Confessions of a Public School Nomad

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How far would you go to get your kids the best education? We went 775 miles for it. And I almost stabbed a guy.

We used to live in a third floor walkup in the University City section of Philadelphia.

There was a mosque across the street, and this place called Saad’s on the corner where you could buy Middle Eastern deli food. I didn’t know such a thing existed until we moved there. Now I associate cheese steaks with schwarma.

It was beautifully ugly. There were three thrift stores and two coffee shops, within a block from our house. Two ethiopian restaurants and a bar called the Watusi. It was the first place I ever went where you could drink a shot and play chess, while people competed for a $100 grand prize in karaoke.

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Greenline Cafe

Students and scholars loved that little grimy neighborhood. It was the philosophical intersection of Paris, Mecca and Timbuktu. But for children- not so good. There were parties and fights and panhandlers. A lot of panhandlers. The kind that would approach a nine year old girl and ask for her lunch money. The kind that would call her a liar if she said she didn’t have any.

We had moved there for the school; Penn Alexander. It  was one of the best elementary schools in the city, and after crunching the numbers, we realized that it was the only one that we could actually afford to move close to. So that’s what we did.

I didn’t know how rough it was there until after we moved to Atlanta.

I was telling a co-worker about the guy that tried to steal our food. The coldest night that winter. My wife and I, my two step kids and our baby daughter were walking from our car to  the front door of our apartment building.

First he asked for some money. Then he put his hands on the bag. Then my arm.

My family went in front of me. I lagged behind, keeping myself between him and them.

He wedged himself into the door before I could close it, and tried to force himself in. They were inside, halfway up the stairs. I showed him the knife that I kept in my pocket. He held up his hands, shouted, “Don’t stab me,” and then left.

That guy at work said, “For real?!”

The look on his face told me that our University City struggle wasn’t normal. The time I confronted the guy for trying get money from my daughter and her young friends. Remember, they were about nine years old. He’d move in like he was their drunk uncle, weathered hand outstretched. And when they told him no, he’d shout at them. When I found out, we “talked” on the corner, outside of Saad’s.

But that school was top notch.

Before we moved to Atlanta we researched the catchments and lined up our house search according to the district. Our oldest wanted to go to performing arts school. It had to have at least three stars; not easy to find… One month after we moved, two days before the school year started, we found out that they had rearranged the districts. Hours on Citydata, wasted.

Our oldest went to McNair Middle. They had lockdowns on a regular basis. Students attacked teachers. Teachers attacked them back. Our youngest went to McNair Learning Academy. That McNair.

I read an article in Slate Magazine suggesting that if you send your kids to a private school, then you’re a bad person. Her premise was sound. Instead of private schools, we parents need to dig in our heals and get active at the district. Makes sense.

She suggested that the right parents can motivate their  children no matter what school they attend – that doesn’t make as much sense. Can the right parents can make up for the lockdowns and the school fights, the bullying and the assaults?

At McNair they told my daughter that she sounded white. They called her Jamaican and African, because her hair is locked, English because of her diction. She couldn’t believe that these things  were considered insulting. But that’s the thing about an insult. It doesn’t matter that it is ridiculous. It’s the intent that counts. That, and the half dozen of people standing in the circle around you, laughing because they want to see blood.

She overcame that. She stood up for herself and soon she had her own circle of friends. I told her I was proud of her. I’m going to tell her again today.
While she could defang the bullies, she couldn’t make the teachers not quit. She couldn’t keep the principal from leaving during the middle of the year.

Student’s can’t overcome a school that is falling apart at the seams. And parenting can’t make up for it; not in the short term, anyway. How long does it take to turn the rudder on a broken bureaucracy? Five years? More? My kids are only going through primary school once. We have to make every grade count.

I wish I had a better answer, but looking back on the turmoil that the Philadelphia public school system has been undergoing; firings, school closing, budget shortfalls, I feel like by moving to Atlanta we outran an explosion.

Now what? These problems are way bigger than Miley Cyrus twerking, or even Syria, but I don’t hear too many people talking about education. Shouting about it, yes. Pointing fingers and wringing their hands about it from either side of an ideological divide, but not talking.  Meanwhile, our public schools are going under.

What do you do, when you have three kids and one childhood each to teach them properly? Twelve years isn’t a long time to get it right.

Some people go up to the school with a list of demands. It’s the right thing to do, and when that person gets with two or three other people, changes can happen. But remember, there are 23 schools in Philadelphia that were open last June but now no longer exist. Seven hundred teachers who won’t return to the classrooms. Activism doesn’t work when your city officials are ready to pull the plug. And in many cases, they pulled the plug years ago, they just haven’t told the schools yet.

