What participation in the Zuni Mountain Poets has taught me is that education works best when strengths, rather than weaknesses, are emphasized. Under Jack Carter North’s tutelage, learned while he was a teacher for the Zuni School District, no one is ever corrected during the Sunday poets’ meetings. All the poets who bring poems read them, and then those who wish to comment discourse on the poem, trying to deal with the poem and not the sideways and byways of human discourse. The system is simple and direct, but the results are extraordinary. Poets that begin coming to the meetings hesitant become, over time, sure footed, strengths began to develop into a characteristic style that is almost always recognizable, and the result is a music larger than any single poet or voice.
To say that I am deeply troubled about today’s educational system is an understatement. The educational system has clearly become a reflection of the larger society, and that society, with its growing number of families in poverty, shrinking middle class, and destructive politics, is sick. The philosophy that inspires the Zuni Mountain poets is largely absent as the Gotcha Society of the Angry and Uber Rich rail against the elements of American society that once made it exceptional: Its social safety net, growing middle class that believed their children would be better off than they were, its extraordinary ability to invent and make things, its fabulous arts and architecture, and an education system that was something new under the sun: It served everyone and not just those pre-destined by their parents and the elite to become society’s elite. The movement away from the charter schools of early American history, the Latin Schools, was a signature accomplishment
This morning my daughter called from Green Bay, Wisconsin. She was telling me that teachers in the Green Bay School District, a district she fought to find a job in because of what she believed was its overall excellence, were shocked and so upset that some were in a daze. Last week they received their first checks since the Great Scott Walker and his Republican minions began to gleefully declare open war on Wisconsin teachers. Most of Green Bay’s teachers had received a pay cut that amounted to hundreds of dollars per pay period. Some of the older teachers, according to my daughter, were wondering how they were going to make their mortgages while keeping their children in college. All the teachers were afraid that even though they had worked hard to become teachers, they were now going to be challenged to live the American dream of owning a house, sending their kids to college, and having a two car garage. My daughter then went on to say, “And Dad! They still have a deficit in the tens of millions of dollars! The school board is going to have to cut the budget some more!”
Scott Walker gave the uber rich a big tax cut in Wisconsin and believes in his gut of guts that progressive taxation is wrong, wrong, wrong. He is against class warfare where the poor and middle class defend themselves against those who are taking the spirit out of the country. He is sure that the job creators will create more jobs if only they are given more incentives so they can have more fancy toga parties beside their swimming pools and on their yachts. He is convinced that if you eliminate unions, cut out the social safety net, and generally lord it over the middle class, the wealthier classes will be better off. Let’s do charter schools, he says. Let’s privatize education and let the private sector fix what is broken.
After all, look how good the private sector, after its great accomplishment of eliminating government regulations, did when the build-up to the Great Recession we are now living through happened. They increased poverty, shrunk the middle class, started the War on Obama in an effort to ensure the election of their champions, foreclosed on millions of homes, destroyed millions of lives, and ate at the finest five star restaurants in the country. In the process they created the Tea Party and negative energy that rages like a bull in the china closet of life, crashing into the country’s precious artifacts, such as the Constitution they claim to love, and leaving the government as well as everyday lives of everyday people in shards.
The Zuni Mountain poets, though they face ups and downs, are a metaphor for a different path. In education a child who is down on themselves can be lifted up through praise and a belief in abilities hidden from themselves and their friends. When I was a young teacher at Menominee County Community School on the Menominee Reservation, I remember my first day there during a snowy December. We had young people standing by the school’s heaters staring out into space. If you tried to talk to them, they did not respond. They acted like traumatized victims with PSTD.
In the early days there were a lot of problems with Menominee County Community School. As an early experiment in Indian Controlled Education, its efforts to approach education from a different direction did not always work, but there is one thing to be said about the teachers and staff at the school. They cared about those students standing along the walls and acting up in the classrooms. They tried to do something about self concepts and attitudes that had no place in society, no less a school. They worked at finding the good in those students, and sometimes, though not always, a turnaround occurred. There are students who eventually earned a college degree because of teachers who saw good in students that they did not see in themselves until it was nurtured into consciousness.
If a school or country is building a dream so strong it vibrates the bones, that school, or country, will succeed. Verna Fowler, President of the College of the Menominee Nation, which, once upon a time a long time ago, I helped found while working with her, liked to say that if you strengthen a strength you weaken a weakness. Positive thought, positive emotions, dedication to building something good and lasting reverberates toward success. Constant criticism, harping, divisive games in the dark of night, bitter sarcasm, hatred, anger, belief that an individual is part of God’s chosen people while the rest of humankind are scum, fear, messianic zeal that leads to extreme acts of whatever kind, all lead to complications, upset people, confusion, and a downward spiral difficult to turn around. If you believe in a human being, listen to their story, and then do something to help them achieve their dream, even if that something is as small as a cheerful good morning or as significant as a helping hand, then societal growth and success is possible. If you sit in your hundred million dollar mansion and spend your days trying to figure out how you’re going to make 400 million rather than 350 million dollars this year, and forget about the least of us while proclaiming your Christianity, then malaise is the likely result as your greed creates the conditions for general troubles and societal failure.
The world is more complicated than I am expressing here, but also as simple. Saying good morning and building strengths in individuals will not end the malaise the educational system or the country is facing. But, in the end, I believe in the dream of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Samuel Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and all the other founding fathers. I believe in the wisdom of the Zuni Mountain poets even though I doubt my own wisdom. By building for the good of all the people, holding out in front of us ideals worth living for, we can build a citie on a hill, the old American dream. By not serving all the people and pushing for the good of the few, all we can do is create a gulf between the few and the many so large that it can, after a generation of unfairness and injustice, threaten the foundations of the exceptionalism that once was America and is now threatened.