Classism in the Schools

I wrote this essay on request from Denise Moorehead, the blog editor of Classism Exposed, where some of my other work is featured.  

Students begin to experience the effects of classism in our education system as early as kindergarten, or perhaps even nursery school.  Elementary school playgrounds reveal the effects of classism on a child’s education.

A child from an impoverished family will find that her parents cannot readily afford the latest toy or gadget that might be all the rage on the playground.   When all the other kids are excitedly exploring the newest electronic recreational device, the kid who is without feels excluded and somehow “less than” the others.   Sadly, that child cannot possibly grasp that this awful feeling of inferiority is caused by something called classism – an archaic system of values that favors the wealthy and punishes the poor.

EducationalInequalityposter-thumb.jpgWhen I found the kids in my 11th grade class making fun of me, I myself did not know that classism was the culprit.   My dad was a Navy man — an enlisted man who had just been stationed in a new town after a tour overseas.   Because my parents wanted to assure their children of a “high quality education,” they bought a modest house in the richest of four unified school districts in that city.   I remember that we barely made the border between that district and the next one down.

The kids at that school basically didn’t talk to me for about six months.   I was mocked and ridiculed for the way I dressed, the way I carried myself, and the way I talked.   Interestingly, all of that changed overnight when they happened to hear me play piano at a party.   Because of my piano playing, I suddenly became a popular man on campus — so popular, that I was advised to pretend I had been born in that community, since it didn’t look right for me to have that much on the ball socially, and yet have actually been born in a small “hick town” up in Northern Idaho.

For the next several years, my world was an environment where the indicators of privilege tipped people off as to who was “cool” and who was not, and appearances were more important than reality.   It was then that I learned how to schmooze with the jet-setters, and appear to be one of them, even though I was not.

Because of my musical aptitude, I was encouraged to apply to a Conservatory of Music at a nearby high-tuition private college.   Because my dad was going to school there on the G.I. bill at the time, and both of my parents had jobs at the University, I was eligible for a 90% tuition discount.   I received a very high score on the music placement test, and was accepted as a junior after having completed two years at another school.

Of course, I was overjoyed.  But when I got there, I found once again that I somehow didn’t fit in. It turned out that all of the other music students were from wealthy families who could afford the full tuition.  Moreover, most of them had done fairly poorly in high school, otherwise they’d have attended a lower tuition school such as a State college that would only accept students with higher GPA’s.  To top it all off, the professors seemed to take a special liking to me right off the bat, due to my musical prowess.

While it seemed that the faculty was oblivious to matters having anything to do with class, the student body was another story.  I was considered to be a “home town boy,” and the obvious fact that both my parents had low-level positions in the language lab and the library revealed that I was not exactly of the upper crust.  While I tried to “talk the talk and walk the walk,” the contrast between my background and that of the other students overwhelmed my effort to feign the social cues of privilege.  Discouraged and feeling alone, I dropped out of school after the first semester.

Although I never received a degree in Music, I was asked years later to work as an independent contractor for a public school that needed an accompanist.   The school was on the “other side of the tracks,” and the majority of students were Hispanic.   When asked about their professional aspirations, I could not help but notice that very few of the kids had any thoughts of ever “climbing up the ladder.”  Most seemed content to continue in agricultural or blue collar jobs, following their parents’ footsteps and guidelines.  

As I continued to take my skill set to schools of all kinds, I eventually received a high-paying job as a music teacher at a high tuition private elementary school.  There, by contrast, it was generally assumed that the kids would be pursuing leadership positions involving creative problem-solving and other specialized skills.  Why is it assumed that those of privilege are to become the leaders of tomorrow, while those who lack are supposed to be the flunkies?  Shouldn’t our nation’s leaders be comprised of those who have vision and fortitude, not of those who have wealth?

Classism is a venom that seeps through every crevice of what some still dare to call a Christian nation.  People of privilege are shown favoritism at every level — or if they’re not, those who are have to hear about it — as was the case when I was at the Conservatory.   On the other hand, poor people are made to feel that there is something wrong with them — like the child whose parents are too poor to afford to buy her the latest toy.  