So some people put their kids in private school. I can’t blame them.  Everyone can’t be like us, moving to find schools that aren’t on the respirator. Besides, eventually, we may run out of good school catchments to move our kids to.

The Youtube Hydroponic Cheat Sheet: Wick Edition

People who only grow things in the summer are suckas! Yeah. I just said it. And?! Bosses grow whether it’s hot or cold. And although I totally missed out on that container garden that my wife and I had planned, I’m going to be growing mustard greens in my den this February. Like… A… Bawsss!

It’s called hydroponics. I wrote about it here and here. But before we start making salads, like a boss, we need to talk about how it’s done.

There are six methods of growing hydroponics. They include cutting edge systems so efficient that they are damned near magic. In aeroponics, for example, the plants hover in a holographic mist of nutrients and positive affirmations. Okay. No they don’t. I don’t know what the hell they do. I know that nutrient enriched mist is sprayed on them at regular intervals. And I know that in a lot of the pictures depicting aeroponics, the plants are housed in what look like laboratories. I’m not ready. Maybe next week.

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Aeroponics: If I had a spaceship, one room would look just like this.

For now I am going to keep it stone age simple.

The following youtube video depicts a wick hydroponic system. In wick hydroponics, the plants rest in a growing medium, like dirt or rocks. They do this for no other reason but support. Beneath them, snaking down into a cocktail of water and nutrients is a wick.

If you’ve ever had a chemistry set with one of those little wick style burners, then you get the point. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Picture a little molotov cocktail, but instead of throwing it, you put it on your desk beneath some chemicals that you got in a box for Christmas. My childhood was full of adventure.

Instead, think of a straw at Wendys. The nutrients are the frosty, the plant is a kid who made the mistake of thinking that because frostys come in beverage cups, they are meant to be drank with straws. Slowly, the water flows up the wick, providing the plant with measured nutrition. Unlike the child with his frosty, the plant thrives.

Wick systems are so simple that some people question whether or not they really constitute hydroponics at all. There are no little pumps involved, and no cool gadgets to rig up. In fact, if you have a two liter bottle, some pebbles and a roll of paper towel, then you can begin this first hydroponic project right now.

How much can you grow? Depends on how much soda you drink.

 

The Shocking Reason I don’t use the N word! Warning: Bitches and Motherfuckers Ahead

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Let’s get this one thing clear. From here, through the end of this post I will be breaking a covenant. I’m going to use the N word…nigger. I’m going to use it more than once. Probably more times than I used it in the entire year. Get ready. If you have pearls, prepare to clutch them. Teeth? Get to gnashing.

But let’s start at the beginning. In the suburbs of Philadelphia, in the early 70’s. You see, my parents met in West Philadelphia, but my father was a truck driver and business man. They needed land for his trucks. A lot of land. So they moved to Lima Pennsylvania when I was around four.

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I attended a string of schools where I was the only Black kid in the class. This is what that experience looked like in the 70’s and 80’s.

  • On the bus to kindergarten there were a few kids who liked to shout that I was the same color as shit. This was a daily thing. So much so that after a while it lost its sting. I began to sleep through it. I guess they stopped.
  • In elementary school, when the kids wanted to zing me, they said, “At least I’m not Black!” This was an established argument ender. No matter what I said afterwards it fell on deaf ears. Mic dropped. Stage owned. On to the next one…
  • Middle school camping trip. A boy shouts, “Nigger!” as he pulls an Army knife from his red backpack. We had just left the bus. I was about to spend four days in the woods with this kid. Here he was, beet red, holding a 12 inch knife in my face. I don’t remember what the fight was about. I only have the vaguest memory of what he looked like, and I couldn’t tell you his name. But I remember that knife. I can tell you everything about it.

This was in the early 80’s. If political correctness was a thing, it hadn’t circulated down to us yet. The kids were like a stream of consciousness for the id of white America.

  • In ninth grade I remember the Black jokes. One guy loved to tell them. He must have had a book. He would pull me to the side. Lay one on me. Look at the reaction. Did I ever laugh?

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High school… I remember the Black kids. They weren’t in my classes but I remember them. My school district had a habit of putting children with my complexion into special ed; especially the boys. It happened quick; one day your in one class, the next your in a wing of the school that you didn’t know existed, talking about your feelings and reviewing basic algebra.

It happened to me twice; once in Middle school and once in High school. It happened to my brother, too. Each time our mother fought. But not everyone has a mother like ours. She was an educator herself, and she was fierce, like a lioness with an uzi.

