public schools, public goods

Winterhaven School at Brooklyn School, Portland, OR

The ongoing frontal attack in the U.S. on public school teachers (of which I'm not one) appears on the surface based in jealousy and ignorance. How many of the rest of us can just stop going to work until our boss agrees to pay us more as the Chicago teachers did? How many of us have three whole months off in the summer? How many of us can take off all the bank holidays on the calendar? How many of us end our workday between two and three in the afternoon? How many of us even have pensions anymore, let alone unions to fight employers for such benefits? That's the jealousy part talking: "We don't have those perks at work, so why should they?"

Brooklyn School Auditorium door

The ignorance part spreads wider and deeper, like an iceberg. How many people know that Portland Public School teachers (or at least those at the school I work at) must sweep and mop their own classrooms, hefting the mini chairs upside-down on top of the desks each afternoon like waiters and servers swabbing down restaurant or café floors after closing time, because the PPS janitorial service only covers daily trash pick-up? How many people know that public school teachers like my step-aunt, who works at a school down in Woodburn, Oregon, spend two-to-three hours each day at school after the kids leave grading papers and preparing for the next school day, and then another two or three hours at home doing more of the same, which puts my step-aunt's official workday far longer than that of the average Joe—except that she also gets up at 4:30 a.m. each day and spends much of each Saturday grading papers and preparing lesson plans for the next week.

How many people have tried entertaining 30-plus kids for six hours a day, nine months out of a year, let alone instruct them in reading, writing, science, geography, history, and math at the same time? How many people know that for many of the school's-out holidays kids have, teachers are still at school, conducting parent-teacher conferences, attending required in-service (training) meetings, calculating grades, writing up lesson plans, and so on? How many people know that public school teachers voluntarily spend a good chunk of their yearly earnings on supplies for their classrooms and lessons to make school more fun or lessons more effective? How many people know that a full-time, 11-month teacher credentialing program at Portland State University (the Graduate Teacher Education Program, GTEP) costs upwards of $21,000?* How many people know that many public school teachers around the country—like their fellow public servants, fire fighters and police officers—cannot afford on their salaries to buy houses in the districts in which they work? How many people know that teachers are paid less on average than those with similar experience and education levels in other professions, or that 46% of new public school teachers, after all the time, energy, and money invested in their own career training and dreams, leave the profession within five years? How many people know that 62% of teachers work second jobs? How many people know that many experienced teachers, having lost much of the creative flexibility, autonomy, and administrative support they formerly had as teachers, are quietly slipping out of the profession (see, for example, comments here).

classroom grow light, Brooklyn School, Portland, OR

Those of us who went to public school had teachers we loved, teachers we liked well enough, and teachers we hated. I adored my slim and pretty third- and sixth-grade teachers who encouraged my love of books and writing, who let me stay indoors reading during recess with a book, rather than shoving me outside with my loud, sweaty peers. They made me feel that being a bookworm wasn't such a bad thing, after all, despite what the other kids said. But I detested my wrinkled fourth-grade teacher, who traced in red pen over my handwriting on all my compositions with her perfect cursive script (cursive writing now an antiquated skill that many schools aren't even teaching anymore); no assignment for red-lipsticked Mrs. R. was ever good enough. And I couldn't stand my roly-poly, curly-haired eighth-grade English teacher who, for reasons that still escape me, left my name off the recommendation list for high school Honors English, which meant I had to fight to get into the Honors English class as a freshman, after sitting bored in regular English for an entire term learning how to spell words I'd known since elementary school. But just because a few truly harmful teachers—bad apples—exist, does that mean public school should be gutted in favor of private or charter schools that, despite Wal-Mart's pro-charter marketing campaign via the films Waiting for Superman and Won't Back Down, have not proven themselves better education providers when funding is comparable?

Woodstock Elementary School, Portland, OR

I'm currently a private employee working within a public school, tutoring children one-on-one, most of whom are ESL/ELL, in phonemic and visual processing, the foundations of reading. Most of the children's faces I see in the halls are Latino, while the rest are white, African-American, African, Asian, and biracial. Most of the children qualify for the free breakfast program. The older, low-slung school sits in a poor neighborhood in North Portland.

A private employee, funded by a private foundation, I don't have to attend any of the school in-services or parent conferences, or do any grading. I watch the classroom teachers around me from an outsider's perspective. As I pass in the hall, I see them sweeping their classrooms. They smile "hello." I see their potted plants and colorful posters and room decorations that all seem to say, "Isn't the world beautiful and amazing, and isn't learning fun?"

