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Also Completely Beside the Point

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So, it’s about five o’clock in the morning.  I got home last night after ten, got to bed around midnight and got up this morning at 4:30.  The 4:30 isn’t unusual, but it’s Friday, and that means I have to teach an eight o’clock. 

You can ask me how I got into this crazy schedule, but the answer would be that I’m not entirely sure.  I tend to say “yes” a lot when people sound like they’re in distress, and sometimes I don’t keep track of what I’m saying yes to.

Some of this was just a desperate attempt to save this idea I had, that I could aim myself at the kids who had the worst luck–who’d come from awful schools in awful neighborhoods where nobody was taking them seriously or even trying to provide them with an education on any definition of the term–that I could aim myself at those kids and give them a shot at something they mostly hadn’t had before:  a teacher who actually knew something and cared about whether they learned it.

The remedial kids I teach are drowning in an ocean if bad-everything.  I’ve seen some of their neighborhoods, and I’ve written about them here.    It’s not just that their schools are bad and demand nothing of them–and by bad, I mean things like having half the textbooks they need and those out of date, buildings that are falling apart and sometimes dangerous to be in, no science courses because there are no science labs.

The problem is a world in which the name of the game is nearly infinite passivity.  The politest of my kids–and some of them are very polite, the product of mothers who insisted–will sit quietly at their desks or computer stations, “not making a fuss” while they are unable to participate in class (or understand it) because their computer isn’t functioning or because they have no idea what is going on.

The less polite ones talk and text through class, fuzz off and pay no attention, tell jokes and talk right through the lectures, and do all the other things I was complaining about last night.

 They’ll also tell you some very interesting things.  One of those things is that they virtually all come from homes where there is more than one television.  One kid in one class told me that there was a television in every room of his home except the bathrooms–and they’re big televisions, not my dinky $125 Wal-Mart special. 

These televisions play all day and all night, even when people are sleeping.  A lot of my kids say they can’t get to sleep at night without the noise. 

And this wouldn’t necessarily be bad news, except that the televisions aren’t turned to anything that would be any help.

They watch a lot of Law and Order.  They watch a lot of cop shows, music videos and reality tv, which is not about reality.  They like Bad Girls Club and Basketball Wives and, especially, Jersey Shore.  They don’t know the difference between state and federal law, or the names of their governor or their senators, or what it would take to outlaw abortion (which most of them want to do). 

Sometimes, they come off as auditioning for a reality show based on welfare stereotypes–which is a good trick, because this state has stricter welfare requirements than most, and you’re stuck with a five-year lifetime limit.

Most of them tell me they’d go on welfare if they could, but that their mothers would stop talking to them if they got pregnant, and they’d have to get pregnant to get on welfare.  They say that if they could get on welfare they’d sit back and laugh at their friends who were working, because the friends would be working to pay them for not working.

Sometimes, they sound like the kind of thing I thought only happened in Newt Gingrich’s fantasies.

Mostly, though, they just don’t care.  They don’t care enough even about making a lot of money to actually want to do anything. 

I’m not sure of a lot, but I’m sure that people like this cannot build and run a country.  They cannot build and run a corner grocery store.  I’m not sure most of them would last a week working at McD’s.

And I’m getting to this very weird place where I’ve started wondering why, if they don’t care, I should.

And now it’s time for me to bolt for the car if I’m going to get to class.


Written by janeh

October 21st, 2011 at 6:19 am

Posted in Uncategorized

14 Responses to 'Also Completely Beside the Point'

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  1. Sometimes when I feel like that, I tell myself that I need to keep a roof over my head, I need to do what I’m paid for, and maybe, who knows, if I stick at it, I might make a difference to someone every few years.

    But I also got out of teaching entirely many years ago, although not entirely for those reasons.

    I doubt if the parents of these students watched the news much even if it was playing on the TV before the sports came on. Not everyone ever had much interest in building and running a country, although even some non-news watchers could and can take great pride in performing some of the tasks involved – working construction, catching or growing food etc – to a high standard.

