Manifesto to the Citizens of Oakland

(sent to the Express which probably won’t print it but what the hey anyway)

I just can’t stand it any longer.  When at eight o’clock in the morning, on Saturday even, Oakland Superintendant of Public Schools Joe Coto appears on the television set next to my bed and starts telling lies about math scores in Oakland — “in all grades math scores are at or above national average” — then The Old Pooperoo here is obliged by nothing less sacred than his civic duty to write down The Real Truth about education in our dearly beloved Bump City, so that you my fellow citizen will know why it is going to hell in a hand basket, even while your elected school board and its appointed superintendent limn the Oakland schools to the skies above.  It has to do with psychological denial, I say.

Allow the writer of these disgruntled lines to introduce himself, dear reader.  In academic year 85-86 your notsohumble informant taught ninth-grade algebra at Frick Junior High here in town, two blocks from Eastmont Mall.  In 1983 my translation of the mathematical manuscripts of Karl Marx was published in paperback by a small since defunct left-wing press in London, just in time to coincide with the centennial of that philosopher’s death.  In 1970 I was awarded a master’s degree in early modern European history for a study of the increase of the level of mathematics in French military preparatory academies during the course of the eighteenth century, and in 1969 the California Institute of Technology gave me a bachelor’s degree in astronomy.

At the end of that year at Frick my students were tested for “algebra mastery” by the Coordinated College Preparatory Program of the University of California at Berkeley, a community outreach program hired for several hundreds of thousands of dollars by Oakland schools, and not a single one passed.  Just prior to the test the chairman of the math department at Frick cautioned me not to be too sanguine in expectation: the same cohort tested at the end of the previous year in his eighth-grade prealgebra classes had produced only one student who passed.  That, gentle reader, is far from at or above the national average.

You don’t have to take my word for it, gentle reader: the author of the recent much-heralded million-dollar Guthrie Report on the deficiencies of the Oakland city schools was quoted in the Tribune as admitting that when he began his research the school system was “the worst [he] had ever seen,” and one is to presume that a senior professor of education at our leading state university campus has seen a substantial number of school systems in his day — more than you or I is or are likely to see in our lifetimes, dear reader.

You don’t like my manner? Yes, it’s calculated, the writer of these lines confesses, to grate on your nerves, but that’s only because I’m a practicing anti-rhetoritician, and I personally offend your sensibilities right away so that my persuasion of you rests alone on the logical validity of the selected facts adduced and not at all on my success in pandering to your vapid and banal sensitivities, inverted though they may be.

We all live in culture shock around here, and the only way to communicate cross-culturally is to insult all interlocutors equally.  If there remain any readers not yet insulted by this lone Maori living in Kikuyu country, the writer will make an effort to get around to you as we go along.

All inner city school systems are bad, but Oakland’s is particularly striking in the manic (or you could say maniacal and mean the same thing) denial of the rotten state of affairs.  Just about a year ago I was walking a picket line on the sidewalk in front of Frick,

Just after having finished reading an article in the Chronicle which gave the detailed statistical breakdown of teachers’ wages in the twenty largest school districts in the state,

And of course Oakland was twentieth and of course that’s what the strike was all about, To refuse any good faith any longer in the worst-paid worst-everything inner city school district in California,

When a recently elected School Board member within months of her installation in office

Alighted from a car practically in front of me and introduced herself.

Her name is or was at that time Althea Abbott.

This woman of my age, of delicate regular features, an intelligent eye,

With a confident, even gregarious manner,

Even while protesting her personal high regard for her own reputation for integrity,

Denied the truth of the wage levels printed in the newspaper.

She preferred to believe statistics put out by her board’s Office of Superintendent of Schools, even though the board she had recently joined had found it necessary to fire for juggling figures the last incumbent in that office.  She was impervious to the argument of mine that the semipornographic scandalmongering rag of the Yuppie Life Style had no reason to show partiality to underpaid working-class teachers, for if anything they hate unions at the Chronicle; she had a psychological block preventing her from acknowledging publicly the paucity of our wages.

For those of my readers still following this tortuous prose I ask you to travle nostalgically back in time with me, to the amber-hued days of the far-distant youth of the Old Pooperoo, when with his hand in his father’s paw he tripped the streets of the North End of Boston, asking as youths will uncomfortable questions of his paternal relative, a product of the Boston city school system who had escaped the Italian-American ghetto.

“You know,” said my father, “those Yankees had a lot of things to answer for” — and my darker-hued readers will need no help of mine to recall what kind of trade those New England clipper-ship merchants engaged in that they might in the larger scheme of things have reason to feel sorry about — “but I’ll say one thing for ’em : Boston had good schools until the Irish got ahold of them.”  The Italians of Massachusetts, ladies and gentlemen, do not sing hosannahs of praise in memory of the day when the Irish obtained political power in the Commonwealth; some hotheads go so far as to lament — lament, ladies and gentlemen — the irreparable damage, damage I say, done to the political institutions of the state and of the the Republic herself, I say, by the irresponsible abusers of power of Irish origin lately elevated to positions of public trust.  Harumph  Of course their voices are drowned in the general cacophony, unimaginable I assure you to anyone used to the relative rarity of corruption in California state politics, of a horde of ethnic groups jockeying for a place at the public trough, oink, oink-like, not to mention the fact that we Italians have the same national-ethnic origin as a crook named Foster Furcolo, a quondam governor of said Commonwealth who happened to have a wealthy father-in-law sent to jail at an advanced age.

Whence your cynical fellow citizen draws the general conclusion that Any Repressed Group of People When First They Get Real Political Power, Abuse It.

A downhome application of which is that Althea Abbott happens to be black and female, part of a black female majority on the school board of the city of Oakland, which can expect deteriorating schools until our society sees black females as no longer the latest chic cause but just plain abusers of political power in this here Bump City.

About M. Meo

Worked as translator, museum technician, truck lumper, lecture demonstrator, teacher (of English as a Second Language, science, math). Married for 25 years, 2 boys aged 18 & 16 (both on the Grant cross-country team). A couple of scholarly publications in the history of science. Two years in federal penitentiary, 1970/71, for refusing the draft.
This entry was posted in Education, Inequality, Local government, Oakland. Bookmark the permalink.

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