The public teachers arrive earlier and stay later than I do. They get paid more. But I wouldn't want their job, especially when segments of society are vilifying them for an incompetence I don't see. How can a child whose native language is not English possibly read or perform at a standard-English grade level until her language skills catch up to native-speaker children? How much individual attention can one teacher provide when she must divide herself among 30 other children? And what about the effects of poverty? There is such a thing as a free lunch—and breakfast—for these kids because if a child goes to school hungry, how can she possibly learn anything?

To understand the public versus private education debate, just follow the money. Who's going to benefit when teachers unions are busted up? The scapegoating of public school teachers is calculated and intentional, the populace being whipped into a tarring-and-feathering state by ultra-conservative groups, those funded in the background by the likes of the Walton family and the Koch brothers, who, jangling the billions in their pockets, intend that everything public should be privatized. And waiting on the sidelines, like vultures, are the venture capitalists, those who will profit when public education falls.

*Note: This was the figure quoted to me during an informational session on campus in 2009 when I was exploring career options, an amount which no doubt has increased in three years. At the time, PSU claimed this was the lowest-cost teacher training program in the Portland area.

Edited to add: A less personal, more formal analysis of the situation described in this post can be found in Jeff Faux's article titled, "Education Profiteering: Wall Street's Next Big Thing?"


going carless, part 1

Volvo sunset

It's autumn again, which means it's time to downsize. (One fall, maybe years hence, I will downgrade into cremains, the ultimate form of downsizing.) My credit union, bless them, upgraded this year to a free money-management feature on their Web site, the kind with a colorful pie graph displaying my spending categories. Like exercise, fiscal visuals are beneficial, even if unpleasant. 

I've always hated thinking about money. Money should simply be available so one can think about other, more important, things: family, friends, aesthetics, art, entertainment, daydreaming, travel, hobbies, helping others. People who spend their nine-to-five moving money around or dream in dollar signs? Ugh. Shoot me now. Unfortunately, that kind of thinking has kept me poor. But I'm tired of being poor. I'm done with the monthly pie charts telling me: "For this period, OVER—living beyond your means." And that's only because I've had so little income for years from being an underemployed college instructor. (According to Mitt Romney's upside-down ethics, all these years, rather than teaching adults how to write better, I should have been out laying other people off and closing down businesses like he did—"Off with their heads!"—because that's what's good for share prices and Cayman Island bank accounts, not teaching, you dolt. But I digress.)

It's one thing to be frugal by choice, as detailed in "Stylishly Frugal Living" blogs such as Go Gingham, to save money for the future—forgoing eating out, daily Starbucks lattes, or unnecessary trips around town, all for an exotic vacation, for retirement, or to pay off a mortgage early—or else to embrace simpler living out of ethical, philosophical, or environmental concerns. But it's entirely different to be frugal—for example, to stop and pick up free brown bananas in the parking lot of the new Latino Christian church on SE 52nd, or to make sure your errands downtown fit within the transfer period, so you don't have to pay another $2.50 fare—because otherwise you would be sleeping in your car. That's not frugal; that's poor.

My housing costs are (barely) below the recommended 30% of my income, but not the car, that pretty metal albatross weighing down my finances. Here are the monthly costs for me to "own" my twelve-year-old car:
$210 car payment
$300 gasoline (over $62 each fill-up, at least once a week)
$  80 car insurance
(+ infrequent car washes, oil changes, & any repairs)

Compare that with a $100 monthly TriMet pass.

If I sold the car, I'd have an extra $500 a month in the bank, $6,000 a year. My roommate, who doesn't own a car, who bikes himself around town and earns less than I do, still seems to have more money than I, funds at least enough to travel and eat out, things I can't afford. (However, he also has health insurance as a benefit of his job, and I do not, or at least won't until my three-month, new-job trial period is over, so for years I've been paying Kaiser $240 a month out-of-pocket for a high-deductible plan, which, since I'm laying myself bare here, is half my rent.) Since the roommate moved in this July, he's been gone on unpaid vacation leave about half the time, his employer eagerly granting such leave because of overproduction this year. It's not that he wouldn't like to have a car, he says; he just can't afford one on his full-time, more-than-minimum-wage salary.

