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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An Incredibly Empty Place

As most of you know, I am a person who became homeless at the age of 51 in the San Francisco Bay Area during a midlife crisis of enormous proportion, after working for many years as an elementary school music teacher and private teacher of Piano and Voice on the San Francisco Bay Area Peninsula.  I struggled in and out of homelessness for the next twelve years, mostly on the streets of Berkeley, California.  For the past fourteen months, I’ve successfully maintained an apartment in a completely different part of the country, and have been gainfully employed throughout most of that time.   Still, however, I sometimes miss the allure of the streets.  I find myself wanting to “hit the road” — to chuck it all, to flick it in, to flip the switch — and to become homeless once again.   But when I read something like this short blurb I wrote in 2015, I remember why this might not be such a good idea.

An Incredibly Empty Place

Believe it or not, the streets used to inspire me. I used to feel free here. I wrote ten songs from the streets, arranged them, recorded them – here in Berkeley, in 2012, I wrote decent interesting music — while homeless. But now? They all recognize me. They see me on the streets.

Who’s “they?”   Whoever it is who assumes — is they, and not we.   Whoever stigmatizes is “they” — not we.   We know who I really am  — we who neither stigmatize nor assume.   But they?  They assume, because they see me on the streets, that I’m all about the hustle.  Then, if they are not on the streets, they look down upon me, as though I am a dirt bag, here to rip them off.  And if they are on the streets?  Then they assume I am one of them.  I’m supposed to have a hustle, supposed to have a game.  When they find I have no hustle, when they find I have no game, then they assume I am their enemy.  I then become a target.   I must be a nark, a snitch, a rat.  Why is Andy never in jail?   It can’t possibly be that Andy isn’t about committing crimes, can it?   It can’t possibly be that he wants nothing whatsoever to do with that game.   It must be that he is a police informant.  He’s going to turn us all in.  We better get that guy Andy — before he gets us.

I’m either one of them — or I am their prey.   And as for Music? What is Music?  As for Art?  What the hell is Art?  Isn’t life all about the hustle? About taking from people who have even less than you have? And feeling good about it at the end of the day? As though it were an honest day’s work?

But to write music — what is that? Does it make me any money? No — not yet, anyway.  Perhaps it never will.  But why is that the prevailing question?   Why is the question not whether I do another person harm?   Does my writing music intrude on others at all? No.   It does not.  Then why am I not left alone, as I once was, in 2012?   Because they think they know me now.  They think they know me — because they see me.    Whoever they are who assume, they judge the book by its cover.  Whoever they are who stigmatize, they see me, and think they know me.  In reality, they know me not.

Some of these hustlers don’t seem to think they can make any money in life without totally infringing upon the rights of others.  Their means of earning money involves invading other people’s space.  All day long I hear them: “Got fifty cents?  Got a cigarette?   A light?   A cell phone?   Can I sync my cell phone to your laptop?  How much you want for that “top”?  What do you mean, it’s not for sale?  Who the hell do you think you are?”

I had a guy who calls himself my “friend” con me out of my last BART ticket. I paid for that BART ticket with my own earned money. It isn’t easy to sit there with back up against the brick wall of that BART station, flying a sign all day, and and keeping my mouth shut long enough for somebody to “get it.”   I’ve had jobs that were way easier than that!  But I’ve got my pride.   You won’t hear the words “can you spare some change?” come out of me.  I don’t want to be like those hustlers.  I don’t want to intrude on people’s mind-sets, or invade their space while they’re rushing to get from one gig to another in the Mainstream.  The sign says it all.  

need a miracle

But I tell you – some of these people just get to me.  They have no respect for other people. They don’t respect me. I have no value to them except for what they can con me out of. I don’t need their food stamps, their marijuana, their attitude. I don’t need them. I tell them I’m hungry, they tell me I should give them my last two dollars. I would so love to be able to eat regularly – to eat real food without having to wait for hours in a line every day, with fights breaking out, with security being involved and police being called — I’m tired of it all. Down here, it is either assumed that I am a criminal or, like I said, it’s assumed that I’m a mark. I’m either a potential perpetrator or a potential victim. There is no in between.

