What I want you to know. Which is everything.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Defense of The Arts

This is quoted from an article at Theatre Ideas the blog of . I'm taking it out of context, but I loved the quote, nontheless.

"Culture and the arts are essential means by which all people explain their experience, shape their identity and imagine the future...People need the arts to make sense of their lives, to know who they are. But our democracy needs the arts, too. The arts animate civil society. They stretch our imagination. They increase our compassion for others by providing creative ways for us to understand and deal with differences. The arts protect and enrich the dignity and the public discourse that are at the heart of a healthy democracy."

This is a quote from Holly Sidford of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. The quote is made in reaction to the disparity between the amount of funds that go toward large theatre and arts in big metropolitan areas and smaller, rural communities.

The article on the Theatre Ideas blog addresses this issue in a 3 parter on the similarities between the financial disparity that Occupy Wall Street protesters are arguing against and the disparity in arts funding. Read all three parts if you have the time.

Monday, November 28, 2011

How Life Decided I Needed to Stop, Part 3

I had just left the Administration building after turning in my resignation notice, and placing myself a pool of teachers who would receive a financial incentive for saving the school district the task of firing us. The mood in the Human Resources office was understandably sad. I stood there with young and old teachers, all visably shaken and bewildered. The ones who were talking were rambling and flustered, unsure what the next move was.

The news of losing my job couldn't have come at a worse time. In late March, early April every theatre director in Texas is focused on the One Act Play contest. The week before our play had advanced past the first round of competition for the third year in a row and that Saturday, the day after I was told I was being let go, was the next level of competition. The year previous we had gone on to the third round and hoped to move even further this year. The play we were performing was August: Osage County, the play de jour for the theatre world at the time. I felt like we were really stepping out with this production, due to it's edginess, it's brilliance, but mostly because it had never been done before in the UIL One Act Play competition. It was right in the sweet spot of being well-known, but not overdone, and impressive without being out of range. Or, at least I thought so. The point is that I had very high hopes for our production's success at the competition.

By the time a play has already had been through 5 weeks of rehearsals including several clinics, and one round of competition, hopefully it is self-sustaining and the job of the director is over. If that were the case my own state of mind wouldn't have mattered much, as I would have simply told my students to do the great job I knew they were capable of and left it at that. Unfortunately, high school theatre, especially when traveling a show to a competition, is an ongoing process. That Friday afternoon and into the day of the contest, dispite the students' ignorance of my situation, there was an aura of chaos. The kids were a talented bunch, and very much wanted to do well. While no one has told me this, it's always been my feeling that they could sense something was wrong with me. I had a feeling they were cueing from me, even unwittingly, to be unfocused and haphazard in their preparation. There were missing props, confused sound elements, disorganization throughout the preparations on that Friday and the morning of the competition. Perhaps it was just because they are high school students and it's a lot to handle, but my feeling all weekend was that it was because of me.

As much as I wanted to continue our run of success and show the school district that they were getting rid of the wrong guy, we didn't advance that night. When we got back to the school after the contest I gathered the students and the parents that had stuck around and told them the news. There were a lot of tears and hugs and parents asking what could be done. I genuinely thought, at that time, that it was a done deal, but told them anything they wanted to do would be appreciated.

By Monday word had spread and the general population knew about my dismissal. I recieved lots of support from other teachers, students, and parents. Before I was told I was being let go my ego had elevated some, and I started thinking of myself as the goldenboy of the district's theatre teachers. Within some exclusive circles, this might be considered a big deal, but I'll understand if the gravity of this distinction doesn't quite land with all of the readers. After all, I had been in the district now for 4 years and had built a theatre program that consistently won in UIL, but also had made a reputation for producing daring materials and pushing students to go beyond what was typical for high school theatre. Being let go kind of put me in my place, as I was extremely humbled, left wondering if I had actually made an impact, at all. The support that I was being shown and the way that everyone seemed to think I was being wronged made me feel very good about what I had done there. Regardless, I knew I had some cosmic humble pie in my belly.

Nevertheless, I still didn't have a job for the next school year my focus now turned to looking for and applying for jobs in the Houston area and throughout the state. While only a few years back I was being approched by other schools wanting me to join them, now it seemed that the jobs were going to be very few and far between. Every school district in the state of Texas was cutting back and the arts were not in the sites of any school to be able to hire, let alone expand. So, I also began looking at other types of jobs doing other things. I had worked the previous summer setting up lights and sound for trade shows for an audio/visual company in Houston. The General Manager was a students' parent and he told me he might be able to hire me full time in a project manager or sales capacity. Maybe this would be an opportunity to see if there was something other than teaching theatre that I would like doing.

