“My big dream has always been to have a big place of my own out in the country someplace where I could take care of stray dogs and orphan kids, kid that didn’t ask to be born…. I’d only want to be sure of one thing—that nobody wanted those kids. Then I would take them.…I’d take care of them, feed them, see to it the little bastards go to school, knock them in the head when they’re wrong but love them whether they’re good or bad.…I’d always be around to teach them my kind of teaching—not the kind that tells them how to spell Mississippi, but how to be glad to be who you are and what you are.”
-Billie Holiday: from Lady Sings the Blues
Most every day, I keep up with the news, sign a petition, donate money to a candidate, sometimes write a letter to distant voters—in short, try to do my part to participate in the democracy I was bequeathed and hold it accountable for its dream of liberty and justice for all. Most petitions are accompanied by a short survey about what’s the most important challenges that lie ahead—the climate, the pandemic, the economy, police reform, etc. But as important as these immediate topics are, the most vital long-term issue rarely makes the list—education.
I’m not talking about 2 + 2 = 4 or how to spell Mississippi or school budget education, the same-old same-old small questions that distract us from the larger ones. I’m talking about the questions we’ve refused to ask, the essential questions of our particular moment in time that move beyond yesterday’s solutions to tomorrow’s problems. The things all teachers and school administrators and parents should be talking about beyond how to wipe down the desk and speak clearly through a mask, as if their lives depended on it. Or more importantly, the discussions we need to have as if our children’s lives depended upon it. Because they do.
Consider. 70 million people voted for a guy who tore children from their families and put them in cages. 70 million people voted for a guy who proclaimed climate change a hoax even as the hurricanes and fires raged and the chances for an inhabitable planet for these children continued to diminish. 70 million people voted for a guy who refused to deal with the pandemic and kept children longer out of school than might have happened with swift and sensible responses. 70 million people voted for a guy who hired a Secretary of Education who pushed for schools to re-open too early in the pandemic, refused Federal Aid in the face of the COVID crisis for DACA children. tried to privatize education to give yet more privilege to the white and wealthy. 70 million people voted for a guy who is a bully, a liar, a self-obsessed narcissist who has not shown one ounce of care or empathy for anyone other than himself, including other dubious humans he has hired and then fired, behavior no parents in their right mind would want their children to emulate. 70 million people voted for a guy who refused to condemn white supremacy. The list goes on.
The children feel this. Some part of them senses that grown adults who are supposed to protect them, encourage them, care for them and love them, have abandoned them. Not all adults—some 75 million refused the man and his policies. But the 70 million others? A 51/49 split in the most fundamental of human (and mammalian) legacies— to care for the young—is intolerable. As a culture, we have abandoned our children. And the children feel it.
And so Billie Holiday’s dream and her criteria that the children in her lovely vision would have to be unwanted and unloved to qualify for her dream school is fulfilled. Which means that every school must now help heal this bleeding wound in the American heart. We’ve had “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top”— I propose the new Secretary of Education (and I wouldn’t refuse it if you offered it to me, Joe!) name the new Mission Statement “Billie’s Dream.” And if it were me, I’d begin with three steps. (to be continued).