How did I ever get myself into this irreconcilable mess?  I should be hanging around college professors, theatre directors, school principals, and parents of singing students and piano students!  Like I used to be!   I should be hanging around Actors and musicians and set designers!  Like I used to!  I should be hanging around playwrights and screen writers. Piano players, singers – composers like me. But I am exempt from hanging with people like myself.  Somehow, it does not happen. Somehow, I cannot climb out of this hole. It’s too deep. My best hope is to communicate – and keep communicating – until someone feels me.

Does anyone feel me yet?  Do you?  I am constantly visible. Constantly seen – by whom? By everyone.   And believe me – some people down here – that’s all they do is look.  Look, lurk, watch, wait — and lay in wait.  They cannot sleep at night — unless they have done somebody harm.

There are no walls around me. I have no roof over my head. I have no bed beneath me. I am vulnerable – through visibility. And I am associated with all those who are similarly vulnerable – through visibility. Many of whom are violent. To find identification, I look to pimps, hustlers, hookers, and drug dealers. Why? Because they live in the same world that I do.  We have that in common.  I smile and laugh and joke in the presence of people of whose lifestyles I disapprove.  Why?  Because it keeps me from getting the crap knocked out of me, day after day after day.

And yet, through all of those smiles and all of that laughter, through all of the identification, the unusual common ground, the ground that validates us, that separates us from those who live “inside,”– throughout the foundation of our amazing common dignity, the buck always stops when the fine print is read.   And the fine print said:

I’m sorry, bro, but I really don’t want to distract that guy while you steal his bicycle.  I mean, I’m sorry man, but I’m just not into it.  I know you just turned me on to a bud of great medical weed.  I know, I know, but still, but still . . . 

How does one convey that just because one does not desire to partake in a criminal activity, this does not mean that one is the enemy of those who do?   At least five times a week, I have to look into the shocked, threatened eyes of someone who has just realized that I simply have no desire to commit a crime. No desire to steal from anyone. No desire to do someone bodily harm or psychic damage in order to obtain what I want for myself.

At that point, our common dignity means nothing. I am only an easy mark. My personality means nothing, really. And so, nobody recognizes me for who I am. It’s an incredibly empty place to be.

Andy Pope
Berkeley, California
June 15, 2015

 Anything Helps!
God Bless!

 

Social Statement

Because I have been recently lamenting a tendency for some readers not to recognize that my posts are generally “social statements” rather than “requests for advice” (if you can possibly grasp that there could even be a relationship between the two), I am entitling this post “Social Statement,”  just in case there’s any doubt about where I’m coming from.  Granted, it’s a lousy title, but let’s begin.

I was blessed last night to spend the night at my pastor’s house on his farm, where I learned that he is also a farmer, and not only a pastor.  It was  great to be out in the beautiful country, away from the city, and away from Friendship Square, if only for a single night.  It was funny, too.

It was funny — because when he invited me to stay the night, my first thought was: “In all the years when I was homeless, when I lived on the streets, how many times did anyone ask me over to stay the night?”

zero

When I was homeless, and I asked somebody if I could stay the night at their house, what was their answer?

no-no

Herein lies the gist of a social statement.  It may not be headed in the exact direction you are suspecting.  My fellow homeless people and I naturally became more and more discouraged the more these statistics accumulated.  But we also naturally asked ourselves, “why” did close friends and family members categorically refuse to let us stay the night at their houses?  Even for one night?   In my case, even when I offered money to let them stay over one night and take a shower  –  or even just take the shower itself – they said “No.”  Why?