As it was, even without being RIFd, I had been considering a possible change in scenery. I taught at a very large high school and every year more students were signing up for theatre. My second year there they had hired another theatre teacher to take on a couple of lower level classes, but she didn't help out very much after school. The next year we hired an honest to God assistant theatre director, but after two shows, she decided that she didn't want to work with the theatre program after school and wanted to focus on teaching English. So, for the majority of my time there I was a department of one. The next year looked to be even worse as the other theatre teacher wouldn't even be taking theatre classes all of my sections would be filled to the brim, and overflowing. For the third year in a row, my advanced theatre class would have to combine with another class, making it very difficult to establish the high level of theatre I knew was possible. I had thought that I would just ride it out the best I could, but with this new development, I began to see returning as a very scary proposition, fraught with large inconveniences and even more time spent at school, away from my family. Leaving began looking more and more appealling.

While I was going through all the stages of grief, (disbelief, anger, blame, depression, acceptance... are there more?) there were apparently things working in the background. My students parents had organized a letter writing campaign on my behalf and were inundating the Human Resources office with emails and phone calls. The students went in mass to a school board meeting, along with band and orchestra students, who also lost teachers, to tell them what kind of teacher they were losing. Even more importantly, and to my surprise my principal was working behind the scenes to affect the final outcome. I was shocked when, only three weeks after I'd been told I wouldn't have a job next year, my principal stopped me in the hall to tell me that I had gotten my job back. She told me not to worry about why, but just to know, while it wasn't official, it looked like I would be back next year, after all.

But, in my mind, things weren't that cut and dry. I had multiple applications in to various school districts, including two districts in Abilene, where my wife was from. I had even lined up an interview for a theatre job at one of the high schools, where I would head up a much smaller program, at a smaller school, with less stress, teaching well-to-do, well behaved kids. I decided to go to the interview, which I was confident I could get, and then decide if I would take the job or stay in Houston.

But, as the year drew to a close, and the district was asking if I was going to accept the offer to stay in my position, I became more and more confident that I would be staying. After all, starting over at a new school, doing the same thing wouldn't necessarily fix my problems. Even small schools have issues, of course. I even decided to hold auditions for the first show of the next school year. On the second to last day of school I got a call from the principal of one of the high schools in Abilene. He had a job for me. It wasn't teaching theatre, but I would work with a new grant-funded program at the school helping struggling students recover credit they needed to graduate. It would be less hours, allowing me time to work on my Master's Degree, which I'd put off due to the hours I was spending at the theatre. The job didn't require planning, after school hours, or weekends, which I'd spent mired in for 4 years.

My initial reaction was a big "no." I couldn't see myself working in something not remotely theatre related. I felt like I would miss it too much. Furthermore I had a strong sense of loyalty to the students in my theatre program. It was my baby, after all. But, that was the problem. I had an actual baby at home. This new job would give me more time with her and with my wife. I had always been heavily involved in theatre, and as a teacher, I had always been very busy. But, over the last 4 years, my job wasn't just a part of my life, it had become my life. I was neglecting several things that I had always been passionate about. This included my family, but also music, exercising, writing and doing things in the community. I hated that I had lost all of this, and moving into this new job would give me time to do all of these things, again.

I talked to Amanda to get her opinion, but I knew what she wanted to do without asking. This was going to be my call. I thought about the stress of running a theatre program, and about how much I've always envied people who had time for hobbies. Then I thought about how the next year was already shaping up to be difficult and frustrating, with even more on my plate than before. I thought about how happy this would make Amanda. Every now and then in life, an opportunity comes along that a person just has to follow their gut and take a plunge. It was this same intuition that brought me to where I was to begin with.

So I took the plunge. I wanted to tell the school before we let out for the summer. I felt like I owed it to my students and my principal to let them know what I planned as soon as possible. I especially didn't want my kids to find out over Facebook or when they got back in the fall. So, on the last day of school I went into my principal's office and informed her that I'd been hired by another school district and would take the job. Later that day I gathered as many of my students as I could and let them know my plans. I thought they would hate me, but to their credit, despite their disappointment, they were happy for me. A few weeks later they even threw me a going away party.

I still went to the other job interview in Abilene. The job wasn't for me, and even though I didn't get it, I had decided that I would definitely take the position in the credit recovery classes. I figured that if I was going to take a break from teaching theatre that I needed to really take a break from teaching theatre.

The move was fairly painless. I know my parents were sad to see me move away from the Houston area. We had been there for 8 years and it had become common to meet them for dinner or to schedule a Sunday afternoon together with extended family. I knew I would miss that. Amanda and I had also become close with several people at our church in Sugar Land. It was sad to say goodbye to them, but finding friends in Abilene wouldn't be too difficult. We already had Amanda's sister and one of my best friends from college there. While I had never fully fallen in love with Sugar Land, I certainly would miss many of the people I had come to know there. With Facebook and Twitter we could stay in touch, but of course, it's not the same as being able to walk down the street and share a beer. It's not the same as handing your daughter over to the same person who has cared for her since she was born, then seeing that same person at school to work on costumes. It's not the same as knowing that any day you could just get in the car and drive less than an hour to see your brother. That is, if you have the time.

