Friday, April 15, 2016

Reality Check

This photo of the Bernie Sanders rally appeared in the New York Times. Really.

Bernie Sanders is a having a moment, and it's not hard to understand why.

We who are on the left side of American politics have been living in exile for a very long time. The last President who came close to fully embodying our ideals of government serving the needs of the people was Lyndon Johnson. Yes, that Lyndon Johnson: the misogynist power broker whose rhetoric didn't stir anyone's heart. No President since Johnson has been able to produce anything approximating his massive progressive agenda. Carter and Clinton were moderate squishes, and Obama has been hamstrung by reactionary obstructionism at both the grass roots and Congressional levels.

That's almost half a century of progress by fits and starts, with frequent slides backward. Speaking for myself, I'm frustrated. As happy as I am to see so many more people covered by health insurance, the byzantine mess that is Obamacare falls far short of the streamlined elegance of any other developed nation's single payer system. The cost of college has risen to obscene heights, even as the availability of financial aid has plummeted. The super wealthy pay far too little in taxes, corporations have more clout in Washington than voters, infrastructure is crumbling, Congress is locked in a perpetual cycle of stonewalling and recrimination--I could keep adding to this list, but today is an extra day off for me, and I'd rather not start it out in a blue funk over the state of the nation.

I'm far from alone in my despair over the insolubility of these problems. It's no wonder, then, that Bernie Sanders's unapologetically socialist agenda has garnered the support of so many of my friends, people with whom I feel politically in tune. As President, Bernie will raise taxes to pay for a single-payer health care system and fully funded college tuition for all Americans. He'll break the spell that corporations have on Washington. He'll remake this nation in the image of a European social democracy.

Opposing him in his quest for the Oval Office is Hillary Clinton, a candidate who excites no one. She's vastly more qualified to run the country than any candidate in the last decade--and yes, that includes our current President, as well as everyone else running this year--but it's hard to get excited about a technocrat, however knowledgeable, experienced, and competent she is. To the extent she's been a successful politician, it's because she's practiced the art of compromise, so of course she's taken positions in the past that must now be explained or disavowed. She's not a gifted orator like Barack Obama, and she doesn't have a populist agenda like Bernie Sanders, so we're not likely to see her pumping up the volume at huge rallies like the Sanders event pictured above.

Despite all that, I expect she will be our next President. With their xenophobic rants, the clowns contending for the GOP nomination cannot hope to win a majority of any American demographic except older white males. And as for Bernie...well, here's the hard part, the part my friends don't want to hear, and that several of them will probably excoriate me for saying (as they do every time I write about it): he's not going to win.

But he's been winning, they'll say. Look how many states he's won just in the last two weeks!

Sorry, folks, but you don't get the Democratic nomination by winning states. You don't win the Presidency that way, either. You get it by receiving the most votes. As of today, Hillary Clinton has received 9.35 million caucus and primary votes. Bernie Sanders has received 6.95 million (and that's rounding up). Clinton has a 2.4 million vote lead. In terms of Democratic convention delegates, that translates to 1289 for Clinton, 1038 for Sanders. Add in pledged "super-delegates," and the gap grows to 1758 to 1069. It's worse for Sanders than it looks from those numbers: much of the ground he's made up in the last two weeks has come from winning caucuses, which bring out a disproportionate share of party activists compared to primaries, which more closely reflect the general population of each party. Voting populations in the remaining primaries--which include the delegate-rich contests in New York and California--will be far more diverse, a factor that has consistently favored Clinton over Sanders. The gap is going to grow, not shrink.

How will my Bernie-believing friends react when it does? If the last few months on Facebook are any indication, I'll see them posting links to articles that blame the system and the media, as well as articles that insist "he can still win this."

Concerning the system, which is seen to be stacked against Sanders: that system is democracy. The Democratic party doesn't use "winner-take-all" primaries like the GOP does, so it's possible to "win" a state and only see a gain of a handful of delegates. That should be encouraging to those of us who believe the electoral college is a relic of our oligarchic past, and that the winner of the popular vote should be the President (which would've given us President Gore in 2000--imagine how different things would be if that had happened): if a candidate wins 51% of the vote in a given state, he or she gets as close to 51% of the delegates as math will allow. Even a 75% win doesn't get a candidate 100% of the delegates, because that's just not how true democracy works.

And for those who've been talking (Bernie Sanders, himself, among them) about losing the pledged delegate vote, but then convincing the superdelegates to throw the nomination to him: the word for that is coup, and it's anti-democratic. If your beef with the system is that it needs to be more democratic, then stealing an election from the person who got the most votes shouldn't even be on your radar.

