Letter from Los Angeles
April, 2011
© 2011 Joel

Quotes of the Issue

“I wonder if the rise of consumption and debt is in part influenced by people’s desire to adorn their lives with the things they feel befit their station. I wonder if the rise in partisanship is influenced in part by a narcissistic sense that, I know how the country should be run and anybody who disagrees with me is just in the way.” David Brooks, NY Times, March 10, 2011

“You’re getting the best Congress money can buy.” The late Geraldine Ferarro’s answer to my question about excessive campaign contributions asked from the audience of a daytime San Francisco television show

2011 My Aunt Fanny!

“Americans want more government than they are willing to pay for.” John King, CNN political editor

“The federal government is turning into an insurance company with an army.” Ezra Klein, Washington Post blogger, April 9, 2011

Their political strategy wasn’t hard to understand. Congressional Republicans traded dummy resolutions regarding Planned Parenthood, NPR and the EPA for $38 billion in cuts to the 2011 federal budget. They adroitly gave up nothing.

As commentators tell us, it’s all about 2012, and next time we’re talking trillions. Have you read Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposals for election year 2012, specifically about defunding the president’s health care program, and in effect destroying Medicare and Medicaid? How do they expect us to stay well enough to row their ships under such conditions, or has the political right written off American workers altogether? I’ll expand on this theme in the segment below titled “Where is Mr. Chips?”

Media commentators are falling all over themselves to congratulate Rep. Ryan on taking on entitlements, even as they deem his plan unworkable. While I acknowledge the country’s financial challenge, I distrust every motive of the contemporary Republican party. The social issues and fiscal austerity they profess to support are smokescreens for an ideological, government-destroying agenda. Their targets are the middle class and poor; their champions the very, very rich.

The GOP is exploiting voter anger and confusion, and the economic conditions for which they are mostly responsible, to gut the government they have despised all along. Standing between the rest of us and the street, so to speak, are the Democrats in Congress. We no longer have to guess what Republicans are all about, Unlike their opponents, however, Democrats lack what pundits call a message. Traditional lack of party cohesiveness, and fear of constituents’ and of corporate contributors’ wrath often trumps ideals.

Obama has failed to articulate a vision for the country in these troubled, changing times. He needs to go beyond platitudes like “investing in America’s future,” which has less sex appeal than even Susan Boyle. The speech teacher in me is critical of the president’s delivery. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were made for t.v. presidents. Even George W. Bush pretended to be cuddly and sincere. In a surprising contrast to his 2008 campaign performance- no better word for it- I feel Obama often comes across as charmless. I want him to say more and say it well. On the other hand I don’t envy him or us.

Libya: Interested?

Oh my God! Americans see right through Barack Obama and his Secretary of State. Come a little closer because I don’t want to write this too loudly. We’re in Libya...shhh!!!....on behalf of our national interest.

Imagine doing something in one’s interest! That course you took to improve your Spanish- what humanitarian purpose did it serve? Your new roof did nothing for any of your neighbors. And no one but you has felt better since you started at the gym.

Ever hear of private vice and public virtue? How many Libyans would have been massacred were it not for our “interests” in the Middle East? Something wrong with a mix of motives? (I’m not necessarily implying that our interests are being served by this intervention and that we may not already be in it up to here.)

“A man died for me today,” Eleanor Roosevelt declared, then asked, “Am I worth dying for?” Men and women die for us each and every day. Are our profligate energy habits worth their dying for?

Japan: Gaman

Star Trek’s George Takei, who has appeared in San Francisco’s Japanese Cherry Blossom parade with his husband, explains the meaning of “gaman.” The word encompasses a Japanese spirit of endurance, reserve and fortitude- largely for the sake of others- which is being sorely tested as I write.

The Japanese value the group above the individual. Symphonic conductor Seiji Ozawa became so emotional telling the camera that Japanese nails (like himself) that stick up must be hammered down, they had to temporarily stop taping.

