Jun 5, 2008

A Small Dissent

(Letter sent in reply to a plea for more money to fund an end-of-the-year 8th grade party that went over budget.)

Dear E,

First, I want to thank you for all the work you’ve done on behalf of this class over the last 8 years. You both have been exemplary. The community is so lucky to have you and you deserve many thanks.

But at this last moment, I disagree with you on something and if you’ll indulge a long rickety ramble perhaps you might come to agree with me, at least in part. Incidentally, I’m speaking for myself; Barbara has her own views of this, and her own way of handling the choices you’re offering.

I was inclined to say nothing, partly because I had nothing to do with this whole affair, the party, and so who am I to say? But when you come to ask for $6,000 to $7,000 to cover costs then you’ve drawn me out. And it’s a lesson: I should have paid more attention, should have pressed for more discussion much sooner. But we leave the house at 7 a.m. and return at 7 p.m. and I just don’t have the energy to get involved. I know others with the same schedule do get involved. You, for one, and I cannot match it. I am at my limit.

Nevertheless, my argument is this. This was a misbegotten idea from the start, one not thought through, neither the means nor the end. Nor was it the result of a carefully developed consensus but rather the heady good will of a few. Now, it’s too late to change the outcome, but it’s not too late to object. And it’s not too late to discuss it and make sense of it.

In the end, I will make a very modest donation, but nothing close to $250. And I will not attend the dinner. Think of it less as a protest than simply an unwillingness to join in something that doesn’t ring true to me, that doesn’t seem in keeping with the nature of this school or this class, or anything I believe in.

B has not made a decision whether to attend.

Incidentally, it’s become an interesting family dilemma. Is it better to go along with the crowd and not risk leaving Dash in what he might feel to be an awkward position, with one or both of his parents not at the dinner… Or, is it better to make our own decisions and let him live with that. Which might seem heartless except that I would rather leave him with the memory of parents who stand up for what they believe in, even something so small as this, and then let him make his own decision.

I come to this obstinance less from my own parents, who had a dotty record of rebellion, than experiences I had in a large Catholic family with whom I spent much time as a child. Children get their moral sensibilities where they can. One moment always comes to mind. On a Sunday in 1961 or 2, the family went to mass. I was 14 and went along although not a Catholic. After his sermon, Father Mcskullduggery, which is what we called him, demanded the whole congregation stand up and pledge they would honor and follow a Catholic prohibition on seeing certain movies. The matriarch of this family I was with, Grace Huffman (the mother of the actress Felicity Huffman, by the way), refused to stand up and sat with all of her nine children beside her in the pew. Actually, one or two stood up, because they were their mother’s children and felt the need to protest the protest.

“This choice belongs to me, not to the Church, not to any institution,” she told us afterward in the car. “You can make your own decisions but this is what I’m doing.”

I tell you this to say that however heartless it sounds frankly I don’t care about Dash’s feelings on the matter (his mother disagrees). In any case Dash has told me he thinks the party is a silly idea and claims others do too. He’s particularly angered that the party was closed to his former classmates. But that’s for him to work out and I should add that he didn’t get his feelings about the party from me. As I say I never really thought about it. Anyway, I think he’s reached the age where he can figure out what he stands for. Indeed, I’ve seen him do that already.

Let me belabor the point for just a moment. My argument against this ‘celebration’ is that it doesn’t seem to be for the graduates so much as for the parents. And what is it that the parents are celebrating? I don’t know. Whatever it is, is this the way to do it? Incidentally, My son, Dylan, graduated from David Weber’s 8th grade class in 1999. One of the parents gave a dance party with two salsa instructors. The cost was not more than $500, if that. And if I’m not mistaken, monies raised by that class went to the high school endowment to help with tuitions.

The point of the party aside, the tone of your message is as though ‘what is $250?’ ‘We had a budget overrun of $6,000 and we’ll all just pony up the difference’. As though this is discretionary money. ‘Sell a few cards, say 10 at $25 a piece or 25 at $10 a piece and you’re done’. How hard is that? But you see it is not discretionary money to us. And the idea of selling more cards at some exorbitant rate is silly. And for what?

