Sunday, March 6, 2011

This is not an upbeat post

It’s hard not to wince when he orders a beer twenty minutes before noon on a Tuesday, even though he’s already told me he’s been up since daybreak, struggling with the inconveniences and delays of modern air travel. We haven’t even reached cruising altitude before I know that his connection through Atlanta began in Panama City, where he buried his father. Or that it won’t end until long after we land in Albuquerque, somewhere in rural southwestern Colorado. With a snack box of raisins and canned chicken salad splayed out on his tray, I know, too, that much more probably separates us that the nineteen-inch width of seat 21B.

So I stifle the wince and forgive him his beer.

Travel does funny things to your brain; to your sense of observation and perspective. Ten years ago I was both an inquisitive and acquisitive person, curious and extroverted, eager to collect new friends, and stories and experiences. But a decade of airlines and airports, delays and degradation takes a toll; you begin to shut out and shut off – hidden behind an iPad or a laptop; powered up and shut down. It is simply far too easy to become weary, restive, defensive of every clattering, cumulative intrusion from the outside world that amasses, like email on my Blackberry.

The noise is too noisy, cacophonous and disparate.

Until it isn’t.

Recently, it has become impossible not to notice. My travels take me to places like Idaho, where budget cuts and education reform initiatives have resulted in protests, violent and non, from walk-outs to vandalism of the state superintendent’s car. In Wisconsin, the legislature has fled to prevent a quorum that would force a vote stripping unionized workers from collective bargaining. I’m mixed on unions – their record of achievement and their general merit – but I know this: we are seeing the second unprecedented period of economic growth in a decade; with markets and corporations increasing profit and productivity, while jobs disappear and real wages decline. Even when the economy shrank, jobs and payrolls shrank exponentially more. Taking away the right of workers to bargain collectively will make them isolated and helpless – the easier to abuse.

Much has been written about the decline and disappearance of the middle class, to the point where it’s become political theater – something we talk about like global warming or entitlement spending, but don’t really address – even though most of America is aware of the problem. It’s too easy to preserve the conflict as a political wedge – and too hard to fix it – so instead we argue about it in the papers and polling places while our home values stagnate, while our kids don’t go to college, or don’t finish, and we wonder, waiting – will it be China? When? Surely we can’t continue this way forever without the consequences coming due.

We could be having a different conversation – one that examines the real system issues burdening our economy. It is clear our budget is deeply, deeply red, and our state are broke – but ending critical programs, eliminating jobs and taking away protections long-attributed to creating a middle class say something so dark about our values it is hard to do anything more than glance at it, lest it be too painful to believe. The gains we’d get a so meager, and our other problems so massive, that it seems both petty and mean.

Last week I went to Florida, where I stayed in a hotel on the beach undergoing renovation. Vacationers have returned, even if home values haven’t, and the glimmers of sunshine in the Sunshine State are more than meteorological. In a section of the lobby, one morning as I was answering email, I sat not far from where the catering manager was interviewing job applicants. Person after person sat there, barely-masking the desperation in their voice, hoping for a job delivering trays or washing dishes. Not kids; not college students – adults, grateful for a chance to earn a paycheck. I left feeling profoundly sad.

Every day, every place I go, I watch my clients – public school districts, public colleges and universities, educational programs – struggle and beg for money. I will be the first to cite chapter and verse on the need for reform in our public education process – better teachers, more technology, greater accountability – as well as a need to refocus the dollars we do spend on programs and investments that have been proven to work, rather than protecting legacy interests and structures. But the cuts we’re seeing now are senseless and random. Worse yet, that we are not embarrassed at the demonization of our public education system is shameful. I may see places where it is hard to get rid of bad teachers, or class size requirements that make no sense as they force 22 kids into separate classrooms with separate teachers. One of those teacher may be incapable of handling half that many; and the other – twice as much.

But never in ten years have I worked with a client who didn’t care about education. Who didn’t see it’s role as absolutely critical to economic and social development. Who wasn’t 100% committed to dedicating their life to making countless lives better.

Today I’ll visit a client whose program is in danger of being shut down. She has four kids, and a beautiful grandbaby. She is finishing her dissertation. If her program is eliminated, I can’t imagine where she’d go...hers won’t be the only job eliminated…and I just can’t bear the thought of a great educator winding up in a hotel lobby, begging for a job making coffee.

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