Friday, November 10, 2006

Georges Seurat, American Imperialism, and the Meaning of it All

This is a mission field, I tell you. Who needs to go to third world countries when we’ve got the same conditions right here in Baltimore? I’m starting to think that the only places that are worse are in Africa; particularly the Sudan and Somalia.

Jonathan and I have inadvertently arrived at a method for dealing with the overwhelming sorrow of all of this by sharing one or two short stories before we just stop talking about it and go on to something else, like watching a TV show or a movie or something to get our minds off of it. Then we write, write, write about it and proofread each other’s stuff. It’s very therapeutic and helps us to validate and compare our experiences without having to deal with it head on all the time.

I was thinking about how our country is on this democratic globalization binge at the moment (now the radical Native American Studies grad student / sci-fi nut in me comes out), which is really the newest form of imperialization and colonization; but we have black holes in our own country like Baltimore and all the other urban areas with the same problem. It makes me desperate for our country to take a “Star Trek” approach to international relations and develop some kind of “prime directive” (which, in “Star Trek,” forbids any effort to improve or change in any way the natural course of any other society, even if that change is well-intentioned and kept completely secret, because such interference always leads to disaster for the society being interfered with). I mean, we are all over the world forcing our way of life down the throats of as many countries as we can, as if it is actually working HERE, and this is all disguised as “spreading democracy” when it’s really all about money (colonization).

Iraq is a perfect case in point—I begin to understand what many Iraqis mean when they say things were better under Saddam Hussein: he was a cruel, brutal, genocidal tyrant, but they had little crime, the cities were beautiful, and the country was livable (what they say, not what I say—it was only livable if you didn’t happen to end up on Saddam’s bad side somehow, so I’m still glad he’s out of there, but I think we could have helped them without declaring an all out war and bombing the hell out of the country).

Sorry—I find it impossible these days to not think about what we’re seeing here in our schools and on the streets without thinking in terms of the global picture and our (the US) part in it. While we have dedicated around three hundred and fifty billion dollars ( to the effort and are fighting a losing battle in Iraq, a battle that was never ours to begin with, our kids are being eaten alive by the streets of our own country (finally I get to my point) and I don’t see any great initiatives designed to fight the battle to liberate them, nor any money going out to attempt to solve the problem; and now I am sure that while we may reach a few kids and make a difference in their lives, there is no way that we are going to solve the core problems that exist here because they are out of our reach to fix—but at least we show up every day and do our best to fight what seems like a losing battle. Losing or not, I’ll do the best I can even though it is not nearly enough; the kids need so much more than I have to give them.

I started watching “The Wire” this week. I’m renting it from Netflix and have started at the beginning of season 1. I’m so glad that I didn’t start watching it before I started teaching, because if I had I probably would have thought it was overly dramatic and way worse than what really exists here. Now that I’ve been teaching for two months I know that it is NOT overly dramatic or way worse—it actually seemed kind of subdued (all except for the overuse of the word “f***”—I keep telling my students that they really need to find some new cuss words, because the one they keep using is really unoriginal and overdone; they look at me like I’m from another planet because I think it’s the first time they’ve been told something different than to just stop saying it, which I also tell them).

I asked my kids what they think of “The Wire” and about half of them say they like it and the other half say they don’t. When I asked either side why they like or don’t like it they gave me the exact same reason: because it is so realistic. The kids that like it say it is so realistic that it is really relevant to their experience and it makes them feel validated; while the kids that don’t like it say that it is so realistic that it makes them feel like it is all too much, so they don’t watch it anymore (“I live it, Ms. A—I don’t need to watch that on TV when it’s goin’ on right outside my door,” they say).

About halfway through the first episode I asked myself, “Now why did I think I wanted to watch this?” because it was so realistic as to seem like a seamless continuation of my day. But the answer is that it helps me to understand a little more about what the conditions are like at “home” for a lot of my students, and I’ve made a deal with myself to never look away. I was surprised at how validated it made ME feel to watch it. It also solidified my resolve to encourage my husband to “see no evil” while he’s driving the bus, because he sees too many drug deals in a day to ever be safe if he were called on as a witness.

One of the things that all of this writing about what we’re doing is helping me with is to really look at the whole experience. After I’ve written as much as I have about the problem, and then I try to focus on a solution, I realize that there is no solution that I can provide that will fix any of this. All I can do is to just keep showing up every day, bear witness to the lives of these kids, and do the little things that I’m actually able to do that might have some impact on the 129 individuals entrusted to my care for 3 ¾ hours a week.

Yesterday, two students who I had never even seen before came to me after school because the director of the Native American Program for our school district (which is housed at our school because of the high number of Native American students) told them that I have a masters in Native American studies. They are on the debate team and had a statement to defend that concerned Native American issues. The very quiet young man insisted that they stick to the facts in their defense, but the very vocal young woman kept taking her premise concerning what the government should do to facilitate the perpetuation of indigenous languages and expanded that to a more global effort to eradicate the US government. She is WAY more well read on philosophy than I am (and I have to tell you it was so encouraging to deal with two students this smart at my school—I don’t get to see that very much in my art classes, which is kind of depressing for a lot of reasons). She also had a lot of great points about why we should burn our governmental structure to the ground and give all the land back to the Native Americans.

However, the two of them had come to me to get supporting facts for their argument, which I gave them. The young man kept trying to pull her back to bullet points that would help them win the debate, but she kept trying to grind her “eradicate the US government” axe with her debate topic as the whetstone. I was grasping for ways to help her understand that that is not the way to win a debate or to change the world and I found a metaphor in Seurat (which made me feel like maybe I might be a good art teacher after all): I explained to her how he used pointillism to paint these enormous pictures and what pointillism is (neither of them had heard of this); then I explained that winning her debate was like one dot of paint on the canvas, and winning the next debate was another dot, and meanwhile other people around the world are fighting the same battle against American imperialism that she is and that their small victories are the other dots in the painting, etc.—eventually the job gets done if everyone does their own small part every day; and no one can win the battle fighting the whole thing at once all by themselves in one debate.

I found that that was very good advice for ME, especially when I’m feeling like all of my efforts are futile. Every day that I show up to work is a dot on the canvas, and every day that Jonathan shows up, and all the other teachers and bus drivers and resource officers …..those are all dots on the canvas of Baltimore’s problems. With any luck they will paint a beautiful picture, eventually, that will eradicate the ugly one that exists here now. It helps me to think in terms of an art metaphor, as if there may be some sort of purpose in all of this.

Now I’m getting ready to go work on my dot of paint for the day. I’ll do my best to make it beautiful.

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