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Tuesday Tuneup 26

Q. Where would you like to be?

A. In a place of greater confidence.

Q. In what areas do you lack confidence?

A. In many areas.  But only  one area is important to me at this time.

Q. What area is that?

A. It has to do with integrity, as we discussed last week.  I lack confidence that I will be able to act according to my integrity, and not according to hypocrisy.

Q. Why should you ever prefer hypocrisy over integrity?

A. I don’t, in my heart.  But at certain moments, I find myself choosing a hypocritical course of action, only because I lack confidence that I can find a way to act according to my integrity at that same moment.

Q. Can you provide an example of that?

A. Sure.   Say I’m at an idle moment.  I’m bored at that moment, and I don’t quite know what to do.  I see before me a certain door.  I am compelled to open the door, because on the other side will be people who will alleviate my boredom.  But the only way that these people have ever been known to alleviate my boredom is that they provide me with an audience for the Entertainer in me.  I will proceed to entertain them.  They will laugh when I say  funny things, and do comic imitations of people, and put on humorous expressions and mannerisms.  And then, I will be gratified.

Q. Who are these people?

A. That’s a good question.  They could be just about anybody, I suppose.  In this case, they were a number of people I saw sitting behind the back door of the Recovery Center where I have been volunteering, that back door being made of glass.

Q. Did you then go inside and entertain them, in order to alleviate your boredom?

A. No, I did not.  I turned and went next door, to a cafe where it was quiet, and I would find a way to alleviate my boredom, without having to entertain anyone.

Q. How did you manage that?

A. By doing what I am doing right now.  I am sitting down at a quiet table in a quiet cafe, among many quiet students studying, and professors preparing their lectures.  To entertain these people would be to interrupt their work, which would be quite rude.  So instead I logged on my laptop to do my own work, and therefore blend perfectly into the atmosphere.

Q. But aren’t you still being an Entertainer?

A. How so?

Q. You’re entertaining me, aren’t you?

A. It’s not my intention.

Q. What about your readers?  Aren’t they being entertained?

A. I hope not!

Q. And aren’t you still a hypocrite?

A. No!

Q. But what you’re doing right now – sitting in this academic cafe the way you are — isn’t this just as hypocritical as ever?

A. I think not!  I’m not hypocritical at all right now.

Q. You’re not?

A. No I’m not! I mean – what makes you think I am?

Q. Well, you’re not a student are you?

A. No – not in the strictest academic sense, as in pay tuition, take classes, and all that.

Q. And you’re not a professor, are you?

A. I am neither student nor professor, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have work to do on my laptop.

Q. But by trying to blend in with all the academics. aren’t you trying to pretend to be one of them?

A. I see your point, but no I’m not.  Plenty of people come in here to work on their laptops who are not students or professors.

Q. But still, you’re trying to look like a student or a professor — and isn’t this hypocrisy?

A. I don’t believe so, no.  Even if I’m not an official student, I sort of feel like one.  I’m always studying, doing research of various sorts.  Especially, I research classism, and inequality, and poverty culture, and homelessness.  This is who I am right now; it’s not hypocrisy.

Q. But haven’ you been an entertainer for most of your life?  How is it hypocritical to keep being who you are?

A. Because I don’t think the Entertainer is the real me.  The real me actually is more of scholar than an entertainer.  Besides, a spiritual scholar is one who is seeking the truth.   That describes me to a tee.  But an entertainer?  An entertainer tries to take people’s minds off of their troubles.  In a way, the Entertainer keeps people from looking for the truth.

Q. But haven’t been there entertainers who also were spiritual truth-seekers.  What about Dick Gregory?

2012 Summer TCA Tour - Day 1
Dick Gregory

A. What about him?

Q. Wasn’t he a comedian?

A. That he was.

Q. And didn’t he going on numerous hunger strikes, frequently fasting for forty days and forty nights for the sake of social justice?