Then I look at my children and what they need just now. Dylan has accepted a job offer in Los Angeles that begins on July 15th, an offer that will enable him to do what he’s long wanted to do but the job only pays $12 an hour. He needs some start up money to get going, to live a while until he can make it work. Should I give $250 to him or to this project. My daughter (who has served in the Peace Corps in Togo and as the country director of Doctors of the World in Kenya), has just been accepted at Brown medical school, to follow in the footsteps of Paul Farmer. Cost is $60,000 a year, less scholarships. Living cost in Providence is $15,000 a year. Should I give $250 to you or to her?

At least one member of this 8th grade class needs money to go to the high school next year. The child I’m thinking of has been with this class for years. She’s a star by any measure Would it be better for her, for the school, and for myself, to give her this money, or to give it to you?

And then what about the teachers? If they were so important, perhaps they should have come before the party. It’s a matter of priorities, no? Barbara, who is a teacher, might also argue that giving teachers money in this way, while obviously needed, changes the very special, nearly sacred relationship between a teacher and her students. Reduces the transaction to something that’s not in the true nature of what’s being exchanged. It’s a tricky matter best left to her to articulate.

Finally, and this was Barbara’s point the other night, considering all the horror in the world lately, from Darfur to Sichuan, would this money you’re spending so much time earning and collecting mean more to those people, in their time of need, or to this class, and it’s time of need? A quite different need. One wonders what would have been the wisdom of the 8th grade crowd? Left to themselves what would they have done with this money?

In sum, the question is, which would be the more meaningful memory for this class, and for a Waldorf school class? Which would give them a greater sense of empowerment, even beyond the satisfaction of having done ‘the right thing.’ Which better establishes a standard of social awareness (and no, this is not too early an age to start that awareness and it doesn't matter what the do in high school)... Which is it? A dinner party with a pretty view, and a party that is finally exclusive not inclusive, or aid to people in need. People where hopelessness is the view.

You see what I mean? As a matter of choice, what does this money mean? What’s the intention here? What is this really about?

I always thought one of the values of Waldorf was that it was an ‘alternative’ education, that it wasn’t about keeping up with the Joneses, that it wasn’t about appearances, that it wasn’t about ‘finery’, or about buildings and gyms, which is what it always seems to come to. There’s always that discrepancy between alternative and traditional. Always that fear of going too far off the path. Always the sense of a divided, tentative identity. As an aside, I was asking someone the other day, a person who could answer such a question among a certain crowd, well how is Waldorf thought of. “Nobody really knows. It’s just sort of under the radar.” And then he turned to me, “I mean there’s some sort of cult thing underneath, right?”

Fear of that perception is always one of the factors that drive this education toward the middle. Which is why many Waldorf schools are caught in a tug of war. Nobody is willing to address what this education is really about or who Steiner was and what he was about — outside the confines of Waldorf. And so when you say you’re having a party at the Art Institute my very first thought is that it’s an attempt to forge an understandable and acceptable identity on this class and on this school. It's a message in a bottle. “Ah yes, that’s the place where children interested in the arts go. Isn’t it nice.”

“It’s safe,” is the message. “Now, we’re like everyone else.”

Meanwhile, Steiner himself is saying, “We shouldn’t ask: what does a person need to know or be able to do in order to fit into the existing social order? …. The new generation should not just be made to be what the present society wants it to become.”

As Henry Barnes explained it to me one pretty afternoon many years ago, in his ever wise and sweet way, standing in his garden full of German irises, the consummate Waldorf teacher, of history by the way, the grand old man of Waldorf….. as he explained, one of the main purposes of this education is to impart the confidence that you can transcend the limits of rational knowledge by using a blend of the purest reasoning, imagination, moral intuition and will.

I don’t think this party is in line with that. I don’t think there are any meanings in this celebration that have much worth beyond the moment. If these kids weren’t seeing each other in a few months, I suppose you could make some argument. Even then… But considering all the things you could do with $6,000 or $7,000 ‘more’, which seems so strange to me in light of the other monies that have been raised, beyond what was needed for the trip... In any case, I think these kids deserve more than this, something to suggest a more highly tuned ambition, a deeper view of the world, something more creative if nothing else, and something more in line with the hope of this education — and if you’ll forgive the apparent contradiction with Steiner’s desire, something to go with the times, with the notion of real change…..

I realize nothing can be changed but there it is.

No comments: