Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

It has been 12 years since I created an exit strategy from my job as office administrator with an environmental engineering consulting team to become a teaching artist, to dedicate my life to my passion and identity as Poet.
I started out in afterschool programs, although I did have some teaching experience with adults and a few forays into working with school-aged children. Afterschool is where most of us cut our teeth as artist educators. It is definitely the “school of hard knocks.” I made a ton of mistakes but I know I did a lot that was right too. Some of those students are now in their senior year, if not graduated. At least, I pray they graduated. I cannot be certain.
I also coached for the local chapter of the NAACP ACT-SO program throughout the 90s. Many of those young poets I mentored are now 30. They are adults with meaningful lives and I am so very proud of them all. Some are teachers, some are entrepreneurs, one is a lawyer, some are parents themselves, and some still write, have a love of poetry. This is heartwarming.
As for those young writers I met in Hillbrook Detention Center over the three or four summers I taught there, I have not the same optimism but I can pray some of those teens made a change in their lives. One is dead. I think of him frequently. I know several others had additional run-ins with the justice system.

I do not teach for sweeping outcomes. I teach for the moment and with a hope to sow seeds. If I am successful, I will affect some sort of change, even if for an hour.

Approximately 10 years ago, I had the great fortune of connecting with the arts-in-education community fostered by the New York State Council on the Arts. This was in the glory days of NYSCA AIE. The statewide roundtable network was being built, the grant programs were well-funded and growing, the conversations were vital and charged with excitement. I discovered many people such as me who wanted to combine their art forms, their belief in our youth, and their own ability to connect, to bring something significant and supportive of teachers and students into classrooms. There were researchers, artists, seasoned educators, parents, cultural organization administrators all focused on the power of the arts in learning, all looking to further develop young minds.

This was a large community of educators of every ilk sharing, working, creating, building on 20+ years of foundation in developing a craft, a career path, and a professional field. It was where I had hoped I would land when I took that leap from the day job, among likeminded people from and with whom I could learn, create, and grow. 

There were powerful meetings, terrific initiatives, and a network within the practice of learning and teaching that was vital and inspiring. I met many who I admire greatly and I learned a great deal about many subjects and pedagogies. I made some lifelong friends. The network expanded to and connected with the national field where there was even more evidence of how the braid of learning and the arts could be expressed with success and enthusiasm.

I entered the AIE community at the beginning of this new century…as NCLB was formulating and being passed. The waters soon rippled, early signs of the storm ahead. Like the Gulf when the spinning rage is still far off shore but the tides hint at what is coming.

Politics, funding slashes, the deterioration of so much eroded this movement. The network has been splintered and cast out. Arts councils have been defunded or significantly cut in many states. Key agencies and cultural organizations have been forced to abandon their programs and turn the keys in the locks. Some of us have landed in other nonprofits, others have started independent practices and consulting businesses. We have lost the core that created reasons to be together to plan and implement innovative educational programming and to spur each other with the shared knowledge.

Nationally we witness that our teachers are being demonized. Our children and teens are suffering. Higher education is recognizing the full impact of this erosion. The basic preparation our schools were providing for future generations to take on the task of living a life with stability and independence is no longer possible. Arts and cultural organizations throughout the nation have also withered.

The strength in numbers among creative, competent educators has been weakened by breaking up the network and splitting us off from each other. Dissent is being stirred up within the field of education by whomever is holding the power now (i.e., pitting public schools against charter schools, Race for the Top state-against-state competition for funding to support school districts, etc.).

It is only one part of the way we are failing as a nation and why I feel so much the way I did in 1968. The difference is that I am 58 rather than 15 so I am even more frustrated and horrified, especially because I have seen the costs before and do not understand why we are backsliding so steeply and rapidly. I understand my father’s fear when he was in such conflict between his morals vs. his employment during the Viet Nam War. I share his distrust of the political climate. I see why he was threatening to move us all to Sweden in 1968 if George Wallace were to be elected; how he knew Nixon was a seriously bad choice as well. He saw the clouds accumulating along the horizon, the heat lightning, but he was also the son of a Marxist so he had been watching the weather for a long time.

Tonight the AFL-CIO is mobilizing even more humans to stand up against it all in Wall Street, to refuse the eviction. The Senate says NO to putting Americans to work. Peddlers of profit are masquerading as education reformers while they peddle books and charge huge fees for speaking engagements. Banks are moving into charging us for using the debit cards upon which they spent the last 20 years orchestrating our dependence. The news talking heads are squawkin’ loud and sometimes sayin’ nothin’ while Herman Cain speaks for the Right (RIP James Brown…I’m glad you and my dad are both missing this).

I can find no logic in the current political agenda that continues to weaken our citizenry in the interests of profit and/or power but that is where we seem to be. We’ve been through this before. Complacency must not be accepted. We must be aware, we must continue to educate ourselves and others. We all depend on it.

Thanks again for following my blog. I appreciate your consideration of my words and thoughts.

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