I am old enough to remember a black and white America. In my childhood, televisions and movies were black and white. The stories they told had moral values that were black and white. Everyone, children and adults, read the newspapers, chronicles of American life printed in black and white (and read all over, per the riddle every child could tell).
Growing up in Memphis was also about black and white. Life was a tale of two cities. White people lived in white neighborhoods, black people in black neighborhoods. Schools, shops, churches, bus seating and radio stations divided black and white. Water fountains and swimming pools divided black and white. Poverty and middle class divided black and white. For the most part, Memphis children, white and black, lived in separate bubbles. We generally thought whatever our parents and elders thought about the two different worlds and why they existed. We believed what we were told about the personalities, peculiarities and peccadilloes of those Other people, with whom most of us children had little, if any, interaction.
The decade of the 1960′s changed everything – for Memphis, for America. Planet Earth rocked on its axis, and institutions tottered and toppled. Rules were broken, beliefs shaken. Leaders were raised up, revered, then assassinated. Scales fell from many eyes.
The baby boom generation was like a fat pig in the demographic python. There were so many of us we could not be ignored. With an intensity of passion, energy and idealism found only in the callow, we dared to think and live differently. Our rebellion took on many forms, from drug use to political activism. We made news, while trying to make things new. New is not always better.
Memphis had been a white-dominated, conservative city with deep roots in segregated society. White adults feared integration of schools and souls. They railed against school busing; fled to the suburbs; and erected new, white-only, “Christian” schools. Memphis’ overt racism made national headlines. For the most part, however, public school students both black and white adapted to integration, and seeds were planted for positive change.
But in April 1968, a gun was fired in downtown Memphis and our world exploded. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination was the event that changed Memphis forever. The sins of the man who pulled the trigger were visited on every white person in Memphis. We were accused by the world, and we knew guilt in our hearts.
I am persuaded that the vast majority of African Americans are unaware of the intolerable burden of white guilt. Though the race card is frequently played by those who are angry over some injustice, either real or imagined, guilt over past racism is far more prevalent than current prejudice against blacks. That shame has informed and infected white people – and most acutely, white Southerners – for a half century.
Memphis has imploded since that shot heard around the world in 1968. We are no longer a confident and thriving city, a clean city, a city of good abode. Memphis is racked with crime, poverty, hopelessness, and despair; a city on the verge of moral and financial collapse. And despite a half century of racially conjoined living, working, governing, and playing, fear and anger still divide us.
Where have we gone wrong? Why can’t we get it right?
We see our local elected leaders engaged in foolish games of divide and conquer, pitting city against county, black against white, middle class against poor. Why can’t we raise up and elect more men and women of maturity, wisdom, and experience in working effectively with others for the common good?
We see failed public policies that were supposed to bring an end to poverty, joblessness, poor education, teenaged pregnancies, and juvenile crime. We see thousands of not for profit organizations and churches reaching out, reaching out, reaching out every day to feed, clothe, house and support the needy. But the sins and suffering of Memphis keep swelling.
We have seen working people of all races retreat to the suburbs, as far away from the city limits as their jobs will allow them, creating middle class municipal bubbles where they can forget they are still in Greater Memphis. We’ve seen hard-working, open-hearted, upwardly mobile citizens of all races move to Memphis and leave soon thereafter; unable or unwilling to live in a city so ruled by anger and distrust.
We know many Greater Memphians who have worked hard to make a difference. Some burned out and gave up, despairing after years of failed efforts to bring people together. Others fared better. They found common ground, then developed loyal friendships and mutually rewarding partnerships across races. But the latter are too few in number. This is a city of many thousand churches, charitable organizations, and interracial ministries. It is the home of Stax, the Grizzlies, MIFA, St. Jude and FedEx. A place where people cross barriers and shake hands, then make magic and music and medicine and miracles every day. We can do better than we are doing. We can be more than we are.
Memphis could be a city of light, a city of shalom, a place of wholeness and peace where things are the way they are supposed to be. Yet much of Memphis continues to waste away as the majority of us sit and wonder how to fix such a mess.