So, that brings me to where we are now. It's been 5 months since Amanda and I moved here. In that time we've rented a house, been to Fort Worth to see Amanda's sister, twice, started new jobs, and helped host a party for my 10 college reunion. Personally, I've lost 15 pounds by eating better and running, written the first few chapters of a novel and generally relaxed. I've also been working on my Master's Degree and read 4 books. These are all things that I wanted to do before, but didn't have the time or energy. Things are quantitatively looking pretty good. I would like to do more to meet more people, get involved in church and travel on the weekends, now that I have the time. But, all in all, I can't complain.

Sometimes I think about the stage at my previous school. I think about standing on the stage when no one else is there and looking out at the empty seats. From there I can look up and see rows of batons, hanging silently from the high ceiling above. Behind me are old set peices, placed against the back wall for storage until we need it again. The black floor, newly painted, clean and free of marks, is the perfect surface to recall some of the old tap moves I learned in college, made difficult by the rubber soles of my running shoes, that I rarely run in. I walk around the edge of the stage into the house and sit in one of the auditorium seats. Sitting in the dark, looking at the shadowy stage, florescent light from behind the curtains spill out and create an erie, but calming mood. It was never given to me by any authority, but it was mine. I controlled that space as if I had bought and paid for it myself. It was, without any sense of metaphor or exageration, a second home. And, when those students whom I had trained and watched grow in talent as well as character and maturity walked out on that stage and performed under the the halogen lamps (I had to fight tooth and nail for the district to pay for) songs and speeches and dances that would have never occured if not for a confidence they did not have when they arrived in my class their freshman year; and sound cues and scene changes happen at the exact right time, set in motion by students who had come to me only months before with only a vague sense of wanting to belong to something larger than themselves; when all these things happen at once and all I have to do is sit back and know that the whole process has been rehearsed over and over, and the students who are backstage barking orders into their headsets feel as much of a sense of responsibility toward the outcome of the production and the future of the theatre program as I do--when I can sit in the seats and feel confident that I have had an impact by setting these peices in motion, the sense of pride that builds in me is very real, even when the their existance only survives in my imagination and memory. And I miss it.

The past five months have convinced me of three things: One, I needed the break. The time I've had with Olivia and Amanda, not to mention the time I've had to run and take care of my health, has been extremely valuable. I don't regret this year and the break from theatre, at all. Two, I'm not finished with theatre and theatre isn't finished with me, and I will be back there someday, directing and teaching and building sets. The question a theatre major is always supposed to ask himself is, "Can I imagine myself doing anything else?" If the answer is yes, you shouldn't do theatre. I can honestly say that, for me, the answer is no, I can't. It's what I'm meant to do on this earth and the legacy I should leave behind. Finally, when I do eventually get a chance to either teach theatre or run a theatre company, or wherever I'm led, I need to learn to control the program and not let the program run me. Theatre is what I do, and it's what I know, but it won't always be there when I need it. The theatre program I ran, the job that I left and the art form itself may run through my blood, but my heart will always be lying next to me at night and bringing me coffee on Sunday mornings. My soul will greet me tomorrow morning with big blue eyes, a wisp of blonde hair and a big grin saying, "Wake up, Daddy!"

Friday, November 11, 2011

How Life Decided I Needed to Stop, Part 2

I took a long time to write this part because as I started writing I became unexpectedly emotional and filled with anxiety. Partly, I think because it was only months ago, and the feelings are still fresh. Also, I started to wonder if I wasn't crossing a line by divulging the manner in which I was dismissed. The proceedings and criteria by which teachers were RIFd are public to anyone who seeks them out, and I don't work for this particular district anymore, anyway. So, why care? Something just told me that it wouldn't be wise to go on at length on my personal opinions regarding the district and their methods, even if I keep them anonymous. So, I'm leaving out a lot of details that might help explain how I was let go, but really only act as more of a diversion to the main story. I also found that as I write about certain details I tend to sound defensive and legalistic, like I'm trying to prove that I was wronged. That is not the purpose of this story. The story is about how I found myself in my current job, not teaching theatre. The real purpose is to tell how I made a choice in my life for the betterment of myself and my family.