In the gaman spirit, those affected by the earthquake and tsunami will receive a minimum of psychotherapy to avoid a “victim mentality,” the New York Times reports. Western parents would do well to model for their children that setbacks aren’t tragedies, and we could all use this philosophy in our lives.

An expert in Japanese culture associates the use of wooden structures and reverence for cherry blossoms with the Japanese understanding of life’s fragility. I’m glad to report that the families of our Japanese state-side friends are safe, which in no way mitigates my sorrow for those who have suffered.

Right!

Of the 56% of Americans who favored Representative pete king’s Homeland Security Committee hearings on radical Islam, 71% were Republicans and 45% Democrats. That means that 29% of Republicans and 55% of Democrats got it right.

Who Is Mr. Chips?

The postscript to Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 bizarre motion picture Network is one of the funniest- and most telling- ever written. “This is the story of Howard Beale, the first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings.” Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), the chairman of the conglomerate that owns the network, informs crazed news anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch):

“There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no west. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and interwoven, interacting, multi-variate, multinational, dominion of dollars. It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today.

Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale? You get up on your little 21 inch screen and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM, ITT and AT&T, and Dupont, Dow, Union Carbide and Exxon...

We no longer live in the world of nations and ideologies. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably dominated by the immutable bylaws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime. And our children will live (to see a world in which) there is no war or famine, oppression or brutality. One vast ecumenical holding company for whom all men will work to serve a common profit in which all men will hold a share of stock. All necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.”

The other day Lloyd and I checked ourselves out at the West Hollywood CVS, or at least we tried to. I told the store employee who helped us that if Walgreens and Rite Aide offer cashier checkout, CVS is off our list. Lloyd added, “This is taking away your jobs.” The employee sadly nodded in agreement.

Lowly clerks are not alone. Look at what’s happening to such greatly overpaid public employees as firemen and teachers in places like Wisconsin. Those who oppose Wisconsin’s union busting Republican administration are accused of class warfare. I agree with my right of center friends about the presence of class warfare. The aggressors are the very well to do! Even doctors have to agitate with Medicare to get paid properly. This is what the wealthiest Americans desire. They grab it all, while the public watches T.V. shows and celebrity lives through their tears.

Regarding television, Network’s Howard Beale tells his audience: “We are in a lot of trouble...because you people and 62 million other Americans are listening to me right now. Because less than 3% of you people read books! Because less than 15% of you read newspapers! Because the only truth you know is what you get over this tube. Right now there is an entire generation that never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube. The tube can make or break presidents, popes, prime ministers...The tube is the most awesome God-damned force in the whole godless world, and woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people.... Who knows what shit will be peddled for truth on this network.... Television isn’t the truth. Television is the God-damned amusement park! We’re in the boredom killing business!”

Wealth is created by the imagination and ability of entrepreneurs and those who honestly finance their projects, and I have no problem with their being compensated accordingly- “accordingly” being neither a matter of governmental regulation or of grabbing all you can. Capitalists, understand this. Without workers, who in turn become consumers, owners and management are nowhere.

Don’t go blaming this all on the Republicans, as blameworthy as they are, before you’ve investigated your Democratic representatives’ ties and obligations to big business. Even Obama doesn’t (or dare not) speak out against the worsening assault on the middle class. You’ll work for low wages and no benefits, the souls without a country tell us, or we’ll go offshore. Did you know that General Electric paid no U.S. taxes in 2010 despite earning $5.1 billion in the United States alone? And that last year CEO salaries rose 27% while the average worker’s increased only 2%?

Read these words of Frederick Douglass. “Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the awful roar of its waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never did and it never will. Find out what people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice which will be imposed upon them. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

Now read those words again.

General strikes like those in other countries would be simply awful here, and I don’t know that they will ever come to pass. In a way she could not imagine, Ayn Rand got it right. In “Atlas Shrugged” we learn the answer to the question, “Who is John Galt?” The country’s industrial movers and shakers, Galt among them, have taken their marbles to a mountaintop and let the others sink or swim.

