playground together, and just days before the sign-up, the classmates decided to perform alone or with others. 

They don't want me anymore, mom, she cried softly. I'm not going to be in the talent show.

I gathered her in my arms. I'm so sorry. I know this was important to you, I said as I held her. But you can still be in the show. You have a beautiful voice. You dance, you move like the music is in you. I love watching you perform! Please don't let this stop you from trying out for the show. Show them all how talented you are, because you are!

She didn't believe me. I'm her mom. Of course I'd say that. Which is what she said to me, per usual—RME (roll my eyes) to be exact. There was no way she was going to perform alone.

Enter her teen brother, a practiced, studied and performing guitarist of nine years, comes into the kitchen upon listening upstairs. Feeling her shame and sadness, he offered to perform with her in her talent show. She gratefully, proudly accepted. Beyond their constant bickering, he was showing he loved her, deeply, and my beautiful daughter glowed. Proud mama moment, as well!

They choose to perform Pink's So What. My son's suggestion. He's been learning it to perform on his own in a few months. His sister happily agreed, as she loves the song (in fact, had asked him to sing it in his performance, but he wants to sing it himself).

I was tickled they'd worked out a solution with such ease, and began practicing without my prodding, until I heard the words to the song:

I guess I just lost my husband
I don't know where he went
So I'm gonna drink my money
I'm not gonna pay his rent (Nope!)
I got a brand new attitude
And I'm gonna wear it tonight
I'm gonna get in trouble
I wanna start a fight

After watching Pink's video, I spoke to both of them that perhaps it wasn't the best song for the overtly Christian, conservative/Republican public elementary school my daughter attended. And while it's true, there are no cuss words, as my kids argued, and no slamming the church, or religion, or even Republicans, I insisted the words weren't appropriate for her audience and suggested they pick another song, on par with Amazing Grace.

Since we both want to sing Pink, then let's let the school decide, my daughter boldly suggested. Along with her parent-signed permission form to be turned in the next day, almost a week before the tryouts, the school required the lyrics from all singing performers. We agreed to let the school tell us if they could perform So What, or not, when they reviewed the lyrics. If the school felt it inappropriate, she'd pick something else for the try-outs.

She delivered the permission form and lyrics she'd printed out to school the next day.

Our daughter and son practiced multiple times daily. She also practiced alone in her room daily on top of that, to be on key and in sync with her brother's guitar. The day before, and the morning of the try-outs, they sounded really great. We had not heard from the school about the song choice, which our daughter touted multiple times with, See!, as if I'm ancient thinking the pop song inappropriate.

I didn't go to the try-outs. No parents were there, my daughter told me on the phone that afternoon. I dropped my son off at the school with his electric and amp and went home and watched the clock for his call. Picking them up, my daughter assured me it went well, they sounded good. According to our son, it went 'fine. She was on key and I was on time and we sounded pretty good, a lot better than any of the other five acts we watched trying out,' he assured me. He, too, was sure they'd get into the show.

When my daughter called me Monday morning and told me they didn't get in, I was floored. Teetering under the weight of her sadness, especially after all her efforts, I called the school to provide me information, and my child support, but they did neither. They denied her the opportunity to perform, while accepting the two girls she was originally slated to perform with, and sent her a message that she really isn't as good as the rest of the kids at school who consistently exclude her (involved in church activities and religious functions), and her school just publicly proved it.

After contacting the school multiple times, late afternoon I got a call from a teacher who claimed she wasn't involved with the judging, but after looking into it, the rubric the judges filled out during try-outs indicated the song my daughter sang was not appropriate. I inquired why she hadn't told us this a week ago when they reviewed the lyrics, and given my daughter the opportunity to perform another song. Her feather's ruffled, her tone clearly agitated, again she insisted her talent committee couldn't possibly review all 40 applications submitted. She quoted several lines from So What, subtly chastising me for not knowing them inappropriate, then told me they rely on the parents to know what is right and wrong, and clearly So What was wrong for children.

We do not restrict access to the books our kids read or the music they listen to. Never have. We play, and talk about music, a lot, what lyrics mean, underlying messages—like how Pink doesn't really want to start a fight. She's angry for being dissed, like our daughter felt by the two girls, and is lashing out in So What. I explained to the teacher, turns out coordinator of the talent show, that we were relying on the school to nix anything they felt inappropriate. It wasn't my call in this subtle situation (unlike our daughter choosing, say, American Idiot), but theirs.

The coordinator insisted I should have simply forbade my child from performing the song of her choice. The school did nothing wrong in failing to read what they themselves had requested, and eventually there was no point in continuing our dialog.

My daughter listened to our entire conversation. We have no secrets in our family. And I wanted to make sure she understood her rejection had nothing to do with their performance. She asked me to ask if she could pick another song, which I did, but the coordinator told us the acts had already been chosen and slated to fill the time. There was nothing she could do, nothing that should be done. We really should have known better.

Upon my request, the vice-principle contacted me via email that evening to arrange a phone conversation after she spoke with our daughter privately the following morning. I was afraid of the talk she wanted with my child, scared of the burden she'd surely place on my daughter while absolving herself and the school of culpability. Nine years and two kids going through this elementary school, and time and again I've watched educators put the onus of their screw-ups on the children, the parents, the lack of funding...etc. In all the years I've brought issues to the attention of our local public educators, maybe two teachers, and no admin, ever, have claimed responsibility for their mistakes.

The vice-principal contacted me the next morning, gushing over her dialog with my daughter, enamored by her 'extraordinary use of language.' Then she reiterated their conversation for me. She couched her speech in platitudes and soft instruction, subtly blaming my child for going into the try outs with a bad attitude after being dissed, suggesting perhaps it wasn't wise to try out for the show shouldering disappointment with something to prove. Oh, and she didn't like the word 'dissed,' told my daughter to used the word frustrated instead, in effect, instructing my child to mask feeling, well, dissed, which is way more than simply frustrated.

During their half hour talk she told my daughter she should be more aware of her audience, know what is appropriate and not by now, and learn to make better choices in the future. When my child mentioned submitting the lyrics, and thinking we'd be informed, as I did, if there was a problem, the vice-principle blamed my child for not soliciting a response after submitting her forms from the talent show coordinator, then unknown to her, if she wasn't sure about her song choice. At no time did the vice-principal say the teachers screwed up not reading the paperwork they'd requested. She never apologize for these teachers costing my daughter the opportunity to compete with something they considered more appropriate.

And the best part, the vice-principle didn't even know what she said to my daughter was wrong—ethically, morally, and worse, modeling a horrific lack of personal responsibility.

By her grace, I get that this woman really wanted to help. She's a mom of two girls, and knows how much it hurts to see your child hurt. So I listened politely then disconnected, suffocating under the weight of my disappointment. So systemic is this lack of accountability in our public education system, denial of culpability have become ingrained into the industry culture. 

Admitting to mistakes is the only way to begin correcting them.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely—then by the same wisdom, absolute autonomy [our educators enjoy today via the Teacher's Unions] absolutely undermines responsibility! And teaching our kids by example to deny mistakes, or avoid repercussions by neglecting personal responsibility for them, will ensure the society of the future to consist of self-absorbed brats, more interested in covering their ass than helping humanity thrive beyond them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

People will freely admit that we all screw up. They have a much more difficult time acknowledging that they themselves have screwed up.

I once read a definition of evil as indifference to the suffering of others. The vice-principal and teachers that did not respond to the suffering they caused, well maybe they look at themselves in the mirror and feel fine too ...

Well written, thanks!