The principal was sitting at her desk, looking sullen and serious. This was not normal for her. Furthermore, our Associate Principal was also in the room. He always seemed serious, if not a little pissed off. This time he was uncharacteristically gentle. My principal did not greet me in her normal fashion, with energy, piss and vinegar. She was quiet and calm. I have never really been the most punctual person in the world, and while I was always at school before the kids arrived, I did sometimes come in after the time I was supposed to be there. I know that other teachers had been called in to inform them that they needed to do a better job at getting to school by 7am, so I thought that this is what I was going to be addressed. Even so, it seemed a little too formal for even that.
My principal spoke about budgetary concerns in the district and the problems facing all districts in the state. She spoke of the need to cut back in certain areas of the school. Maybe she was going to tell me that our funding was being deminished or cut. We were never given enough money from the school district before and had learned to supplement the budget with fundraising. We had even formed a parent booster club for that very purpose. Less money would mean we had to raise more and use it for the actual plays and less on extras, but it was nothing I couldn't handle.
Then she said something completely unexpected. "Kyle, your position in the district is being cut, and you will no longer have a job here, next year." My heart felt immediately empty and I could feel my pulse beating in my ears. This made absolutely no sense.
"There's not going to be a theatre program next year?" I asked.
She explained that they would still offer theatre, but that one of the schools, not ours, decided to cut a theatre position for the following year. There were 11 high schools in the district and several of these schools had more than one theatre techer. All of the theatre teachers in the school district were measured against each other on various criteria. The measure that seemed to matter most was the yearly teacher evaluations (the PDAS) and the one with the lowest score was the person who was let go. It didn't matter that it wasn't my job being let go, or even that I was the head theatre teacher on my campus, I had apparently received the lowest PDAS score of all the theatre teachers that year.
Again, this didn't make sense to me. That year I recieved an unusually low PDAS, but still it was not a bad appraisal by most observers' standards. I mentioned that there might be a mistake due to the fact that my evaluator had given me a low mark in a single category, that I had subsequently contested. The evaluator agreed to change it, but this was not reflected on the evaluation that was used to determine my place in the Reduction in Force. My principal assured me that the decision that had been made was final, regardless of anything else that might be discovered at a later time.
There was seemingly a silver-lining. The district was offering an insentive to resign for teachers who would do so before April, and they were only allowing so many. I was told that I needed to make a quick decision about whether or not I would take the resignation incentive, as many people were being let go the same day and I didn't want to sign up for the incentive too late. I was told that I didn't want to have the blight of a "non-contract renewal" on my record.
I found out later that my principal was reading from a script and that she was instructed to tell me these things. But, I trusted her and so I dutifully went to the administration building to turn in my resignation and incentive agreement. Before I left, though, my principal told me through tears how sorry she was, and that this wasn't my fault. She looked over my evaluation and confirmed that it was a good evaluation and that it didn't seem to make sense to her, either.
I had to tell my wife, Amanda. Her school was only a few miles away from my own and I regularly dropped by, if I needed to. Normally, I might just sign in at the front then go to her room. I didn't want to tell her the bad news in front of her student's, though, so I told her principal first, and asked if she could have someone cover Amanda's classes. Amanda's principal would have been aware of the district RIFs being done that day. I waited by the offices while Amanda's principal went and got her. Amanda was understandably worried that I hadn't just walked down there myself and thought the worst. She was almost in tears as she came down the very long hallway from her classroom. Her principal already assured her that Olivia was okay, which was Amanda's first thought.
The principal let us use her office, where we sat at a conference table. I held her hand and told her about the budget cuts and that I was one of the people the district was letting go. She began to cry, and I decided to let her for a moment. Then she started asking all of the regular questions. Why me? Who was going to replace me? How dare they do this after all the time and energy I put in? A good wife has your back, for sure, as I would always have hers.
Of course, I didn't have a lot of answers, except what I'd been told, which was that it wasn't fair, but it didn't matter. She agreed that I should take the incentive if there wasn't anything else to do. It seemed that there wouldn't be any use fighting it. I noticed a page at the back of my resignation incentive agreement indicating that I could resend the agree within a week, so with this as a seemingly solid safeguard I went to the administration building and turned in my incentive agreement. I had now officially resigned my position of theatre director at Travis High School. What I would do next was a complete mystery.

End of Part 2

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

How Life Decided I Needed To Stop, Part 1

Anyone who has spent much time with me over the past 6 months or so are no stranger to the recent changes that have occured in my life during that time. A couple of weekends ago I went to my 10 year college reunion and was a little surprised that, even with Facebook and Twitter, many of my college friends were in the dark about these changes. Then I realized that I'd been relatively quiet on the social media front regarding the matters that transpired that lead to me living in Abilene, Texas and (more surprisingly) not teaching theatre.

