The American Spirit

When Americans perceive their rights of freedom and expression are being trampled upon, they yell until their voices are heard. It's getting loud out there!

Growing up in Canada, I can recall a feeling of always looking south to the “Real America.” In America, people fought against oppression and bucked authority to achieve their goals. In America, immigrants and minorities who faced discrimination developed cultures full of artistic and spiritual expression, which comforted and encouraged their young people to rise up through the rungs of public education and achieve greatness, against all odds. In America, people wouldn’t stand for their rights of freedom and self-expression to be trampled upon. There, people rose up and did something about it. They felt the power of change within themselves. What a country!

And they are doing it still! I see it with the “occupiers,” on Wall Street and around the country. They’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore! Good for them.

And then, last weekend I traveled with my family to Washington, DC to join in a protest against the Keystone XL pipeline, a disastrous project which would transport crude oil extracted from Alberta tar-sands, through the American heartland, for export. It would be, according to NASA’s top climatologist James Hansen, a carbon bomb that would effectively spell “game over” for the climate.

When I first started taking my daughter to protests like these, it was because I felt I had no choice. After learning about global warming and climate change in her kindergarten science class she became obsessed, and swallowed up and expelled information and concerns about the topic in three hour monologues that only the parent of a true Aspergirl can appreciate. It was during one such rant, which lasted from Dingman’s Ferry in the Poconos, to halfway across the Verrazano Bridge, that she paused for a moment, allowing my shoulders to temporarily relax, before blasting forth from across the backseat divide, “It’s like you don’t care! Why don’t you do something about it?”

I blurted out, “I do care! I worry about it all the time.”

Then I said, “Okay, let’s start doing something about it.”

We wrote letters and attended demonstrations. Two of these we organized ourselves, on behalf of 350.org, a grassroots environmental movement headed by author/activist Bill McKibben. It was for this organization that, last Saturday, we packed up the car and drove four and a half hours to Washington, DC to join with thousands of other protestors in a giant, hand-holding circle around the White House.

I could tell from the emails and phone calls leading up to the event that the organizers were worried there wouldn’t be enough people to make a complete circle. I was determined that, for lack of a few bodies like ours, that would not happen. But, when we got there, it was clear that thousands of other people had made the same determination. We were not alone.

As we walked east, across the front of the White House, then south, down Fifteenth Street, we were flanked by chanters, drummers and a giant, black plastic replica of the pipeline itself, which read, “Stop the XL Pipeline” in painted white letters. Someone handed my daughter an orange, “Stop the Tar Sands Pipeline” vest, which she promptly pulled on over her head. But I could see she felt anxious.

In a worried voice she said, “But what if President Obama doesn’t listen to us? What if they make the pipeline anyway?”

I nodded and chewed my lip nervously. Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea.

I said, “He will. He just needs us to help him be brave, Honey. That’s what we’re doing. It’s like we’re giving him a big hug, so he knows he can stand up to the bad guys.”

But I could see the water welling up in her eyes and I silently berated myself. What a stupid, stupid idea this was! What was I thinking?

We reached the south end of the White House and could see the expansive grounds through the black iron gates. Someone called, “Look!” And we all turned our heads to see two gorgeous eagles swooping across the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden in elegant dips and soars that were truly magical.

Then someone else said, “Okay, everyone, it’s time to hold hands.”

I looked around. There was hardly room to hold hands. We stood shoulder to shoulder, four people deep. I’m not certain how long we stood like that, sort-of holding hands and chanting, but eventually Bill Mckibben himself appeared, flanked by speakers and activists from earlier at the rally. His smile was broad and complete.

“There’s twelve thousand people here,” he said, his voice giddy.

I turned to my daughter who was getting antsy and wanting to leave.

I said, “Sara, how can you think President Obama won’t listen? There’s twelve thousand people here! He can’t not listen to us. We’re going to fix this thing, Baby. We will.”