Hope and change starts with us. With individuals. We are responsible for the business climate, neighborhood culture, and prosperity of our city. Us – not another federal program or Gates Foundation handout or glib politician.
What can we do? What must we do?
1. Fix our public schools.
Meaningful school improvement starts with us – parents, grandparents, churches, teachers, coaches, and local business people who care enough to get involved. We will not succeed with billion-dollar programs created by education activists who have never taught in a classroom and who think that children’s futures can be managed like production lines of widgets. We need local control and wise, strong, capable school board members who understand local circumstances and listen to their constituents. We have to start with the basics, like making sure that every student in third grade and above can read and write. Making sure that all public high school graduates can communicate, calculate and follow instructions; that they are motivated to work hard and do their best. We can’t leap into a “World Class” educational system from where we are now; i.e., with only 4% of Memphis high school graduates able to perform in a college or work setting. We start with the basics.
2. Elect better leaders.
Memphis has deteriorated because the quality of our leadership has deteriorated. Memphis must raise up and elect high-quality leaders who will honestly and faithfully represent citizens of all races and socioeconomic groups; who will put the health and prosperity of the city above their own political ambitions and egos; who will have the courage to reform the current patronage system that allows waste, corruption, and mediocrity to sabotage our best laid plans. To do this, we must all be better-informed voters. That means taking the time to learn about issues and candidates, finding the truth amidst hype and propaganda, and cherishing the right to vote.
3. Bridge the racial divide.
No city at war with itself can survive. How many people do you know well whose cultural and/or economic background is vastly different from your own? Would you be at ease attending a church picnic or family get-together where no one looked remotely like you? Relationships of trust and regard start with finding common ground. All too often, middle class and wealthy Memphians attempt to help those in need by writing a check or participating in activities that make them feel good about themselves for being charitable. Too many white people seek to absolve their racial guilt in showy but superficial ways rather than intentionally forming friendships with African Americans as brothers and sisters in humanity. (How often do you think black civil rights leaders of the 1960′s were invited to the Kennedy compound to sail and play tennis? And has anything changed among sniffy white liberal elites?) We must stop seeing people different from ourselves as Other (this I say as a guilty white Southerner who is still stumbling on the journey).
Making a Start
Memphis has always been a black and white city. My Memphis of the 1950′s was a privileged, prosperous, and safe haven. For a little boy or girl in Orange Mound or Binghamton, not so much. I was too naive, protected and self-centered to recognize the poisonous legacy of slavery that was eating away the heart of the country and city I loved. It took me way too long to understand and acknowledge that, even as a child, my acceptance and indifference to the way things were then was an insidious form of racism. After seeing and living in other places, and stretching the boundaries of my experience far beyond Shelby County, I began to grow on the inside. Now, home again in Memphis after many years gone, I find myself back in a black and white city, wiser but sadder.
This time, I grieve. I grieve for all the time we’ve lost as a community, for the opportunities we are losing still. Yet even as I yearn and mourn, I am grateful to happen upon moments of hope, shared joy, and glimmers of understanding.
It all starts with finding common ground. In future posts, Back in River City will begin to highlight people, projects and organizations that are bringing people together in Memphis. Please help us identify these points of light and join us as we tell their stories.
Meanwhile, enjoy this perfect Memphis moment from the 1998 Sunset Symphony, where James Hyter sings his last performance after 21 years. (If you don’t love this, you’re not really a Memphian.)
Join the Conversation!
How does Memphis become a city of fellowship?
How do we push ourselves back from the Detroit-like precipice that threatens many American cities?
What people, organizations and projects do you know that are creating bonds of friendship in Memphis across racial lines?
Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below or on our Facebook page.
Thanks to a Momma Bears blog post, today we learned that certain Shelby County elementary schools have been offering positively-reviewed materials like Stuck in the Middle: 17 Comics from an Unpleasant Age.