The sad truth, shown in color by my pie chart, is that I can't afford a car, either. So I need to give it up, this car I bought nine months ago after my twenty-two-year-old Toyota died, this middle-aged, "near-luxury" Volvo. Of course, it would reflect better on me to say I'm going carless to reduce my part in greenhouse gas emissions, and that's certainly a side benefit, considering how northern nations are already elbowing for position to suck up all the minerals, gas, and oil in the melting Arctic. But mainly it's because I'm too poor to own a car, let alone a heavy, sturdy, gas-slurping Volvo.

The major downside of going carless is the inconvenience, of course. I'll have to stand outside in the winter rain and cold, waiting for public transportation. Plus, I'll have to wake up at least an hour earlier (and I'm no morning person) because commuting will take two-and-a-half times as long. And occasionally buses don't show up, or else they're late or early, all causing problems.

But on the plus side, I'll have more time for reading and daydreaming, sitting on the bus. And I'll be getting more exercise, with all the walking to, from, and between stops. Right now, with two jobs, all I do is sleep, drive, work, drive, cook, eat, drive, work, and drive some more, so adding some walking would be good, even if I get wet and cold in the process. And as I'm standing out in the cold rain, waiting for a bus, I'll be telling myself as a mantra: "$500 saved this month."



meal in three thoughts

Messermeister Park Plaza 8" Chef's Knife

1. In my family, we didn't sharpen or hone our knives. We either sawed away on our tomatoes with dull blades or bought new ones, cheap ones, culminating in a whole mismatched drawer full of mostly dull knives, a situation that improved somewhat once my handy step-father came on the scene and after the emergence of the TV-Ginsu, never-need-sharpening knives, which look like small saws. Growing up, I don't remember imagining what it would be like to knife (verb) someone, but if I had, I probably would have envisioned sawing on them, rather than piercing clean through, lacking the concept.

As an adult, I limited my knife collection to two, a paring knife and a chef's knife, but they were still the never-need-sharpening kind with tiny teeth. I figured someday I would splurge on a real knife set. I had hinted more than once to my ex that I would love a good knife set as a gift, but all he did was order a cheapo knife from Amazon, paying as much on next-day shipping as on the knife itself, since he hadn't planned ahead. That was towards the end of the relationship, when the giver no longer gave a shit, so when the marriage ended, I sent the thoughtless knife off with him.

A couple years later, my friend Jeff gave me a chef's knife for my birthday, a real knife with no teeth, the kind that draws blood when touched, that has heft in the hand, the kind that needs to be sharpened and honed. He honed my knife for the first time this weekend after I realized I'd been sawing on my vegetables the past couple months. He said that honing smooths out the jagged microscopic particles on the blade edge, different from sharpening. Sharpening should be done by professionals. But even honed, tonight my knife cut cleanly again into the flesh of my produce.

crookneck squash & ice cream scoop

2. Kitchen Tip: Use an ice cream scoop (mine's probably 10 years old from IKEA) to carve out the seeds and spongy core of overgrown summer squash or the stringy, seedy innards of winter squash. That way, no spoons get bent.

curried vegetable-sesame quinoa on thrifted Heath Ceramics

3. Recipe:
Curried Vegetable-Sesame Quinoa

This is one of my current too-few dishes in rotation, but it's easy and relatively quick to prepare, and showcases the umami power of sesame.

Cook 1 cup of rinsed quinoa in 2 cups of water and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Bring it to a boil, turn it down low, and simmer the seeds for 15 minutes. Then turn off the heat and leave the pot covered till needed.

Meanwhile, dice half a block of cubed tofu and sauté it in olive oil till lightly browned, along with some chopped garlic, half a bunch of chopped scallion, and a good heaping of curry powder (sorry—I'm not a purist). Add in whatever diced vegetables are on hand, starting with the vegetable in need of the longest time in the pan. (Tonight I used sweet red pepper, carrot, garden crookneck squash, and zucchini.) Add a little water and cover, if needed, until the vegetables are crisp-tender. Salt to taste. Stir in a dollop of tahini and a handful of chopped cilantro. Mix the seasoned vegetables with the quinoa. Enjoy the colors.


walnut gathering

hulled, dried English walnuts in shell, grown on Sauvie Island

Last fall, about a week before Halloween, Jeff and I drove over to Sauvie Island for the day with his mom's silent dog in the back of the Jeep. We stopped at the Bybee-Howell house and strolled around the knarled orchard, peeking in the empty windows, watching a pair of small green frogs hopping across the old cellar door.