Concerning the media: again and again, I see the complaint that Bernie Sanders is being ignored by the mainstream media. It's just not true. If anything, the media have given the Democratic race much more coverage this cycle because of Bernie Sanders. As long as it was just Hillary Clinton contending for the nomination, there really wasn't any reason at all to focus on the blue side of the eventual ticket. The Republican race was far more interesting, and ratings backed that up. Once Sanders began to pick up steam, though, the Democratic race became a contest. It's in the interest of the mainstream media to make it more of a horse race, in fact: inevitability is boring. The media want eyeballs, whether they're reading or watching, and eyes are drawn to uncertainty. So there's plenty of coverage of the Sanders campaign--though you wouldn't know it from that campaign's press releases, or from the Sanders supporters who believe them.

Case in point: yesterday I saw this post on Facebook:

Accompanying it was this caption: "No this is no rock concert this a Bernie Sanders rally in New York ..No news media covered."

That didn't sound right to me. In fact, I'd heard at least three mentions of the rally in the podcasts I listen to in my car, not to mention seeing plenty of references to it on Facebook that didn't make the "no coverage" claim. So I did what any self-respecting Millennial would when faced with a dubious claim: I Googled "Bernie Sanders New York Rally." My suspicions were instantly confirmed: the top results came from CNN, MSNBC, the BBC, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. The picture at the top of this blog comes from the Times. That's five mainstream media outlets right there, and there were plenty more I could've clicked on further down the list.

Quite simply, anyone who claims the Sanders campaign is suffering from a lack of media attention is either misinformed or lying.

I'm not going to fault the eternal optimists in the Sanders camp who are still hanging on to their hope that somehow, he can win it all the honest, fair, democratic way. That was a nice big rally there, not unlike one I attended in Waterfront Park in 2004 for John Kerry. It's cool when your rally turnout rivals that of a U2 concert. But it's going to take more than 27,000 votes to put Bernie over the top; and even if he "wins the state" by that many, it will only marginally cut into Hillary's lead.

One last thing: there are those in the Sanders camp who are declaring their intention to never vote for Hillary Clinton, even in the general election. This worries me. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: if it weren't for Nader voters in Florida, this nation would not have been subjected to the apocalyptically destructive Presidency of George W. Bush. Those few thousand votes would've been the margin of victory Al Gore needed to push him over the top, to avoid the whole recount debacle, to prevent the conservative wing of the Supreme Court from deciding the election, and from the frat-boys-in-the-White-House free-for-all that followed. Trillions of dollars and thousands of American military deaths, not to mention the conflagration still raging in the Middle East, came out of that quixotic campaign and its deluded insistence that there was no real difference between the candidates.

Please, Bernie believers, don't fall for the lie that a Clinton administration would be no better than a Trump or Cruz administration. There is just too much at stake. If Bernie Sanders does not become the Democratic nominee for President, please cast your ballot anyway for the candidate who, while she will never be as ideologically pure as your guy, is still vastly superior to anyone the GOP will ever nominate.

And yes, I said "please."

Thursday, April 14, 2016


Not counting weekends or holidays, I have fifty-one more days.

That's how much time I have left at Scott Elementary School. On June 15, I will say goodbye to these children for the last time. Where I will go after that to practice my vocation has yet to be determined, but I can be certain of this one thing: it will not be this school.

Fifty-one days of school might seem like a lot to you. If you're not a teacher, or even if you are and you teach in a classroom, seeing the same children every school day, fifty-one days is a significant chunk of time: ten weeks! Two and a half months! More than a quarter!

To most musical specialists, those 51 days equate to 20 semi-weekly classes, typically 30-35 minutes long. That's time for several units, time to learn two or three pieces and prepare them for a final concert.

I say "most" because things are different at Scott. Starting next week, I will see students for music once a week. At Scott, I get them for 30 minutes, including set-up and break-down time.

That's where the mallet hits the xylophone. Ten class sessions is five hours of instructional time. How much can I teach in those five hours? Teaching the Orff way--creating conceptually rich holistic learning experiences that engage students through performance of stimulating music and movement pieces--I can facilitate a lot of learning in that time.

But not as much as I could in ten hours.

And this is one of the many ways in which this very hard year is coming to an even harder end. In September, I came back to school to find that I no longer had even the half classroom I had used last year, not even the gymnasium space I'd had the year before. Mornings I itinerate; afternoons, I can use one corner of the gym, but can only use what I can set up in the half hour between lunch duty and my first afternoon class (and yes, it all has to be put away at the end of the day, every day, to make way for that evening's basketball club and the next morning's PE classes). I also learned that I would only have one time a week to teach music, that the other half hour I'd spend with most of the children would be team-teaching "rhythms" to entire grades in the gym. I was able to convince the principal to give me a rotating extra music time with each class every two or three weeks, but overall, I've had less instructional time with these students than many half-time music teachers.

