Coming of age in Oakland, in 350 pages

Day after day/ Father in da penitentiary/ You don’t know the life I’m livin’ / Everyday tryin’ to make it to the/ Top but keep on slippin’/ Why all dats on yo mind is pimpin’, pimpin’, pimpin’/ Bop, bop, bop, aw man, there’s another man shot/ Dead over a 900, 800, 700 block/ Time is tickin’, man look at da clock/ Like Martin Luther King said Let freedom ring/ Let freedom ring don’t ever let it stop

That’s how Destiny Stewart’s poem, “The Life I’m Livin'” begins. I won’t give away the ending. She is one of 250 Oakland middle school (or former middle school) students whose poetry was published in an anthology, “Voices from the Middle” after a citywide poetry contest last year.

If you want to read more, you might check out the book release event at 1 p.m. tomorrow at the Barnes & Noble at Jack London Square. Read the release here.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Nextset

    I’d prefer the poetry was written in standard english.

  • http://my.highschooljournalism.org/ca/oakland/fhs/ Lisa

    What a lovely poem with a lovely authentic voice. Poetry often works best when it doesn’t stick to conventional grammar rules … that’s sort of the point of the genre.

    I am so sad others think that this poem should be in so-called “standard english” (note the non-standard use of the ‘e’ in english — e.e. cummingsesque, I guess).

    Shakespeare created new vocabulary in his poetry — what richness our own English would have lost if he’d stuck to “standard English” of the time.

    Thank you for writing this, Destiny!


  • John

    No standard English. No standards of behavior. That be Oakland!

  • Nextset

    Lisa: “Lovely poem”? You are so open minded your brains fall out.

    They only have a few years to be exposed to middle class values in school before their ghetto swallows them for good if the school can’t motivate them to join the army and see the world, or escape by higher education, etc. They’d be better off taking class in higher subjects not low ones.

    You will not find such a value system in the better schools that people work second jobs to send their kids to. Better families know what they want for their middle school kids and it sure isn’t this filth.

    One of the reasons I blog here is to make sure that for just once you and the readers have someone tell you what is obvious to decent people. Your work of this type further programs prole children to tolerate gutter values and the people that espouse them. It makes your students more vulnerable to come-ons from this lifestyle because they are not programmed to despise it. They will not rise in society with “education” like this and those who encounter them will detect this tolerence you have taught and deselect them.

  • Nextset

    And my point applies to Maya Angelou’s “I know why the caged bird sings” also. Middle school & High School students don’t need to be reading any of it. There are biographies of men and women who came from nothing to prominence without running a whorehouse even if they did have a thriving love life – Pamela Harriman for example. If it’s the race thing there are women like Constance Baker Motley or Lena Horne and others who were told they “can’t” all their lives and did it anyway.

    The trick is in the selection of the subjects and the schools have absolutely no problem with going downmarket and presenting lowbrow life as just a choice.

    Moral relativitity is wrong and should not be taught to children.

  • Nextset

    Interesting, my posts are being edited it appears. I have no problem with the Trib editing content in their blog – that’s a publisher’s right. I do note that gushy praise by one blogger stays, in while my objection which I wrote (trying not be personal or cruel) on the same subject has been removed without indication that anything was removed. If this has been going on before, I’ve not noticed it.

    What was removed was a comment about the writer of the poem to the effect that personal bio of her personal familiy difficulties may be best witheld while in her school years and her efforts spent on listening, watching and learning, not publishing her own bio. I note that Obama has very carefully not left a paper trail about his past beliefs and thoughts until he was old enough to write carefully. Ditto Oprah who revealed more sensitive data of her life at a time and place more prudent than in secondary school.

    I have problems with public schools having children write intimate stories especially when the bio is troubled. That’s an invasion of privacy that the child is too young to consent to, and the parents are normally never asked to sign off on such interrogations. Some of this material is fine for your lawyers, your pastors, your phychologists who have priviledges and protections to keep things from being discussed around school and at your class reunions for the next 50 years.

    Public Schools are known for doing this kind of vouyerism and it is another thing that some families & guardians have to be careful to anticipate and forbid their kids up front from dishing up the dirt for the entertainment of class and teacher.

    Perhaps the parent(s) signed off on the publication of this book. I hope so.

  • Nextset

    Typos! Sorry…

  • Nextset

    The edited portions would have explained why I used the relatively strong word “filth”. Without them, it appears I’m arbitrarily attacking Destiny, not what I’m saying. Lot’s of people have lot’s of interesting bios. I work with such people and I have some really interesting friends. Still I don’t expect public schools to have any student going into recent bio about aspects of their young lives that would be dissected as pathology. That is adult discussion not suitable for middle school and maybe not high school either.

    I expect the Middle Schools to cover inspirational bios of people of all races and both sexes who worked hard, invented things or lead great efforts, captains of industry or political leaders, that type of thing. Especially people who broke out of type and accomplished something even they didn’t expect to by effort, curiosity, or just being in the right place at a historic time and not staying in bed.

