Letter From Los Angeles
June 2011
© 2011 Joel

“Sissy Boy”

CNN’s Anderson Cooper recently reported on the experience of a five year old boy named Kirk Murphy, whose parents enrolled him in experimental behavioral therapy at UCLA in 1970. The purpose of therapy was to change Kirk from an effeminate little boy who played with girly toys to a more macho, “normal” kid. Graduate student george reker received federal funding to conduct this loathsome program, which means that those of us who worked in the early 1970’s kicked in a dime. reker went on to become a founding member of the homophobic Family Research Council, which suddenly disowns him.

Kirk’s “therapy” involved parental rejection, regular beatings, and in the words of Murphy’s siblings, the hollowing out of his soul. In 2003, thirty-eight year old Kirk Murphy took his unsatisfying, loveless life. His family believes Kirk’s suicide resulted from the therapy.

In several books reker uses Murphy, disguised as “Craig,” as the poster child for successful gay to straight conversions. If george reker’s name rings a bell, it’s because he was caught last year with a male prostitute “escort” hired to accompany him to Europe. Conversion therapy continues to ruin lives.

Ah, Men!

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”—Honest Abe

Ah, men? No, I have not just said a prayer. I dedicate this segment to Arnold, Dominique, Johnny, Anthony, Rudy, Newt, Larry, Elliot, Bill and all the others. You’ll read a balanced statement, I am certain. Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, Christians and Jews share the blame.

When our collective memories have forgotten Arnold and Maria and that dirty old Frenchman, I shall not. Skunks like California’s former governor and North Carolina’s former Senator think they can get away with anything, and they often can. Schwarzenegger is accused of having foisted himself on women during movie shoots all the time. The marketable star of a hundred million dollar movie is no one to be trifled with. Revenues, reputations and hundreds of jobs are on the line. But truly honorable heads don’t get turned by their imagined importance and invincibility- or do they?

Sex scandals shake world parliaments with regularity. JFK and FDR both fooled around. When Bill Clinton “did not have sex with that woman,” my most politically liberal friend turned against him. The president influences the behavior of growing children, he maintained. My most conservative friend recently agreed with that position regarding culprits of today. I’m not as certain. If self control were the sine qua non of political leaders, we’d go leaderless. Still, we chop heads off kids who show themselves on Facebook just like their Congressman. Which is the more culpable, the more immature?

If a couple has what we call an open relationship, in which each gives the other permission to fool around, that’s not cheating. At the time of Bill and Monica, my favorite woman doctor told me, “Man is not monogamous.” Perhaps we’re not, but men and women can practice self control. Don’t marry until you’re grown up enough to make a spousal agreement you are prepared to keep, and until then do not raise a family.

A word about the betrayed, most often women. Hillary, Maria Shriver and Mrs. Spitzer were said to be humiliated. A woman does something to be humiliated about and I say, humiliate her. The women I have mentioned did nothing wrong.

What all of these offenders have in common is p-o-w-e-r. Financial, political or box office power seems to give many men license to do what they damn well please. Remember NAMBLA, the reviled North American Man Boy Love Association? The power of older people over youngsters is not an unreasonable concern. Of course a twenty year old and a thirteen year old can fall in lasting love. I know of such a case. In the early 1950s, a twenty year old waited for a thirteen year old to come of age so they could marry. The younger was a boy and the older a twenty year old woman who met at the boy’s Bar Mitzvah. They fell in love immediately, remained faithful, and years later were happily wed.

Alan Dershowitz said that John Edwards is so widely regarded as a louse he could never get a fair trial, and he was right about the former. Political figures betray more than their families. We all lose when an Elliot Spitzer’s career is cut short, or a Congressman like Weiner who champions my priorities, puts them in jeopardy. Conservatives feel the same about their men, too.