    It doesn’t sound like your remedial students are among that group, though. Presumably they’re getting some kind of educational grant while in school, but how on earth do they keep a roof over their heads with only 5 years of welfare benefits available for a lifetime and the kind of work skills that wouldn’t get them a job doing unskilled labour in a warehouse.


    21 Oct 11 at 7:05 am

  2. Jane’s descriptions of the Main Line stratum and the Armenian immigrants in her books are illuminating. Her descriptions of the remedial class are heart-breaking.

    Working with that stratum of society is part of the point of discussing a liberal arts education. Teaching public school, doing social work, and teaching at a regional university gave me some experience with that stratum, but I never found a way that I could change the direction of a large percentage of the stratum in a series of class periods, office visits, or home visits.

    While I was getting and providing a liberal arts education, I encountered Machiavelli. Perhaps “The Prince” is descriptive, perhaps satiric, but it doesn’t explain how to Occupy Wall Street successfully. Changing any stratum of society has always been difficult.

    Perhaps some modern Machiavelli will (or has) written a book “The Pauper” describing life at the bottom of the economic heap. Perhaps “The Pauper” could include descriptions of communities that have affected positively a significant percentage of “the least of these.”


    21 Oct 11 at 10:28 am

  3. I encountered the “TV 24 hours per day” demographic the last time I was hospitalized. One of my roommates turned her TV on when she arrived, and left it playing when she left. I turned it off for her once when she was away having tests…and turning it back on was the first thing she did when she returned.

    I don’t know why the nurses allowed her to play it all night, but they did, and I couldn’t complain about it because she was right there. I finally resorted to asking her if MY Tv was bothering her, and giving her a hint about turning the speaker really low and keeping it close beside her head. At least after that, the noise was minimized, but not the flickering light. It played all during the visits by her large and noisy family, and I got a sense of how her homelife must be. Chaotic, noisy and determined by others.

    I also got the sense that she was not just uncomfortable without the constant noise and movement, she was actively afraid of quiet or solitude. The show playing did not seem to matter.

    Where I (and I imagine most of my fellow readers) have a constant interior monologue of thoughts that I both enjoy and need, people like my roommate replace that with an exterior-based monologue. Chaos and noise are a refuge from…what? A vast emptiness? Uncomfortable feelings? I don’t know, but it must be very scary to be worse than having a moment of quiet.


    21 Oct 11 at 12:54 pm

  4. I must say I’ve never encountered someone who has the TV on 24/7, although I’ve known plenty who have it on every waking hour, and also, say, one in every room so that you’re never far from one. That’s usually said to be because different family members watch (or have playing in the background) different shows at the same time.

    I expect a liking for noise or quiet is partly determined by which you are raised with, but I suspect it’s also partly innate. I don’t like constant noise and confusion or lots of people around. Others are more gregarious. It might just be that some people need a certain level of noise to make themselves feel connected to the human race and others feel overwhelmed by the same amount of noise – a difference in reaction to stimuli.

    At least having a TV going 24/7 isn’t as bad as the stuff some people get up to – the ones who don’t seem to feel quite alive unless there’s something exciting happening, and if it doesn’t happen on its own, they’ll stir something up.


    21 Oct 11 at 1:29 pm

  5. In fairness to the kids, it’s not easy to break with 20 years of precept and example, especially when it’s worked for them so far. And they don’t appear to be much sorted. Maybe if they had to work to qualify for a class, with no government stipends or loans accepted, you’d be down to a “Gideon’s Band” you could do something for.

    I never thought of Newt’s as having “fantasies” about welfare. I knew the welfare class before he ever ran for office. It’s the second- and third-generation politicians who think there are no people who would rather collect a small check than work a long day who strike me as delusional–or deceitful.

    And I bet your welfare rules aren’t half as strict as you’ve been told, or you wouldn’t have those students.

