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After she died, but before the memorial, someone said, “she got what she wanted.” Others followed in the same vein, the vein had been opened. They came, they went, they paid their respects, and they repeated that careworn phrase. What did it mean exactly? That she had died gradually, peacefully, relatively pain-free, her friends and family talking to her, singing to her, embracing her? Is that what she wanted? What about the drama of a terminal illness for a woman with very young children, still young herself, or the day the doctor announced that she had three months to live, give or take, that she should spend as much time with her children as possible and—another careworn phrase—get her affairs in order? What about that? Is that what she wanted?

She tried to remain positive, or appear positive, at least. Everyone commented on that after she was gone, how deliberate she was as she gave away her jewelry, her knitting wool, her clothes. She did not think ahead to her children’s adult years—that they might want to keep some of these possessions. No, she had decided to give them away. It was what she wanted, she said. In other words, she got what she wanted.

And this was false, and saying it did not make anyone feel any better as she lay dying, or after she had died. Because what she had wanted was to live. That is what she wanted and what everyone who loved her wanted. They wanted her to defy the odds and live.

Friends, family, a family tragedy or death, yes, of course, let us use euphemisms and soften the blows; it is easier, it is right. But as writers, we cannot sustain the use of euphemisms for very long and find the truth.

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The World Has a Lot of Children

The world has a lot of children--rich and poor-- every one of them wants to learn unless they are discouraged from learning. Joyce, a friend of mine, works with little ones in the Bronx as an ESL teacher. The school is "failing," and the powers that be are desperate to save it. Their solution is more jargon, more restraint on experienced teachers, more testing of the kids, more evaluation of the teachers, more day-to-day interruptions with memos and meetings.

Dear Reader, this is a polemical post today, please forgive me, but I am appalled by what Joyce has been telling me. She has asked for an alias, so she is Joyce for now. "Anyone will know it is me," she told me. She wants to keep working in the school. On top of all her other obligations, she doesn't need an encounter with the powers that be.

Joyce is devoted, well-trained and experienced. She uses her background as an actor and pastry chef in the classroom. She has an after-school cooking program and takes the kids on trips. She is bi-lingual and communicates easily with parents. She takes photographs, records stories, makes individualized books. When she runs into her students on the streets they are excited to see her and she is excited to see them. Why, then, hasn't she been able to teach in her classroom since April? Because of constant testing and evaluation.

The education and protection of children is a universal human right as codified in the UN's Declaration of Human Rights (Article 26 and elsewhere). Never before in my career as an educator have I questioned whether the United States is fulfilling this mandate. But I do now. Every term more and more students enter my workshops disabled by our failing educational system. Some can barely speak or write; they have no confidence and inadequate knowledge. When I begin to talk about reading to raise their knowledge base, they seem dumbfounded. Eventually they get it: they have been attending public, tax-funded schools but not getting an education. The Chinese and European students in my classes often know more, write better English and are more disciplined. This is more than embarrassing; it is shameful. All these skills can and should be taught in our schools.

When there is a war or a disaster, Unicef quickly sets up a full range of services for children in "child-friendly spaces," designed by a relief-worker friend, MacKay Wolff, and his team during his stint in Albania during the war in Kosovo. The brochure generated for this project reads, in part: "Children want and need to learn. Education of good quality is the most effective and efficient means societies have for organising learning opportunities which will assure that their children have the knowledge and skills they need to survive, develop and participate. Good education is, therefore, good for children."

Volunteers descend on the disaster zone for as long as the donations keep coming in and the schools flourish. There’s determination, a battlefield mentality. Perhaps that’s what we need in our collapsing urban school systems. That said, teachers like Joyce are already there on the front line doing their best with limited resources. Confused bureaucrats now monitor their every attempt at helping the children in their care.

Last Saturday, after a pleasant afternoon with my family at The New York Botanical Garden, and a leisurely meal at an upscale restaurant in the garden, we headed back to Manhattan from the Bronx. The GPS went haywire and we ended up driving down Webster Avenue, under the railroad tracks past Jerome Avenue. This is not a privileged neighborhood; it's the Third World. Joyce's school is not far from here, I thought. This is how the children she teaches have to live. They are as much at risk as the children in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Congo or Nepal.  Read More 
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A New York Times Privileged Childhood

There was a newspaper every morning on the mat outside our apartment door. We were on the seventh floor and this was a marvel to me. How did it get there and so early? We were at the breakfast table by 6:30—all four of us—and my step-father had opened the door and picked up the paper before we were all assembled. Being the man of the house and the most interested in domestic politics and foreign affairs—at least that was my explanation until I went to college and learned better—he had prerogatives on the newspaper. That said, he shared its contents by reading various articles aloud and then asking his children questions.

My sister was always too young—even as she got older—so I had the opportunity and challenge to answer the questions to show-off and make my mother proud and my sister jealous. For this great effort I was rewarded with the arts section of the newspaper. Mostly, I looked at the movie ads and advertisements. But I drew the pages back as my stepfather did into a kind of scroll, right to left, and felt very grown up.

These days, I mostly read the newspaper digitally and I miss the smell of the paper, the newsprint on my hands, our small family at the breakfast table together before the frenzy of getting to school and work, and my stepfather’s lessons about all the world’s glories and woes.  Read More 
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