Power will continue to corrupt- absolutely!- and punishment seems not to effectively deter. I’d hate to recommend going back to the man-hating hyper-feminist model of the 1970s, when even I was expected to watch everything I said and did. No more calling women “girls” (agreed) or holding doors for them (but why not for all of us?). Gray areas exist, of course. Workplaces have had to promulgate rules of conduct and make tough calls. A man is still entitled to smile at a receptive woman, and vice-versa: for Pete’s sake we’re still attracted to one another. We don’t want to become another Egypt, though, where sexually harassing women even in grocery stores is common. We’ve got to work this out.

As to that dirty old Frenchman, good for the maid who reported Strauss-Kahn, and good for Maria for leaving the creep on steroids. The halls of power must become as abuser-free as the ordinary workplace. Women have every right to smack offenders across the face. I favor whistle blowing and a lot of noise, and don’t take that ironically.

School Daze III The Usual (and Unusual) Suspects

“If we want better teachers we also need better parents- parents who turn off the TV and video games, make sure homework is completed, encourage reading and elevate learning as the most important skill. The more we demand from teachers the more we have to demand from students and parents. That’s the Contract for America that will truly ensure our national security.”— Thomas Friedman, The New York Times

“In Chinese culture, parents won’t listen to children. They say, ‘Do this now,’ and kids do....People in America say, “You should be a friend to your kid. But I don’t know how to do that. That’s not Chinese culture. It’s American.”— A Chinese immigrant parent in No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning by Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom

“Round up the usual suspects.”— Captain Rennault, Casablanca

Addendum to last month’s education essay: To the cast of characters in our American school play we can now add the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation. Their involvement in school reform made recent New York Times front page news. After the Ford Foundation sponsored decentralizing New York City’s schools in the early 1970’s, the schools consequently went to hell even faster

All right, class. Take out a piece of paper. Jot down one or two changes in the public schools that you would insist upon if you were queen or king. Now, who or what is to blame for our school’s problems? When you’ve finished put your pencils down and wait for everybody else to finish.

Rounding up the usual suspects was Captain Rennault’s way of sweeping problems underneath his Casablanca rug. As long as he had scapegoats, the band played on. Given the frenzy over the current state of American public education, hot air, agenda and blame are all but inevitable.

Clearly I’m biased in favor of teachers, and not solely because of personal involvement. If my mom had stayed at home and I’d never taught a day I would still have gone to school. My teachers labored tirelessly on behalf of thirty of other people’s children for meager compensation, and their workdays did not end at 3:00 p.m. Some were stinkers who needed to be canned. I’ll devote two segments to teachers later on.

Our schools are in the headlines because of the realities. We’re not preparing our young for the ferocious competition to gain economic, cultural and political dominance or, on a humanistic level, to lead enlightened, satisfying lives. Disturbingly, the schooling American children receive depends on where they live, how their community values education, and their parents’ income level. We don’t have forever to address these problems, either. Veteran school executive Ramon Cortines reminds us that a child is in the third grade only once.

Teachers, their unions, poverty and immigration are in the lineup, but what of chancellors and superintendents? School chiefs don’t stay long on their jobs or in their marriages. (They have an uncommonly high divorce rate.) Books and movies have been written by and about teachers, but from former principals and superintendents we hear nothing, Why does not a one of them come forth? We need their stories, too.

Suspects should include “education mayors” and local school boards. And other culprits, too. We overlook the corrosive effect of parents and teachers fearing children, and our obsession with children feeling happy all the time.

Once upon a time in America, parents sided with their children’s teachers no matter what. The pendulum then swung to over-indulgence. Twenty-first century children are accustomed to applause for almost everything they do. Feeling good about themselves is considered fundamental.

Today’s kids have an enormous sense of entitlement; they’re outspoken about what concerns them from an early age. A progressive minister in Manhattan thinks that little ones have a special line to God. I was uncommonly outspoken for my era, but not because I thought myself a wonder. I was born without a trace of tact and have had to work damn hard for the little I’ve attained.

Americans have a surplus of self-esteem, David Brooks maintains. American students no longer shine at math, “but Americans are among the world leaders when it comes to thinking that we are really good at math.” Kids in countries who do well in math are nowhere near as confident.

