Everything is not ok

I ended the school day grumpy.  It was sunny, I had met a lot of great parents of great kids at the report day, and it was 3.05pm, but I was in a bad mood.  This is unusual for me.  3.05 on Friday is generally the pinnacle of my contentedness with the world.  Here is why.

At the beginning of the day I found this out:

Confidential papers, obtained by The Dominion Post, reveal the Education Ministry has suggested returning the pupils – who include those repeatedly suspended, expelled or who are long-term truants – to mainstream schools.

Dominion Post, 20 March 2010

These students are at activity centres.  This doesn’t mean anything to anyone outside the school system.  We have one at our school.  It’s a house down the road with ten students and one teacher.  These ten students have been so hard to manage in the mainstream school that they attend this alternative.  A bit more flexible and low key, but very focused on getting those kids through school.

The article tells us that the money for alternative education would be protected but redirected to something like fighting truancy, or programmes within school grounds.  I see.  This makes me suspect that the people who came up with this idea haven’t worked in a school for a really long time.  If they had then they would know that kids like this need to be away from the school grounds so that they can focus, and not  run around the school showing off to their mates, and going for smokes behind the gym, and wearing gang caps and stirring things up.  They would also know that these are the worst truants because they hate mainstream school, but at an activity centre their attendance usually improves because they feel far more engaged.

I hear Tolley wants to cut funding for career advisors in schools too.  Super.  So now low decile schools have national standards, no activity centres, and reduced employment skills programmes for students to look forward to on the horizon.  Oh yeah, and no adult education.  Since the cuts last year the entire adult education scheme in our community has closed.  I think National must have something against the poor.  High decile and private schools are no doubt unphased by the news that activity centres are closing, and careers advise is to be reduced, and nod their heads when Tolley says that adult education should be user pays.

I find myself in the unusual position of actually beginning to hate a politician.  Mind you, her actions in November last year were a startling warning signal.

Tertiary Education Minister Anne Tolley says there was no meaning intended when she read teacher union leaders a story about a rat happy with his lot in life.  Tolley encouraged teachers to “think about the good things that we have in this country and be happy with what we’ve got”.

It is very hard to satirise this kind of thing.  Especially when Tolley went on to explain her actions in this way:

Asked on Tuesday why she read the union executive the story, Tolley says she liked the story and wanted to share it.

“It wasn’t intended to be (patronising). It was meant to be light-hearted,” she told reporters.

“I was saying to them ‘look this is a really good book’… There was no underlying message, I was trying to share with them a book I had come across in a visit to a school and I thought they might be interested in it.”

Extraordinary.

At least she’s not the Foreign Affairs Minister.  God knows what the ambassador from the Congo would think when she started reading him Where the Wild Things Are.

But there were other reasons for me to be grumpy. 

At the start of last year I carefully selected students for a form class that would get two teachers in the classroom for English, Maths and Science.  These students were picked because their literacy was low.  It worked very well last year, and was to continue this year.  I discovered today that it is only very sketchily running, with a mish mash of teachers, scattered across some of the lessons.  The reason for this is that another programme was set up for an integrated learning class.  This has been badly planned, and a complete shambles, but it has taken resources away from team teaching.  Now, because integrated learning has gone badly they are throwing more resources at it.  Result: the specially set up class is losing team teaching altogther, and some of the kids will be shifted out of the class because it is too big (it’s bigger because it was supposed to have two teachers).  I found this out by chance.  Nobody came and told me.

I am stinking mad.

I am probably madder than I would be normally because I am reading a book about values and integrity.

Several years ago I was introduced to the military term ground truth, which refers to what’s actually happening on the ground versus the official tactics….  Ground truth is discussed around the watercooler, in the bathrooms, and in the parking lot, but it is seldom offered for public consumption and rarely shows up when you need it most – when the entire team is assembled to discuss an important issue.

Fierce Conversations

Sounds about right.  When ground truth and official truth diverge widely then we are in big trouble.  I feel like this.  I feel like the Minister doesn’t have any feel for the issues that concern her Ministry outside a page in an official document that outlines the Ministry’s budget; and I feel like the leaders of my school are bumbling their way from one bad decision to another but still talking a good game partly for show, and partly to convince themselves that everything is ok.

Everything is not ok.

Breaking bread

Yesterday a few things happened altogether that made it a memorable day.  I went to Te Papa  to see the exhibition on Pompeii, I went to the Town Hall with my mother to hear Simon Schama, and a storm passed through town.  In the dark, weird bit of my mind that likes to find connections, I woke up this morning and decided that all of these things were emblematic of something quite grand, and something quite small.