According to the publisher, this
“anthology of illustrated tales about the agonies and triumphs of seventh and eighth grade” has “an important message to share: Everyone can survive middle school!”
Comics about middle school life? Sounds like fun! We all survived that that awkward period, and all have embarrassing stories as souvenirs.
“With a sense of humor as refreshing as it is bitingly honest, seventeen artists share their stories of first love, bullying, zits, and all the things that make middle school the worst years of our lives.”
GoodReads reviewers (541) rate it 3.39 stars out of four. Good enough. So, what’s the problem, Momma Bears?
Read the post here. Then come back and we’ll talk. (Our extreme, Miss Manners-like sense of propriety here at Back in River City prohibits us from reprinting the post, which contains images of pages from the book containing language too raw for our Old Memphis sensibilities.)
Read it now? Are you outraged? If you aren’t, we live on separate planets. Eddie and I don’t want our nine year old granddaughter to learn about oral sex from a comic book she checked out of the school library. But then, we’re just old fashioned that way.
A little online research today revealed that Stuck in the Middle is on the American Library Association’s hall of shame list of banned books, right alongside To Kill a Mockingbird and The Diary of Anne Frank. It was pulled from the shelves of a Sioux Falls, Iowa middle school library in 2009, two years after its publishing date, when the parents of a sixth grader made a fuss. Here’s how an Amazon reviewer sees that scenario:
” . . . I was having a problem while digging through this finding anything that would be objectionable to anyone but the straightest-laced tight[wad]s. I have this mental image of tea-drinking old ladies with three dozen cats each in the basement of a South Dakota saloon forming a censorship cabal, and let me tell you, it’s terrifying. Especially because they all brought all their cats. It’s like a cat swap meet and censorship committee meeting, and what could be scarier than that?”
It’s hard for those slick, cosmopolitan folks who didn’t grow up in a flyover state to consider that some prepubescent children in Tennessee do manage to maintain a soupçon of innocence well past their tenth birthdays. This is due primarily to the efforts, Todd Starnes would say, of proud, finger-licking, Bible-clinging, gun-toting, son-of-a-Baptist Papa and Momma Bears.
Here’s what Eddie and I want to know (and we are posing these questions to every member of the Shelby County School Board):
- Do our public school officials believe this book is suitable for SCS elementary school students?
- Who approved this book for the shelves of an SCS elementary school (K-5) library?
- Did it slip through because a librarian only read the publisher’s glowing and innocuous version of its content; or did the librarian think it was a solid choice for our children?
- What are the policies governing the purchase of SCS library materials?
This is just one book, one incident, that came to our attention due to an alert and outraged Momma Bear. It represents a vast number of things that parents and even non-parents should know, but don’t, about today’s public school experience in Greater Memphis.
It’s time to get involved. It’s time to take a stand. Remember the slogan of Tennesseans Against Common Core:
[For the benefit of those Back in River City readers below-a-certain-age who are scratching their heads, wondering if the Bobbsey Twins are hot NFL cheerleaders, uh, No. Here's their picture, and you won't find them in manga or the aforementioned book.]
Some things nobody needs to tell you. If you’re over 10, you just KNOW. Like,
Never Mess with a Momma Bear!
Momma bears have plenty to do, and will more or less go on about their business unless you start to messin’ with their cubs. But if you threaten the welfare of those little ones, watch out, because you can’t run fast enough to get away.
Momma Bears in Shelby County have organized to protect their cubs as the implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) initiative and related school reforms has begun to reveal startling facts and yield disturbing results. The Momma Bears are one of a multitude of groups spanning both sides of the ideological divide that are pushing back hard and strong on what promises to be one of 2014′s hottest political issues in local, state, and even Congressional elections.
The massive school reforms now being implemented across the country will affect the life of every child and adult citizen, and are reshaping the philosophy and process of how America prepares future generations.