The internet silence was partly due to privacy, I suppose. I've never been a terribly private person, but over the years I've discovered that it is sometimes better to keep somethings to myself. The main reason, though, is that for a long time I didn't really know how things would transpire, and I wanted to be wary about discussing my thoughts on a public forum that could potentially be seen by students or parents of students, or, God-forbid, school administration.

The story begins back in late March of this year. I was feeling very good about myself, for a number of reasons. For the third year in a row the the UIL One Act Play I had directed had just advanced from the first round of competition, and I had a good feeling about the next round. The kids were focused and doing well, we were performing a very risky and challenging play that had not been done in UIL OAP competition before. We had lots to work on, but I was confident that we had something special. I was in a large school district at a large high school and was building a theatre program that had a very positive presence on campus amoung students and faculty.

Not that the year was without it's low points. At the beginning of the year, I'd found out that my assistant no longer wanted to help in the theatre department with productions after school and would only be teaching classes during the day. This meant that I would, again, be directing, teching and producing on my own every show of the season. This is a stress that I was used to, but not one that I wanted. Nevertheless, I had several very devoted and capable parents who helped out tremendously with costumes as well as fundraising. Also, our department was able to afford to hire a woman to come in and serve as technical director and designer for the musical, which essentially gave me an hour or so per day of extra time, and a full Saturday to do things that would have normally been ignored or put-off. So, we were able to move along despite a reduction in the number of full-time theatre faculty.

The first show of the season was lots of fun. The set didn't turn out exactly as I'd planned, but the cast was small and dedicated and everyone who saw the show gave great feedback. We had to switch the musical from Fiddler on the Roof to Pippin about three weeks into rehearsals because of casting issues, but we plugged on and put on a show that was, while far from perfect, a great experience for myself and the students.

With the highs and lows of the season mostly behind me and looking toward the next year I began to see the 2010-2011 school year as a turning point for the theatre department as well as myself. It was the year where I decided to take control of the fate of the theatre program and learn from past mistakes. No longer would I attempt to produce shows beyond our means or put up with people who were getting in the way of making the theatre program successful. I wasn't going to beg the band directors to help or worry that others weren't doing my bidding. I was going to take those dedicated and hungry students and develop them into the highest quality theatre troupe that I possibly could, even if it meant losing a few. I was going to stress quality over quantity. I was very excited for the future and the UIL One Act Play was going to be the coming out party.

On April 1, the day before we were to compete at the second level of competition I was rounding up the normal last minute details of taking a show on the road: making sure that boxes were organized with props, racks were full of costumes and the required buses and permission forms were secured. Sometime around lunch I received an email stating that I needed to go meet with our principal. I joked with our bookeeper that I hoped I wasn't in trouble. I had a good relationship with my principal, and despite a few grandmotherly tongue lashings because of my tendency to, at times, be a little..."independent"(?) she liked me and I liked her. She cussed like a sailor, called you names and you realized that she loved you all at the same time. Still, there was a very real possibility that today was one of those loving repremands. At any given moment I was possibly violating some minor (and ridiculous) policy or making the custodian mad because a performance ran long. When I entered the principal's office I knew this was different.

End of Part 1

Thursday, September 08, 2011

The Hunger Games Bigger Picture

*Disclaimer* I did my best to leave out major spoilers, but you may still find some of the information within this post to be more than you want to know, if you plan to read these books.

I'm currently reading the book Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins after quickly reading through the first book of the Hunger Games Trilogy. I was really impressed with the first book. It was fun and kept me on the edge of my seat, but I also had a few problems with many elements of the story. Basically, I thought that things wrapped up way too easily for the protagonist, Katniss. What I mean is that things were fairly predictable and Katniss really never had to do anything wrong, or morally questionable. She kills and breaks the law, but in ways and within circumstances that any normal and sane person could reasonably be expected to do the same.

If you aren't familiar with the premise of the The Hunger Games it's not giving too much away to explain that the plot revolves around a Not-Too-Distant-Future nation called Panem that exists where North America once was. The country is divided into "districts" and Katniss is from one of the poorer districts, District 12, although all of the districts are at the mercy of a controlling, totalitarian government. As a reminder of the power of the government, which exists in a District known simply as The Capitol, each district, except The Capitol, must choose by lottery a boy and a girl to participate each year in an event known as the Hunger Games. This Nationally televised, mandatory viewing for all citizens is a fight to the death between kids, age 12-18, with the winner receiving wealth and fame for the rest of his or her life. Since you already know that there is a sequel, it's also not too much to tell you that Katniss survives.

When I say that the plot is too easy for her, what I mean is that Katniss is never really faced with a situation that would force her to do something she finds morally wrong. For instance she never has to kill someone who is portrayed as a "good" person. The subject is discussed throughout the book that the so-called "bad-guys" who are out to kill the other contestants, known as tributes, are not really the enemy, since they are all forced to participate. However, when these kids die you never really feel bad for them, like you would if the "good-guys" die.

