From November 3, 2008: Change we can do for ourselves

On the John

Change we can do ourselves

Completed November 3, 2008

Not as doomed as we thought...

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of observing classes at Chicago’s Noble Street College Prep. Do yourself a service and head over some time. To call the students “polite” would be much too passive. They are forward and nuanced and sincere. Come to a classroom door and follow the posted rules. A light knock, and within moments you are greeted by a student who meets you quietly in the hallway, introduces himself with a handshake, hello, and firm eye contact, and then proceeds to tell you what the class is and what they are working on.

“Would you like to come in?” they always ask. And you find yourself thinking, “Why, yes!” It’s doubly exhilarating: rarely are outsiders made so welcome, as if the place they are visiting has been designed specifically for their accommodation…and rarely are high school students so genuinely engaging, so eager to serve.

Meanwhile, Noble is a public school operating within the limits of NCLB and CPS, the latter spending a shade over nine grand per student while suburban high schools to the north drop almost twice that.

It is true that comparing the spending of a CPS high school with that of a suburban school like Winnetka’s New Trier is faulty, because CPS spending statistics are for K-12 rather than 9-12. It is also true that Noble is a charter school and is granted freedom from certain regulations that non-charters must follow. But the powerful culture of discipline, respect, and success that Noble has achieved is not simply a result of its charter status, nor has it been impeded by the CPS budget. It was born of the vision and effort of the Noble staff, and I suspect that had this group of educators been assembled at a non-charter school, they would have achieved a similar success.

I thought of Noble on the eve of this Presidential election.

Since the 2004 race, I have grown apathetic towards the Presidency. Not W. The office itself. Following Bush’s defeat of John Kerry, a large portion of Democratic voters seemed to check out, choosing to chalk up all of our nation’s problems to the Texan behind the desk. Wait til 2008 they said. And they did.

This is not to say that I was pleased with the Bush victory. But putting all my eggs in the 2008 basket as early as January of 2005 made no sense. I was not—am not—willing to blame the leadership of one man for all that ails us, and while I felt the same frustration over four more years of a Bush White House, living life in a Bush-has-ruined-us mindset seemed as logical as blaming the rain for making us wet. Bush-anger may have left you feeling disenfranchised and focused on the future, but removing yourself from the process for four years did not change one, immutable fact: you are stuck in your own life and it’s up to you to live it.

And that’s what I found so encouraging about Noble. Here was a group of people creating something strong and good within an area of American life (public education) that so many Bush-detractors had chalked up as ruined. Noble opened in August of 1999. NCLB went into effect 29 months later. Yet there was the Noble staff, stuck in their own life and deciding to live it.

After Kerry lost, I took hold of that fact. The President would no longer be the force I once believed in. As such, I have not gone quite so batty over a potential Obama Presidency. Can Obama be The Change we are hoping for? In the abstract, sure. But this is American politics. I’ll believe it when I see it, believe in him when he delivers.

Politically, I remain skeptical. But I did not vote for Obama for political reasons. I voted for him because of what he represents.

Unlike every other political office, the Presidency is as much an idea as it is a tangible piece of government. The Bush-has-ruined-us mindset was the day-to-day social fallout of his 2004 re-election. So imagine the power of an Obama victory! Imagine the liberating intellectual power of electing a black president! It’s such a unique idea, a concept that seemed as close to impossible as impossible could get.

What unforeseen effects will an Obama victory create? What previously impossible goals will seem attainable? How many people will say to themselves, “We elected a black president. I wonder what else we can do?” Remember when Tiger Woods came on the scene and obliterated the field to win the Masters as a 21-year-old? Suddenly, the greatest golfer on Earth was black, and children who may have never had an interest in golf otherwise were now intrigued.

That was just a golfer.

No matter what happens tomorrow, the President will still just be one man. An Obama win does not ensure goodness for our country any more than a McCain win ensures badness. But Obama promises to inspire, to be the change we can believe in. Here’s hoping he inspires us to believe in ourselves.

Copyright 2008, jm silverstein


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