Wednesday, April 20, 2011

White House Dreaming

The night before Barack Obama was elected President, I shook his hand. How that happened is a long and somewhat complicated story, but I won't go into it now.

What I remember best is the moment itself. I grasped his hand and said something like "It's nice to meet you, Senator." He smiled the most charming smile. Then he asked, "What's your name?"

And I couldn't remember.

I did eventually recover, and managed to offer up "Pam Grundy." But it was the strangest feeling. Already, the weight of the office that he was about to win was descending over him, troubling the air, throwing everything around off kilter.

Obama's victory meant a lot to kids at Shamrock. They stayed up late watching the returns, soaking in the excitement of friends and family around them. The day after the election, the school's mood was jubilant. Finally, a president looked like them. Somehow, the grand confines of Washington, D.C., seemed a little closer.

Just after the inauguration, the whole school wrote letters to Obama, congratulating him on his accomplishments, and inviting him to come and visit.

The connection that they felt to him, and their pride in our school, shone through every sentence. If he came, he could try out our smart boards, they informed him. He could meet the best teachers in Charlotte. Perhaps he would like to eat some of the peas that they were growing in our gardens.

When we mailed the package off, we thought that was the end of it. It's a big country, and we're just one small school.

And yet here I am, two years later, standing at the White House gates. Through a quirk of fate, I've been invited to come talk to White House staff about education. I'm here with a group of other women who've been dubbed "Champions of Change" – part of a new initiative to highlight folks working in communities around the country. We've spent the past three days as delegates to "Mom Congress," a three-day education conference of women from across the country. This is our final stop.

As we approach the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the Second Empire wedding cake extravaganza that houses most of the White House offices, I catch a bit of that out-of-balance sensation I felt that night at campaign headquarters.

I'm not the only one affected. Bren Martin, who's with us from Kentucky, is stopped at the gate because she's left her picture ID in her other purse. The guards won't let her in without it. Dazzled by our surroundings, none of us notices she's been left behind. Not when we pose for a group picture in front of the building. Not while we wait impatiently in line to collect our green "A" (for "Appointment") badges. Not as we lift our cameras, and start snapping away.

The building's grandeur only heightens our bedazzlement. "In bold contrast to many of the somber classical revival buildings in Washington," the White House website notes, "the EEOB's flamboyant style epitomizes the optimism and exuberance of the post-Civil War period." They're not kidding.

Staircases sweep up in imposing curves and white-columned corridors stretch into the distance. Seemingly endless rows of doors bear tantalizing labels like "White House Counsel," "Office of the Vice President," and "Executive Gym." It feels a bit like Willie Wonka's chocolate factory, promising secrets behind every door.

Slowly, we regain some equilibrium. The surroundings may be grand, but the people seem like ordinary folks. The Secret Service officers wear nameplates that announce their home states. Beaming twentysomething interns escort us from place to place, clearly giddy at their own good fortune. The green plastic badges show plenty of wear around the edges.

As we come down to earth, someone finally realizes that Bren isn't with us, setting off a frantic search (she does eventually manage to retrieve her ID from the hotel and make it through the gate).

The hunt for Bren isn't our only worry. There's so little time, and so much we all want to say. So many thoughts running through all our heads.

For me, it's a dilemma. I've spent the past five years working to build up Shamrock Gardens, to bring together people from different backgrounds to fashion a school as good as any in the city. But in the past two months I've turned to fighting a massive expansion of standardized testing here in Charlotte – an expansion directly driven by federal policy. My blog, which generally focuses on Shamrock and its students, is rapidly filling with rants against these tests. I have maybe five minutes. What should I say? How can I find the words that would make some kind of difference?

In the end, though, my heart is with our kids, and with the hopeful letters that they wrote a newly elected president. Being invited to this meeting is an unexpected gift, and I’m not going to waste it. When my turn comes, I talk about Shamrock, about what we've accomplished, and about how strongly I believe in integrated schools.

The discussion swings around the table and the topics come thick and fast: science education, preschool, national standards, poverty, bullying. It's impressive. Everyone speaks with passion, and you can tell from the details in their descriptions that they all have their feet firmly planted on the ground. It feels as though we could solve the world's problems, if they'd only let us at them.

The meeting draws to a close, and discussion leader Russlyn Ali smiles. The idea of Champions of Change sounded hokey at first, she says. But now it seems to make more sense. She notes that while policies and leaders are always changing, it's people like us who stick around. For real change to take hold, we have to make it work ourselves. We nod our heads. It's quite the responsibility, but we all know it's true.

After we leave the room, a photographer beckons us aside to take official pictures. Each week's Champions of Change are featured on the White House website: a photograph, a brief description, and a short video about our efforts to "win the future."

We pose in a corridor, staffers walking up and down behind us, columns receding into the distance. The whole thing feels a little odd. With this entire grand edifice to choose from, they take our pictures the middle of a hall? But the photos come out looking far more elegant than the process feels.

The filming disorients in its own way. A door opens on a room that looks like it's made of solid gold, the kind of place you see in a museum or on a movie set. But they film each of us against a stark white background. People watching the videos will have no inkling of the extravagance that surrounds us. I can't help but think about the photographer's backdrops that make a plain-walled studio seem glamorous and exotic. What is real? What isn't? At the moment, it's a little hard to tell.

As we wait for everyone to finish, we take a few more photos. Texas delegate Darlene Shue wants a picture with a Secret Service officer to show her son, so we track one down. The battery in her camera has run out, so I use mine. I photograph the system that controls our exit. It's almost as challenging to get out as it was to get in – the Secret Service folks have to help almost everyone who goes through. Maybe there's a message there. Or perhaps it's just a bad set of directions.

It's hard to know what to make of this kind of experience. The issues education faces are so huge. I've felt the excitement of Obama's election dissipate, buried beneath budget cuts and economic troubles. I've been sorely disappointed by his administration's education policies – too much emphasis on test scores and charter schools, not enough on the day-to-day efforts of teachers, students and parents at public schools like Shamrock.

If there was one thing more that I could have said while at the Eisenhower building, it would have been that I'd like to see President Obama celebrate this kind of effort, an effort that builds schools by working with neighborhoods and communities, by bringing different kinds of people together, by focusing on slower but I think more lasting change.

Still, we didn't need a Presidential visit to move forward. When our students wrote their letters to Obama, we were hoping to emerge from the NCLB sanctions that had plagued the school for years. Now we've met those goals three years running. Our four small garden beds have grown to more than two dozen, filled with vegetables and flowers and butterflies. We've brought in more new programs than I can count. Although we're still a work in progress, we've come a long way. For real change to take hold, we have to make it work ourselves. A couple of hours on the White House grounds won't do it for us.

The photos and the videos, as promised, are up on the White House site. Not a bad address. That visit may not make much difference in the long run. But I do know that I was in that building with a great group of people. I also know that the staff and kids at Shamrock deserve all the attention they can get. I'm glad that I was there.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Pam, for this amazing story of how one family's decision to become a part of a diverse, high-needs school in the community can create positive energy and success for the children,the school, the surrounding community--and inform educational dialog in North Carolina and nationwide! By combining risk-taking with hard work, research with reality, persistent advocacy with a heartfelt love for children and families,you make a positive difference and inspire others to do so.