Sunday, April 28, 2013

Public Education is Dead, But The Human Spirit Isn't

It has been a constant bother to see how public education across the country, and particularly in my hometown of Philadelphia, has crumbled like the ancient ruins in Rome.  School closures have been combined with the Charter movement to make it increasingly difficult for poor students to use education as a ladder out of poverty as so many have done in decades past.  What makes the school closures especially painful in these large metropoli is that the majority of students who are effected are students of color.  It signals that those in power care little for those who need the most assistance to make a way in the world.  I was lucky enough to be able to attend private school for my elementary and middle school years, but had I not gone to a public high school, my college path, and that of my siblings would have been totally different.  I shudder to think about students in my West Philly neighborhood who now face the closure of their neighborhood middle school and are not being funneled into a suitable alternative as is often advertised. 

These closures signal that public education has truly hit rock bottom, and is effectively brain dead.  For years now, the best public school districts in the country have been those that draw off a tax base that could afford supporting students in the ways necessary to be competitive college matriculants. However, with the continued siphoning of resources away from public education, even those communities must dig into their pockets on top of what they pay in local taxes to insure that their children receive the most basic education essentials, effectively creating a community sponsored private education.  For those communities that can't afford to draw upon their consituents directly, they are left to suscribe to programs like the President's Race to the Top initiative, which rewards schools for test scores achieved Malcolm X style (by any means necessary).  It is no surprise that test fraud cases have popped up in major cities such as Atlanta, Washington D.C, and yes my beloved Philadelphia. 

So what are poor families supposed to do so that they are not left completely behind?  I've got three suggestions:

1.  Non-profit organizations - Yes they still exist and they offer all kinds of programming meant to help keep kids out of trouble.

2.  Houses of Worship - At their core, churches, mosques, synagogues, etc are meant to serve the people and do so with various programs beyond their days of worship.  In the age of "mega-size" congregations, these places are often well-resourced to offer needed community activities

3.  Community Centers - Most cities still manage to keep a Dept of Recreation operating which means that there is a neighborhood community center that can keep kids occupied when they're not at school.

It is truly a shame that education, a tool that was once used to indoctrinate all citizens in this country, is increasingly becoming a privilege to be enjoyed only by the socially savvy.  Gone are the days where the neighborhood school house is a place to be enjoyed by all for the benefit of all.  In order to advance in society now a basic education is not enough so those who have the least must become increasingly street smart about hustling the education game and hopefully decide not to simply hustle in the streets.  That is the decision the board of Corrections Corp of America would like to see youth continue to make because they've got plenty of beds waiting.

On Another Note:  I randomly received a book on grieving in the wake of Justin E. Carr's passing.  I was touched to see that someone I do not know was moved to make such a gesture.  There is something to be said about how people rally around one another in the aftermath of tragedy.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Lessons from 42

I saw 42 last weekend with the Mrs and was very happy to hear that over the first weekend, it was the highest grossing baseball movie ever.  I liked the way the movie was done because it gave you enough to have a conversation about what you were seeing and it elicited an emotional response about what went on during that time.  It got me to thinking about how I might teach this movie if I were still in the classroom.  Here are a couple of the things that stuck out for me.

1.  The Amount of Accomplishment it Took to Break Through White Privilege

Jackie Robinson was selected by Branch Rickey to break the color barrier in baseball from among many accomplished Black ball players in the Negro Leagues.  It wasn't just about his prowess as a baseball player that made him the best candidate to be the "chosen one" but he had to be an all-around great human.  He couldn't be a criminal, a cheat, or a deadbeat husband, but instead, he had to be a patriot, a Christian, an activist, and a devoted husband and father.  The dichotomy between Jackie's resume and that of his white counterparts is a powerful symbol of privilege in this country. Valuable conversation can be had about the nature of privilege in this country and how it works.  Jackie Robinson's accolades off the field also provide a blueprint for what is possible today for young student athletes who face some of the same challenges of access and privilege that Mr. Robinson encountered.

2.  Ethnic Identity Discovery

Often the burden of figuring out one's identity is left to the "person of color" because they are the "other" whose existence lies outside the mainstream. In 42 you get to see how white players had to do their own searching to figure out their identities in the face of watching Mr. Robinson fight to maintain not only his identity as a baseball player and a Black man, but as a human.  Pee Wee Reese in particular is shown to progress from being someone reticent to deal with race issues to deciding that he cannot stand by and let a man be treated like an animal.