I understand why the book was written that way. Obviously, as a reader, you don't want to see your protagonist do something abhorrent or evil, but I also feel that the story should have been told more honestly. A teen reader, for whom the book is primarily written, may be more sensitive to this kind of moral ambiguity, and therefore it may explain why Collins chose to not compromise Katniss's goodness by having her face such a morally perplexing decision as killing someone she didn't want to kill. In other words, in a graphically violent book perhaps we as the reader needed at least something, in this case Katniss's righteousness, to fully rely on. I still would have liked to see her at least face such a decision, and she never did.

So comes Catching Fire which my wife, as well as the internet see as the superior book in the trilogy. While I have still not delved very far in the second novel, (I've decided to come to terms with the fact that Katniss will probably survive this book, seeing as how there is a third) I can already see that this book will be bleaker, and truer to the world that Collins created. It also deals with at least one subject that is quite relevant to the current state of the world. In the chapter I'm currently reading, Catching Fire describes a party at the Capitol where people gorge themselves on food and drink, only to regurgitate periodically so they can continue partying throughout the night. In the following passage Katniss relays the stark contrast she sees between the citizens of The Capitol's wasteful behavior and in the faces of the starving children within her own district and others throughout the country:

"All I can think of is the emaciated bodies of the children on our kitchen table as my mother prescribes what the parents can't give. More food.... And here in the Capitol they're vomiting for the pleasure of filling their bellies again and again. Not from some illness of body or mind, not from spoiled food. It's what everyone does at a party. Expected. Part of the fun."

This passage made me feel shame. It's what we do every day in the U.S. while there are people starving in other countries. Forget other countries, there are people starving right under our noses, but most of us throw away more food in a day than many get to eat in a week.

I never felt rich, by any stretch. I always saw the shoes that other kids wore, or the cars that other parents drove and felt cheated, somehow. I wanted to know why I couldn't afford the expensive Nikes with the little air pockets and the pants with the tag on the fly; made by some designer with a name I had trouble pronouncing. But, I never worried about where food would come from. We had a car that was always full of gas and a house that was warm in the winter and cool in the summer. I was fortunate to have parents that expected me to get an education so that one day, when I was an adult with a family I wouldn't have to worry about these things, either.

When I see people in my own town who struggle with these very issues it makes me at once thankful, and determined. Determined to always provide that same feeling of comfort for my daughter, so that she never has to worry either. But, even more than that, I'm determined to show her that not everyone is as fortunate as she, and that there is a corner of our society that struggle to gain basic needs like food and shelter. Not because I want her to feel guilty or ashamed for what she has, but so that she stays aware and thankful for her position and doesn't fall into a trap that I think so many in the western world fall into. The trap is to think that because we have it, it is readily available and easy for everyone who wants it. "It" being prosperity, or at the very least, self-sufficiency. Those who don't have "it" are either lesser beings or are in that situation because they want to be there. It would be very difficult to say those things if they had ever been in that situation, I'm sure, but even just working with the students that I have worked with over the years have given me a clue about life in poverty and the difficulty in getting out of it.
I'm happy that Suzanne Collins decided to make Catching Fire a more difficult read (if, in fact, that's what she did. It's still early in the book, but so far, it seems that way). I read a critique from Stephen King that spoke highly of The Hunger Games but regretted the squandered opportunity to fully delve into the social and political issues inherit in the fictional Panem, that relate to our present world. I'm already seeing this particular critique addressed and my hope is that it will continue. It's a great read and I'm really into it from a story and character standpoint. I just hope that the younger audience that the book is marketed to can catch onto and understand the correlation between the world of fiction and the one outside their door.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

This Entry Wanders. A Lot

I've been listening to the Adam Carolla Show Podcast lately. I began listening because I was about to go on a long roadtrip this summer and needed some good listening material to help pass the time. If you aren't familiar with Adam Carolla he is a comedian who has been on several TV shows, usually with some kind of hosting duty. Probably his most famous show was The Man Show which was on Comedy Central in the early 2000s. Before that he did a call-in relationship advise show with Dr. Drew Pinsky (Celebrity Rehab) called Love Lines, which was a TV version of a radio show he did with the same name. On Love Lines Dr. Drew would give sound advise and Adam would generally make fun of the person, or give funny and at times common sense advise.

If you saw Adam on the Man Show then you probably also know Adam's more famous best friend, Jimmy Kimmel. On the Man Show Adam and Jimmy generally portrayed exagerated versions of the "typical guy." They drank beer, looked at hot chicks and would talk about men stuff like sports, cars, wrestling, bratwurst, and you name it. It was supposed to be fairly toungue and cheek and the humor was derived from the fact that Adam and Jimmy were not understood the ridiculousness of their ultra-macho behavior.