A. That he did.  But he was different.  His comedy was about social and racial inequality.  Observe:

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I understand there are a good many Southerners in the room tonight. I know the South very well. I spent twenty years there one night.

Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant and this white waitress came up to me and said, “We don’t serve colored people here.” I said, “That’s all right. I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.”

Then these three white boys came up to me and said, “Boy, we’re giving you fair warning. Anything you do to that chicken, we’re gonna do to you.” So I put down my knife and fork, I picked up that chicken and I kissed it. Then I said, “Line up, boys!”

Q. Well then why don’t you do like Gregory did?

A. What do you mean?

Q. Why not use your social activism in your comedy routine?

A. I sort of do that already.  Among friends, that is.  But what I’m trying to say is that, I am not a comedian at heart.  I’m not an Entertainer at heart?  I’m a spiritual man, and an Artist — a man of integrity, at heart.  The Entertainer is just a facade.  It’s just that I lack confidence I can ever shed that facade.

Q. Why bother?

A. What do you mean, why bother?

Q. Just what I said – why bother?  Isn’t the Entertainer a part of who you are?

A. Maybe.  This is all becoming very confusing.  And a wee bit annoying, I might add.

Q. But aren’t I just asking logical questions, spinning off the things you’re saying?

A. I suppose you are, but it’s still kind of irritating.

Q. Should we adjourn till later?

A. Probably.  I really do tire of this.

Q. Well, at least you’re not bored anymore, are you?

A. Get out of here!

The Questioner is silent.

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Gratitude List 910

1. Norman. Really grateful for my pastor and supportive friend.

2. My apartment. It’s in a nice secluded location; it’s quiet; the neighbors are quiet and unintrusive; it’s spacious and well-furnished; and it gives me personal space, privacy, and solitude — much appreciated at this time in my life.

3. A friend offered me $50 to help me through the rest of the month.

4. The haircut place, and Carmen being such a nice person and a good barber. Glad I got a decent haircut and beard trim yesterday.

5. The city in general. It’s a very positive and accepting community, and very supportive of the Arts.

6. My church. It really is a nice church. People are intelligent, and educated for the most part, and kind.

7. The One World Cafe. It’s really a nice place to work on my vocal score. A nice atmosphere with a nice staff and crew, and a pleasant group of regular customers, mostly students and professors from the University.

8. Danielle, who has been such a great and faithful friend over so many years.

9. The way that everybody here at the Recovery Center likes my music, and how they’re even going to pipe the piano pieces from my youtube channel over the speakers at the Fairgrounds when we have our picnic on Saturday. The way that this directly contrasts how everybody at the fellowship in the Bay Area kept telling me that my music was my biggest problem.

10. Nobody is mad at me these days. I’m not perceived to be in any way weird or different or wrong. It’s just such a great feeling. They kept telling me I was “crazy” for so long, it got to me. I’m not crazy; I’m just different. And that’s okay. Ir’s better to be me than whatever it is they all seemed to think I was supposed to be. And what’s great right now, is that whoever I am is all right. It’s so wonderful to be respected, to be treated with courtesy — as an equal, and not like some sort of lesser being, leper, or pariah.

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Hermit

I believe that we who write lyrics and music tend to remember the music we write better than we remember the lyrics.   At least, that is true of me, and especially if the song was written long ago, and then more-or-less abandoned.

The song that is featured today is something I wrote in April of 1976 in an effort to come out of a long period of isolation and creative famine.  I remember it took me a month to write the song.   This was also the first month of my now 42 years as a long-distance runner.  Writing this song was part of a complete lifestyle change.

Since it took me so long to squeeze it all out of me, I remembered the music very clearly, and continued to remember it over the years, even though I hardly ever played it.  But I forgot a lot of the lyrics, which I never sang.

At some point in the 42 years since I wrote the song “Hermit,” I forgot all about it.  But this past week, the song for some reason resurfaced in my consciousness.  This time, it had been so long, I didn’t even remember some of the music.   But as the week progressed, I remembered more and more of it; and I practiced it several times on the piano.

