Sunday, December 17, 2006

Yay! The CSAP scores were published last week and we the public are able to assess how our educators are doing. I am exceedingly glad that we have a single test that tells us everything we need to know about our children. Really takes the monkey off my back.

In my district, every one of our elementary schools achieved one of the top two marks: (1) Excellent or (2) High. This should be a cause for celebration. But it isn't. My children are at a school achieving the embarrassing High mark. This has happened for the past few years and has caused a mass exodus from our school to the Excellent schools. Children are receiving a much better education there, no doubt. In return, we receive many out-of-district children which, like it or not, causes a further slide in our scores.

The funny thing is that my children were in the Excellent school for 8 years and I felt that they were receiving an inferior education there. Lots of control. No enrichment. No affirmation or fun or freedom. I forget. Where on the CSAPs do they measure musical talent? Artistic genius? Creativity? Vision? A high EQ, Emotional Quotient, which psychologists recognize as the true measure of future success? Oh, that's right. Nowhere. Monkeys, take your number 2 pencils and fill in the circles.

The CSAPs remind me of Newly divorced, my friends convinced me that was a great way to meet cool guys. Reluctantly I put together a rather sarcastic profile, no picture because I felt that a response would indicate a certain level of bravery, and waited for my dream guy to find me. After a few weeks, I started corresponding with someone who seemed super groovy on paper. Athletic, outdoorsy, humorous, intelligent, financially secure. Eureka!

Against my better judgment I agreed to meet for dinner. Oh boy. I could tell within 2 minutes of walking in the door that a paper representation of this man had given me an incomplete picture of his true personality, to say the least. By the end of the night, I was holding his head in my lap, stroking his hair as he sobbed his way through stories of his schizophrenic sister and his abusive father. With my free hand I searched my purse for a razor blade or a hallucinogenic mushroom or a flask of Jack Daniels or anything else that might comfort me, but to no avail. I am happy to report, however, that he finished up the date not with a kiss, thank God in heaven, but by giving me a Scottish tam with fake fur hair attached. A downpayment on a future date he said.

Do I have a point here? I think I do. It's that nothing real or complicated or meaningful can be reduced to paper. To a score. CSAPs don't measure true genius, family relationships, athletic ability, talent, the condition of the mind or heart. They don't measure the capacity to learn. They don't measure the involvement or compassion of the teacher. They measure nothing except a child's ability to regurgitate a head stuffed full of useless information. They tell us nothing more than a rat walking through a maze tells us. Nothing more than a carefully-worded profile tells us. Both should be taken with a very large grain of salt.

In case you were wondering, I still have the tam.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Super Duper Heroes

Let's grieve for Ken Jordan. Let's grieve for him as a beloved son, a cherished brother, a loving boyfriend. But must we grieve for him as a slain police officer, one who died to protect us? He didn't give his life. His life was taken from him by a drunken asshole. Just as the lives of the teachers at Columbine were taken, the lives of relief workers and journalists in Iraq and elsewhere are taken, the lives of nuns caring for the downtrodden in dangerous countries are taken.

Since 9-11 we've been conditioned to worship the "public servants" who fight our kitchen fires and bust our teenagers for tinted windows. Does anyone really believe these guys chose such a career because they care about us? The same can be said about our soldiers. With rare exception, men who choose a career in police/fire/military do so because it works for them. They don't want to work at Wal-Mart, can't work at Apple. The idea of carrying a gun appeals mightily to the kid whose head was bashed into the gymnasium locker by the big jock with the cute cheerleader on his arm. The idea of dressing up in a dapper uniform and becoming part of a powerful club resonates with the guy who has a lot of testosterone, quite a bit of adrenaline, but little else to distinguish him. They love their institutional authority. They enjoy pulling over the red BMW and watching the rich guy quake in his Bruno Maglis. They relish wiping the tears of the pretty girl who didn't give them the time of day in Junior High.

I saw the procession for Officer Jordan yesterday. And, yes, it brought a tear to my eye. But not because he was a cop.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Handle with care

The snake charmer is dead. Tragically, Ali Khan Samsuddin, a fifth generation snake charmer, died last week in Kuala Lumpur after being bitten by a cobra. He had been bitten many times before and always managed to survive. Not so this time. Though originally tied to religion, in modern times, snake handling is a trade without much religious significance. The religious practice of handling snakes does still exist, believe it or not, in the American South.

In 1992, a man named Glen Summerford stood accused of attempted murder after forcing his wife to put her hand into a cage full of snakes. He was the pastor of the Church of Jesus with Signs Following. Services at this tiny church, located in the Northern Alabama town of Scottsboro, include speaking in tongues, handling fire and drinking strychnine from mason jars. But even more exciting is their practice of handling poisonous snakes as the Spirit moves them.

The faithful at the Church of Jesus with Signs Following interpret literally a passage in the Book of Acts: And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name they shall cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. When the Spirit moves 'em in Scottsboro, they get out the snakes.

Dennis Covington was a freelance journalist covering Summerford's trial for the New York Times. After the trial was over, Covington was befriended by some of the snake handlers and other members of the church. He began to attend services at the church out of curiosity and, over the course of a few months, was pulled into a bizarre world of fundamentalist Christianity where "believers" base their entire Christian identity on one or two Bible passages. Apparent lunacy is generally the result of such limited Biblical interpretation.

While mainstream Christian fundamentalism is not quite as zany, nor as interesting, as it is in Appalachia, the practice of carving the Bible up into little passages and verses that serve particular agendas is just as common. Leviticus does say that for a man to lie with another man is an abomination. It also says that shellfish are an abomination. It says don't cut your hair, don't wear clothing made with two different materials. It's okay to own slaves. Just don't disrespect your father or you'll be put to death. Take one verse, take all. Or else step back and open up to a larger perspective, one that doesn't diminish God or re-create him in our own limited image.

Fortunately, Dennis Covington escaped the cult and made it back to New York. He wrote about his experience in an amazing book called Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia. In the book Covington says that the snake-handling experience confirmed his long-held suspicion that madness and religion are a hair's breadth apart. That feeling after God is dangerous business. That Christianity without passion, danger, and mystery may not really be Christianity at all. I'm with Dennis on this. Let us not reduce faith in God to a small-minded, verse-picking, powerless and fearful way of life.