3.  Interest Convergence

While Branch Rickey may have had some sympathy for the plight of Black players given his past and his Christian beliefs, his fiscal legacy also stood to gain by being the first owner to bring Black players into the Major Leagues.  No major institution changes drastically without the gatekeepers recognizing that there is benefit in them giving a little.  On top of the financial bump at the gate from additional patrons, Rickey's Dodgers also would be the first to tap into a talented well of ball players by bringing in Negro League stars (at a cheaper price).  The more we can understand interest convergence at an early age, the more prepared young people are to make real change.  The case for some of our most pressing social issues today (gun control, immigration reform) won't get solved without the narrative being spun so that both sides feel like they got a win.

On another note:  Good luck to Kobe Bryant as he rehabs his torn achilles.  Keep praying not only for Boston, but the world.  We rise to violence way too quickly these days.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Class Notes 4/8 - Notes for a Blue Chipper

As I become older and balder, the excitement that comes with the end of the college basketball season is now dulled because the minute "One Shining Moment" ends (RIP Luther), the talk turns not to how good teams will be next year with many of their players returning, it is instead centered around which underclass players will leverage their seasons into becoming NBA draft picks.    What makes me particularly crotchety is that while I can't knock many of these cats for getting their hustle on and realizing dreams of becoming professional basketball players, I know that the great majority who enter into the draft are not receiving sound evaluations and ultimately end up playing in some D-league arena or overseas as opposed to Staples Center, Madison Square Garden or the Barclays Center. 

As it is becoming clear that I may face this situation a little more than a decade from now when I'm looking up at my "Lil" Man (he's already near my shoulder at 6yrs), I've decided to practice laying out just how I would discuss the options so that my potential baller (his range on the backyard hoop is getting deeper) could make an informed choice.  Maybe these notes will end up in the hands of some current baller mulling over whether or not he's ready.

IF BEING IN THE LOTTERY IS ASSURED:  Son, you did it!  I'm so proud.  You have worked your ass off to get to this moment, and I'm so happy to see that it has paid off for you.  HOWEVER, there are some things that you need to keep clear if you are really going to maximize the blessing that you are about to receive.  You know how we've been waking up at 5a to be in the gym at 6a, and then going back to the gym at 4p since you started HS?  That can't change.  You're about to be playing with MEN son, and there's so much more development that needs to happen so that you are not just a lottery pick, but an eventual all-star.  You now have to make decisions that you have never been faced with before, and will require YOU to do your research and be able to read people.  Your mother and I will be here for you every step of the way, so don't hesitate to ask when you have questions.  Just know that you're about to enter the grown up world, where the repercussions of your mistakes are much higher.  This is also a good reason for you to keep taking classes toward your degree in the off-season while you're training.  Finishing your degree will make the transition into your second career much more seamless and give you the kind of social capital that enables you to partner with those who will make sure your ball money has longevity.  If you keep the discipline you've had thus far, you'll be fine.
Ballers in this draft I'd use this script on:  Nerlens Noel (pictured), Otto Porter, Victor Oladipo

IF PROJECTED TO BE TAKEN IN THE FIRST ROUND:  Son, what a season.  You've got the scouts talking and that's good, but I'm concerned about your evaluations coming back from NBA people.  They point out some of the same things as your coach in terms of being ready to contribute  in the League, and isn't that what you want.  Does Marquise Teague look happy to you sitting on that bench in Chicago?  How do you think Tyler Lamb feels playing the majority of the time for the Tulsa 66ers instead of the OKC Thunder?  If you stay in school for another year, that's another year for you to shine on a Top team with national TV exposure so that you are ready to contribute when you get to the league.  I know you want to get paid, but your mother and I have you covered.  Don't spit on that scholarship you're on either.  It's worth something, and will become even more important when you're playing career is over.  You want to coach in college?  You'll need a degree.  You want to build your own empire?  A degree will help you not have to depend on someone else to figure it out.  I just don't want you to rush this move, because if you jump too early and end up in a place that's not going to develop you, then you're stuck, and when you're not on the court, you can be forgotten quickly.
Ballers in this draft I'd use this script on:  Glen Robinson, III (pictured), Shabazz Muhammad, Anthony Bennett, Ben McLamore, Gary Harris

NOT PROJECTED TO BE TAKEN IN FIRST ROUND:  Son, help me understand why you want to leave so bad.  Where are you hearing that you're going to be taken in the first round?  You know when it comes to leaving early, being taken in the first round is important because being taken in the second round gives you no guarantee of being on the Opening Day roster.  There are no agents calling son, your college coach didn't get a favorable response from his sources, so tell me what's really going on so I can ride with you.  If you don't want to be in school anymore, cool, but lets plan for what happens should you not get drafted.  And what are going to do if you drop out of school until the draft?  What's the plan?  You've invested too much time into this to take this big of a risk when you still have the opportunity to develop at school for free.  Yes, I know you see the carrot of a big contract right in front of you, but you've done fine to this point, and why not take a little more time to make sure that you are going to get a guaranteed contract?  The decision is ultimately yours son because it's your life, just make sure you've got a plan.
Ballers in this draft I'd use this script on:  James Michael McAdoo, Gorgui Dieng (pictured), Shane Larkin, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

