Tuesday, February 7, 2017

My Public Education: A Love Letter

Today, I watched, outraged and heartbroken, as Betsy DeVos, billionaire bent on destroying equal access to education and known plagiarist incapable of answering basic questions, was confirmed as Secretary of Education. In a historic vote of low confidence, it took a Vice President's vote to confirm DeVos, but she was confirmed nonetheless. Now, education as the great equalizer, a value I believe in with all my soul, is threatened. But this post isn't about my fear; it's about my love for public education. Read on. 

Dear Public Schools, 

I have been inside of your walls daily for twenty five of my thirty years. The lessons that you taught and continue to teach me are invaluable, and it's time I said thank you publicly, proudly, and loudly. 

As a young child, I struggled with heightened anxiety and a short attention span. I wasn't particularly easy to educate, but you didn't give up on me. I was lucky to have the same teacher for both kindergarten and first grade, and she stayed in communication with my parents about my struggles. I remember my class filming our own mock episodes of Reading Rainbow, I remember writing and illustrating my own booksand I remember singing along with a guitar on the playground. Volunteers: I remember you. One mom that was a dentist came to give our class a presentation on oral hygiene. A woman from the community volunteered as a mentor and was paired with me during second grade, the difficult year that my parents divorced. I remember she brought me a ceramic bunny that she painted. I kept it for years on my dresser. My favorite part of the day was gym class with our PE instructor, a seventy year-old woman who had us dancing to "The Electric Slide." Later, we had a male PE instructor that insisted every girl could climb a rope or do a pull up just as well as the boys. Everyday, he took notes on his clipboard. "Tomorrow could be the day," he would say optimistically if you didn't get it. 

Third grade brought a move to a new school. I didn't like my teacher, but she taught me multiplication tables expertly, and I was able to pass the TAAS test in all subjects. My confidence that year was low; I remember thinking I should bubble the opposite answer of whatever I thought on standardized tests, but other experiences brought joy. I remember one of my best friends at school was the granddaughter of our janitor. It didn't matter that our backgrounds were so different: we both had the same opportunities, and I took for granted that this should always be and had always been the case. Looking back, I realize that she was on the free and reduced lunch program, but that didn't occur to me back then. I recall trading food and secrets with her and another friend, an international student originally from Russia. My mom took to packing extra snacks for my friends, and she wrote notes on post-its and put them in my lunchbox. When my class took an overnight field trip to SeaWorld, my mom drove six of us in her min-van. We dressed like penguins for an obstacle race. We were all members of the same Girl Scout troop, which met in the common area outside the third grade classrooms. 

Fourth grade brought my favorite teacher of all time, Ms. Reyes, and new best friends. Ms. Reyes made reading click for me. I don't know what she did, but suddenly, I got it, and I loved it, and I couldn't read enough. My new best friend was an only child that lived in a townhouse with her parents and an international student from Korea. We all loved dolls but felt a little self-conscious about it, so we were secretive when we played with them at recess. That year, we were in the portables, and Mrs. Reyes would let us curl up in the coat closet with flashlights and books and read during free read, which was my favorite part of the day. In a portable across the way, a teacher my mom had mentored taught Special Education class. Ms. Alicia loved her students, and my fourth grade class got to help out with her class. We read to the students and helped with Special Olympics week and with life skills, and, even at nine years old, we learned about compassion and the gift of friendship and acceptance more than I'm convinced some adults have. Ms. Reyes gave us "star-cards," with stamps for accomplishments, and we exchanged them for Blow Pops. The saddest part of the day was when Ms. Reyes went home, and I went to after-school care until 5:30. My parents were both working full time, but in after-school care, I could get help with homework and play outside safely until they arrived. My best friend from third grade was there too, which was an added bonus. I should add, my parents put us in some private programs, but the after school care was what we liked best, so we always ended up switching back. 

Fifth grade brought opportunities to shine in the class musicals, which were self-written by our creative and quirky music teacher. I was the only fifth grader to land a lead role in both the winter and spring musicals. I was starting to blossom and become more outgoing. A parent that owned a dance studio volunteered to do all of our choreography. I wore jeans and a training bra for the first time that year. Our music teacher tried to teach us to play recorders. "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" never sounded better. Our art teacher, a short woman with frizzy red hair, tried to teach us sculpture. I failed at both, but I still appreciated the exposure. I made an ice-cube sculpture for an assignment where we were supposed to sculpt a piece of food. "It's not very good," another kid said. "It could be abstract," my art teacher said hopefully. It turns out, it was really just bad; to this day, my mother uses the ice-cube as a paperweight. 