    Part of it is a vocabulary problem, though. To a private-sector working stiff, the brother in law who works the bare minimum number of days between bouts of unemployment compensation and stays unemployed until the money stops, the nephew who gets “supplemental Social Security” by being three years behind grade level, the neighbor nursing an undetectable back pain into disability payments, and the cousin who supports herself by having children out of wedlock and collecting AFDC, WIC, food stamps and state-paid rent are all on welfare–that is, they’re able-bodied people being paid by the government for not working. The politician, “activist” or bureaucrat will tell you that none of them is, because “welfare” is a specific program–a line item on the budget–and these people are on other lines. The politician may not even be intending to mislead–though that’s certainly how I’d bet. Lots of politicians are willing to “end welfare as we know it.” They’re just not enthused about shrinking a bureaucracy full of the party faithful and telling potential voters they need to go out and get private sector jobs.


    21 Oct 11 at 5:25 pm

  6. I didn’t think Mr. Gingrich had fantasies involving girls.


    21 Oct 11 at 6:29 pm

  7. Jane and Cheryl, thank you for teaching. There are some kinds of work that people can do for a while, but have to move on eventually, like teaching and professional sports.

    Robert, most of us who work for government agencies are not party faithful, nor any politician’s relative. Some of us are voluntary public servants, and some of us are in the public sector until something lucrative in the private sector comes along. I suspect that elected politicians make more money when they become lobbyists, and retired military make more money working for businesses. The students in Jane’s remedial class are highly unlikely to come from families that vote.

    There is a percentage of humanity that no sane employer would hire, no sane landlord would rent to, and no sane foster parents would bring into their home. The percentage varies with socioeconomic conditions, but it’s never zero. Collecting a small check, if one is eligible, or living in a group home is preferable to being a homeless beggar, for some people.

    Depending on agency culture, which varies from place to place, establishing eligibility for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, Supplemental Security Income, housing assistance, food stamps, Social Security Disability, or qualifying for Vocational Rehabilitation so one can do a job that is within one’s physical, mental, and social capacity can be a step toward self-respect despite one’s circumstances or a demeaning, humiliating process designed to shame people into giving up hope of getting help.

    There are some people who seem to exist solely to give TV networks viewer numbers that attract advertisers. Scrooge said “Better they die and reduce the surplus population,” but the Nazis proved that approach doesn’t work well. After a few years, the percentage of the population that doesn’t meet Nazi standards rises.


    22 Oct 11 at 8:09 am

  8. mm, I work in a government office myself, and I know some first-rate govies. But even in these days of civil service protections as opposed to straight patronage, check out campaign contributions by government employee unions and the voting patterns of civilian govies. Certain politicians have a big stake in the size of government whether it does any good or not, and government employees have a serious investment in those politicians. It’s no good pretending otherwise.

    And even in the rabid small government right, you don’t find a lot of objection to helping those who legitimately can’t help themselves or who are just flat down on their luck at the moment. The objection–and I tried to phrase my examples very carefully–is to a population of the able-bodied who shift from program to program, never working for longer than they can help, and a network of programs which at least makes this possible, and often seems to encourage it.

    Apart from the moral objection that they have no right to love by the labor of another, three generations of “temporary” assistance results in the students Jane describes–passive, happy to take whatever they can get from the taxpayers, and unable to connect action and consequence. Those kids weren’t born that way. It took twenty years to make them that “percentage of humanity that no sane employer would hire, no sane landlord would rent to, and no sane foster parents would bring into their home.”
    It seems to me it’s worth rewriting some of our laws and procedures to bring that percentage down.

    My initial observation was that a strict “welfare” law which was not calculated to make assistance “a step toward self-respect” but merely to shift the expense to another place on the budget will not accomplish that goal. President Clinton spoke of making welfare temporary–a step to useful, self-supporting lives. But all the relatives who sponged off the system before national welfare reform are sponging off the system today, except that now they have children also living on the dole. THAT’s what I’d like to see changed, not the name of the program. It seems to me a worthwhile goal, and I tried to sketch in why our politicians and bureaucrats seldom share that concern.

    Unless you think they do. In which case I’d like to see your evidence and reasoning.