Ultimately my Lil Man will have to make his own decision should he go down the athletic path that the aforementioned athletes are travelling.  It is a road that can provide life-changing rewards, but only to the few, and if you're unfortunately not one of the "chosen ones" then there is a whole life that you have to live off the court.  I worry that too many young men put all their eggs in the athletic basket, and then when it doesn't work out, they don't have options.  There's got to be a better way to play the "game" than that, and that is what I would hope my son would take away from our conversation.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Class Notes 4/1 - Kevin Ware, Rick Ross

I came home from my Easter Sunday brunch all set to watch what was shaping up to be a great game between Louisville and Duke to see who would travel to Hotlanta for the Final Four.  When Greg Gumbel started going over the first half highlights and made mention of the horrific injury suffered by Kevin Ware, I immediately hopped on social media to see what he was talking about because I knew somebody would post the footage.  Sure enough I got to see the most horrific in-game injury I have ever seen.  It trumped McGahee, Theismann, and Lattimore and has started a discussion, with notable input from Chris Rock about how NCAA players are "slaves" because when something like this happens, they have no recourse, and universities continue to stack millions on the backs of unpaid "employees".  If you want numbers, check out Chris Hayes' article.  I am firmly in the camp that college athletes in revenue generating sports need to have some process afforded them where they are able to access some of the profits that they help generate for their universities and other licensees.  When I was in school in the late 90s, the Fab Five was a unit all to themselves that far outpaced the brand recognition of the University of Michigan.  They probably meant as much to Nike marketing at that time as Jordan, Barkley, and Robinson, and they did it for FREE

All that said, I think the greater lesson is that this is not new.  Athletes and their families make a choice about how they want to develop with their eyes wide open.  The slavery metaphor is weak because of these choices, and it's not as if the education that student-athletes are offered is worth nothing.  Blue-chippers take a calculated gamble to go and play for these schools, with the hope that they get enough exposure that they can "cash in" with a pro contract which in effect launches them into being their own brand.  It is a deal with the devil, but is not chattel slavery, and the lesson is that the support networks of the high profile athletes need to step their game up and really figure out what is the best gamble to take.  As an educator, born to educators, it frustrates me that so little weight is given to the idea of actually leveraging atheletic talent to eventually gain a degree which is a valuable piece of social capital in our economy.  If college just simply isn't your deal, then take the gamble that Brandon Jennings and Jeremy Tyler did and go be a professional overseas until you can make it in to the League.  Kevin Ware will be taken care of because of the high-profile nature of his injury, and he will have an opportunity to potentially come back to the court and finish his degree, which he will need if he does not show enough skill to potentially be drafted.  His story should be yet another cautionary tale of just how tenuous it is to put all your future hopes and dreams in the athletic basket.  There are smarter ways to make that gamble so you can come out a winner in the end.  This is certainly the message I'll be teaching mine as they grow and continue to be interested in sports.

Speaking of things I'll be teaching my sons, it's been interesting to watch the coverage and fallout around Rick Ross' lyrics in the song U.O.E.N.O  where he rhymes about slipping "Molly" in a girls drink and then taking her home and "enjoying that".  Not a good look for the "BOSS" as rape culture and its perpetuation is hot on people's minds in the aftermath of the Steubenville, OH case among others.  What's interesting is that this isn't even the most egregious example of suggested rape in hip-hop, yet this is the one that gets everybody up in arms?  What person who grew up listening to BBD as I did doesn't remember this lyric:

"Backstage, under age, Adolescent, how ya doin'?
“Fine,” she replied,
I sighed“I like to do the wild thing”
Action took place
Kinda wet, don't forget
The J, the I, the M, the M, the Y, y'all I need a body bag

What keeps a young man from turning this lyric into reality?  Or a young girl internalizing this as normal behavior? Or understanding that it's not a nonfiction account in the first place?  Home training, and it's my job to make sure my boys know the difference between what's made up to be consumed as "entertainment" and what's real.  So if we're going to be "outraged" by Rick Ross, let's be outraged by the whole persona that he presents of being a gangsta/pimp, and what it could mean for our children, not just one lyric.  Or, we take the time to have conversations with our kids about what they're hearing so that they can be knowledgable consumers.  I think its more productive to frame how we have those conversations with impressionable minds who listen to and are fans of Rick Ross than to have "selective outrage" over lyrics that suggest destructive behavior.