Friday, May 18, 2007

You Should Have Been There

Our Town downtown

March 26, 2007

If you’re like me, you were maybe thinking if you’d been to one monthly Public Meeting of The Panel for Educational Policy at Chambers Street you’d been to them all. A sober PowerPoint presentation of dry material. An earnest report by some well-meaning staffer. Maybe a half hour of questions from some of the few parents that bothered to come. In the four meetings I’d been to, it felt like school.

Last Monday it was different. You should have been there. There were twice the usual number of people. The extra half were all festooned with white sashes that had something written in big Asian letters on them. They spoke in their language among themselves and took the front three rows of seats. They were organized and purposeful, you could tell. The woman in front of me sat up in her chair like she was waiting to see the pope.

The meeting began when a dozen panel members and Chancellor Joel Klein ambled in and took their seats behind a long table. I watched Klein as he came in and wondered if he was sighing to himself when he saw the bigger group in front of him. The four times I’d been there, he played with his Blackberry the whole night and seemed less than engaged, to say the least, by the whole process.

When you come to these meetings there’s a table outside the doors to the room with a stack of handout sheets. It’s the agenda for the night. Monday night’s had these four points: I. Executive Session (this takes place in private before the public meeting starts); II. Citywide Science Curriculum; III. Fair Student Funding; IV. Public Comment.

At some point early on, maybe within the first 15 minutes, before much of the agenda had been attended to, with the Chancellor comfortably settled in with his good friend Mr. Blackberry, there was a noise from outside the big open wooden doors, somewhere out in the open area where there are easy chairs and coffee tables, where the stack of agendas was, somewhere out there a menacing chant was going on. It came closer and suddenly about 30 people marched in to the back of the room carrying signs and chanting, among other things, “Listen to the parents!” They were loud in the room which isn’t big. It’s like the size of two classrooms, but with oriental rugs and big chandeliers hanging from very high ceilings. These folks with their signs looked nervous, but more thrilled, to have barged in to such a setting. Mr. Klein put his toy down.

Anyone with a camera in the room was now aiming it toward the back of the room. The chanting kept up, an occasional voice leaped out from the group cadence and belted out a solo, “Listen to the parents!” The look on the faces of the purposeful Asians in the front rows was glum. I’m guessing they were angry too. Here they were, as orderly and scrubbed and serious as any New Yorkers could be, sashes in place, and in barges this noisy group of Black and Hispanic folks taking up the “teacher’s” time again just like it was in high school. You felt sorry for them.
But you didn’t dislike the noisy group at all. You were impressed actually by their spirit and their passion. Listening to them speak individually though when Klein ultimately gave in and gave them time to go to the microphone stand, you wish that they would barge into their neighborhood libraries with their kids and make sure their kids knew how to read. Or you wish they knew to demand of the Panel that their kids be taught to read as well as the kids at Dalton, where I think Klein’s kids went or go.

Later when things quieted down, a half dozen of the Asians got their chance to go to the microphone. You learned they were Koreans who were there to express their anger and pain over a book that they’ve found in the schools that doesn’t accurately depict the suffering their people went through at the hands of the Japanese a half century ago. I don’t know what it said on their sashes.

-- Bill Gunlocke

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