    22 Oct 11 at 10:05 am

  9. Yeah, Robert, the question is: Given what we know about human nature, how do you set up a system that does that? How do we help those who really can’t help themselves without creating these passive free riders? Every system has free riders, but I think you’re right that the way we have it set up now, we encourage it. Part of the problem seems to be that the kind of person who wants to help tends to think that these folks are helpless. We try to break them of that so that they are helping people to become self-directed rather than infantilizing them, but it’s tough.



    22 Oct 11 at 11:41 am

  10. Good luck Cathy. I know it’s not easy, but it’s necessary.

    My first take would be a simple rule: “nothing comes without work.” Better useful work than makework jobs, but a basic operating assumption that healthy adults did not receive checks in the mail, but were paid at the end of a day’s work.

    I wouldn’t expect much progress toward, say, cleaning up parks or sweeping streets, but you’d get at least three things. First and most important, the young people in the house would see that the money came home because the adult went out and earned it. Second, the adult is almost bound to reflect that either there’s an easier way to earn money or that working this hard elsewhere will pay better. The adult will also now be used to the notion of showing up for work even on the days you really don’t feel like it and staying there even when tired and bored. Third, and not to be despised, you’d put a serious dent in fraud. It’s a LOT easier to put down three different names on forms than it is to be three places at once. And maintaining the system in a democracy requires convincing the people who do work and pay taxes that they’re not being played for suckers.

    You’d probably get a fourth thing. In my experience, people spend money they’ve worked for differently than money they’ve been given. I bet you none of those “TV in every room” housholds Jane describes had someone working a difficult or dirty job to pay for the TVs.

    Then I’d expect every young person asking the Federal government to loan him money for college to show rejection letters from AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps and the armed forces. Better still would be the Balaclava System–no loans for tuition, but lots of work to be done to pay for tuition. Loans, if necessary, would be to get you started after you graduate. But that would require the cooperation of the universities.

    I think if you did those two things and nothing else–but did them consistently and rigorously for a period of years–you would change the character of much of the country.

    We get, after all, what we pay for.


    22 Oct 11 at 3:04 pm

  11. CA, there are free riders, people who look able-bodied, and display bravado, rebelliousness, and disdain for real work. If they come from wealthy families, they may show up in the tabloids, or develop investment strategies that are plausible in the short run. If they come from lower socioeconomic strata, they may be putting three different names on assistance application forms. Then there are those who get government jobs and don’t work much.

    Robert’s suggestion that Americorps, the Peace Corps, and the military screen people is intriguing. Two years of public service after age 18 might not be a bad idea. The Mormons seem to have positive results with their program of church service

    Considering how much a street sweeping machine costs these days, I’d be wary of giving the keys to just anyone. People who have serious physical, mental, emotional, social or ethical limitations are likely to be rejected by Americorps, the Peace Corps and the military. If those rejected by Americorps, the Peace Corps and the military turn up in college classrooms, I do hope the limitations that led to their rejection are not the same limitations that are causing Jane grief.

    BTW, we only get what we pay for if we are extremely careful about what we buy.


    22 Oct 11 at 11:59 pm

  12. MM, I had in mind more brooms, shovels and trash bags. As I said, the work accomplished is not the point. I think we can afford the occasional loss of that equipment.
    As for “people who have serious physical, mental, emotional, social or ethical limitations” I agree that, other than the physically handicapped, they don’t sound like people you’d want in a college classroom, or loose on the street with law degrees. Nor–and Jane may blast me for this–is the modern college campus a place I would send anyone to overcome emotional, social or ethical limitations. But I must have missed the bit at which our present student loan guarantees are screened so none go the the ethically deficient. (Also, who would get to decide who’s ethical? Or social?) I understood colleges to do their own mental screening, by the way: I suggested you had to be unfit for service to receive a Federal loan, not that colleges be required to accept anyone the Peace Corps rejected.

    So I’ll stick with my previous plan. The government ought not as a matter of policy, to be giving things away to able-bodied adults. So either you pay for college yourself–including securing your own loans if necessary–you actually perform service for which college tuition is part of the compensation package–or you demonstrate that you are unable to that service, in whch case an exception may be made.