Imagine the public asking “Who is Mr. Chips?” as teachers leave their posts en masse and American primary and secondary education grinds to a halt. Parents would have to stay home to teach, or hire a striking teacher to be their children’s nanny. Teachers are used to nanny pay.

Of course that is never going to happen. We’re not given to radical actions, and teachers and others need to earn a living. My Rx for CVS is rather simple. Let every customer insist on being checked out by a human or walk out. But that would take a conviction that actions matter, a heap of solidarity and a little inconvenience. So much for that.

You heard me right: class warfare. The wealthiest have declared war on a middle class which has no NATO or U.N.. I ask readers who disagree to get in touch, and with their permission I’ll print what they have to say.

School Daze I Getting Personal

Imagine how it feels to be a former teacher and son of a teacher and witness the gratuitous vilification of the profession that is going on today. How many of you or your family were or are now teachers? Are they, and the teachers from your school days, the uncaring deadbeats the politicians and the media describe?

It took my mother most of her life to get out of kindergarten, she liked to say. Starting as a six buck a day substitute in the Great Depression, mom taught the children of Italian and Jewish immigrants on Manhattan’s lower east side. As kindergarten attendance was not yet compulsory, mother had to recruit her pupils on her own. She spent the first weeks of September knocking on tenement doors, persuading parents who knew little English to send their little ones to school.

Saddened by her children’s living conditions, the teacher’s training school graduate used her meager salary to buy them groceries and shoes. She was following the example of her father, who often came home in winter without his coat. “Not again!” exclaimed grandmother as she threw up her hands. He had given his coat to a poor man on the street.

The same year she began teaching my mother married. (Our buddy John McCarthy’s mother had to defer marriage until Boston allowed its married women teachers to retain their jobs,) She and Dad followed her teaching assignments from Staten Island to Brooklyn and the Bronx, where I was born in 1972 (all right, ’42). Across the street from our apartment they built, in the early 40’s, P.S. 114, New York City’s model progressive elementary school. In the spirit of the day, an aging Irish spinster who conspicuously hung around with priests became the principal.

Before teachers unions, principals were tyrants rightly feared. P.S. 114’s, May C. Hatton, often reduced her staff to tears. Once kindergarten became compulsory, split sessions were instituted to accommodate all the children, The teachers worked in pairs, one in charge of a session, the other assisting. They taught up to eighty kids a day.

Miss Hatton laced into my mother, “You were talking with Mrs. Stewart (her partner) in front of the children! I saw you when I was walking past the door.” “Miss Hatton,” my mother countered. “You try to spend all day with another woman and not say anything.” In those days that was heresy.

Until the advent of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), New York City teacher’s were maltreated and paid a pittance. My pro-labor, liberal mom regarded teachers unions and teacher’s strikes as unprofessional, and she crossed the first UFT picket line in November, 1960. She was soon to change her mind.

Someone else I know became a teacher- me! I wanted to be an actor, so mother persuaded me that speech teachers did something close to acting. (A stage-struck former colleague who is reading this is laughing.). No one encouraged me to keep up with my acting, and I admit I dropped the ball. If a child of mine wanted to go on the stage I’d say this to her or him. “If you don’t prepare yourself to make a living I won’t support you, and if you don’t find a way to continue with your acting I’ll break your leg.”

Armed with a masters degree in speech education from Teachers College, Columbia, I began service in the New York City schools in September, 1965. Eleven years later I left the profession and the town. In the turbulent 1960’s public school teachers were also often cast as villains, occasionally by one another. Still, I developed a lifelong interest in education. As an itinerant teacher I visited more schools than classroom teachers ever do, and I observed what went on rather closely.

* * * *

We remember TV’s Mr. Kotter, Mr. Peepers and Our Miss Brooks. They did their jobs but were also humane beings. Those who teach make an indelible impression on our lives.

Who were your favorite teachers? Love any? Hate some? Do you remember why? Your homework assignment, grown kiddies, is to send Teacher Joel a short answer to any of these questions, which, with your permission, will appear in a future segment. (You don’t want an “Incomplete!”)