But as a result, I was almost always the only Black boy in my classes. Segregation lite.

These schools weren’t in red states. They were in suburbs that are now considered to be affluent. Where the white folk are educated and liberal, and racism isn’t supposed to exist. But the bathroom walls were marked with the words “nigger” and KKK.

Then I went to an HBCU. Cheyney University, home of Ed Bradley and some of the fiercest thinkers in the world.

A strange thing happened on that campus. I began to hear the words, “nigger,” and “motherfucker”. A lot. And not as insults, either. They were, like, regular pronouns, to be used in place of he, she, they…

This was kind of a city thing – a hip hop thing. But my exposure to rap at that point was limited. I had cousins in West Philly who were all up in it. Once I met Kid Capri and KRS1 in my grandfather’s house. My cousin had brought them by. They were just standing there…being, themselves. Late 70’s I think. Early 80’s?

But they weren’t really playing rap on the radio. Yo MTV Raps was just becoming a thing. There was Rap City, but you had to stay up real late. And we didn’t have cable.

I was ill prepared. I had been called nigger a lot up til then. At school, hurled from truck windows, at the public pool… It was the fighting word. Same with motherfucker. I was cool with them as insults. Me and nigger and motherfucker had a fulfilling, though distant, relationship.

Now, nigger and motherfucker were all up in my space. With niggas shouting motherfucker like it wasn’t actually an insult to you and your mother. Bitch, on the other hand, hadn’t been corrupted yet. Call a woman bitch and the world would look on and understand why you just got slapped.

“What he do?!”

“Nigga called her a bitch!”

“Why’d that motherfucker do that!?”

I wonder if some of the Cheyney students had never been called “nigger” in anger. Although they could tell you, chapter and verse, about the affects of racism on American soil, police brutality and institutionalized racism, how much did they know about what it’s like to have a white kid shout nigger at you, just because you were Black and he was too frustrated to come up with anything better?

I fought it. I listened to conscious rap. Hung out with the kids from the pan african group. And when it became clear that nigger and motherfucker weren’t linguistic fads, but necessary components of the Black lexicon, I quietly tried to make peace with them.

But guess what. I couldn’t do it. And not just because the word makes me angry all up in my spine.

I could have lived with that. I would have used it sparingly, like sriracha hot sauce. I stood out as much at Cheyney, for being a “white talking” yellow, Black boy from the suburbs, as I had in primary school, for being the only Black kid on the playground. Making peace with nigger was a compromise that I was willing to make.

But I couldn’t say it. It wouldn’t come together right in my mouth. What came out didn’t sound at all like what the kids were saying at college, as a catchall pronoun for everyone. It sounded like “NIGGER.”

The only way I could say it was like a white dude, leaning out of a pickup truck. Same with motherfucker. When I say it, it isn’t Snoop Lion smooth. It’s Motherfuckerr. Like a nerdy white kid with braces. Or, like the Black dude that grew up next door to him.

That failed linguistic experiment ended decades ago. I watched the proliferation of “nigger” from the sidelines, both unable and unwilling to participate in its meteoric rise in popularity. There are people, both white and Black, who feel as if this is a handicap. My Blackness, already weakened by my light skin, is disfigured beyond recognition by my unwillingness to cozy up to the word nigger.

Now, I admit, my hood-pass is probationary at best. But when it comes to Blackness, your dead wrong. But somewhere along the way, Hood and Black became inverted. Instead of the inner city being one small aspect of what it is to be Black in America, it became accepted as the definition of all things Black. Which is bullshit. Blackness is bigger than all of the hoods in all of the cities in the country. We’re everywhere. Pop culture doesn’t reflect this, but it is truth.

I miss the days when nigger was a fighting word. Things were more simple then. There were boundaries that your white friends knew not to cross, not even when they were high and you were both listening to Mos Def and talking about the world.

It’s hard to demand respect when there aren’t clear boundaries. Instead, we wave nigger in their face, daring them to use it… Say it… And then we get them for it. I don’t care how funny it is when Dave Chapelle says, “Fuck yo couch, nigga!!!”, white person, it isn’t okay if you say it.

I miss the days when this was common knowledge. An irrevocable truth. Before Gwyneth Paltrow took to the stage singing Niggers in Paris, as if that’s fucking okay. As painful as High School was, at least I knew that when a white dude shouted nigger, he meant it. I didn’t have to sit there, trying to figure out their motives while they insulted me and my ancestors.

I try not to write too much about race. It makes me mad all up in my spine. But after the Trayvon Martin verdict, I wrote this. And this is what I had to say about The Butler. I will not be seeing it.