Sixth grade brought a jump to middle school. I was intimidated. I remember walking there with a group of friends wearing neon green overalls over a black and white striped t-shirt. The first day, the air conditioning was broken, and we almost melted. I auditioned for the school play and was cast in a lead role. I found myself competing at University Interscholastic League (UIL). My mom volunteered to help chaperone us to the competition. My scene partner Neal and I won first place in duet acting for our first kiss scene from the movie My Girl. Sadly, Neal passed away when we were twenty. I visited him in the hospital when he was sick. "Remember when we won first place?" he asked. I did. Days like that stay with you. I started my period that year and attended school dances. Teachers and parents volunteered to spend a Friday night in a school cafeteria watching a bunch of 11-13 year-olds dance. Back then, I was was oblivious to their sacrifices. A friend and I got in trouble and were given a day of in school suspension in what was, honestly, an unjust punishment. I remember her parents moved her to private school instead of having her go to ISS. I stayed, did ISS alone, and learned that sometimes punishments aren't fair, but you can still live with it. 

In eighth grade, I applied for PALS (Peer, Assistance, Leadership, and Service) and was thrilled to be accepted. This was my early introduction to tutoring, and I remember many afternoons spent tutoring my assigned sixth graders. I was able to give back to the school that had given so much to me. I also was the editor in chief of the yearbook. One of the popular girls had wanted the position, and I remember her congratulating me. It meant a lot to me because I was feeling insecure about my ability to do it. "You deserve it" she told me. She ended up helping me a lot with photos, collages, and layout; I was more interested in the writing aspect. This was an early experience of teamwork and coming together with people you normally might not have anything in common with to accomplish a goal. 

For high school, I decided to transfer to a Fine Arts School. My district did an amazing job of providing students with opportunities for specialized education. It was here that I was able to study theater and dance every single day. I was one happy student. I also joined the newspaper and National Honor Society and became an officer for the Royal Court Players (we had bumper stickers that said "Thespians Do It On Stage"). I was ALWAYS was reading. Once, someone put a name tag on me that said "have coffee with me, I'm lonely," and I didn't even notice for the entire day because I was so engrossed in reading All the Pretty Horses between classes. I landed the lead role in The Diary of Anne Frank my freshman year, and my theater teacher brought Arnold Van Den Burg, a holocaust survivor who had lived down the street from the real Anne Frank, in to talk to us and see our performance. I'll never forget the message that he wrote to me in the program.

It was public school that taught me about the holocaust, slavery, and the atrocities committed against Native Americans. It was public school that had me read Night, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, To Kill a Mockingbird, Cry the Beloved Country, Things Fall Apart, The Poisonwood Bibles, The Giver, The Handmaiden's Tale, Great Expectations, Lord of the Flies, The Iliad, The Odyssey, Frankenstein, and so many of my favorite, to this day, novels. It was my tenth grade teacher, Ms. Morgan who refused to take an assignment late, even know I knew she knew I merely hadn't been paying attention when she asked for it. At the time, I thought she was being unfair. I didn't realize she was teaching me to be accountable. It was my ninth grade teacher, Mr. MacArther, who taught me what a paradox was. It was my tenth and eleventh grade history teachers, Mr. Staples and Mr. Ferguson, who brought history alive for me. Mr. Staples even organized a trip to London, and we saw Richard III at The Globe. No doubt, my public school education experience was enhanced by the fact that my parents could afford to give me extra resources, like tutoring, but from personal experience, I know that the math and science teachers were there early every single morning for kids that needed extra help (because sometimes I was among them). I couldn't forget Ms. Troy, who encouraged us to read what we loved, or Ms. Larden, who taught me to explicate a poem and brought fiction alive. 

It went by so quickly. And then I found myself graduating in the top ten percent with an early decision acceptance to New York University. Along the way, there were many teachers and counselors willing to help me make that dream become a reality (and willing to write the letters of recommendation on my behalf). I ran into one of them on a plane this winter on my way to Connecticut. "Aren't you Stacy Austin?" she said. She hadn't seen me in twelve years. I can't ever doubt that my counselors were above and beyond in their dedication to our successes. 

And then, at eighteen, I found myself at a private institution for the first time. My classmates were from diverse backgrounds, but some of them came from elite private high schools where their parents had paid 40,000 a year in tuition since preschool. If there were extreme differences between them and myself, I wasn't aware of them. I graduated from NYU with honors in three and a half years. In the meantime, I worked for a program called America Reads, tutoring third and fourth graders in reading and math at Public School 64. I worked with Ms. Allison, a most dedicated teacher, whose students, many of them ESL (English as a Second Language) had limited resources at home. Ms. Allison made her classroom an adventure everyday. I accompanied her class on a field trip to the MoMA, and I heard one of our third graders analyzing a painting in a fashion that brought tears to my eyes with its profound accuracy and emotional depth. I consider myself lucky to have learned from Ms. Allison. She let me take the advanced reading group though I knew it was her favorite; I think she wanted me to fall in love with teaching too (it worked). 