My first grade teacher, Charlotte Gans was kind and patient, and she introduced me to the stage. Lillian Fine, in second grade, was- fine. They say we all hate our third grade teachers. Bertha Fried more than earned my enmity, but she gave me a good part in a play. When my former fourth grade teacher, Pauline Hofrichter, gave me a big “Hello, Joel” I told her, “Go away. I don’t like you.” No one else did either.

Fifth Grade’s Edith Warsinger, had to deal with my residual resentment from Grades 3 and 4 and of her tiresome lectures about the Erie Canal. (The woman must have owned stock in the company!) In the sixth grade Ruth Elish was convinced that I could write. I always liked her dress- I did not say dresses. Decades later I met a man in San Francisco who also had Miss Elish, and who remembered her one and only dress.

When I moved to Yonkers at age twelve, my homeroom teacher at Gorton High was one of the few residents of north Yonkers who would tolerate non- Catholics. The winner of a school- wide essay contest was to be announced one afternoon, and as we filed out of homeroom I joked to Mrs, Galda, “It must be me.” She pulled me aside and made me promise not to tell that I won, but that I would be denied the recognition because I was “new there.” Mary Galda had gone to bat for me. When we moved away she told me she was happy to have been my teacher.

With a new address came a toney prep school with its stellar cast. A teacher who made history come alive when he wasn’t busy telling us the Jews killed Christ. The Harvard political science major who failed to teach me French. The Harvard Slavic language specialist who got so confused teaching high school algebra that the class had to help him out. The English teacher whom everybody hated. The English teacher who put everyone to sleep. The English teacher by day/ Circle in the Square stage manager all other times who called us obscurantists (look it up).

In tumultuous 1965 I began life as a teacher. Here was my chance to look at the public schools from the inside, not that I hadn’t heard a lot about them from my mom. Those experiences, and my keeping up with the issues, inform what I’m about to write. You are going to meet some of the types in our little educational village. Pick of the litter teachers who outside of school were uncommonly immature. Novices who routinely derided their more experienced colleagues. Those who played the Caring Competition. Principals who performed minor miracles, others who deserved to lose their jobs. Fearful guidance counselors, parents who tried to tear the system down, and kids of every kind. Not as much has changed as you may think.

* * * *

I felt handsome, ill prepared and terrified my first day at each school to which I had been assigned. Speech teachers are usually itinerant. This gypsy traveled to five large junior high schools in the Bronx, one school for each day of the week. A different location, staff, community outlook and set of challenges each day, and a different principal as well.

As I headed toward an unfamiliar mid-Bronx address from the subway, I memorized the name Robert May. Mr. May’s school was in full first day confusion. At his office door stood the harried looking principal himself. May approached this stranger eagerly, hand extended, expecting I was someone from the Board or from the press. “I’m your new speech improvement teacher” I announced grandly, and the extended hand withdrew as did the smile.

“Report to the English Chairman,” May snarled, “and don’t ever speak to me again.” I disobeyed that order only once. The following spring after a fire drill, Mr. May walked by and smiled at me in greeting. “Who are you again?” he asked me. “Your speech teacher, Joel......” “I don’t know you,” he interrupted as he quickly walked away.

The principal of Tuesday’s school greeted me politely and professionally, but his assistant told me he wanted to come back as a speech teacher because we had “a racket.” Theirs was what we call today a failing school.

My predecessor at JHS 82 , a gay man also, introduced me to Wednesday’s principal, Pearl Shutman. With her sleek black chignon, she more resembled cosmetic queen Helena Rubinstein than the principal of a junior high school in the Bronx. My colleague had seen Mrs. Shutman at Provincetown the previous summer running around in slacks of gold lame. I was safe with Auntie Mame.

