Saturday, September 30, 2006

Reframing the Immigration Debate

I just watched an interview with Pat Buchanan on The Daily Show. First of all, kudos to Job Stewart for having Buchanan on and listening to him spew bile through his smiling face. I would have thrown up in the guy's lap, assuming I could hold onto my pacifist ideals strongly enough to refrain from pimp-slapping the man. Stewart kindly allowed the guy to wax conspiratorial about the Mexican government's nefarious plan to invade and conquer the U.S. with an army of peasant day-laborers. Buchanan even went so far as to make a joke about the holocaust of Native Americans. Ha ha, Pat. That’s funny stuff.

I’ve been working with students learning English as a second language for six years now. Most of these students are from Mexico, and some are undocumented. They are also some of the most wonderful young people I’ve ever had the honor to teach. Hence, I get more than a little riled up when I hear Americans reveling in their xenophobia. Buchanan is so ridiculous that I was able to step back from my simmering rage and think about his plan a bit more objectively. I couldn’t help but think of the fact that many red states are decreasing in population because their white kids are leaving to move to blue ones. Without the influx of immigrants this would be even more apparent. This led to an idea:

What if all disbursal of federal funds, every last penny, was doled out to states and the amounts were directly proportional to population? I think this would immediately change the immigration debate. States wishing to expel immigrants might suddenly turn around and start arguing for amnesty. If Mexican immigrants could be counted for money, they would be far more desirable. How long do you want to bet it would take before some Republicans would start calling a given Mexican immigrant 3/5ths of a person?

This dispersal would have other benefits. No more earmarking millions of dollars for bridges to nowhere in Alaska; they’d need every penny they’d get to keep the government afloat. And think about the benefit to the conflict in Iraq. The Army would only get funding proportional to the amount of American troops on the ground in Iraq at a given time. I think we’d hear the Army calling for more boots on the ground very quickly when their funding depended on it. Or maybe they’d be calling for an immediate withdrawal to places like Washington State and Colorado in order to shore up funds in places where their precious weapons systems are being built.

And what would states spend that money on? I think far more of it would go to services for citizens. Blue states might be criticized for their higher rates of taxation and their plethora of government services, but people keep moving to them because… let’s face it… they’re better places to live. Imagine every state working hard to make itself a more inviting place for all, rather than a state that serves only the wealthiest few. Doesn’t that sound nice? Welcome to Oregon.

Is this even possible? Sure. The house of representatives is already proportional to population, so if the reps of the big states wanted this, it would fly there. Those Senators who wanted to publicly claim that the citizens of Wyoming not only deserve a more significant share of the electoral vote than Californians, but more federal tax dollars could certainly say so, but I don’t think it would be politically expedient if any of them had national ambitions. Would the president veto it? Our current president is from a big state and only uses the veto to carry out his crusade against science, so he might be amenable. Does it take away Congress’ power of the purse? Yes, but then this Congress has decided it has the right to cede certain constitutional powers, like its ability to declare war, to other branches. Couldn’t they give up the right to earmark for the sake of the people?

But it won’t happen. Why? Powers acquired are rarely given up, and neither this Congress nor any other would give up its ability to bring home the bacon. Also, immigration is a great wedge issue to tap into without ever really doing anything substantive; fear gets people to the polls even more effectively than moral outrage. The real answer to illegal immigration is so patently obvious that any child could figure it out, but that’s not really what these folks want, anyway. They could support measures to improve the standard of living in Mexico while cracking down on employers here. If the better jobs are in Mexico, the laborers won’t come. Poof. Problem solved. But how do you stir up people’s fears by calmly solving problems?

They want fear. So I propose a simple challenge. No immigrants = no money. That will scare them. The fact that the xenophobes can’t conceive of their immigrant neighbors as human beings without a financial incentive is telling, though, isn’t it?

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Thanks, Mom.