I will admit here that itinerating has made me a better teacher. Limited to what I can carry, unable to use my Orff instrumentarium with the younger students who find it most motivating, I've honed my skills at engaging students with minimal equipment. For some lessons, all I use is a word sheet and some strips of paper I've written rhythms on. There's no room, or time, for mediocre content or enervated delivery: I've got to bring my best to every class.

It's been paying off. This is the best year I've had with first and second graders. At the same time, the older students have suffered from being back in the gym, where there's just no leeway for children to noodle on their instruments while I work one-on-one. The acoustics necessitate that only one thing be played at a time, whether it's by a single student or the entire class. Much of my precious instructional time is lost waiting for students to quiet down for a few words of instruction.

And "rhythms"? Again, I've been forced to develop skills I didn't know I had: large group management, careful music and activity selection. I don't care for who I become during those once-a-week sessions in the gym, barking at misbehavior through my PA, but I've definitely added some techniques to my toolbox for my eventual return to a normal classroom.

Next week, the quarter-time art teacher comes to Scott. Rather than add prep time to the schedule, the principal lopped off the rotation that gave me that every-second-or-third week extra music class. So I'm back to having gaping holes in my schedule.

If I were just marking time to the end, doing as little work as possible, I'd be delighted by those gaps: time to catch up on my reading! Watch Daredevil on my computer! Blog! Look for a new job! Stay up to date on the Presidential election! Plan a vacation! And some of those things will be happening. There will also be an exhaustive update of my inventory, as well as a carefully worded letter to my eventual successor so he or she doesn't have to make it all up from scratch, as I've had to every time I've moved to a new school. And hey--my grades will be done before the final bell rings on the last day.

But I'm not delighted. Quite the contrary: I'm grieving. I've always gotten attached to children, going back to my first teaching practicum in Education 101. The more time I have with them, the more I miss them when it's time for me, and them, to move on. I've had more time with these kids than any other students in my career; but it's not just that. These children are different: coming from poverty, as so many of them do, they need what I teach, and they let me know how much it means to them. Nowhere else have I felt so appreciated by the critics who matter most to me: my students.

So while other teachers may be counting the days until freedom, I'm counting down something else: fifty-one days until I never see these children again.

To be honest, it's a countdown I've made every year in this job. Things started out hard here, and never really let up. I've never had a job that challenged me in so many ways. When I walk to my car for the last time on June 16, I will brush the dust from my shoes, a symbolic act I've engaged in whenever I make my final exit from a place that has dealt harshly with me. It's not the students I'm brushing off. They're not the reason this school and this district are so hard on teachers. Every year, I've spent the summer applying for other positions that came with a dedicated music room and supportive administrators. This year, finding one of those jobs isn't just a hope, it's a necessity.

But for all the grey hairs and wrinkles I've acquired in these three years, I know when I pull out of the parking lot for the last time, head up Halsey and onto the interstate for the last time, I'll be tearing up. I'll be remembering the squeeze of little arms around my waist, the poorly timed knock knock joke in the cafeteria, the delighted grins as I enter a classroom to begin a music lesson. 

If I look hard enough, I know I'll find them in my next school. With my enhanced skills and my far better sense of what makes a music lesson engaging, I expect I'll have the children of John Q. Public Elementary School eating out of my hand by November, and by June, I'll be getting all misty to be saying goodbye to them for the summer. I'll get attached all over again, and it will be joyous and moving and a little melancholic, and I'll love every minute of it.

But they won't be these children.

Fifty-one school days until goodbye.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Rolling the Red Dice

Careful, Bernie. Winning these battles could mean everyone loses the war.

Risk is my favorite board game.

Just in case you've never been exposed to The Game of World Conquest, this is what it looks like:
Each player has a box of plastic armies. At the beginning of the game, all players distribute their armies across the board, claiming countries in as strategically advantageous an arrangement as their opponents will permit. Once every country is occupied, players take turns invading each other's neighboring territories, trying to consolidate continents, building up frontier defenses, and eventually eliminating each other from the game. The winner is the player who controls the entire world at the end. Success comes through a combination of strategy and chance: the attacking player rolls three red dice against the defending player's two white dice. The attacker's two highest dice are matched against the defender's roll, with the higher die winning--though ties always go to the defender. Each losing die costs the roller one army. There's also a chance element in the card a player draws at the end of any turn resulting in at least one successful invasion: match three cards (or get a set of all three) and the player earns additional armies to add to the next turn. Owning an entire continent grants the player bonus armies, as does controlling twelve or more countries.

