Senate Confirmations, Donuts and the Price of Justice

Last week I found an example of “life imitating life”. Or more specifically life at SVS was imitating life in Washington. I am fascinated by the quirky details of democratic institutions. So, I got a little thrill when the 50-50 vote in the Senate allowed the Vice President, acting as the “President of the Senate”, to cast the tie breaking vote. Article I, Section 3, Clause 4 of the U.S. Constitution provides this mechanism for resolving tie votes in the Senate. Vice President Pence’s vote was the 245th time the tie-breaking role of the Vice President has been invoked in U.S. history and it had not been used since Vice President Cheney cast a tie-breaking vote in 2008.

My kids understand my fascination with democratic processes, so I can usually count on getting a summary of the SVS School Meeting when I pick them up on Thursday afternoons. Last week, Holly was very excited to tell me how a vote to allow a suspended student to return to school had ended in a tie. Like the Vice President’s role in the U.S. Senate, SVS rules allow the School Meeting Chair, who is normally a non-voting member, to cast a vote in the event of a tie, which he did.

Not only does this story appeal to my love of quirky rules, it also speaks volumes to the depth of the school’s democracy. This was not a student council vote on the color scheme for this year’s prom. This was serious stuff. A student who had been suspended (by vote of the School Meeting) for violating the community’s rules was requesting permission to return to school. The School Meeting had to take measure of the offense committed, the amount of time already suspended and trickiest of all, the sincerity of the student’s assertion that they had learned enough from their mistake. A tie vote shows the true living nature of the process. The School Meeting is not simply some form of rubber stamp for decisions made elsewhere. Real decisions with real consequences are made at the School Meeting, and each vote counts.

As I understand it, the elected, 17-year-old School Meeting Chair, voted against allowing the student to return to school. My in-house pundits tell me that when the student returns next week or the week after, their request to return to school will likely be granted.

The School Meeting is one of the two main pillars of self-government at SVS. The other institution is the Judiciary Committee (JC). The JC is chaired by a pair of elected JC clerks who serve 2.5 month terms. In addition to the JC clerks, the JC consists of 5 students of various ages and one staff person. The service of the 5 students and one staff person is vaguely analogous to jury duty, with the students serving 1 month terms.

My oldest daughter Cori, served as a JC clerk in the fall and Holly was on JC duty during the month of February. It was probably during her term that the student seeking to return from suspension was initially investigated, though I don’t recall her telling the details of that case. The JC can hand out sentences for some offences, though something as severe as suspension is referred to School Meeting.

Holly recently revealed to me a quirky JC tradition. Apparently, there is a long tradition of the elected JC clerks buying donuts for those serving on JC on the last day of their service. I secretly wondered what a “long tradition” means to my 13-year-old. Did the jurors who convicted Socrates to death in 399 BCE get a donut? Or is it just something that has happened for as long as she has paid any attention to how JC works? Well in any case, she revealed an important SVS secret to me. Sometimes if one of the students on JC duty is sick or otherwise un-available, someone will be asked to substitute for the day. If you can, substituting on the last day of the month is particularly advantageous because for one day’s service you get a donut!

I asked her if that was why she had served during the month of February. She gave me an incredulous look and explained that she had served because she had to. Also, she pointed out, because the last day of February coincided with the last day of skiing at Mt. Wachusett, she had missed the last JC session for her term. Some lucky JC substitute got her donut! Aside from the donut, JC duty is unpaid.

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Reading: The Great Escape

… all I can do is read a book to stay awake,
And it rips my life away,
But it’s a great escape …
BLind MeLoN, “No Rain” (1992)

Recently, I did something very unhealthy. It started innocently enough with picking up a book a student had pointed out to me last year (Papertowns, by John Green) finishing it, and then – this is where the trouble began – I immediately began another one, finished that one, and then I was on a binge, reading through a seven volume cycle, switching between reading paperbacks and my phone app, reading when I woke up at night, in the morning, after breakfast, and on the beach, neglecting, among many other things, my laundry, dirty dishes, and I think my husband. When I came out of this, I felt slightly dazed, disoriented, and kind of grumpy. Altogether, it was a very familiar feeling, because this is how I used to spend all my summers, ever since I had gotten up to speed in reading at some point in elementary school. Back then, we didn’t have books assigned over the summer, and perhaps a list of required summer readings would have stopped me from chain reading in this particularly unhinged way that seemed a bit too much even to myself. I mean, it wasn’t lost on me that none of the books I read featured people spending their entire summers reading book after book, while there were plenty of children, teenagers, and adults involved in all kinds of adventures – solving crimes, having complicated relationships, and going through intriguing and sometimes frightening states of mind. Even a fictional character with whom I could identify, such as the protagonist of “The NeverEnding Story”, whose guilty pleasure activity was hiding away with a stolen book in his despised school’s attic to read, undisturbed – even he got drawn into a very active adventure involving flying dragons and much else. I was perfectly aware of the fact that there was something called “real life” happening all around me that I was somehow not really getting to.