Eventually, we all concluded what I am about to describe.  They all knew that we were homeless.  They also knew that we had a number of other problems, but that none of those problems had ever made us homeless.  They had let us stay over when we were total slobs.  They had let me stay over when we were addicted to drugs.  Often, they themselves were addicted to drugs. They had let us stay over, whenever we were passing through, as long as we had not yet lost a place to live.   So why didn’t they let us stay over when we needed a place to stay?

The answer is simple.  All the problems that they had known about had never made us homeless.  Now we were homeless, and they did not know why.  Therefore we must have some problem that they did not know about, and that problem must have made us homeless.  Obviously, they thought, we had somehow screwed up our living situations in some way — otherwise, we wouldn’t have become homeless.  Since that had to be the case, would we not similarly screw up their living situations as well?  Sure we would.  

They were not concerned about our problems of which they were aware — they were concerned about our problems of which they were unaware.  Everyone has a little fear of the unknown, don’t they?  That fear prevented each and every one of them from ever letting us stay at their houses when we needed to.

You can’t imagine how difficult it was for me to call up a very close family member ten days after I had become homeless in 2004, and ask him if I could stay for a while in his spare room, and hear the word “No.”  When I asked him why, he said, “I don’t care to expand.”  Whenever I asked him over the years if he could elaborate, he said: “No.”

Why?  Because he himself did not know the reason.  He was not afraid of what he knew – he was afraid of what he didn’t know.  What he didn’t know was why I had wrecked up my living situation, and he didn’t want to take the risk of my wrecking up his as well.

The simple truth was that in the urban area where I had become homeless, the demand for living situations far exceeds the supply.  When I lost my last rental — for whatever reason — I could not readily get another one — for whatever reason.  I then fell down into the hole called Homelessness — a whole so deep I tried for twelve years to climb my way out of it.

0519d869c2f17b567099948384b9099bf8a86d-wmIf you can imagine the hurt and the pain I felt from hearing my own brother refuse to let me stay in the spare room at his house ten days after I had become homeless, try multiplying that level of pain by fifteen.  One by one, my closest friends and family members told me that I could not stay with them, nor even take a shower at their homes – not even in exchange for money.  So the discouragement that was strong enough, became fifteen times stronger.

Whatever enabled me to become encouraged again?  Encouraged as I still remain today, despite depression, despite mania, despite a medical condition, despite the loss of a job?

The amazing commonality that I shared with my homeless brothers and sisters on the streets of Berkeley, California, almost all of whom were enduring the same indignity as myself, affirmed our common dignity.  Our conversations, over a five year period, eventually lifted my spirit out of that hole, even though there did my body remain.

I’ve since been in touch with a Berkeley social worker.  I asked him how my best friend Lauren was doing, if she was still on the streets, and if her health was holding up.  I broke into tears when I learned that somebody had finally helped her with the initial deposit and last month’s rent, and she was now able to live on her disability in her own apartment somewhere in Southern California.  I have also heard similar stories, all across the board, of homeless people in my tribe pulling out of that gigantic hole, because our spirits had finally become encouraged by the hugeness of our common dignity, so much so that our bodies were soon to follow.

In Lauren’s case, it was her own brother who finally stepped up to the plate.  In my case, it was a retired music teacher who knew what I was made of, and fronted me a one-way to Idaho and enough money for the deposit on an apartment.  But the dramatic lift in spirits is common in all cases.  I went from being homeless on the streets of Berkeley, assuming I was to die a miserable, meaningless death on the streets, to having a job and an apartment in Moscow, Idaho, faster than the twinkle of an eye.

If that’s not an inspiration, I don’t know what it is.  But remember  – it is not just my inspiration; it is the inspiration of hundreds, maybe thousands, of some of the most inspired people on the face of this Earth.  That inspiration can make a difference.  Please,  let us make that difference — before it is too late.

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Anything Helps – God Bless!