Now’s the time to know the facts (not just what you hear on radio commercials or what the local news lapdogs decide selectively to report) about the sweeping changes in America’s education system that are often collectively referred to as Common Core. If you are new to Back in River City or have not followed our coverage on Common Core, check out our previous posts. Or, better yet, for the full story, take the time to watch the outstanding video series produced by the American Principles Project available on YouTube.
Narrated by attorney Jane Robbins, the highly watchable series runs about 31 minutes for all five videos. It provides a complete overview of the Common Core reform package ushered in by President Obama’s Race to the Top (RTTT) grants, funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. In 2010, forty-five governors committed their states to sweeping education reforms in competition for $4.35 billion in federal funds. In 2012, the Department of Education connected No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waivers to RTTT reform commitments. Waivers have been sought by at least 35 states to protect them from the harshest penalties associated with failure to achieve school performance goals set by NCLB for 2014.
Click on the links below to watch the video series.
Since Back in River City began looking at the Common Core State Standards Initiative a year ago, nationwide resistance has snowballed, creating unexpected alliances that include unions and conservative politicians; progressive and traditional educators; child psychologists; “Badass Teachers” (BATs); and parents representing every ideological and sociodemographic category. Individual communities as well as the internet are ablaze as frustrated teachers and enraged parents report real-life results of the implementation of Common Core and the RTTT reforms, including:
- K-3 standards that are developmentally inappropriate and are said by child psychologists to be “abusive to children”;
- high-stakes testing that consumes literally months of classroom instruction time, including tests on material that children have not been taught;
- widespread incidents of students – including the brightest and highest ranking – developing anxiety disorders and emotional/behavioral issues as they are subjected to unrealistic expectations and held to unreachable standards;
- collection of non-academic, sensitive personal data about students and their parents made available to commercial vendors and researchers for questionable purposes;
- privatization of public schools that threatens parental and local control;
- standards-based teacher evaluations that are driving out even our best teachers in favor of inexperienced new college graduates who lack both education degrees and long-term commitment to teaching.
Two Knox County, Tennessee high schoolers attracted national attention for their eloquent denunciations of what Common Core was doing to their school. Ethan Young’s five minute school board presentation to the Knox County Board of Education (KCBOE) on November 6, 2013 has scored over 2 MILLION views on YouTube. Ethan gave a succinct expose of Common Core’s history and concept, which he called “an industrial model of school,” and called for re-emphasis on America’s traditional teaching goals: to free minds, to inspire, and to stimulate creativity and the joy of learning. He condemned punitive methods of teacher evaluation that ignore classroom factors beyond teachers’ control, such as student participation and interest.
Watch Ethan’s speech here.
Ethan’s classmate Kenneth Ye appeared before the KCBOE in December. Kenneth, an outstanding scholar with a long list of academic achievements, spoke as a product of both the U.S. and Chinese educational systems. He compared the Common Core model with its dependence on standardized testing to a “one-size fits all factory of education,” saying that Common Core would squelch the “creative and inquisitive mindset” that distinguishes America’s system from China’s. According to Kenneth, the primary product of the Chinese system (which Common Core emulates) is “test cramming.”
Kenneth also decried the corrupt process that is allowing for-profit companies to have deep influence over America’s public education policy. He cited as an example the billions to be made by Pearson Education, U.S. subsidiary of the world’s largest book publisher.
Click here to watch Kenneth’s video.
The Shelby County-based Momma Bears group organized after members of the Shelby County Council PTA began sharing concerns about school issues affecting their children’s health, education, and privacy. Their diligent efforts have included a Change.org petition to recall State Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman, intensive research and preparation for resolutions passed by the Shelby County Council PTA to protect student privacy and end high stakes testing, and a highly popular blog. Momma Bears are also sponsoring public meetings across Shelby County to raise awareness of consequences of school reforms implemented under RTTT/Common Core. Teachers and parents attend these meetings to share specific details about reform-era classroom life that are unknown to (and perhaps deliberately withheld from) many parents and Common Core supporters.