Shiba Inu, Sauvie Island, October 2011

Then we took Shiba to the beach where she dug holes and snapped at the water's edge while we picnicked on peanuts, cheese, and apples, watching the V's of geese migrating above us, spying from a distance in our jeans, long sleeves, and knit hats on the naked people playing volleyball down the beach.

dog digging hole in sand, Sauvie Island, October 2011

After lunch, driving around the island, we came across a little market with a sign offering U-pick walnuts for 20 cents a pound, so we did, though I was too busy gathering them to take pictures. At first we could barely see any husks amid the leaf debris but soon found they were everywhere under foot. I was glad I was wearing my rubber boots as it was a messy job, and we quickly learned to stomp on the soft husks to squish out the nut balls and toe off the remaining green hull before stuffing them into plastic bags. With our dye-stained hands, we filled two or three bags and paid inside, a total of $4.41. Then we took them to Jeff's house and washed them in a bus tub in the sink, laying them out to dry on a big sheet on the floor of his spare room. Sometime in December, he dumped them back into the bus tub where they sat more or less forgotten till now.

hulled & shelled English walnuts, grown on Sauvie Island

Maybe it's all the squirrels running around town with their mouths full of nuts, but last night while watching TV we cracked open the first of last year's sweet, barely bitter, U-pick English walnuts, picking free of the hard, dry shells flying around the living room maybe a cup and a half of nutmeats. This morning, I mixed some of them into a batch of homemade granola. And we still have nuts to crack all winter.


no thirst for Nestle

Nestlé "Pure Life" plastic bottle, minus the water

A couple months ago, walking along Southeast 7th Avenue, I passed a defunct flyer on a restaurant-pub window announcing a June protest against Nestlé's attempts to bottle spring water on the Oregon side of the Columbia Gorge. Then right in the next block, discarded in the grass next to a sidewalk tree, lay an empty eight-ounce bottle of Nestlé water, branded "Pure Life." I've been meaning to write about Nestlé for months, and though I don't believe in signs, it felt like a sign, one I've kept in my thrifted wire-basket inbox tray as a reminder, till now.

Nestlé proclaims itself "the world's leading nutrition, health[,] and wellness company." But that's not what comes to my mind when I hear the brand name. Because of their decades-old marketing campaign aimed at children, whenever I hear the word Nestlé, I think of that white cartoon rabbit hawking chocolate milk. But Nestlé, just like Coke and Pepsi, is now selling not just sugared milk or soda but the very source of life. I've discussed water issues before, and maybe because of my name (Brooke/brook) and because water is my favorite beverage, I take offense to the corporate selling of the stuff we're made of. Water should no more be sold on the private market and profited on by shareholders than air. Both should be human rights. And unlike what many of us have slowly been indoctrinated by advertisers to believe, tap water is as safe if not safer than bottled water, especially when much of the pricey bottled stuff is actually just tap water in disguise, only with the addition of leaching carcinogenic plastic molecules. The Pure Life label reads: "Source: Southern Pacific Spring, Cabazon, CA. Purified using reverse osmosis or distillation and enhanced with a balance of minerals for taste." But try not to think about that plastic you're tasting. Yum. Oh, how effective those marketers have been, despite the rise in the last 10 years of reusable metal bottles, the discards of which fill a shelf at every Goodwill.

About a month ago, I was on break at my new job during training in Tigard, filling up my stainless-steel bottle at the water fountain between the restrooms, when one of the trainers walked by and stopped, her face showing worry lines.

"Oh! Did you know there's filtered water in the break room?"

"No, I didn't know, but it's no problem," I laughed. "I've lived in places where you couldn't drink the tap water. People here don't know how good they have it."

"Well, but there was a sewage scare a while back in Tigard. Some old pipes leaked."

"Oh. Huh."

And then the conversation turned to the places I'd lived and where I'd grown up and whom we knew in common (small world!). But the point is, Portlanders don't know how good they have it when it comes to their water. I grew up drinking pristine well water in Southern Oregon, outside the municipal supply, and which was even better than town water because it was neither chlorinated nor fluoridated and surely contained fewer pharmaceuticals. But then I lived and traveled in Europe and Asia, where the tap water ran in shades of yellow and brown, and locals told me to avoid the tap for obvious reasons. (And let me just state that forgetting to drink water because you're not used to buying and hauling water home on foot can create highly uncomfortable bladder and kidney problems.) Even in the California Bay Area, the water needed to be filtered to improve the taste. But that was all before I wised up and moved back to my home state where the tap runs clear.