Patience and Prodigy

Practical realities have often managed to elude me, especially when I find myself feeling pressured or in haste.  I’d rather do the thing immediately and do it poorly, just to get it out of the way, than exercise the patience and prodigy required to do it later — after sufficient preparation — and do it well.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACase in point.   I mentioned in this entry that I’d realized the next logical step in the process of preparing my musical for production.   So,  I boldly walked into the School of Music to inquire randomly as to the availability of certain singers who would learn some of my music and assist me in recording a demo that I can present to prospective producers.

I carried no score with me.  I didn’t even have a printed out copy of my script.  I brought no items with me that could prove myself in any sense.  Fortunately for me, it turned out to be Spring Break, and nobody was in the building.  The office was closed and dark.  I prepared myself to leave, when unexpectedly a man stepped out of the dark office.

Introducing and explaining myself briefly, I found the man to be very cordial.  He pointed me to the particular professor to whom I should address my inquiry.   I looked into the professor’s credits, was mildly intimidated, took note of his office hours, and determined I would return when school was in session.

Good thing I didn’t.  It suddenly just struck me – wouldn’t it be far better if I showed up with a hard copy of the script and at least three of the songs printed out?  That would show him not only that I’m serious, but he’d have a chance to check out the manner in which the piano-vocal score had been prepared.   He’d realize at that moment that I know what I’m doing – at least in terms of creating a legible, functional musical score is concerned.  So that would help, right there.  Anybody can say they wrote a musical.   To show up with neatly written music for the singers to sing would work much more to my advantage.

What I’m hoping is that some students needing a Senior Project might eagerly learn my music for a grade.   This was in fact suggested in a blogger’s comment a while back.   It’s crossed my mind since then that singing students in search of a good grade might actually do an even better job than more-or-less mercenary professional singers I might have hired who would be more likely to do it just for money.   While it is totally against my nature to present myself as someone whose music might be worth a non-paid rehearsal or two, I think that to carry the actual music with me will no doubt work in my favor.

So – time to score about three songs.  That’s about the minimum, I think, to demonstrate the score.   If they ask where the rest of the score is, I can tell them I’ll come up with it if I know for sure they’re interested.   Who knows?   Maybe I could get a mild commission to notate the rest of the score.   After all, it’s no small task.   The last time I wrote a musical score without commission, it’s done nothing but sit on my shelf for the past ten years.   Check it out:

The Burden of Eden

(Complete Musical Score)
Copyright © 2008 by Andrew Michael Pope
All Rights Reserved 

Whether you know much about music or not, anybody can see that it obviously took a bit of effort to produce that 242-page piano-vocal score.   It’s not the kind of task I’m eager to repeat unless there’s a good reason for going about it.    In fact, even trying to score three of those numbers could throw me back into serious isolation.   I don’t want to go there.  

Well – the wheels still spin.   Necessity is the mother of invention.   Perhaps there is an easier, softer way . . .

The Second Act

I’m currently lodged within an out-of-the-way fast food joint on the edge of town with a Wireless connection and a very limited number of customers on site.   I figure I’m removed enough from my ordinary itinerary that I’m not likely to be disturbed as I try to sink my teeth into the Opening of Act Two.

I did write four pages Monday morning before my first meeting with the therapist to whom I have been assigned.  I had been struggling for about three days with exactly how to begin the second Act, prior to its opening number: Hunted.   During those three days, there was a sequence of illuminations, each one drawing me closer to the point where I could confidently put pen to page.   Then, when I wrote those pages, I was rolling.  They were almost right.  However, the first time that new characters needed to arrive, I got stuck again.  Something was wrong.