My supervisor at the Bureau, former Miss America Bess Meyerson’s sister Sylvia Grace, warned me about the principal who could make or break my Thursdays. She knew Paul Warner from a dance class they had taken and thought him slightly odd. The story of JHS 145, aka Arturo Toscanini Junior High School, is a New York City legend. Mr. Warner was a brand new principal, his acting assistant principal brand new on her job. Few members of the faculty had ever taught a day, and only eight were tenured. The impressive new building, which opened a month late, became the poster child for centralized bureaucratic incompetence writ large.

When no other room was available for speech class, Mr. Warner volunteered his office. (In some schools I saw my students in the corner of the lunchroom.) On the final day of school, though, I saw him running to the water fountain followed by a huge black mom. “See what this is doing to me?” Mr. Warner half asked, half accused her. “I have to take a pill.” If I had to run Toscanini I would have swallowed the entire bottle.

Sweet Friday, finally. All I had to do was live through one more day- and one more principal. I was ushered into Sylvia Mininberg’s office by a secretary who looked like she had good reason to feel bad for me. At a table was Mrs. Mininberg, although which of the two women sitting alongside one another she was I couldn’t know. The pair just glared as the secretary introduced me to a space somewhere between them.

After a heart stopping silence the real Mrs. Mininberg growled, “I’ve never had a speech teacher I liked. The one they sent before you didn’t do a thing. Mrs. Aronow will give you your file box and you can organize your program in the library, if there’s room.” “I think I’ll be a different kind of speech teacher,” I assured her as I began mentally composing a letter that I quit.

Friday’s principal continued, “I have some rules. You are not permitted to take children out of art, music or gym for speech class. They would resent you for that. And I won’t let you take them from academic subjects either.” Maybe I could catch them on the toilet was a thought I wisely kept inside.

Who Mrs. Aronow was I wasn’t told until I asked her. (She was the senior assistant principal.) She showed me a way of scheduling my children that would work. I went home with the only case of hives I’ve ever had. The following day I treated myself to some nice new clothes. I thought, “The hell with all of them. I’m going to do my best and let the chips fall where they may.”

Sylvia Mininberg not only became my program’s champion, but mine as well. She wanted me to be a supervisor and wrote unsolicited letters of support to my Director. Decades later, when Lloyd read in the New York Times that her husband had died and that Sylvia survived him, I wrote to my old principal in Florida. We were close until she died two weeks before her ninety-seventh birthday in 2007. Even when her eyes could no longer read what I had written, my friend encouraged me to write.

How I wish I had Mrs. Mininberg’s input for this series. I know she thoroughly disapproved of New York School Chancellor Joel Klein and his mentor Mayor Bloomberg. If she knew what was happening in Wisconsin and other places now she’d die again; no- she’d fight. When the UFT contract imposed a forty-five minute limit on faculty meetings the feisty principal set an alarm clock, and although it went off at an important juncture in the meeting, she stopped mid-sentence and headed for the door.

After three years of satisfactory ratings I had tenure, but it hardly mattered. Except for Mrs. Shutman’s and Mrs. Mininberg’s schools, the others were chaotic. The parents in Tuesday’s school insisted that the principal, Jewish and nearly sixty, be replaced. An African American guidance counselor with whom I had been friendly took over. When I told him the school was fortunate to have him as its leader, he curtly asked me why, The times were tense.

Working with adolescents was challenging enough even in my so-called better schools. I gave my supervisor an end of my third year surprise; I wouldn’t be returning to the junior high schools. Surprisingly she didn’t balk, perhaps because she liked my work or she knew I wasn’t bluffing, and I was assigned to work with cerebral palsied children in an elementary school in Manhattan and another in the Bronx.

My first day on the new assignment coincided with an earthquake. A city-wide teachers’ strike in response to the arbitrary firing of tenured, mostly Jewish teachers in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community school district of Brooklyn delayed the opening of schools for over a month and set race relations back for years. I left teaching eight years later.

What transpired during that strike is not a subject of this series, as personally and historically significant as it was. Today’s schools are page one news, and I’ll try to make sense of what is going on.

Next: The Players, The Stakes and The Challenge

Joel: Letters