    The book discussed in this thread seems to be more of the “let’s compare tales of woe” school, and there is way too much of that displacing the inspirational and education side. If the point is to have the kids study hard times, even in the last century we have the Great Depression and Migrations to read about. Steinbeck, etc. We don’t need to have a contest to tell your own problems.

  • John

    OK! I’ve decided to try my hand at the “poetry that often works best when it doesn’t stick to conventional grammar rules. It’s about my childhood in Oakland. Here goes:

    My Mama be cookin/Father at work/I be doin my hard homework/ Father be comin home taken Mama by the hand/ she be lookin grand/I turnin on da TV set/Father says ya all get da table set/I grab me some knives put em down with da plates/Father have me workin all ova da place/I be complainin Father says stop!/You be helpin Mama or I give ya a swat/I be workin hard to please da MAN/He be workin hard so I now be da MAN who be workin for da baby & a Mama who be grand/my Father show me dat if baby’s Mama and me be good as we can be our babies grow up fine NOT actin like swine/ya all.

    John Shakespear

  • Doowhopper

    Let me give your “poetry”the same twist regarding MY all white middle class setting in the Sixties:
    The minute I hit the streets/punks in crewcuts stealing the lunch I want to eat/big bullies calling me a Jew/just because my nose is bigger than a few/old white men in narrow striped ties/known as teachers telling big white lies/giving props to manifest destiny/no one ever questioned white supremacy/girls called you queer if wore the wrong clothes/put way too much emphasis on their pantyhose/if you didn’t have money you were a weak ass loser/people acting colder than an icebox cooler/we were told to watch out for people with deep dark skins/yet my worst tormenters looked more like Swedes or Finns/it was a sad little world with cruel petty minds/I think I’m going to stay in Oakland for a long long time.

    Hey,pretty good for an off the cuff freestyle,right???

  • Katy Murphy

    Nextset: I rarely edit or delete comments, but I will do so if I feel it is necessary. If you’d like me to remove the entire post (#4) because certain portions are now missing, I’d be glad to do so.

  • John

    Downhopper! I didn’t know you had it in you! We had our turns now it be someone elses turn. Anyone else here grow up in the Third Reich? Let’s hear yours too!

  • Doowhopper

    Thanks! As old as I am, I can still bust a rhyme! Must be all those days I spent at Castlemont during my sub career.

  • Nextset

    Katy, no, don’t worry about it. I appreciate your efforts to run your blog in the way that you feel you need to.

    You don’t see me starting my own blog – I have a full schedule as it is and this looks like a lot of work. I have absolutely no issue with your editing – Hopefully it’s transparent enough so the writers can understand the process and re-word from time to time. You are doing a great job.

    Frankly blogging from topic to topic on educational policy allows me to vent and try to get dialog going here when I sometimes can’t save people in the real world – or at least can’t save them for very long.

    Every day you confront a student and make them think more than they planned to think that day, is progress in my book. In my work I have trained and supervised grad students and new lawyers for more than a generation. I’ve seen some of them go further geographically and career wise than I have – although I’m perfectly happy here.

    The best part about doing that is pushing some people further and faster than anybody thought they could go – including the students themselves. And that’s not often easy, making people abandon the things that hold them back. Many just don’t want to.

    I look for students who aren’t hooked on their comfort zone, or who can aquire a taste for power (responsibility).

    If the students aren’t prepared by the time they get to me there is little I can do. That’s where coming from a better school (secondary and college) fits in. And better doesn’t refer to the quality of the dirt and brick walls. It’s the quality of the teachers and the competition. One of my star students came from welfare (and many others from public schools). You’d never know it. She’s lived internationally now (while practicing law) and as a lawyer makes a higher six figure income than mine (she’s a minority, not black). There have been several other students who have taken off in life like her. They are still uncommon. If the schools ran things my way the students would wear better.

    I am well aware of the crashing black law school and bar exam rates. As with NCLB, the schools and the bar post annual data by raceon the internet. SAT and LSAT scores overpredict black success rates. That is whites with the same scores have a higher rate of graduation and bar passage. I attribute this to racial coddling that abruptly ends when students hit the race blind objective standards of the graduation & licensing exams where you are just a test number in time pressure testing.

    My “rants” about getting on these kids in school early and often are initiated by the certainty that they ultimately face race blind screens that deselect for some of the behavior I see tolerated and encouraged at the public school level – the constant “it’s all about me” ideation from the hairstyles, the speech patterns, the deportment and the value systems.

  • Sharon

    A better assignment would be to ask the students to write two versions of their poem, one in non-standard English and the other in standard English, then to have them analyze the differences. Then the fact that variations in the language exist and that there are appropriate situations for their usages could be discussed overtly.

  • Nextset

    Sharon: “Code switching” is the term for speaking two different dialects, jumping between the two (or 3) dialects unconciously and the needs arise. I think code switching is great, and a lot of fun to watch.

    My great concern is that minority students are never being taught enough of standard english to code switch. By remaining locked into the ethnic venacular they can’t pass the “telephone test” or any other conversational or writing test to pass into mainstream America. The price is to be stuck in the ghetto sometimes without realizing what is going on.