As for the lyrics?  Here are the ones I remember:

Shifting back and forth
Between one reckless thought and the next,
Trapped inside a rented room
Behind a world that’s too complex.

And later:

Your life is just a rented room!

Still later:

We all need our time to think –
But how much?  That’s all I ask!
You could spend a lifetime claiming you’re close to the cure,
But when life itself is such a task,
You’re never sure . . .
Never sure . .  .

Interesting.  I was 23 at the time.  I wonder why the song came back to me this week?  I hadn’t thought about it in years.  Here’s what it sounds like.

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The H-Word

This post is an expansion on the fourth “buzzword” cited in my previous post, The Homeless Buzzwords.  I wrote it on request from Alastair Boone, the new editor of Street Spirit, whose fine editing is already evident in this piece.

Once, before I had gained more savvy in the realm of outdoor living, I asked a man if he were “homeless.” He replied: “Homeless is just a word.”

His answer still sticks with me. Homeless is just a word, one that is over-used to describe the experience of somebody who, for one reason or another, does not have a place to call their own. It fails to capture any of the individual characteristics that make the homeless person, well, a person.

homeless stigmaIn the twelve years when I lived outside, this word had a way of making me feel that I was in some way distinctly set apart from the rest of the human race. At times, the word suggested that possibly I was not even fully human. I quickly learned that in this over-generalization, the “H-Word” carries with it so much stigma that its usage actually had the power to actively work against me in a number of different ways.

I often found that avoiding the label of “homeless” was the only way to reach my personal goals. For it would be from that label that all the other distracting labels would spring. Drug addict. Nut case. Lazy Bum. Loser. If instead I somehow managed to be seen only as a fellow human being, and not as a “homeless” person, then my chances of achieving my goals were greatly enhanced.

Not the least of these goals was to find dignified dwelling. Not just any old place to live, but a place that I could truly call my own, where I could attend to all the things that make me the human being who I am—not just the homeless guy, but the human guy—the unique individual who goes by my name. Too often I had seen landlords reject a prospective tenant after learning that they had been homeless at some earlier point in time.

Even recently, a 65-year old man came to the Recovery Center where I work, and was extremely open about his having become homeless at the first time in his life. He had received assistance from St. Vincent DePaul and another charitable organization in the area, and was referred to me to help him find a room at a local residence hotel, where I was on good terms with the manager.

However, by the time I contacted the manager on his behalf, the manager had already heard about the man through the grapevine, this being a very small community, and the man in question a very outspoken fellow. The landlord explained to me simply:

“No, Andy — if I let him in off the streets, I will have let them all in. And I’m sorry, I just can’t take that risk.”

I had hoped to head off his reputation at the pass, but unfortunately it preceded me.  I then remembered how another landlord of my acquaintanceship had once told me, point blank:

“If there are ten people on my rental application, and I find out that one of them has been homeless, there will soon be only nine people on that application.”

Sadly, all of this corroborates with my overall experience with the homeless condition. Not only landlords and apartment managers, but people in general do not like to have homeless people on their premises. There seems to be a prevailing notion that if a person has become homeless, then they must have somehow “messed up” their living situation somehow. “Therefore,” continues the line of thought, “let’s not have them mess up mine.

So, at the end of my homeless sojourn, when I finally did find a place that was to my liking, what do you think I did? I found a landlord who had no reason to see me as anything other than a fellow human being, in a place where nobody would have any knowledge of my homelessness, and I basically started afresh from scratch—just to get my foot in the door. Literally. The H-Word in no way entered into the process.

The H-Word, after all, is divisive. Its essential function is to cause division. The person to whom this word applies—the “homeless person”—is pitted against the person to whom the word does not apply; the “housed person,” if you will. From that moment on, it’s: “You stay in your camp; I stay in mine; never the twain shall meet.” By categorizing all the vastly disparate reasons that one might live outside under the umbrella of “homeless,” society gives itself permission to ignore these stories altogether. If the H-word doesn’t apply to you, then you can put those people in a box and carry on your way.