As I have been listening to Adam I've discovered that he is really a pretty funny guy. He would chastize me for pointing this out as he has been a working comedian for years now and of course he's funny. We don't feel the need to point out that accountants are good with numbers! I suppose I was surprised that I found him funny. On the surface he didn't seem like my cup of tea. He generally comes off as the very type of guy I didn't like in high school. He generalizes people based on their race, their job, income, and makes blanket assumptions about who people are without giving any possibility for alternative views. But, that's kind of his shtick and he also has surrounded him with people who don't necessarily believe like he does. This tells me that this is all (in part, at least) just how he has gotten laughs, and not his deeper feelings. He is also very knowledgable of politics and the goings on in America and comments frequently on the state of our economy. He holds some pretty strong opinions about anything from welfare to steroid use in professional sports.

I don't tend to agree with him on much of anything, but I don't really think he cares if you agree with him, when he decides whether or not you are worthy to talk to him. He is pretty cordial to all of his guests whether they be liberal Hollywood types or conservative politicians. His own politics are very libertarian. He is an atheist and can't understand why things like marijuana, prostitution and gay marriage aren't legal. On the other side of the spectrum he is brutal on taxes and welfare.

He talks about his upbringing and his parents quite a bit. In fact, most of his most strongly held opinions tend to be linked to the way he was raised as a poor kid whose parents were either neglectful or just plain mean to him. Or both. For instance, one reason that he doesn't believe in God is because his family would only attend church on special holidays and he realized the ridiculousness of people who treated God like a cash machine or magic genie. This soured him on religion and he eventually decided he didn't believe in God at all. His parents didn't have much money and they would talk about wealthy people in extremely negative terms. Further, according to the way he talks on the podcast his parents didn't give him much in the way of attention or material things. This is my own sort of armchair analysis of Adam, but based on what he says during his podcast, the attitudes of his family as well as his desire for wealth seem to be what drove him to his own success. Apparently, when he first became successful and told his family they responded with apathy or outright disdain. It's this part of his life that seems to have had the biggest impact on his worldview toward poor and economically challenged.

The other day on his show he was discussing taxes with one of his guests and he was talking about the Democrats wanting to raise taxes for the wealthy. He used a really great analogy to indicate how horrible it is to want to ask the wealthy for more. His basic point was that the wealthy are already the ones contributing the most to the government til and therefore we shouldn't ask them for more. Besides they worked hard to get themselves to the point where they are and therefore deserve the benefits of their hard work and tanacity. You know, the old line.

His analogy was this: We're all in a row boat and the wealthy are the only ones paddling, or at least taking on the brunt of the work, while the poorest (especially those who don't make enough to pay any taxes all) are sitting lazily on the deck, not helping out at all. His argument was that everyone needed to be putting in their fair share of paddling.

I liked his analogy a lot. However, I don't really see it like Adam sees it, and I think he stopped short of taking the analogy to a fuller and more accurate realization. So, I'd like to add to his analogy by offering a broader picture of of the rowboat reflecting how I see the world and how wealth is distributed, as well as the fairness of how we are taxed.

In this boat (that is powered by paddles, I guess) the wealthy are certainly the ones doing the majority of the work. However, that doesn't mean that they are working that hard. What Adam failed to mention was that the ones doing most of the paddling are extremely well built, healthy and strong. They are all huge Goliaths that are capable of lazily turning the paddle through the water without really breaking a sweat. Adam's version of this analogy fails to mention that the poor lazy bums not doing anything have broken limbs, are suffering from cholera, respirtory failure and any attempt they make at rowing cripples or kills them altogether. As a liberal tax and spend democrat, I feel this boat would be going a lot faster if the big, strong, muscle bound guys with their health and stamina should start using both hands and push a little harder. They don't have to strain, but maybe the big guys can pitch in the effort they are capable of exerting.

In other words, it doesn't matter that wealthy contribute more to the national debt. What matters is that the amount that the poor do pay is way more detrimental to thier living than what the wealthy pay. Weathly people and poor people, dispite the idea that the poor should live within their means (which I whole-heartedly agree with) live in the same world and much of the expenses of living are the same, regardless of your income level.

To illustrate this point I did some figures. I assumed that there were two families of four, both consisting of a stable mother and father with a boy and a girl below driving age. I tried to come up with a reasonable budget for both families based on current utility prices, percentage rates and tax brackets. One family has a joint income of $30,000 and the other family earns $250,000. I placed these families in Abilene, Texas. First, bescause that's where I live and I know about how much things cost here, and second, Abilene has a generally low cost of living, so I thought it would be a simpler comparison. I only included items that I felt were necessary to live and hold down a job (i.e. While cable TV is a luxury, I think it can be argued that cell phones have become a modern day necessity. I could make that arguement about internet, as well, but I've left that out of figures.) I also took pains to not inflate the Poor Family's expenses or deflate the Wealthy Family's. Here are the two budgets.