In my last post I shared an anxiety about my failing memory, and compared the dilemma of try to remember what is forgotten to proving a negative, like showing that one des not have WMD. My mom read the post (yea for moms!) and posted a comment... in my e-mail inbox. Mom is quite adept at e-mail, but apparently not so clear on the workings of blogs. Or maybe she was just protecting me from humiliation. Again, not so clear on the concept of blogs. These were practically designed to allow people to embarrass themselves, as far as I can tell.

In that vein, here was Mom's comment:
"Not being able to remember is not a sign of greatness or meanness or anything as eriudite [sic] as being in the same company as a head of state - it's age, Ben. You are now feeling the effects of fast approaching the age of 30! It's downhill all the way, baby! Welcome to the real world."

Yes, it's true. I am old. The last post centered around the beginning of the school year, and if having my mother call me old weren't enough to drive the point home the arrival of high school students LESS THAN HALF MY AGE certainly did the trick. More and more, pop culture references in my class are preambled with "This was probably before your time..." and produce a strained silence that shows I should have stopped there. I've often said that for my students anyone over the age of 21 is basically dead. For me, anyone over the age of 30 is essentially old. I am fast approaching that category myself, as Mom pointed out. Thanks, Mom.

When I was in college more than one person joked that I wouldn't live to see thirty. This was a consequence of my diet and sleep habits, which have only marginally imporved despite my wife's best efforts to force healthy food into me and tell me I'm an idiot when I come to bed as the sun comes up. Oh, and there's also my complete lack of muscle. I used to get exercise by playing video games, but we got rid of the game console and now even my thumbs are showing signs of atrophy. Back in college I probably weighed about 140 pounds. I thought of myself as "scrawny". When I wanted to flatter myself, I thought of this as "scrappy". Now I weigh 138 pounds. Apparently I was sporting a couple pounds of hair back then.

More than once since losing my hair I've been told I look like a cancer patient. I shave the remaining hair off. I like the cue-ball look, though I do miss my long hair when I hear a song that calls for head-banging. But a note to those who think I look like a cancer patient: Wrong! I look like a cancer patient with remarkably tenacious eyebrows. So there.

My declining memory hasn't been the most telling sign of my age. I have always wished I had a better memory. Or, at least, I think I've thought that before. To the best of my recollection.

My consummate un-hip-ness isn't even the best sign of my aging. I have never been in the least bit cool. When someone makes a clever movie reference I'm the one who waits for everyone to stop laughing and then says, "What's that from?" This is a guaranteed mood killer, as no explanation is ever as funny as the joke. If only I could remember this!

No, the best sign of my age is the growing detachment with which I observe the world around me, especially the world of high school politics. I always found them shallow, even in high school when I also considered them important, but I also detested the adults who seemed the respond to everything with an air of jaded experience that I couldn't compete with. I've made a point to refrain from responding to student concerns with sayings like, "You'll understand when you're older," or "This won't matter so much in ten years." When I started teaching I didn't say these things because I didn't like the people who said them to me. Now I don't say these things because I don't enjoy the fact that I am a person who thinks them.

When I was young I thought that experience was a highly overrated teacher. I still think so, but for different reasons. Back then it just seemed unfair to appeal to the authority of experience when someone else lacked the luxury of doing the same. Telling someone they'll understand later is just wrong. If experience is germane to any conversation, it is the obligation of the experienced party to explain the lesson of said experience. If they cannot convey the message to a younger person, the lesson really hasn't been learned. All those people who told me I'd understand later really should have tried to make me understand at the time. I would have been better off. If experience is a means to avoid inter-generational communication, what good is it?