80% of American high school seniors, Brooks reports, consider themselves “a very important person.” “Young people are bathed in messages telling them how special they are. Often these messages are untethered to evidence of actual merit.... Some argue that today’s child- rearing and educational techniques have produced praise addicts.....College students would rather receive a compliment than eat their favorite food or have sex.”

P.J. O’Rourke, a humorist who believes that religion belongs in politics because politicians ought to go to hell, fantasizes about a politician who tells the truth. “No, I can’t fix public education. The problem isn’t the teachers unions or a lack of funding for salaries, vouchers or more computer equipment. The problem is your kids!”

A physicist I know thinks that instead of talking about terrible teachers, the emphasis should be on parents who fail to motivate their children or teach them to work hard and respect their schools. Right on the dollar.

In his 2011 State of the Union speech, President Obama acknowledged that “only parents can make sure the t.v. is turned off and the homework gets done.” We can all cite examples of parents giving children free reign to behave any way they want. Whose well being other than the gutless parent’s is being served? Tom Friedman, who clamors for better schools and better teachers, knows that “if we want better teachers, we also need better parents.”

Yale Professor David Gelernte’s blunt indictment: “Our schools are scared to tell students to sit down and shut up and learn.....you must master it whether it’s fun or not. Children pay the price for our educational cowardice,” and, I would add, the American obsession with being liked.

Recently, a PBS News Hour segment was devoted to the use of computers in the classroom. An elementary school teacher explained that the children generate their own projects, whereas in the past she gave them “orders.” Assignments and requirements are now “orders?”. God forbid we tell students what they must do.

Parents act like they are frightened and unsure, the head of a prestigious nursery school told me recently. When her child ran wild in her building this past December, a mother threatened, “You won’t get your Christmas present” in a tone that guaranteed she didn’t mean it. When a toddler knocked over whatever he felt like in an L.A. department store, his mother gave a “No” so softly he didn’t even hear. The “No’s” and threats were barely credible. Isn’t the job of an adult to be adult?

Another fear, of parents, was not always the educator’s North Star. A mother demanded of my childhood principal that a report card grade of Unsatisfactory be changed to Satisfactory. Principal May C. Hatton summoned the child’s teacher to her office. “Did this pupil deserve this grade?” she demanded in the presence of the mother. The teacher responded yes, she had. May Hatton reached for her ink eradicator, which tells you how long ago this was. Anyone who thought they knew what was coming did not know old May. After erasing the unwanted grade she picked up a pen she rarely used. “I’m writing the Unsatisfactory in red,” she announced to the mother, “ so it can’t possibly be missed.”

Principal Sylvia Mininberg, herself a passionate advocate of civil rights, blocked angry black parents from entering her building with her body. Dorothy Solomon, co-ordinator of my cerebral palsy unit in Manhattan, personally escorted our frightened children from their buses through a mob of parents bent on closing down the school. She told the kids, “It’s all right. Mrs. Solomon is here.”

This Sylvia story cannot go unreported. Mrs. Mininberg was known in her Harlem school as the principal of the neighborhood. Without neglecting her school responsibilities, this woman who barely reached five feet tirelessly exhorted city departments regarding social services, housing regulations and just plain street cleaning, and she got results.

Decades afterward, during my brief tenure at JHS 117, the Bronx,, the school piano had the nerve to break down on the day of Sylvia Mininberg’s school’s spring concert. The head of central repairs told her it was impossible to fix the instrument in time. What followed was a profile of guts and gall.

Putting the gentleman on hold, Mrs. M. activated the public address system. “I want all work to stop immediately,” she ordered. “Someone has something to explain to you.” Then, into the phone, “Mr. _____, please tell the entire school why you’re preventing the spring concert from happening tonight.” The concert happened.

Guidance counselors often referred students to me when I was a speech teacher with warnings to “Be careful- the parent is a troublemaker.” How could knowing that possibly help me help the child?