Wealthy Family earning 250K per year:

Income/Month 20833

Rent/Mortgage 2044.75 based on a $319K home and good credit
Electricity 225 based on Bill Estimator by Consumers Power, Inc.
Food 400 Based on my own monthy grocery bill.
Phone 270 Based on a Verizon Family Plan with 4 lines.
Car 2260 Based on a 2012 Lexus GX (assuming a 2 car family) used Edmunds.com
Insurance 200 Based on my own car insurance bill plus more to account for car type
Gas 240 Based on filling up once a week at $60 per tank
Taxes 6875 Based on a 33% tax rate (Source: bargaineering.com)

Total Bills 12514.75

Ending Balance 8318.25

Poor Family earning 30K per year. Unless indicated, estimates are based on the same sources as the Wealthy Family.


Rent/Mortgage 850 Based on the low end rent of a decent 3 bedroom house in Abilene
Electricity 150
Food 400
Phone 70 Based on a Cricket, no contract, month to month plan with 2 phones
Car 180 Based on a 2006 Dodge Caravan*
Insurance 200
Gas 240
Taxes 375 Based on a 15% tax base

Total Bills 2465

Ending Balance 35

*I find it hard to believe that someone, even with good credit, would get such a low monthly payment, or that a Dodge Caravan in good condition would go for so little, but this is what Edmunds.com estimated for a 2006 Dodge Caravan. My suspicion is that it would be more.

If I only had $35 left after all of my other bills had been paid, I'd be pretty nervous. This of course doesn't account for kid's asking for money for a feild trip, or new clothes, or car repairs, or the miriad of other things that we find ourselves needing money for here and there. The wealthy family, on the other hand, have a very comfortable cushion to sustain them through the sundries that pop up from time to time, to put into savings, or to simply use for vacations, movies, or other entertainment. I won't get into the value of these types of experiences to a child's worldview, therefore giving the wealthy kids a much greater opportunity for success in the future.

So, what does this mean? I think Adam Corolla, and many conservatives, would say that the wealthy family has earned the distinction of having more because they have worked harder to acheive more. I won't debate that rich people are going to have more stuff. And that's okay. What I am saying is that if they can throw a little more in the til and still have most, if not all of that, they should. From what I've heard and read in the news raising taxes to pre-Bush levels would essentially solve the debt crisis within a few years. If this is true, I think it should be looked at much more seriously.

The problem of course is political, as it always is. Republicans would lose their seats to more conservative Republicans, or (gasp!) a Democrat, and Democrats won't hold the line either for the same reason. Furhter, as I think we've witnessed over and over during the Obama years, Republicans are so adamant on getting their way that Democrats are essentially forced to give in, time and time again, or else risk failure in much greater porportions.

I often wish that people could come and work with me in my job, or any teacher for that matter and really get to know kids from other cultures and upbringings from themselves. Not that all teachers are raving liberals, but there is a reason that teaching is a more liberal profession. When you speak to a kid whose dad was murdered in gang activity and whose mother is uneducated and unemployed, it's hard to really blame that kid for not wanting to read "To Kill a Mockingbird." Education is the key to get that kid out of poverty, but it's near impossible to make that kid realize that. If Adam Corolla, who against all odds was able to pull himself out of the clutches of cynicism, abuse, and apathetic parents, could see the gulf that lies in front of a person who is trying to simply survive, let alone succeed, I think he would stop calling them "lazy," "losers," and "scum." From his vantage point, he was able to overcome lots of adversity. He lashes out at the idea that it was all dumb luck, because he scraped and clawed and found a way to wealth and success. But, he's neglecting the fact that he is a funny person. He acknowledges his lucky brakes, but maintains that he would have come through anyway, because he was determined enough. His story really is pretty amazing. I just wish he would realize that a., not everyone who was born into poverty is a worldclass stand up comic, and b., sometimes those breaks don't come. C., and I believe that psyche plays a much bigger part in success or failure than some people want to believe. Mental barriers and limitations are not superficial limitations. Generations of uneducated family members have a much larger effect on ones ability to escape poverty than the poverty itself. Race and pressures due to race also play a large role in determining what a student is willing to even try. For instance, I've never heard a white claim that he or she can't do something because of their race. I hear this from Black and Hispanic students frequently.

So, should we try as hard as we can to fix poverty? Absolutely! But, should we help those who are engulfed in it? We have to.