She took a few steps forward into the grassy field before us. Across a narrow path the black plastic pipeline replica was being held aloft by protesters. With her hands in the pockets of her blue windbreaker, she turned, raised her arms, bird-like, and smiled.

And then today, as my children played in the schoolyard after school, I checked my phone for emails and saw this subject line in a message from Bill McKibben: “Big news: We won. You won.” We did it!

I called my daughter over. She was ecstatic.

“You see,” I said. “When people get together, they can do great things. They can defeat the bad guys.”


What a country! If only everybody could have the beautiful experience of taking part in such a quintessentially American process like my daughter and I just did. It irks me that they do not. It irked me so much two nights ago, that I lost several hours of sleep over it.

That was because on Wednesday evening I attended a free public screening of the movie The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman at PS 261, a film documenting the devastation and destruction wrought by co-located charter schools in New York City. It began with a group of young teenagers performing a choreographed rap at a DOE hearing which contained the refrain, “All I want to say is the DOE don’t care about me.”

I watched and heard the heart-wrenching cries of hysterical parents fighting uselessly for their children’s rights when the democratic process was denied to them. Their own government was taking away their children’s art rooms, music rooms, science labs and libraries; was packing their children into classrooms with thirty-two children or more; was forcing their children to go to school in classrooms located in basements deemed unsafe for children; was denying them the funding or facilities for special education services. Their own government was limiting what their children could become. And their voices; their opinions; their tax dollars, meant nothing.  

I heard how hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars were diverted away from public schools and into charter schools. And I heard how charter schools themselves deny children an education which is democratic in spirit; dismissing or strongly encouraging the departure of children who misbehave, require special services, are not English language proficient, or who may not attain top marks on standardized tests.

Is this a democracy? No, it is not. In 2002, Mayor Bloomberg took over control of the school system, dismantling the thirty-two elected community school boards, and establishing a new organization, the Panel for Educational Policy, over which he has sole authority. He actively ignores the input of New York City citizens. They no longer have a voice in the educational system. And when there is no democracy – no system through which people can affect the policy making process – Americans get pissed.

The emotionally charged film, the committed citizens who protested on the screen and in that very auditorium that night, are tributes to the American spirit. To hear children standing up to adults on a panel seated on a stage is both disturbing and encouraging. They are brave, and they deserve to be rewarded for it. They deserve and need to see that, when people get together to protest, and make their voices heard, the good guys can win and the bad guys can lose. What kind of an education are they receiving if they do not?

If there is one central theme I can remember from my teacher education program it is that the primary goal of education is preparation for citizenship. To achieve this ambition, classrooms should themselves be democracies, reflecting the multicultural society that exists in this country. Children should learn that, in a democratic learning community, the truly wise know the value of different cultural perspectives, and can elicit each individual’s skills and abilities to contribute toward a winning final product. When we pit children against children, schools against schools, and teachers and parents against policy makers, we are ruining our children and our society and the very mentality and spirit which has allowed this country to succeed in the past. We are negating the qualities for which it is revered. We can’t let that happen.

I know it’s short notice, but I hope you will come to a District 15 wide PTA meeting – A “Super PTA Meeting,” this Monday, November 14, at the School for International Studies at 284 Baltic Street, (between Smith and Court.) The meeting is to stop the infiltration of the Success Charter School into District 15, and will take place from 6 - 7:30 p.m. 

Please come support our young people and show them that, in the words of one who has partially redeemed himself in my eyes, “Yes, we can.”

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maria pagano November 12, 2011 at 03:33 PM
Jackie, You wrote a powerful story! I found myself reading and reading, responding to your energy and passion. So wonderful that you and your dtr are doing civics together. Reminded me of the Million Moms March when I did the same with my dtr. So much to do, so little time. Keep on keeping on. MP
Peter Rothberg November 14, 2011 at 05:24 PM
Thank you for publicizing this meeting , and, of course, for your inspired and inspiring story.


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