High school matters matter . . . How to spend a quarter-million . . . PONTOON at the barricades, others "In denial" . . . guerilla warfare . . .
1996 in Dear Old Oak Park, home of the Doopers . . .
When truth and fiction collide . . . Oak Park & River Forest High School watchers are in a tizzy over shenanigans by Mrs. V., the private citizen mentioned earlier in these pages for her tendency to use the language of bureaucracy, and cohorts Mrs. V-2, Dr. Spout, and others over how to spend a proposed $1/4 million for so-called academic support services.
These three, all of the PONTOON group, with the motto, "If air won't keep us afloat, what will?" joined a hastily formed advisory committee intended to guide the board in how to spend the money.
Their early efforts included producing a hefty position paper which they got inserted into the committee packet. At the committee's first meeting, they grabbed no more of the floor than they deserved. But at meeting two, sparsely attended largely because people also have to work for a living, Mrs. V. acted up.
She and others badgered the staffer in charge, a director of special education with the immediate task of deciding how to spend the money. Would she do this? Would she do that? Apparently fearing their agenda would be inadequately followed, they adopted guerilla tactics, speaking out nonstop while others raised hands for recognition.
Finally, political opponent Bob Nononsense jumped in, asking a halt to the proceedings on grounds of domineering behavior by a few people. The meeting ended in some degree of disarray but not without the staffer gaining apparent agreement that she would speak for them at the coming school board meeting.
At the board meeting a few days later, the staffer made her report, speaking for the committee. Then Mrs. V. jumped in, seconded by Mrs. V-2 and Dr. Spout, giving their minority report, unannounced.
It was more guerilla warfare, even to the point where Mrs. V. asked the board to adopt her version of what the committee should do, thus staging a neat end-around of both committee and board-appointed chair, the staffer who had just finished her report. Mrs. V. called it the board's "charge," using a grandly government-like word for what would have been a handing over of the keys to the committee to Mrs. V.
Included in the charge was the stipulation that the money be spent particularly on black kids. One or two board members seemed to like that idea, which raised the specter of "no whites need apply" signs over the tutoring room door -- nor Asians or Hispanics either.
One of the two, giving Mrs. V's charge a quick perusal, asked in an effluence of naivete, "Who disagrees with this?" Caught off guard -- Mrs. V. had just given them her "charge" -- an ominous silence ensued, until Bob Nononsense (the same as before) volunteered that he did disagree.
Demanding time, he declared his abhorrence of PONTOON's tactics, saying they were trying to undermine the committee spokesperson, which they were. Were they committee members or weren't they? he asked in effect. And if they were, why the end-around of the staffer who was their nominal spokesperson?
At the coffee break called soon after that, one of the two board members had a better idea for Bob N.: the $1/4 million should go partly for safety-net academic support for kids not sure if they can hack honors or advanced-placement courses, many of them black. They aren't failures or near-failures, but they are near-successes and can use a boost. Would this use of the $1/4 million pay off?
Meanwhile, the PONTOON group, relying on a great deal of compressed air to stay afloat, is expected to stay with their hacking away at the process, which may end up in shreds. If the end doesn't justify the means, as community organizer Saul Alinsky told Harper's Magazine 30 years ago, what does?
Meanwhile, back at the Wednesday Journal . . . The people of PONTOON were given headlines by their most vocal supporter, the Oak Park Wednesday Journal, in a straight enough story which for present purposes we will presume to be accurate.
Reporting on the board meeting where the "charge" was suggested by this lightheaded brigade, WJ quotes PONTOON's Dr. Spout to the effect that some "don't want to believe" certain problems exist at the school. WJ these supposed unbelievers as being "in denial," which is psychological talk for being really dumb, almost beyond help.
Anyhoo [sic], it's a rum charge to beat all, near impossible to refute. I'd as soon say Dr. Spout is in denial because he won't admit to learning problems among black and other kids that defy what schools can do. That's racist, of course, no matter what the Moynihan report said 30 years ago.
Another PONTOONer, Ken Farsight, said the school must "match its definition of underachievement [very much at issue here] with the community's definition of underachievement." This is noteworthy not for its meaning, which I think I get, but for its use of the magic words "the community."
Ken and others would have us believe they have insights into this which others lack. "There could be political repercussions," he said ominously. But the last time the community's pulse was taken in a school board election, just seven months ago, the PONTOON slate came in third in a three-slate race.
This sort of experience often slows people down when they feel like waxing ominous. Who's in denial?
Dr. O., the superintendent-principal, interviewed by WJ in even-handed fashion, declared himself "impatient" at the in-denial charge, citing the "smorgasbord" of programs offered students. "We're more solutions-oriented than problem-admitting oriented," he said.
PONTOON is probably not impressed with that. Not enough handwringing.
My spin on all this . . . The community members -- Mesdames V and V-2, Dr. Spout, and others not yet mentioned, such as Professor Two-for and Barry Goldwater (no relation), a distinguished member of a helping profession, even Bob Nononsense, who agrees with me, even I, who also agrees with me, and a half dozen or so others -- have to stop meeting this way, as part of this committee.
Or if we do meet, with the clear understanding that neither elected nor hired, we have no buck stopping with us. Most of us were not even appointed, since all it took was hearing about the committee at a board meeting and showing up. We happen to have time for it. So the board should turn to us for advice?
We should pack it in, except to raise questions here and there for the professionals to answer. The buck stops with them.
I asked for it . . . Reader Doug writes to say he liked #12 a lot but found "confusing and a tad troubling" my reference to "low-achieving kids, especially blacks."
"The reference is to scores, GPAs, etc.," I told him. "Some want this new academic support to 'target' black kids, even exclusively, if I understand them rightly. In any event, my 'in pursuit of how to help . . . low-achieving kids, especially blacks,' meant 'especially low-achieving blacks,' of whom there is a vastly disproportionate number, or so goes conventional wisdom especially as promulgated by those who want to 'target' blacks. I'm not one of them, but not even I can blink the stats."
Let's change the subject. Take death . . . How many of you readers of obituaries quietly subtract your age from that of the deceased, or his from yours, mouthing to yourself the popular variation on Elizabeth Barrett Browning, "How much longer do I have? Let me count the years . . . "
Just today, buying my three-volume set of Gibbon's Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire, I told Tom the Booksmith it was one of my periodic bets on how long I'll live. I can't count on my descendants to read it, I told him.
"Maybe you can," he said. It was the most hopeful thing I heard all day.
On strutting . . .
My father told this one on himself many years ago. Carrying a good deal of weight and dressed like a prosperous salesman -- always look prosperous, he advised -- he was walking purposefully down Federal Street and overheard this from two vintage females, law-abiding but weathered citizens with an eye for the absurd.
Observing my father, one vintage female to other: "He really feels his oats."
The other, in split-second response: "They all do."