After college, I was accepted to graduate school with full tuition and a stipend and found myself, once again, at a public institution. I packed my bags and moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana to attend McNeese State University. I've written about McNeese a lot, and I always say it was the most magical time of my life, and I mean it. My professors (Neil, Amy, and Rita) were so caring and literally spent all day with us (I mean 8AM to 8PM twelve hour days with us). I never doubted their belief in me. I thrived in the small MFA program where I finally was just one of twenty "weird kids" now adults. I got to discuss my stories with Jeanne Leiby and ZZ Packer and Michael Knight and many others. I got to read so many collections and novels and poems and think about writing all day long. I was able to teach and discover the love and joy that I have for it. Writing entire sample essays (made up as a class) on a chalkboard soon became something I could do in my sleep (despite my initial fear of chalk). I'm still in touch with most of my classmates, and many are still writing. We received our former professor's book in the mail during dinner tonight, and our names appear in the acknowledgements. When I didn't think I could do it, my professors gave me tea and time to freak out. I wasn't okay, but then I was, and suddenly, graduate school was over too, a public gift that left me with zero debt and two degrees. 

We applied to eighty jobs, and since I left McNeese, I have been privileged to teach at two public community colleges in my home state. In my first year of full time teaching, a dual credit student approached me after class. I was excited to hear what she would say. Had I inspired her with my discussion on Othello? Was she falling in love with Shakespeare? Had I changed a life yet? "Professor Austin," she said, "I like your jacket."

I don't always know that my teaching is effective or great, and some days are hard, but there's nothing I could imagine wanting to do more. When I teach, I feel alive and happy and awake, but it's not just those hours in the classroom that I love. Teaching is keeping your office door open: it's writing a recommendation for a student to transfer to university, it's helping your former student win a scholarship or write a thank you to a donor, it's when a student stops by with a story he wrote for fun, when parents find you to say "thanks for believing in our daughter," it's when a student tells you he took his kids to the dentist for the first time because he graduated and landed a position with benefits, it's when the school janitor asks you how to register for GED classes, or when you get the chance to encourage your students to take that field trip to the capital or enter that poetry contest or join that club. It's taking a group of kids bowling on a Sunday night. It's an end of year cook out at a park. It's meeting up with a former student, who happens to be studying in your conference city, and seeing him fully adapted to college life. It's when the kid that couldn't write a full sentence, but wanted to be a newspaper reporter, brings you his first completed article. It's when a student emails you to say your performance of "The Yellow Wallpaper" is still giving her nightmares! It's crying at graduation every. single. year. 

Teaching is, put simply, the gift of being able to pay back the tremendous gift that was given to you. To teach is to give education, and to teach is to constantly learn. At MC, we say "It's YOUR college." That means, no matter your test scores, or reading ability, or last name, or learning challenges, we have a place for you. That's the idea of public education. I've lived it, I've loved it, and today I celebrate it. 

And if I were a product of private schools that had never educated my child in the public school system, and I recently found myself Secretary of Education, before I went fighting for a voucher program or dismantling public education, you know what I'd start by doing? I'd stop and listen. 

Because every public school child across America has a story like mine. Because the truth is, my public school education wasn't the exception. Across the country are teachers that are waking up early everyday to come tutor children. Across the country are teachers buying their own supplies and coming to school in the summer to decorate classrooms. Across the country are teachers staying after school, so kids have a safe place to be. Across the country are parents and volunteers giving time, money, and skill sets to their public schools. Across the country are children benefiting more than they can ever articulate from the love, patience, and care of their teachers, counselors, coaches, and school advocates. 

I know because I was one of them. 

So if you're reading this, and you, like me, are concerned for public education right now, what can you do? You can find a local school and volunteer there. Be a mentor, be a tutor, be a teacher's assistant. You don't think it will make that big of a difference. It will. Give money to your local school. In every school, there are kids struggling to afford the books, the field trips, or the sports gear: give to make that child's experience better. Ask a teacher what his or her classroom needs (every teacher has a wish list). On election day, VOTE to give more money to public schools. You won't miss the twenty five dollars nearly as much as they will, I promise. Continue to write to your representatives and let them know you support public schools. I know that our Senators disappointed us this time, but some of them listened. Be an advocate for public schools by speaking up for them. When you overhear people say that education is a "government run monopoly," correct them and gently explain why it is essential that education not be for profit (because it gives every child, not just those with parents that can subsidize vouchers or those lucky enough to have no learning challenges, equal access to education). Direct your friends and family members to public colleges and universities and away from for-profit "universities." Make sure people in your life understand the difference between public, private, and for profit education (and make sure they avoid the last!) Lastly, if you have your own love letter to public education, WRITE IT. Let's start a movement. 

Public school advocates, America needs you more than ever. 

Write your letters, thank your teachers, post your school pics. DO IT NOW. 

Left to Right: Colombina, Eugene, Me, and Corley after a student written and directed play



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