Finding your Inner Warrior, the Renaissance Faire Edition

The above video kind of blew my mind. It is five minutes of something called the Free Scholar exam. The guy in the green shorts displays his knowledge of fencing, by taking on his whole class.
This isn’t what swordsmanship is supposed to look like. I saw most of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. I also saw Romeo and Juliet, the one from the 1968, and the Three Musketeers… and Zorro. From that, I had developed a vision of swordplay that was big and reckless. Theatrical.
This is different. It is sticky; sensitive. It’s also slow and thoughtful – the polar opposite of what fencing has become. Of course it’s just practice- an actual fight would look very different, but it suggests a level of awareness and gamesmanship that is worlds beyond average swordplay.
There was a time when I considered taking up the sword. There were clubs on Drexel’s campus dedicated to both Fencing and Kendo. Both arts have an undeniable nerd-coolness to them. But can you use them in a fight? Hmmm…
This is different. It is the art of the European Renaissance. This evolved centuries before fencing became what it is today, an elegant sport, distilled down to just a few techniques. This was an art developed by men whose lives depended on competency with such weapons. It also came at a time when people were becoming obsessed with explaining how things work. They wrote about it swordsplay, a lot.
This art is the beneficiary of copious writings of old school swordsmen, combined with loving reconstruction by contemporary zealots. Call it a rebirth.
Although they train with a wooden sword, they have a whole host of weapons and tactics at their disposals, including daggers, pole arms and empty hands.
I asked if one could use fencing or kendo in a real fight. At the time when I was looking at those arts, I let the martial arts forums make the decision for me. The answer was a resounding no. “Who carries a sword?” They demanded.
My own experience tells me otherwise. I practiced Shotokan Karate at a small but renowned school in West Philadelphia, for a time. One of my fellow white belts happened to teach kendo in Princeton New Jersey (…I think it was Princeton).
The man was lightning quick. He also had a gift for making your decisions for you. He would leave an opening, let you walk in and then punish you for being so gullible. Unless you are a highly trained martial artist, he could probably beat you bloody with his bare hands.
Now, let’s put a stick – a broom handle for example – in his hands. See how this fight goes.
The thing is, how often do grownups throw fists? I can think of two times in the past five years when I felt the lives of my family were in jeopardy. The first time I pulled a small knife from my front pocket. The second time I grabbed a big Mag-lite flashlight. Fisticuffs is for honor fights and competitions. Yet we train as if there is a genuine danger of being held up by a mugger who is versed in Muay Thai, or ninjutsu.
I’ve come to the conclusion that you just have to learn what you feel the most passionate about, and then make it work. Although I wish I had at least checked out the kendo class rather than letting the forum warriors make the decision for me, I have found my home with Hsing Yi kung fu.
Some guys, however, want to fight real old school. They need to check out the sword arts of Renaissance Europe. They’ll be the baddest dudes at Medieval Times!

In case you didn’t know it, I write about martial arts. Particularly the ones that are underrepresented at the local strip mall. Like combat archery, which is just one more pointy thing the Atienza Kali have to put in you.

Thanks Mushtaq Ali Al Ansari. You are a font of knowledge of the obscure killing arts.

The Pink Sari Revolution! A Sane Response to Insane Injustice

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Sampat Pal, Commander and Chief of India’s Pink Gang

Last night I went to sleep with Antoinette Huff on my mind. She’s the one that talked a gunman out of murdering a bunch of kids at a school in Georgia. That school just happens to be a few miles from my house. It is the school that my son attended. It’s been on my mind.

She is a hero. Even if she would rather give credit to Jesus Christ, God couldn’t have asked for a better messenger during those moments. She kept her cool and got a man who had plainly stated that he was ready to kill, and die, to lay down his weapons. She even helped him surrender to the police, saving his life in the process.

I went to sleep wishing that type of cool tenacity could be bottled up and distributed to police and school teachers and administrators nationwide. And then I woke up…

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This is Islan Nettles

Above is a picture of Islan Nettles. She is a transgender woman. On Saturday, her and her friend, also transgender, were assaulted in Harlem. This jumped off after one of the guys realized that she had not been born female. They shouted slurs at her and beat her into a coma. She died this morning. 

Thousands of miles away, on Thursday in Mumbai India, a photojournalist was gang raped by four men in an abandoned textile mill.  

Enter Sampat Pal. She was married off at the age of twelve, and had her first of five children at 15. That’s how most stories end. She was supposed to march silently into the future. Get old. Die silently. But in 2006 she began a fellowship called the gulabi, after the pink saris that they wore – (gulabi is hindi for pink). In a country where two out of three women suffer from domestic abuse, Sampat Pal and her gang of 20,000 pay visits to abusive husbands. They can be very persuasive.