I retreated into incubation; and arguably, into depression.  I really wanted to be rolling — to be flowing.  I don’t enjoy these lulls.  But once again, during the lull, I gradually received a substantial illumination.  It is now clear to me that if I want to know what the entrance of the new characters is all about, I’m going to have to go back and rewrite the first four pages.   Those four pages in and of themselves seem very effective, but they are not sufficiently continuous with the end of Act One.  The continuity that I need in order to proceed must be evident at the very beginning of the Act — not midway through the first Scene.  

light-goes-onSo the light had gone on, and I could relax a bit.  Still, none of this is as important to me at this moment as the substance of this first meeting with my therapist.  I had been nervous prior to seeing him.   I’m not a person who very readily places his trust in psychologists or psychiatrists.  At times, they have even seemed to be the very enemies of Art in my highly defensive view.  But this time, I had too much to get off my chest — and too much at stake.  Moreover, the doctor who recently diagnosed me as “mildly bipolar” strongly encouraged me to seek therapy in order to supplement the low dose of the mood stabilizer that he had prescribed.  So I was eager to meet with Dave, the therapist — though admittedly very nervous.  

To my surprise, Dave made me feel quite comfortable the moment I walked through the door.  As it turns out, he is from a musical family.  He himself is musical, as are his parents and siblings, and his daughter is a high school music teacher.  More crucially, he thinks like an Artist.  So I could tell that, as I discussed the dilemma of the Writer’s Block that had paralyzed me for three years, and its lingering effects, I sensed that he identified. 

When I finished my explanation, he said something very profound, and I quote:

Wherever Art is involved, the ego of the Artist
is something that the Artist will seek to protect at all costs.

His insight was that, in the manner in which I could not “take or leave” the perplexing implications in the professor’s critique (see this post), I was protecting my ego for the sake of my Art.  The manner in which I protected my ego was, unfortunately, to pester the professor, badger him, and possibly be perceived as a threat to his own well-being as I persistently tried to persuade him to clarify his mysterious review before it drove me nuts.  All the while, I was blocked against further work on the project, because I couldn’t rectify my respect for his opinion with the fact that I was unable to understand it.

His theory is that the professor himself, also being an Artist, had to protect his own ego, for the sake of his own professionalism.  He had hoped I would “take it or leave it.”  Had I been more professional, I most certainly would have left it.  Unfortunately, due to my very low station in life at the time, being lucky enough to have secured a 30-day stay in a homeless shelter during the Winter, with no possessions to my name other than the laptop which was, in fact, a gift from the professor, I was unable to ascend to the level of professionalism the professor expected of me.  In my downtrodden state of being, I considered that script to be all I had going for me.  Since the professor was the only person in the business who was paying any attention to me, I placed an inordinate amount of hope in his estimate of my work.  Then, when he “panned” me, I felt attacked.  So I protected myself – by fighting back.   He then protected his own self – by withdrawing, and eventually removing me from all Internet interfaces.

This all seemed somehow perfectly understandable.  Dave was able to help me see a broader view, in which the professor and I were more alike than different.  Our artistic egos are strangely locking horns in an invisible dimension of the Arts.  Both egos desire the horns to be unlocked.  It only takes one entity to unlock both horns.  I only have the power over the horns of one of the entities.  It’s time I unlocked the horns of my ego – and my ego will be at peace.

horns Dave then asked how the script was coming along now.  Perking up, I was able to convey the happy news, how the block first began to break at a cathartic Thanksgiving dinner, where a kind family from my church permitted me to express my angst without judging me or writing me off as some kind of petty bastard, wallowing in the bitterness of a broken friendship.   I shared how, gradually, more and more people in my community have tuned into my project, and have shown a surprising amount of support for my work.  But most of all, I shared how I had proceeded much further into the script than ever before, more slowly and carefully, reaching the end of Act One even, and on into the second Act.   The 91 pages now are far more evolved than the earlier 56 pages of relative drivel I submitted in haste to the previous professor.   Nor am I at an impasse or any kind of roadblock, but plowing steadily forward to the end of Act Two.  My creative life has been transformed far and away for the better, since the darker days of dejection, despair, and dependency upon the approval of a single, detached individual.  As I approach the end of the Second Act, I need neither praise nor blame.  My approval resounds from within and without me.  My God has accepted my work.