The reason that I started thinking this is that when I read Richard’s blog he had written about the storm, and when I read Fflur’s blog she had also written about the storm, and I realised that we had all shared a moment in a larger event.

When the storm came I was driving along the Petone Esplanade and I noticed that water was getting sucked up off the surface of the sea and whipped up into low, dark clouds shortly before a rolling bank of wind and sand and beach towels slammed into the side of my car.  It had a slightly surreal quality.  There were two girls on the Petone beach running about trying to gather what remained of their belongings, and cyclists cowering behind trees and public toilets, and a sudden switching on of lights and windscreen wipers on all the cars on the road.  All the dull day was suddenly sharpened into a memorable moment.

By the time our little group of cars had made the motorway I couldn’t see beyond my bonnet.  There were cars stopped along the road, and one car had simply given up and was parked in the passing lane with its hazard lights blinking feebly.  Later, National Radio quietly informed me that every fire engine in the region was out dealing with roofs and trees and the police had taken 200 calls.

It reminded me of waking once, in the middle of the night, in my old bedroom in Karori.  There was thunder, and the thunder in the bowl of Karori Park rolls, and reveberates around the hills like a kettle drum finale in a Beethoven symphony.  For a second when I woke up in the pitch black with these huge, terrifying sounds I felt pure terror, as if the end of the world had come, as if the sky and the Earth were being torn apart.  It lasted for a second but I remember it 15  years later quite clearly.  I think it is the closest I have come to understanding completely the medieval vision of the Apocalypse, or knowing what it must be like to live in the instant before the onslaught of some grand disaster.

*****

We took our Classics class to the Pompeii exhibition at Te Papa.  We sat and watched the 3D film of the dramatic event in 79AD, we looked at the artifacts in the display cases, and we listened to our guide explain a little of the society of Rome.  For me though the most affecting part of the exhibition were the plaster casts of the people who perished.  I have seen photos of these people and animals before, but standing a foot from them was quite moving.

It must have been an extraordinary moment on the original dig when they decided to pour plaster into one of these pockets of air they kept discovering in the layers of hardened ash in Pompeii and found that it was the shape of a person.  The details are chilling and upsetting.  A dog chained to the wall straining to keep it’s head above the rising ash, and the folds of cloth clutched to the mouth of a woman.  By far the most emotional cast though was the man and the woman found together.  The man was lying flat on his back, he looked by the shape of him to be a bit passed middle age with a little paunch.  His head was against the side of a woman, who was sitting up a little on her side with her hand resting gently on his head.

The hand of that woman resting on that man stirred me up.  The students were elsewhere, and I was able to push back a tear without them noticing.

*****

In the tail of the storm I tried to drive to the Town Hall to hear Simon Schama.  Town was grid locked.  Eventually I had to abandon my car in a park down by New World on Chaffers Street and run.  I got there with two minutes to spare.  My mother was waiting in the foyer with a whole group of people anxiously texting their delayed companions. 

We found a seat near the back and shortly afterwards Sean Plunkett and Simon Schama ambled out onto the stage to a very warm welcome.  I was surprised to find that Mr Schama was a very funny, and a very warm speaker.  He even told us a joke (“A Catholic priest, a baptist, and a rabbi go into the forest to convert a bear…”).  Amongst the many things discussed there was one that dominated quite a bit of the discussion: the idea that the big, epic narratives of history can be accessed through the small, personal stories of those who lived in those times.  Schama said that when he wrote Citizens about the French Revolution he was interested in the big idea of how a society can suddenly become so politicized, because he kept reading about people who had lived through the revolution, whose private lives had suddenly been forced up against this massive, dangerous force.  How had they coped?

The final question from the floor was from a young man who was a design student.  He was rather awkward and gushing.  He said how he’d had a hard time at school because of dyslexia, but how he had watched over and over Schama’s History of Britain series and how much it had meant to him.  He asked what place he thought the teaching of History had in schools.

Storytelling.  If we don’t have our stories we don’t have much Schama replied, and then he quoted Auden.  History is, in part, “breaking bread with the dead”, sitting down with the people of the past and listening to them and finding our bonds.  I like that.  Telling stories and breaking bread.

You can talk about the storm as a meterological event, or you can share stories.  You can study Pompeii as a vulcanologist or you can feel pity and compassion for the people who died there. 

The hand of the woman on the man let me break some bread.