reservoir notice board, Mt. Tabor, Portland

While a friend and I strolled around Mt. Tabor a couple weeks ago, I snapped a few shots of one of the old EPA-targeted open reservoirs, filled with Bull Run water. The signs on the black, pointed wrought iron threatened arrest and contained more exclamation points than any official sign I've ever seen: "Anyone throwing objects of any kind into this reservoir shall be subject to arrest under provisions of section 16.1353 City of Portland Police Code. This is your drinking water! ! !" Unfortunately, I forgot to photograph the cavernous dry reservoir we also passed, now-infamous for being drained after some drunk guy got caught urinating in it last year, eight million gallons of drinking water worth nearly $33,000 wasted because no one wants to drink infinitesimal parts per million of human pee, if she can help it.

notice, Mt. Tabor Reservoir

But back to Nestlé, this week I signed the Food & Water Watch petition to Governor Kitzhaber, requesting him to stop the Nestlé bottling plans for the Cascade Locks. And now, finally, I can recycle that silly, baby-sized plastic bottle full of air.    


nasturtium blooms

orange and yellow nasturtium

The balcony nasturtiums are blooming in shades of orange and yellow and producing their large, green, chickpea-like seed heads. For the record, I'm not ready for summer to end. I haven't even thawed out yet from last spring, though already the days are shorter and the nights colder again. (Seriously, people, the Northwest is not a climate in need of air conditioning. Why is the temperature cranked up to freezing in every building?)

Everywhere I look, grass is browning, plants are going to seed, ready to self-immolate, turning themselves over, hari-kari-like, into next year's generation. Soon I'll be taking my three red geraniums to work to winter by a sunny window. It makes me want to put on the brakes, dig in my heels, slow the seasonal train, and go camping (though I can't afford this month even the gas to get into the mountains or the site fees).

Yet still I've been tidying up my apartment, washing, ironing, and mending clothes, and making sure everything on my to-do list that I'd been putting off for weeks is now checked off and stored, me a squirrel packing her corners with nuts, prepping for winter. For over a month now, I've been itching to start knitting a new sweater every week and having to restrain myself because the two cardigans I've been working on sporadically for almost a year are still unfinished.

Despite all my pretensions to simple living, it's rare that I feel content in the moment, full of the present, full with what is, rather than perpetually peering around the next corner, planning ahead (along with a little worrying), wishing, hoping, wanting—neither fully ant nor grasshopper. If anything, I'm an ant who drags her feet, continually arresting herself mid-chore to look behind to see what she's missing.


field trip: Marion Lake

early autumn in the Cascades

Over the weekend, I drove southeast into the mountains with some friends to hike up to Marion Lake, a pristine, natural gem just above the artificially dammed, motorboat-infested reservoir called Detroit Lake in Linn County.

potential rock slide, Marion Trail

On the easy, mostly flat, six-mile round-trip trail, we passed several future rock slides and early signs of autumnal color changes. We were chattered at by a speeding chipmunk and hovered over by a metallic-blue dragonfly. We skirted piles of horse and deer or elk droppings along the path. And (shhh) we lost the trail once for about 20 minutes after taking what looked like a detour down to the water, our steps crunching the carpet of tinder-dry pine cones—which is why at the trail head the Forest Service requests that parties register everyone's names, so they can track forest use and assist search-and-rescue (though, oops, we had not filled out the form).

yellow raft on Marion Lake

Once at the lake, live pines stood nearest the water and dead ones ranged farther outwards, thanks to a couple of forest fires in the past 10 years, leaving the mountains looking a bit gray-faced but still worth the hike. I sat at the edge of the lake in the afternoon sun in the high stillness, hearing the soft breath of horses tethered in a nearby cove, wishing I had a nylon camping hammock to string up around any two trees for a nap, reading myself to sleep.

leafy branch, Marion Lake

But I was two-and-a-half hours from home, with evening plans in the city, and couldn't stay. We ran into a shovel-toting park ranger on the way back, a youthful philosophy graduate of my alma mater who said he was park ranging because he "couldn't find anything else" and that he'd actually been borrowed from someone's Parks and Recreation Department because of federal cost-cutting measures.

wooden trail, Marion Lake

So many people live on this planet, seven billion now. It's strange how paths can cross just once in a lifetime, people who chat on a bus or make conversation in line to pass time, and then never see each other again—and never care. It happens every day. I often think about all the photos in albums of people I don't know, random faces in the margins, frozen in motion in the frame, who are themselves the center of their own albums and myself, in turn, a stranger in their background, unknown and therefore faceless, like the extras in films, paid to laugh and make fake talk, so the center seems real. 

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