Dear readers, I’ve missed you. I’ve missed writing to you. Let me tell you about the journey I’ve been on. Smack in the middle of The Nine Days, a sadness came across my path and I could not turn away from attempting to make a tikkun, a repair, of my little corner of the world.
The last few weeks was the time in the Jewish calendar leading up to the commemoration of the destruction of the First and Second Temples, which took place thousands of years ago. There was a shattering of compassion and unity, spiritually caused by baseless hatred of one another. The problem that caught my attention in my town whipped straight through Tisha B’Av (the most sorrowful day of mourning of the Jewish year) and began to see some resolution in the denouement following, culminating on Tu B’Av, the Jewish celebration of love.
It started with a call from my daughter, who was in distress. She was having trouble being allowed on her public bus home from high school. In order to ride the bus, she needed a Student ID badge. The School District had not yet issued badges for all the students, but I had been assured that the bus drivers were aware and would be lenient the first week or two of school. That, unfortunately, turned out not to be true. The situation caused my daughter unnecessary and substantial grief.
The next morning I visited her school and learned that this had been an issue the previous year, as well, and was currently affecting at least 50 kids in her school alone. There are 25 public high schools in Metro Nashville. I came to understand that while I felt perfectly comfortable advocating for my daughter, this might not be the case for all parents. Some might still be learning English – over 100 languages are spoken in our School District. Others might simply not realize that the StrIDe program which afforded free transportation for their students on public busses, had been promised to them.
The thought of high school kids trying to figure out how to get to and from school on their own, or families having to spend money on bus fare while others rode free and carefree, troubled me. It broke my heart to think that a solution was readily available, yet kids and parents were suffering needlessly, nonetheless. For some families, this could mean food off their tables. And, this Student ID adversity would negatively impact a student’s potential for academic success. The Student ID, or lack thereof, was tied to free transportation, (city-funded) free school breakfast and lunch (federally funded) and school library privileges.
So, I dug in and did some quick research. The StrIDe program was funded and sponsored by four agencies – the Metro Nashville Public School District, The Nashville Mass Transit Authority, The Metro Council, and the Mayor’s Office. I thought relief would be a quick phone call away. Find the person in charge of the program and ask them to do three things: Expedite processing Student ID badges, distribute temporary passes to parents and school administrators to hand out to students in need, and step up communication on social media and on their website.
I think we’ve all felt afflicted by the particularly vicious theater of the Presidential elections on the national stage. But the contentiousness of local politics is equally daunting. Basically, I would sum up trying to take this on with, head…meet wall. And the wall has many things propping it up…overwhelmed school district administrators, the labyrinth of bureaucracy, unfathomable technological disasters, and a sprinkling of burn out/apathy/numbness. Mostly, in this case, when the curtain was pulled back, there was no Oz. Despite the glowing press releases and advertisements, there was no one person in charge of this program. In a way, worse, everyone was. Which meant that it kind of, sort of was implemented. But not in a way that guaranteed that all students would be given equal opportunity from the first day of school to actually get to and from school. In short, Hillary Clinton has been right all along – success is in the wonky details. And, you can never give up.
So, I unexpectedly embarked on over a week of lengthy calls and meetings with MNPS and MTA execs, elected School Board members, the Education Liaisons in the Mayor’s Office and Senator Cooper’s office. I was grateful to meet some passionate kindred spirits. But there were also some shrugged shoulders and “We’ll get back to you’s” that never came. So I kept calling. When I reached out to the Education reporter at Nashville’s main newspaper, I found a kind and sympathetic ear. It took all of this – high ranking officials, the press, to move things even slightly forward.
I, along with hundreds of other parents, attended an open forum with the new Director of Schools set for the purpose of airing grievances, concerns, and wishes. I felt optimistic, eager to achieve resolution. We were seated in the stifling hot auditorium, the Director was flanked by School Board members on the stage. The issues raised were important and complex. A grandmother spoke about having worked since the Reagan era on trying to engage inner city parents in becoming involved in their children’s education. Others addressed diversity in schools, communication with divorced parents, educational goals and standards, school websites not working across the District…a host of matters needing attention. Two interactions occurred that left me unsettled. A mother introduced herself, mentioning she had numerous children, including one in college. What happened next rattled me. The new Superintendent looked down from the the stage, interrupted her, and complimented her on her good genes and youthful appearance. Up until that point, the entirety of the night had been focused on policy discourse. The remarks were out of place, inappropriate, jarring. I was stunned into a sense of internal despair that things might well get worse before they get better. My daughter was bothered by it, too. But then, I’m raising her to be a feminist. At one point a woman tried to unpack the diverse student population at her child’s excellent magnet school, mentioning Kurdis, Eastern Europeans…she was given a talk about the fact that race is the most pressing issue of diversity and equality in our country. I understood what both were saying. But any discussion of diversity and equality must in fact embrace race, gender, religion, ethnicity, origin, identity, and more.
I had my turn at the mic and perhaps because I’m an older mom, I received no such compliment. At the end I was interrupted with a curt, “I gotcha!” And yet another referral to speak with another District executive. That’s okay. I’ve heard many annoyed “I gotchas” before. After all, I had made calls all over the city. I was pretty sure he had already heard what I had to say. Which is why I was hoping for more commitment on the issue.
During the course of the evening I met several impressive and dedicated individuals working for the School District and in other areas of education. I ran into friends and parents and educators who were all there because they wanted to participate in creating an excellent educational experience.
The next day I received a lengthy follow up call from an MNPS exec. The thing is, nearly everyone I spoke with along the way agreed with me. There were just so many other overwhelming problems that this one slipped by unnoticed. And they seemed reluctant to publicly acknowledge yet another aspect of failure, even if doing so would bring more and faster relief to students, parents, and school administrators.
Going forward, I would like to see one person tasked with executing this program on both a policy and managerial level. Not only should new students receive their Student ID badges by day one of school, MNPS should make sure that School Administrators have temporary passes at their disposal throughout the school year.
I have other concerns on my mind, but they will wait for another day. I knew many students were hurt by this situation. No matter the number, I couldn’t stand to think of even one student, waiting for a bus driver to show mercy. Tag, I was it. This took hold of my heart and would not let go. My daughter’s issue was quickly fixed, but I wanted to see every student treated fairly and equally. The reality is, there are so many moving parts and a lot of people doing their best. The whole enterprise is a beast – the education system, city politics, national government. It’s a miracle anything works at all with so many personalities, politics, and agendas in play.
But I would say to you, still, get involved. When something comes your way, it’s in front of you for a reason. In a million years, I would not have seen this issue becoming mine. But I believe this – God, Goodness, works through us. We have to be willing to serve. Boundless love may not look like knocking on the proverbial door of City Hall, but that might be what it takes sometimes.
Yesterday, on Tu B’Av, the article I instigated appeared in The Tennessean. And I realized that while not everything was as it should be yet, there was finally some traction. I have to hope there will be continued improvement. And though there was nothing romantic or even rose-colored about this experience, I feel my heart absolutely expanded with love. Opening our hearts and caring for others, including the stranger, is what will create the schools, the cities, the nation, the world – and the life we desire.