Why did I read so much? The question always stopped me in my tracks, and I was still quite unable to answer it when I once had to write an assigned paper on the topic: “Why do we read literature?”. What did I know about why other people take to books? Why read, indeed, at all? What good ever came out of my personal addiction to this activity? Instead of being able to answer the question of why “we” read, I wanted to find out about myself. Did I read because I am too afraid of real life to approach it directly? Because I like the way it makes me feel while I’m doing it, even though it removes me from reality a lot and often makes me feel cross and out of sorts for days? Or simply because I need this escape to survive? For my paper, I resorted to quoting a philosopher I had read about who seemed to express, in an academically acceptable fashion, some of the things reading meant to me, while veiling the “bad” escapist part of reading. But in essence, that was probably the most important part of reading for me: escape. Or, come to think of it in a more positive way: searching for something.

None of this, however, figured in a discussion on reading that I listened to on the radio the other day, where reading was unequivocally touted as a very good thing, no matter what. It was held to teach everything we need and are seemingly about to lose in education: not just vocabulary, spelling, and the ability to write, but deep critical thinking, making inferences, cultural knowledge, empathy and self-reflection, to name just a few of its benefits.

It was like hearing that eating ice cream and bagels (stuff I eat while I read, to enhance the experience, in case you wonder where this is coming from) is a perfect way to build muscle and protect me from all kinds of disease. I wish!

It was just a bit too good to be all true. I don’t want to dispute the many excellent things I got from my excessive reading habits (in short, pretty much my entire professional life), and it’s probably not a bad thing to have some of the good things associated with reading pointed out, but none of this makes me want to read one bit more, and it didn’t have anything to do with why I wanted to read in the first place, as far as I can recall.

It was hard for me to listen to this talk about winning teenagers over to reading and not perceive it as condescending. This impression might have been due to the fact that the radio discussion between David Denby and Tom Ashbrook, focusing on Denby’s book (Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twentyfour Books That Can Change Lives) about heroic teachers involved in trying to get their teenage students to read., did not feature many direct expressions from students about why they do or do not read, which I would have liked to hear. There was a young woman though, who said she liked reading as a way of finding characters in books that she felt in a way she could identify with, making her feel less alone, a fact that she said helped her get through the day. I was glad she said that; there is, somewhere at the core of reading, identification, a strange blending with some other. But what if the character with whom you identify was doing bad things, but reading it, you got kind of enmeshed with it? How about that Kafka quote:

… we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.

How would I deal with that kind of book as a teacher? Is reading always so wholesome and simply edifying as Denby’s and Ashbrook’s conversation made it sound like? Or are we forgetting some of the more destabilizing, scary, and attractive aspects of reading? I wonder, is reading considered laudable behavior now, because the perceived collective disappearance of children – and often of adults – into cyberspace seems so much worse? Most people I know find the Victorian notion that reading novels would be harmful – even, especially for women, ludicrous. Will people in future years find such opinions on the evils of electronic games and the shallowness of social media similarly ridiculous and blinded?

I wonder. In the meantime, I’ll probably pick up Denby’s book, see what I’ve missed from the discussion, and perhaps check out some of these life changing books they were talking about. But then again, now I kind of like my life the way it is, and perhaps rather than going on another reading binge too soon, I’ll check if we have enough paper towels at school. You know, get the real world stuff done, so that when students are back, they don’t have to bug us about it, and I can perhaps get some more reading suggestions from them. While I sometimes ask myself whether anyone is ever going to read any of the thousands of books that surround us at school, I don’t think you will find me, or any other staff member at school, engaged in trying to make somebody read one or the other book that we have particularly strong feelings about, or that we feel will somehow open our students’ eyes about their lives.

On the other hand, you often will find us looking at books, processing and shelving books, talking about them, sharing from our reading experience, and yes, reading out loud, not at some particular story time or in English class, but when the occasion arises in the normal course of a day.

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Starting a Corporation

It’s funny how things happen at SVS. Conversation is always a huge part of how students and staff members spend their time. People of all ages are talking about interests, hobbies, and ideas. It flows without interruption. During one of these conversations, I was talking with a group about hair and make-up. While we were speaking, they were brushing and braiding each other’s hair. I was giving them a few pointers to make it easier for them. I asked, “Would you guys want to learn how to cut and style hair?” They looked at me and said, “YOU cut hair?!” I laughed and said, “I’ve been a hairstylist for eight years.” All of them looked at one another, and there was a resounding “YES!” That was it; our group was formed.

We quickly realized we needed materials and needed to fund-raise to get them. Hairstyling equipment isn’t cheap. About once a week we got together and discussed what to bake, checked the school for the supplies, and one of the students would go shopping for the extra things we needed. The next day, we were in the kitchen; cooking and enjoying ourselves! After three fund-raisers we had enough money to start buying the products.

I started talking with the other staff and it become clear we needed to form a corporation. Our group had money and we wanted to spend it! Once again, we got together to discuss the different parts needed in a corporation. Who was going to be a Director? Who was going to be Secretary and Executive Director? What were our by-laws going to be? We spent a good amount of time ironing these issues out.

This whole endeavor took some organizing. I would be lying if I said, “this was all tedious and a waste of time.” Also, I’d be lying if I said, “now the real work can begin.” We’ve been learning and working during this entire process. We covered many topics, got to know each other better, and had fun. The next step is to fulfill the purpose for which this corporation started; learn how to cut a “one length with layers”.

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