Now I look at experience differently, though still distastefully. I see what I could do when I was young, what I was capable of and accomplished and what I failed to accomplish, and recognize that most of my vaulted experience is composed of lessons I could not learn now. Someone once said, "Time is a great teacher. Unfortunately, it kills all its pupils." I am now realizing that experience is not only the measure of what I've learned, but also the measure of what I cannot learn again. Unlike book knowledge these learning experiences are, by definition, things of the past. They are nostalgia, not authority. Certainly I have a lot more to learn, and a lot more to learn experientially (read: The Hard Way), but as soon as those lessons are filed away the experiences are gone, too. I cannot learn to tie my shoes again. I cannot learn how wonderful it feels to immerse myself in my first great book. I cannot learn what heartbreak feels like for the first time. My experience only allows me to begrudge my students one thing; I wish they were more grateful for the experiences they are having right now.

I finally am grateful. I can't learn to tie my shoes again, but I can watch my son learn, and I think that's pretty wonderful. I can't read my first great book, but I can keep looking for better ones, and maybe even someday write a halfway decent one (mine are terrible). I cannot re-experience the first time I prayed and didn't feel like I was talking to myself, but I can continue to be amazed by new examples of the other-ness of God. I cannot forget that first heartbreak, but I can keep learning that a heart can get more full as I love my wife and son more and more each passing day. I can barely remember the casual amusement I felt the first time I considered the possibility that I was living through the downfall of Western Civilization, but I can continue to be surprised by the growing dread I feel every time I see that opinion reinforced, now that I have a son who will face the consequences.

So I'm getting simultaneously more grateful and more cynical, happier and more crochety, more filled with both hope and despair. I guess that's what getting old is all about.

I still think the "real world" is highly overrated, and is due for an overhaul. I hope I never give up on my belief that "ought" is more important than "is". I hope I die first.

But I hope I don't die before I'm 30. Downhill, here I come.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Remembering What I Forgot

Students aren't the only ones anxious about the start of a new school year. My students will be arriving in my classroom in less than two days, and I can't fall asleep because I'm so anxious. I need to sleep in order to reorient my schedule to the early waking and sleeping required by the school day, but here I am, after midnight, waltzing aimlessly around the internet looking for something interesting to read because I know I can't accomplish the one thing that will help me sleep; I can't remember what I've forgotten to do.

Not that I have any sympathy for Saddam Hussein, but I think I'm starting to understand what it must have felt like for him during the run up to war in early 2003. Imagine the quandary he was in: He had to prove he didn't have weapons of mass destruction within his country while not giving up sovereignty. Weapons inspectors were on the ground but couldn't satisfy the Bush administration, largely because he'd prevented inspectors from having unlimited access in the past. At that point, suddenly giving them unlimited access wouldn't have satisfied anybody. It would have made him seem very weak and frightened, a position that would have lost him more of the country he already wasn't in full control over. Plus, the illusion of WMD was a deterrent to foreign rivals, and he may have even though it would dissuade the U.S. from attacking. Ultimately, he would have had to give up his position in order to maintain his position, and all because he couldn't prove a negative. No wonder he looked so awful when the finally found him. He probably hadn't slept well until he was in that hole in the ground, and when you have to bury yourself to get some peace you're in pretty bad shape.

I am not going to lose my position as despot of a middle-eastern country if I can't remember what I forgotten. I won't even lose my job. In all likelihood whatever I've forgotten will require a few more hours after school than I had planned on spending, and the crisis won't even appear for a few weeks. Unless, of course, I've forgotten something major. Which I may have. I can't be sure.

Maybe I haven't forgotten anything at all. All I have is a feeling, that feeling one has before locking the front door on the way out when leaving for a vacation; what am I forgetting? Maybe nothing, but in my experience it's always something that seems small but is a day-to-day necessity, like deodorant or socks, and I have to buy more when I arrive at my destination. But you can't buy personalized lesson plans at a 7-11 or Fred Meyer's.

I have racked my brains trying to discover what is not there. I've gone to my classroom, thinking maybe the setting would shake something loose. I've gone through my lessons plans, my syllabi, the loose papers piled on my desk. I've stared at the ceiling. I've tried to distract myself. Nothing works. Whatever "it" is, it isn't there.