    Incidentally, while the armed forces do have physical and mental exams, there is no test of “emotional social or ethical” limitations. Servicemenbers are expected to comply with regulations while on duty and with civilian law otherwise, and are discharged if they do not. The soldier’s interior life is regarded as his own. It is a system many colleges and universities might do well to emulate.

    Of course we get what we pay for. Over the past 50 years we’ve paid a LOT of money to create an underclass, and we’ve purchased the really impressive one Jane describes. Now, I think it’s time to be at least a little more careful what we buy.


    23 Oct 11 at 8:36 am

  13. studentaid.ed.gov says “If you have lost federal student aid eligibility due to a drug conviction, you can regain eligibility if you pass two unannounced drug tests conducted by a drug rehabilitation program that complies with criteria established by the U.S. Department of Education.
    Civil Commitment for Sexual Offenses – A student subject to an involuntary civil commitment after completing a period of incarceration for a forcible or nonforcible sexual offense is ineligible to receive a Federal Pell grant.”

    Some screening occurs.

    Schools, colleges, and universities have been known to not admit or eject for various forms of dishonesty and felonious activity.

    I have a highschool dropout grandson who drank his way out of the Marines and lost any hope of “GI Bill” help with further education. Screening occurs, but I’d have preferred some truly effective intervention.
    (Something besides “Put him on Ritalin so I can stand to be in a room with him.”)

    His brother the highschool graduate is using what he learned in the Navy to make more in one week than he got paid in a month when he was in the service. Screening occurs and sometimes personal character and family expectations and actions help.

    Passive confused people, actively rude bored people, and people who are addicted to media broadcasts exist at all socioeconomic levels. Their behaviors make it difficult for others to learn, work, heal, or enjoy public spaces.

    What motivates, educates, and changes people? Maybe for some people it’s the liberal arts education Jane is talking about. Maybe for some people it’s “those who do not work do not eat” approach. Decades ago, as I recall, Cyril Kornbluth suggested putting them on spaceships to nowhere.


    23 Oct 11 at 9:59 am

  14. There has always been an underclass, and if anything the one “we’ve paid a LOT of money to create” is just its latest iteration, and certainly not its largest, proportionally.

    In the Roman Empire slaves outnumbered free men, and slaves, well, usually do exactly as much as they have to to stay out of trouble, not one bit more — and steal the master blind when he’s not looking if they think they can get away with it. And that was half the Empire.

    Europe invented serfdom, and the serf could frequently look forward to his master taking anything beyond what he needed to leave the serf to make sure he lived through the winter to make stuff to be taken next year.

    In Dickens England there was no, or very little, public support of any kind — and the response was that stealing a handkerchief was a hanging offense for which they in fact hung 12 year olds.

    And of course much of the current American underclass has been created and sustained by our insane rates of criminal prosecutiions, convictions, and imprisonment for crimes that proportionally would scarcely have received a slap on the wrist in 19th century America.

    Felony theft, when last most value limits were changed shortly after the turn of the 20th century were – and still are — around four to five hundred dollars. But when those limits were set that was the price of a model T which was also about what a typical family made in an entire year.

    Now a pretty standard car costs $25,000 and an average family income is around $50,000 — but the threshold for a felony theft prosecution is still the same. So proportinally the same crime that would have gotten someone a couple weeks in the city/county jail now gets you 5 to 10 in a state prison —- and a record anyone can find in minutes and use as an excuse to not hire you.

    And we’ve come up with ever more creative ways to make excuses to charge a felony.

    You might think shoplifting some item from a store, say a pair of socks, a fairly minor crime. But. If it can be shown that you did not have the means to pay for the socks when you entered the store,then (in California at least) you can be charged with “commercial burglary”, which is a felony, and if you’re black or hispanic and have so much as a possession of a joint on your record you’re looking at prison time. Even if you’re married. Even if you have kids. Even if you’re the sole support of the family.

    So yeah, we’ve made an underclass for sure, but it’s hardly only or even primarily the “welfare system” that’s done it.


    23 Oct 11 at 10:21 am

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