Most teachers are warned by their principals not to speak out against Common Core. Those who do, fear they are putting their jobs on the line. Despite the risk, more and more teachers are finding ways to expose the detrimental effects to children and learning that are taking place in their classrooms every day throughout Shelby County.
Momma Bears (and one Papa Bear) openly challenged State Senator Dolores Gresham when she spoke at the February Dutch Treat luncheon (videotape part 1 of 3 here). Sen. Gresham is chairman of the Senate Education Committee, and has accepted campaign funding from pro-Common Core advocacy group Stand for Children. She announced she has submitted several bills to the Tennessee General Assembly for consideration this session that will curtail or amend reforms put in place by First to the Top, as Gov. Haslam has dubbed Tennessee’s RTTT-funded education reform initiative. The Momma Bears contend that none of Sen. Gresham’s bills has “teeth” to stop the abuses they see under First to the Top.
Momma Bears are all about teeth.
Tennessee Against Common Core, headed by East Tennessee grandmom Karen Bracken, continues to lead a formidable effort against Common Core reforms, engaging voters and lobbying state legislators. The grassroots advocacy group publishes an information-packed, twice-weekly newsletter; is holding weekly conference calls throughout the legislative session; and keeps tabs on Common Core advocacy and push-back efforts throughout Tennessee and the U.S. The group is currently raising funds to broadcast radio commercials telling the whole truth about Common Core to counter those now being aired by Businesses for Tennessee Prosperity, a coalition of the chambers of commerce for Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville.
State Senator Mae Beavers and House Rep. Rick Womick have introduced bills to repeal Common Core State Standards in Tennessee. It is uncertain if they will receive the necessary approval by education subcommittee and committee chairs to reach a floor vote. It is highly unlikely that any bill undoing a commitment made in Tennessee’s Race to the Top application would be signed by Gov. Haslam, who sits on the board of Achieve, the Gates-supported not for profit organization responsible for orchestrating the Common Core State Standards Initiative.
At the end of the day, federalism is a key issue determining the future of First to the Top in Tennessee. Can a state law be enacted that reneges on commitments Tennessee made to the federal government in exchange for $501 million? RTTT compliance requirements stated in the November 18, 2009 Federal Register suggest that a state awarded RTTT funds that fails to meet its “goals, timelines, budget or annual targets or is not fulfilling other applicable requirements” could be subject to enforcement measures including being put on “reimbursement payment status” or having funds delayed or withheld.
Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Pearson, Achieve and other too-smart-for-the-rest-of-us reformers engineered a brilliant political scheme to wrest control of local education from 45 states and change how students are taught, what they are taught, and why – that is, for what purpose – they are taught.
They pulled it off without a hitch, with lots of feel good, hope-and-change rhetoric; public relations smoke and mirrors; rivers of cash from Gates et al; business leaders and politicians who bought the lie of more rigorous standards, a silver bullet for failing schools, and better prepared workers/college students (shades of “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan.”); and a wealth of lazy or complicit journalists. Their agenda is now locked into place, secured by the threat of losing ongoing federal funding or paying back billions already received.
Or is it? Just as Obamacare began to unravel when we found out what was in it, the truth about Common Core is coming out every day in classrooms from K-12 all over the country. Brave teachers are exposing the egregious flaws in the system. Children are bringing home absurd and appalling assignments and telling their parents about invasive surveys integrated into standardized tests.
Big Data, Big Textbook Companies, Big IT, and Big Government should not assume their dreams of wealth and power will all be realized, because now the Momma Bears and Papa Bears are on to their game.
The conversation about education in America is only beginning for parents who demand what’s right and best for their children. It’s your turn, Momma and Papa and GrandBears.
Back in River City will continue to highlight Common Core and school reform issues affecting Greater Memphis. But school reform is frankly too big and complex for our little blog to cover in detail, so we encourage you to follow or join one of the groups listed below for daily news and in-depth coverage on this important subject.
Stop Common Core in Tennessee (Facebook group)
Stop the TN Testing Madness (Facebook group)
As always, we welcome your comments, here and on our Back in River City Facebook page.