The Details of Life
Why does this story about Jefferson set off some warning signals for me as a writer? Perhaps simply because I know the fairly hard-nosed attitudes that govern social policy in urban neighborhoods today and can anticipate that this may be perceived as a preposterous distraction from the bottom-line concerns with "discipline" and "rigor" and "job preparation" and "high standards" and what is now known as "high-stakes testing" and the rest of the severe agenda that has recently been put in place for inner-city kids. Burials for cats somehow don't fit into this picture.
Then, too, in the business-minded ethos of our age, any money we may spend on children of poor people must be proven to be economically utilitarian and justifiable in cost-effective terms. But much of what goes on around St. Ann's cannot be justified in terms like these. You could not prove to anyone in Washington that Mother Martha's talk with Jefferson about the possibilities of an afterlife for animals will have "a positive effect" upon his reading scores or make him more employable a decade later.
Those, however, are the usual criteria for budgeting decisions in most programs that serve children. "Productivity" is almost everything. Elements of childhood that bear no possible connection to the world of enterprise and profit get no honor in the pedagogic world right now, nor do they in the economic universe to which it seems increasingly subservient.
Now and then I'm asked to go to conferences of urban school officials, corporation leaders and consultants, and the representatives of agencies that serve (or, as the jargon now requires, "service") inner-city youth. The atmosphere is very different at these sessions than it was only about ten years ago. The dialogue is managerial and structural, and its vocabulary tends to be impersonal and technocratic, weighted down by hyphenated words such as "performance-referenced," "outcome-oriented," "competency-centered." One hears a lot of economics, many references to competition and "delivery of product" and, of course, high standards and exams. Questions that concern the inner health of children, or their happiness or sadness, or their personalities as complicated, unpredictable and interesting little people don't come up at all, or if they do, are often treated as a genteel afterthought and handled with dispatch and even traces of derision.
The settings for these gatherings, which business leaders sometimes underwrite, are generally extravagant. Guests are inundated with expensively produced materials: shoulder bags embossed with corporate logos, loose-leaf notebooks filled with corporate position papers. The feeling of a public school is far removed from all of this. People rarely speak of children; you hear of "cohort groups" and "standard variations," but you don't hear much of boys who miss their cats or 6-year-olds who have to struggle with potato balls. If a bunch of kids like Elio and Pineapple--two of the lively children I have known at St. Ann's Church for many years--were seated at the table, it would seem a comical anomaly. Statistical decorum would be undermined by the particularities of all these uncontrollable and restless little variables.
The relentless emphasis at these events is on the future economic worth that low-income children may or may not have for our society. Policy discussions seem to view them less as children who have fingers, elbows, stomachaches and emotions than as "economic units"--pint-sized deficits or assets in blue jeans and jerseys, some of whom may prove to be a burden to society, others of whom may have some limited utility.