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The Gulabi Gang! Punks Jump Up and get Beat Down! 

“When I go around with a stick, it’s to make men fear me.” She said in an interview with Slate magazine. “I don’t always use it, but it helps change the mind of men who think they are more powerful than me” Her group is spreading, too. She’s got a clique in France. How long before her crew starts strutting through the streets of NYC?

To be clear, violence against women is nothing new; not in India, and not here. But when you kick people long enough, and hard enough, sometimes they kick back. Something to think about if your manhood is so fragile that you have to beat a person to death in order to protect it. If common sense can’t stay your hand, and if the law can’t do it… then a gang of people who are tired of being fucked with can.

There are a lot of different kinds of heroes. Antoinette Huff was just what the kids at McNair elementary needed. But sometimes, folks just need to go pick up a really big stick.

Arrow Catching!!! The Antidote to Combat Archery?!

Here you’ll find Professor Ronald Duncan catching. He does a lot of other things too, like evading a samurai sword and jabbing a guy in the throat. A lot. But at the five minute mark, he went all Naruto on us and plucked arrows out of the air.

Pay attention. You’ll need to know this when the combat archers invade your house.
Combat Archery! It’s a thing. I wrote about it not too long ago. You can read it here.
Click the link and you will see arrows emerging from doorway shadows, whispering through the air before they sink into the target with a satisfying thunk.
The dudes are masters of Atienza Kali, a martial art that is all knife, all the time; unless they have a handgun handy. Then they’ll shoot your ass. Well, I guess they didn’t think that was bad-ass enough, because they added the bow to their arsenal.
Does arrow catching have any real combat applications? A compound bow can launch an arrow at about 205 mph. So, arrow catching is a low percentage option.
There are a lot of things that would have to go wrong before I start trying to catch arrows. But, I’m sure that somewhere, somewhen, you had soldiers
who did catch arrows on the battlefield, at least once. I mean, you had guys that were saved from AK47 rounds because the bullet got lodged in a deck of playing cards held in the breast pocket. People get lucky. Just don’t count on it.
The real reason I posted this is because of Professor Ronald Duncan. He recently passed, but he was a true martial arts master. There are dozens of videos on youtube in which people catch arrows. The Mythbuster guys even went in on it, proving that it is possible, but impractical. But I think Duncan did it best.

These posts feature another Black ninja, Ali Abdul Karim Hanshi. I believe he was a student of Duncan, but I’m not sure. Anyway, check them out here, where he talks about the principles of the fighting system of the ninja, taijutsu.

Antoinette Tuff, Hero of the McNair School Shooting.

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This is Antoinette Tuff. She Risked Her Life Yesterday

Yesterday I wrote about the shooting at the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy.

My step son was a student there last year. I knew the landscape. I had dropped him off numerous times. My wife and I went to the open house, then to the honors ceremony. So I sat and watched the events unfold, feeling an odd sense deja vu.

I pictured a sloppy drunk with an old 38. Someone inherently harmless. Maybe that’s a defense mechanism. Maybe I did it because I didn’t want to go down that rabbit hole that would end with nightmares about Sandy Hook.

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Michael Brandon Hill

Well, the gunman’s name is Michael Brandon Hill. He’s 20, mentally ill and he was very heavily armed.

Normally you have to be buzzed into the school, but Hill slipped in behind a parent. He was armed with an AK 47, with other weapons in his backpack. He expressed that he was ready to die, and kill. And to prove his point he opened fire on the police from inside of the school.

Antoinette Tuff kept her cool. When he began to go into the area where the children were, she got his attention. And they talked. He told her that his life was over. She told him about how she had gone through her own challenges. By the end of the dialogue, she had managed to get him to put down the weapon. She even helped him surrender. A lot of people own their lives to Antoinette Tuff, including Brandon Michael Hill.

Our schools are full of heroes like her. I know this because my mother worked in the school systems of Philadelphia, first as a teacher then as a Principal. I know because I was a teacher myself, for a short time.

A lot of people are pushing to have teachers and administrators armed. But what would the outcome have been if a gun battle had taken place. Picture a social studies teacher with a nine millimeter, standing beside the gym teacher with his 357, squared off against a well prepared crazy person. All I see is three times the bullets flying through the air.

In this case, at least, more weapons in the hands of non law enforcement individuals would only have complicated and perhaps escalated matters. People who work at schools eventually become masters of conflict resolution. And in this case, those skills, not marksmanship, are what saved lives.

You can see my previous post here.