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The Not Welcome Mat On Our School Doorstep

Publication Date: 2006-06-22

I have to step outside of my usual line of comments occasionally and write from the mind of my very own spirit.

The Not Welcome Mat On Our School Doorstep

I have to step outside of my usual line of comments occasionally and write from the mind of my very own spirit. I am but one little voice in a small community on the eastern seaboard. This is my heritage, this is my soul; this is my place on this earth. I will tell you why I preface this essay this way. It is because I do not want you to think that I speak from any where else but my heart, which is composed, primarily, of the salt and sand and marsh and lush green farms and heron and crustaceans which decorate my life of rich color and beautiful earth banking up against the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland.

Although our immediate community is small and surrounded by a mostly rural but also growing suburban sprawl, our towns are small, including our downtown, which happens to be the capital of the state. Our county is large and it is as diverse as the land that it covers. We have a population that grew out of the city shipyards just outside of Baltimore city and we spread all the way toward the influence of Washington, DC, our county line drawn maybe 20 miles at most from its heartbeat. And in between, and to the east, our little communities and towns curl all through the coastal regions of the bay and our rivers. In the southern part, which is where I live, the towns grew up around the waterways and bay, lots of farming, lots of boatyards, lots of water-based industry. And by industry, I mean salty fishermen and crabbers and oystermen, who spend their lives out on the water, season after season, providing us with the food that the ever abundant bay has delivered to our tables for generations.

The humorous description of our little downtown is this: Annapolis is a drinking town with a sailing problem. The handmade sign at the foot of the bridge over our very own South River in my little town says: ?A Riva Derci.? That?s because we live in a place called Riva.

I had to bring you here to tell you my thoughts.

Our little appointed school board is remarkably representative of the variety of citizens who have found their homes here in this region. We have the representative from the very urban feel of the part of our county closest to Baltimore and the representative from the very rural feeling, southern parts of our county. And we have representatives from the many flavors of our regions in between them.

I have not found a ?friend? in my community representatives on our school board. Why is that? I don?t know if I can explain why that is, and this is why, perhaps, I am moved to write about it. I think that there is a divide that is created, for one thing, by the process of their appointment by the governor. There is a process of community input and candidate selection but honestly, it seems to me to mimic an election. With this process, many voices are left out, candidates too. Because, here, it is likely that although you might be part of a community association, or civic group, or church, you may, like me, not feel exactly welcomed by the type of member the group attracts. Does that make sense to you?

I guess what I am saying is that it feels, from the start of this process, that the average Joe or Annie is excluded.

The political atmosphere of the board members selection goes through a nominating convention and then finalists are presented for appointment. In our local paper, the coverage makes it clear who the candidates are by identifying their political affiliation; no, not directly, but it is clear. Although the governor is not tied to these candidates in his appointments, it is often quite clear, by popular reputation and by local information, who, based upon the political party affiliation of the current governor, he will choose.

Is this so different from your town?

And so, from the beginning, the citizen, who will help color the choices and doctrine and policies in our schools is usually not my gal or guy; they are not my representative. These are the people who will in time select our school superintendent. And I can bank, likewise, on the choice they make not feeling like my choice. So, when I visit my child?s school, or have an area of interest for discussion or debate over the policies of our community schools, I deal with an administrative staff that is governed and controlled by the leadership not of my choice or selection.

This is part, I think, of a growing apathy for the directions of our community schools. The schools do not feel like they belong to us. And the greater the involvement of the higher, more remote government and politicians, the greater the gap becomes; our schools no longer represent our ideals, our perspective, our choice or our satisfaction. We are no longer a part of the decision-making process.

Now, I read in my local paper that our school board president has decided to enter the race to become our district delegate. This, of course, is no surprise. The school board, as an entity that has evolved in the political arena as a stepping stone into local politics, is not a new occurrence. What is new to me, though, is the announcement that he is running on the Democratic ticket. Why I should be surprised, is unsettling to me. There are several reasons. He was appointed several years ago by our Republican governor, he is recognizably influenced, heavily, by our business community, and he has followed through with unquestioning devotion to the policies of NCLB.

Traditionally, in our region, there has long been a Democratic stronghold. That, of course has changed as we now have a Republican governor. But, I have to tell you that all the boundaries that I thought I knew have blurred in perhaps a transition of culture and folk life that once defined not just our little place but lots of other regions and locales across our nation. Now, I can?t recognize the politicians through the forest of the politics. And now, I can?t tell who is competent to make decisions in our schools or who is there to campaign for a future career in politics. And now, I can?t feel comfortable that anything that happens in our schools is not in part being driven by a political campaign or goal or power.

So, that is how it feels in little Riva these days. My children go to schools that are stages on which political theater is showcased. Our meetings are political soap boxes. Our policies are political doctrine. Our children are only commodities, and their performance is simply another political chip to bargain with.

This is not Lake Woebegone, not at all. This is small-town America high-jacked by a powerful political agenda. And, even if you pay attention, and I promise you that I do, whatever you thought you knew may very much turn inside out before you realize it. It happened here. It will happen there too.

I will not say that I have lost the will or the spirit or the intention to fight this destructive force on our schools and on our sacred, special place on this earth where life should be brimming in opportunity, steeped in history and open to the future; I have not yet lost hope. But I do know, that without the voices of my neighbors, without the voices of our teachers, without the courage and drive to recapture a place where we all should feel comfortable and included, in our schools, we will not , perhaps, have this chance for long.

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