Wednesday, April 13, 2005

mab + kcc

According to Byron, Montgomery Bell Academy's hairiest gentleman/scholar/athlete (pictured above), the second stage of the MBA-KCC exchange was a howling success. And I couldn't agree more. I'm not sure how I can avoid sounding corny and sentimental here, but this experience has taught me that we should never underestimate the power of youth, especially teenagers. With the right amount of support and respect, young folks can bring an order to our world that is sorely needed but is too often beyond the grasp of so-called adults.

I have to admit, I went to Nashville with no expectation to be affected personally in any significant way. I had been to MBA's campus several times, and I assumed I had it all figured out: It's a phenomenal school where all the students are males and most of them are white. But I was profoundly moved by the students' thoughtful and enthusiastic response to our presence on their campus, and by the sincere compassion of all the teachers and administrators I had the privilege of speaking with.

I also must admit, though, that I felt acute culture shock when I first arrived at the school on Monday morning. It was a lot like how I felt when I first visited Central High four years ago. At that point, I had never been around so many blacks in one place at one time, and it took a bit of time before I was able to set aside my discomfort borne on a life lived in isolation from people of color. Arriving at MBA this week, I brought with me a personal history in revision, where being a minority among so-called minorities is more the norm for me. It was truly startling at first to suddenly find myself among such a high concentration of white males, and I needed some time to work through my newly formed prejudices.

Throughout this exchange, I've had a running dialogue with my beloved Allie about whether or not it's an injustice that a school like MBA even exists. She insists that its exclusion of females is flatly wrong. I countered with information I'd gleaned about all-girls schools and how they can be effective. She agreed, but insisted that the need for such schools doesn't justify a similar arrangement for boys because, in a patriarchal society, boys enjoy the privileged side of oppression. (Her most unbeatable argument: There's no Nashville private school for girls with a debate program, much less one as strong as MBA's) Our discussions got heated at times, in part because I felt the need to defend my new friends at MBA, whom I believe to be good peeps through and through. But when I actually got to the school, I understood her perspective with a force so heavy that I felt almost debilitated.

We can read theoretical books all day and all night, and on an intellectual level we can understand folks like Michel Foucault, Paulo Freire, Jonathan Kozol and William Spanos when they say that cultural institutions like the school system are where norms of oppressive disparity are manufactured, strengthened and maintained. But to see it firsthand, and to truly comprehend it, is, at least for me, as nightmarish as being suddenly sucked into the world of the most frightening sociopolitical science fiction. The inhabitants seem less like humans than raw materials in varying stages of the production process for injustice. Central's coach, Jane Rinehart, often says that the role of schools is to mold children into their parents so they may inherit their places in society. At Central, it's clear to me that the kids are being taught how to be prisoners and servants. At MBA I saw in the confident swagger of so many of the young, white men the walk of future leaders, of inheriters of our nation's wealth.

But then something amazing happened.

All along, Michael Risen and Alan Coverstone, coaches at MBA, had wanted one of our debaters, Geoffery Stone, to deliver his debate speach to the entire MBA student body. It had looked for a while as though this might not happen, because the school had scheduled the New York Time's science editor to speak at that day's assembly. But the speaker had to cancel due to an illness in the family, so we were on.

A little recap on Geoffery's speech: He raps the entire thing to a Dr. Dre beat. The speech draws a metaphorical parallel between the United Nations, the topic high schoolers are debating this year, and the separate and unequal nature of America's school system (which all the natiions of the world symbolize) and the racial heterogeniety of the debate community (the UN).

The MBA folks rigged it so the hip hop beats boomed on the PA system in the school's biggest auditorium, and Geoffery was given a hand-held microphone to spread his message.

It sounded phenomenal, so loud and powerful. I've heard Geoffery's speech so many times this year that it has become somewhat mundane for me. But here in this setting, with Geoffery facing more than 650 young men raised amid such different circumstances, the speech felt more profound than ever. It was as though I was learning the facts anew:

You know we got the achievement gap
Where blacks score lower on tests, that’s a slap
These kids weren’t born dumb, don’t you dare say so
It’s cause the schools are messed up that their scores are so low
And there’s something else I want you to know
The longer blacks stay in the system the farther down they go.

My school is almost one hundred percent black
Just 17 out of 3,000 kids tested proficient in math
It’s the same in English, social studies and science
“Academic deficient” is how we’re defined
The only foreign language we get is Spanish
French or Russian? Teacher said I wouldn’t understand it.
Walk in my school it’s like goin’ to jail
Metal detectors guard our academic hell.
Early last month there was a fight at my school
Two girls hitting each other, tryin to be cool
Has your school ever had a fight?
Maybe some teachers break it up, right?
Not at my school
The state believes all blacks are fools
At Central they treated us like rioters.
They called in 12 cop cars and a helicopter

Geoffery ended his speech with a little free-style flourish, saying what a privilege it was to be at MBA, and urging everyone to stick around after school to watch a public debate.

Immediately, the entire MBA student body lept to its feet in applause. We were told many times throughout the rest of the day that such an enthusiastic response is very rare at MBA.

The school's headmaster, Bradford Gioia, approached the podium. He appeared to be quite moved. "This reminds us," he said with sincere conviction, "that separatism is wrong."

The students returned to their classes, and many of them discussed what they'd just seen.

This is exactly what I had hoped would happen when debater Ebony Rose and I first started pushing for Central's debate squad to employ a radical new argumentative approach, though, at the time, I couldn't have in my wildest imagination have conceived such a scenario.

A primary inspiration for our debate strategy this season came from a lecture Jonathan Kozol delivered at Central last October. He had talked for nearly two hours about how terribly unfair America's education system is, but he ended on a hopeful note. He insisted the situation could be changed, though not through top-down political strategies. He said it would take “a sweeping upsurge in moral consciousness from young people In this country. It’s going to take a passionate determination from the children of the priviledged. Theirs is a tarnished victory. They know they couldn’t have won if the game was fair.”

I was so moved by his words that I believed that debate would be the ideal venue to trigger such a moral upsurge. I thought that if our debaters were to tell their story over and over again to a captive audience at debate tournaments, they might reach a few people and motivate them to take action. And this has happened. Yes, we've had our share of contentious rounds, and derisive words launched against us. But we've also had people walk out of rounds saying that we'd changed their lives. We've heard that our arguments have moved at least one of our opponents to try to form an Urban Debate League in his home city.

But this moment at MBA was the ultimate. Not only because it very likely did affect at least a few young minds at that fabulous school, but because it further challenged me to distance myself from prejudice. I am ashamed to admit, but I must, that at one time I actually felt hate for the MBA debate squad. After our first contentious encounter with them, we bumped into them at a restaurant in Kentucky, before the start of a debate tournament. They were dressed in blue blazers and khakis and ballcaps, and all but one of them were white, and they seemed to me as though they'd stepped right off the screen from a Hollywood movie. They were the bad guys -- the squad the poor, black underdog heroes rise up and overthrow.

But the power of our inevitable friendships overcame that, and my day at MBA obliterated the last of my polemic categorizations. All through the day I met teachers and administrators who are deeply motivated to foster compassion and sensitivity among their students. And this showed in the kindly, often humble demeaner of the students I met. And while I'm still uncomfortable with the fact that schools such as MBA are calibrated to produce leaders while schools as Central produce followers, I'm heartened to know that such thoughtful adults are there to temper what could easily become a breeding ground for calloused entitlement.

I only wish these folks could be cloned. Because we really need help at Central High. And Northeast. And Southeast. And so on. And so on.

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