People who have been so privileged as to always have lived indoors often don’t grasp that the H-word is not just a neutral label used to describe one’s state of living. It also packs a punch that has the power to keep you from finding a place to live, and from leaving the experience of homelessness behind. Simply put, this word carries in it a certain violence. Because of this, I prefer to talk about those who live “outside” or “outdoors,” rather than “the homeless,” whenever possible. I feel called upon to emphasize that the main difference between those who are homeless and those who are not is that the homeless person lives outdoors—exposed and vulnerable to all kinds of external influences, human or inhuman, foul or fair. Whoever is not homeless lives inside and as such is protected from the vast array of such external elements.

Acutely aware of such disparities, many people struggling with homelessness will do everything they can to conceal their homelessness from those who live indoors. They become driven into the realm of invisibility in order to avoid the stigma that arises as soon as the question is posed: “Hey – are you homeless?” When spoken, the flood of unwanted connotations and generalities comes rushing in. In the midst of all this, the truth of the actual person who is happens to live outside—their individual and unique story—is forgotten.

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Tuesday Tuneup 25

Q. Where would you like to be?

A. In a place of greater integrity.

Q. What makes you think you lack integrity?

A. Hypocrisy.

Q. What makes you a hypocrite?

A. I say things for effect.  I don’t speak my truth.  I say things that I think will entertain the person I’m with.  Or, if not entertain them, in some way impress or please them.  I’m a hypocrite, kinda like a politician.  

Q. But don’t you value your integrity?

A. That I do.

Q. Then surely, doesn’t this come through in your interactions with others?

A. Perhaps.  But I think it’s far clouded over by the entertainer aspect.

Q. Are you saying that you don’t think people take you seriously?

A. Exactly.  That’s what it is.  They don’t take me seriously, because even my truth is obscured by all the entertainer tactics.

Q. Tactics?

A. You know — making them laugh, making them smile, making them cheer, making them clap.

Q. Won’t it help you in your cause to get them on your side?

A. Sure.  But it’s not really my side that I get them on.  I only get them on the side of the entertainer.

Q. And who is the entertainer?

A. The entertainer is a guy who has been trained to try to take people’s mind off of their troubles.

Q. And how does this conflict with your truth?

A. My truth ought to actually remind them of their troubles, and get them to want to do something about them.

Q. So your truth and your entertainer are in conflict?

A. You could put it that way.

Q. Which is more important?

A. My truth.

Q. Then why not ditch the entertainer?

A. Old habits die hard.  

Q. Can’t you try?

A. I can.

Q. Will you?

A. Give me three weeks.

Q. What will happen then?

A. You’ll come back and check, and see how I’m doing.  Say, around Tuesday Tuneup 28.

Q. May I be excused then?

A. You may.

The Questioner is silent. 

 

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Gratitude List 907

1. Slept rather sweetly between 10pm and 5am.

2. Glad I didn’t flake on the commitment to go running with Jay every Saturday. Only did two miles today, but didn’t stop, and was definitely stronger than the first Saturday.

3. We celebrated the 3rd birthday of our Recovery Center on Saturday, and it was a warm occasion.

4. Daily Skype calls and phone calls with my daughter have been a wonderful blessing at this time.

5. Again very thankful for my new Galaxy J-3, a great gift from a great friend.

6. Same thing goes for this ThinkPad – another great gift from another great friend. Also very grateful that I own not one, not two, but actually three laptop computers now. That would have never been possible in my previous life.

7. Got my Street Spirit check as well as a complimentary September issue containing my article.

8. Finished my article for October and will post it on Thursday.

9. The vocal score is coming along. I’ve also noticed that it’s the kind of work I can still perform while preoccupied, distracted, or disgruntled. It’s therapeutic, and helps me to process some of my internal difficulties. Very grateful for all my schooling, and for my ability to compose and arrange music of my own liking.

10. We tend to be worrisome as well as critical of ourselves over this-and-that. But God views us with love, and in that light there is comfort.

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