I was introduced to a mother who was allowed to remain in her child’s first grade classroom the entire school year. She bragged, “I’m here because I am a troublemaker.” Another mother spent afternoons hanging around the district superintendent’s office to intimidate her son’s teachers, which was remarkable considering her son was such a lovely boy. A retired mid-western middle school principal told me that he gave in to almost every demand because parents knew the superintendent would let them have their way.

How about a policy of refusing to be intimidated for the benefit of the kids? Speaking on T.V. about leadership, former IBM head Lou Gestner asks his employees to fear failure, not individuals. We shouldn’t ignore legitimate parental concerns, of course. There’s room for parental involvement, plenty of it.

My mother had to confront my third and fourth grade teachers forcefully more than once, made all the harder because she taught in the same school. Still, she mourned the transformation of the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) into the more adversarial Parents Association. I doubt that a policy of “Pussycats Need Not Apply” for the job of school administrator would be struck down by any court. And if parents learned they couldn’t get their way by holding their breath and turning colors, their kids might learn a lesson too.

Superintendent Cortines is right, though. Children are in the third grade only once. We can’t wait for the world to change before giving them the best we can. That especially applies to kids in inner city schools. The best teachers don’t often want to go there, often for legitimate safety reasons, and they make damn sure they don’t. Such schools need a comprehensive approach exemplified by the most successful charter schools, which I’ll get to later in the series.

Economic and social realities underlie a great deal of the trouble. Poor children are at an educational disadvantage. Their parents seldom read to them, much less to themselves, or encourage their kids to learn. Impoverished children come to school unready to learn because they’re traumatized by neighborhood and family violence, or they’ve simply not had adequate food or rest. Often the first order of school business is to feed them breakfast.

Schools face challenges from immigrant populations also. One out of four California students learn English in school. Typically, bilingual education programs become culturally and linguistically isolated schools within schools, rather than stops along the way to mainstream integration. No non-English speaking child should be thrown into a classroom and allowed to sink or swim, nor should a teacher be rated on the achievement scores of kids who barely speak the language.

My mother learned the hard way. As a young teacher on the 1930s lower east side, she knew nothing of her student’s native tongues. One day when she was busy with her class of forty, a pupil told my mother he had to ___ (a Yiddish word I don’t remember). Mom didn’t understand and the boy persisted. In frustration she told him “Go ahead and ____,” so he barfed all over her.

Teachers and principals are said to fail. School chiefs who lack previous experience in education are all the rage. Army Generals, sports figures, and business executives like New York City’s short lived Chancellor Cathleen Black now head big city systems. I question how they can do their job without having ever taught.

At a bare minimum one would expect the chief to know pedagogy inside out. How else can they can tell an effective teacher from a clunker, or know what teachers need? School heads need to know children, lots of every age and kind. Being a parent of a someone who went to private school twenty-five years ago doesn’t count. Schools are not battalions, teams or magazines. Managers from unrelated fields would better serve as deputies or management consultants.

Off the top of your head, name one member of your local school board. Just as I suspected. San Francisco’s Board has had quite the reputation. In the 1990’s, a scandal involved school board members extorting money from school principals for “favors” like providing them with top notch teachers or delivering basic school supplies. In November, 2010 The New York Times reported that two San Francisco school administrators were “engaged in a long-running scheme to funnel district money into their personal bank accounts.” .

Twice I approached San Francisco school board members on the street. I praised one who had been very gay supportive. “What do you know about me?” Myra Kopf barked and walked away. When I praised distinguished former board member Ben Tom, then running for re-election, he looked at me like I had an extra head. The implication in both cases was, how are schools any of your business?

Those whose views are shaped by opportunists like Michele Rhee, who you’ll meet in the next edition, are among my suspects, too.

Dear Readers: I may not have earned a summer break, but my publisher John Caris and his Mary surely have, as do all of you. I’ll meet you online again in August with a blistering hot segment of School Daze. May your summer be spent in no fly (as in insect) zones.

Joel: Letters