The strategy comes in knowing when to attack conservatively, and when to go all out. Because of the chance element, a strong aggressor can sometimes be weakened by bad rolls to the point of losing on the next turn: one has to know when to stop. One also has to take the occasional risk of going for an entire continent, or choosing to wipe out a player while leaving one's frontiers weaker, knowing that, if successful on this front, one can claim that player's cards and an additional match or set. Over the course of the game, alliances frequently develop as two or more players turn against an aggressor that neither can defeat alone. Once that player is eliminated, though, the allies always turn on each other. In the end, there can be only one winner.

This blend of skill, chance, and ruthlessness is what makes Risk such an addictive game to a politics wonk like me: it's a perfect metaphor for a Presidential election.

Consider the Republican race: an enormous field of candidates battles for territory. Nothing succeeds like success: candidates have to win debates, caucuses, and primaries to continue building up their forces of money, press and, most important, delegates. Some roll the red dice too aggressively, pouring their resources into a single campaign only to find the gods of chance are against them. Others campaign conservatively, neglecting states they are unlikely to win, concentrating on those where wins can both enhance their own positions and deal mortal blows to their opponents. Sometimes the conservative strategy pays off; at other times, a more aggressive candidate's risky maneuvers force the careful candidate out of the race. That's how the Republican field has been winnowed down to just two real contenders, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Of the two, Cruz has played the more strategic game, choosing his battles with care, while Trump has simply blasted away on all sides, his beginner's luck taking him to an early lead. That lead is withering, though, and it remains to be seen who will be the last candidate standing following the GOP convention.

Now look at the Democratic side of the ballot. There have really just been two competitors from the beginning. Hillary Clinton has been the strong, strategic player, organized at the most minute level, and has built up a sizable lead; while Bernie Sanders has been picking off contests where he can, accumulating an impressive list of small wins, adding to his total, gaining on Clinton. His followers are passionate, idealistic, dedicated, and quick to embrace any headline that offers them hope--or to broadcast any that casts aspersions on the Clinton campaign. My Facebook feed is filled with links to these stories, which should tell you something about the kind of people I prefer to associate with.

The problem for the Sanders is campaign is numerical: the Presidential nominee is the candidate who, by the time of the convention, has a majority of the delegates. This isn't about control of the Senate (though that does hang in the balance this November): winning many small states does not translate into a national victory. Clinton has won many more votes thus far, and will almost certainly have a real majority of pledged delegates by July.

I say "almost" because, as in Risk, there are still elements beyond any contender's control; and also because one never knows when an unsporting blow, or an unanticipated stumble, will mete out far more damage than it ought.

Consider the demise of Marco Rubio's campaign: during a debate, Chris Christie called him on his tendency to rattle off overly rehearsed debate points. Caught off guard, Rubio fell into the rut of doing exactly that. Christie seized on the error, and Rubio never recovered--but neither did Christie. There's no telling whether his aggressive approach to that debate turned voters off, but he didn't last long after it.

The winnowing of both fields (there were actually a couple of other Democrats early on, in case you've forgotten) has the game board almost prepared for the final inning of the game. Conflicts have expanded from border skirmishes to regional contests. By the end of the summer, there will be just two powers left battling for ultimate control. One of them will be either a proto-Fascist blunderbuss who is so hated by everyone outside his circle of rabid followers, or a canny strategist who knows exactly when to roll, when to pull back, and when to go all out. The other is probably going to be Hillary Clinton--unless she and Bernie Sanders destroy each other.

And that could happen. The initial politeness of their contest has grown testy. Sanders and his supporters are making Clinton out to be a Wall Street insider, a wholly owned subsidiary of the financial sector, no better than her fascistic opponents. Clinton, on the other hand, has lashed out reactively at Sanders. Her allies may have engaged in lawyerly tricks to minimize his presence in some contests.

There is danger in this struggle: if Sanders' hyperbole is too convincing, it could cost Clinton some battleground states in November. Some of Sanders' supporters genuinely believe there is no difference between her and Trump or Cruz, and will stay away from the polls as a result. In a close race, that could make all the difference.

The last time the Left convinced itself there was no difference between the major party candidates, and either stayed away from the polls or voted for Ralph Nader, we got eight years of tax cuts and waterboarding, and created a Middle Eastern black hole that is still consuming innocent lives by the thousand--not to mention decades of delay in addressing climate change. We need another Democrat in the White House, a Democratic majority in the Senate, and, at the very least, a stronger Democratic presence in the House.

There is one other way that a Risk game can end: when a losing player who is taking the game too personally flips the board over. When that happens, everyone loses. If the Sanders campaign succeeds in destroying Clinton with invective, or if disgruntled Sanders supporters stay away from battleground state elections in large numbers, the game will end horribly.

So please, Bernie Burners: play nice. Ditch the misogyny and the conspiracy theories. And if Hillary is the Democratic nominee, hold your nose and vote for her. The alternative--whichever fascist he is--really is far worse for you, me, and the rest of the world.