I guess it all comes down to trust. No one would have trusted Saddam even if he had sworn he didn't have any WMD. I'd like to think I'm a bit more trustworthy. I've never gassed a bunch of people or shaken hands with Donald Rumsfeld, two pretty reliable signs that one is up to no good. So why can't I trust myself?

Are there any out-of-work U.N. weapons inspectors out there who could try to figure out what I have left to do before school starts? I promise I won't ignore your findings.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Lauren's Question for Educators

I know my posts have been too long to read, so I'll try to keep this brief, but I think this is worth discussing; as a comment (and probably not one looking for a lot of serious deliberation), Lauren asked, "Is it wrong that I have totally different standards for myself and my friends than I do for students?" Though I'm sure Lauren's standards for her own behavior and that of her students aren't nearly as disparate as she says, I think the question is a very important one, and I would love to hear how all of you (both friends and random readers) address this question.

Allow me to take the first whack at it: I think it's an issue tha has to be measured by two factors: what is role-modeling, and what is developmentally appropriate. First, the biggies: sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll. When it comes to sex, I think my student should wait. This isn't a religious conviction, because I don't expect students who do not share my faith to feel compelled to base decisions on my religious views anyway. I just think fifteen and sixteen year olds would be better off waiting. And it's not just an issue of pregnancy or disease (though those are huge concerns because kids are far more likely to be unsafe about their sexual practices). I don't think they are emtionally ready to inject the power of sex (pardon the pun) into their fragile relationships. Also, I know that, for my students, relationships last weeks or months at most, and serial monogomy and sex don't mix well on any level. I don't think educators should have to hold themselves to this standard. We're all married or in serious, responsible adult relationships, so staying celibate in the name of role-modeling would be silly and unfair to our spouses/significant others. I think our obligation is to model decorum; we shouldn't talk about our sex lives with our students.

As to drugs, I think it's similarly important that we not talk about any illegal drug experimentation in our youth. While I don't think educators should be using illegal drugs while in the proffession, we also shouldn't get sucked into conversations about our childhood use because if we say we didn't use we put fellow educators on the spot, and if we say we did we provide kids with an excuse. Refusing to answer the question may make some kid assume you were a junkie, but it's better than giving a kid a reason to challenge another educator and make them a liar.

Regarding rock'n'roll, and all art, I'm very open about my tastes. I think this humanizes me and, if I've shown myself to be a role model in other ways, opens kids' eyes to the fact that responsible people can appreciate all kinds of art, music, films, entertainment that they may think of as taboo. Do I admit to reading Harry Potter? Absolutely. (When a student confides a frustration with those who think those books ar evil, I share my opinion that a person whose faith is threatened by a children's book doesn't have a literary problem but a weak faith, but I am very careful who I share that with). Do I admit that I love The Daily Show and The Colbert Report? Definately. If students want to make judgements about my politics as a consequence they can, but I haven't tried to inculcate any political beliefs by sharing a personal taste.

One last more frivolous example; I don't allow my students to eat or drink in my classroom. It's against the school rules. I do eat in class, though. I am unapologetic about this seeming hypocrisy, and I freely explain it to my students. I tell them from the first day that I have graduated from high school and continued with my education, and that earns me privalidges in the real world. I encourage them to come back to visit me when they are enrolled in some form of higher education and eat and drink in front of some future group of high school freshmen, to show them that privilidges are earned. Some of my students have promised to do so, and seem very excited about the prospect. Whether or not they remember in four years is irrelevant. Is this self-serving? Yep. But it's also a valuable lesson. I benefit from other valable lessons I teach with a monthly paycheck, and I don't hear anyone complaining that this makes my advocacy of learning for its own sake hypocritical.

Ultimately, I think it's good to hold adults, especially educators, to a different standard than kids. We are different, and expecting us to behave like kids is just as unfair as expecting them to behave like adults. But we, like Lauren, should have a standard, and it should be carefully considered and intentional. What do you folks think?