    Dialect is one of the principal ways the UK maintains it’s class system with those born to the lower class unable to move out of it because they never learned the language of science and commerce. It has been authoritively predicted that a similar caste system was developing here in the USA, complete with a prole language that serves to keep them out of American Society.

    It is vital for the public schools to teach Standard English speech and writing to their students. Failure to do so can be seen in low verbal scores on standardized exams. No decent school can justify neglecting to do teach Standard English on the basis that the children or their families “don’t speak english” or “have their own language”.

    You don’t have to destroy Spanish or Ebonics in the students, although it would be a small loss. The students can learn to code switch. And they can be told that’s the plan. I have yet to see any public school policy requiring Standard English to be used in school programs and recognizing that it distinct enough from the native “english” so the students are going to have to have some enforcement of the standard english policy.

    I believe the reason why is concern that the student’s and/or families might be annoyed – certainly annoyed if publicly corrected on their speaking language.

    Our teachers made us re-enter the room if we stomped in in an unsatisfactory manner, this is no different. Do it over until you do it right.

    Having these poems written is wrong for other reasons previously discussed, but whatever the writing excercise – it should have been required in Standard English like every school assignment.

  • http://my.highschooljournalism.org/ca/oakland/fhs/ Lisa

    The poem included code switching. The young writer started in Ebonics, speaking to a certain audience. In the last two lines that were included by Katy in the blog entry, the poet used Academic English. And, interesting, that language was when she was referring to MLK and a better life for African Americans.

    While I agree that ALL students need to learn to code switch — and believe me, that’s what they are taught in my school; please come visit so you know what happens in our schools! — I think poetry is an area in which students should be allowed to use their creativity and their voice and their judgment on which type of language to use.

    From what I understand, this poem was part of a program that ran outside of school hours. The fact that the first nine lines are in Ebonics, doesn’t mean the student doesn’t understand how to code switch or didn’t make a thoughtful decision to speak in that language to best make her point. It doesn’t mean that her teachers allow any type of writing in the essays or other writing they assign.

  • Nextset

    Lisa: Please continue to post more info on the OUSD language and linguistics programs. We really need to hear more.

    What is the school’s status on the standardized verbal tests? What is the trend of the scores over the years? Does OUSD have plans to work on those scores? What reading and how much is required in grades 5-12?

  • Sharon

    Code-switching is a REALLY important concept that should be formally addressed by OUSD at ALL times! District higher-ups are you listening? It is described in detail in “Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City” by Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson (1999). The phenomenon includes changes in language usage and other behaviors as well.

    Anderson has identified two types of families that dwell in the inner city and refers to them as “street” and “decent.” When outside of their homes, kids from “decent” families are under pressure to present themselves as “street” in order to earn respect from the “street” oriented kids. This enhances their safety but also places them at risk. Big problems arise when the “decent” kids loose track of where they should be, and end up falling deeply into “street” behavior.

    Also, kids with a “street” orientation have a difficult time code-switching to anything else because their exposure to any other realm is highly limited or nonexistent. Schools are the only place where the “street” kids can learn these other behaviors. I think this is one of Nextset’s major points.

    “Street” language and behavior in schools should be constantly suppressed. Schools need to deal with this consciously, overtly and head on. Alas, I have never heard any of these issues formally addressed by OUSD.

    On the other hand, hours of Professional Development have been spent training teachers how to organize their “white boards” (today’s black boards). They learn strict guidelines for where the date, the day’s agenda, assignments, etc. are to be placed on the board. Their classrooms are inspected to find out if they are putting all these things in the right place and the teachers are confronted if they are not compliant.

    Here’s another bit of advice for OUSD. I recently learned that one of their secondary school principals didn’t even know what P.T.S.D.* meant! With kids being subjected to so much violence in their homes and neighborhoods, perhaps that concept should be taught in Professional Development, too.

    *Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

  • cranky teacher

    I read that Media Academy has done a bunch of aggressive stuff on code-switching in the past year. Signs are everywhere reminding students to code-switch in class at all times to academic English. A lot of dialogue has been explicit in getting students to buy in to the practice and make it clear they are not being told to give up something (their culture) as much as they are learning a new skill that opens doors.

    Anybody there know how this is going?

  • TheTruthHurts

    I have to agree, at least partially, regarding code switching. I had exposure from my dad who watched Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and my mom who absolutely adored Museums and Libraries. I was livin’ in the middle of street culture, but could code switch pretty well. There are great books about how “domestics” in the South used code switching to survive mental/emotionally while placating the superiority fix needed by their “employers.”

  • Nextset

    Sharon: Now we’re talking. Why isn’t OUSD already doing the obvious things you point out? If they are educators they are supposed to be experts on these issues, like you say, they are well published.

    Cranky’s comment seems to indicate that the Media Academy is on the issue of code switching but still tries to validate the street standards. My own thinking is to tell the kiddies that they will have to choose one day soon between staying street or moving on up to decent. The school can’t make the choice for them. What the school will do is to try to get them exposed to “decent” enough so they still have a chance to cross over. The school can also show the charts and studies of “street” mortality tables and standard of living vs “decent” mortality and lifestyle.

    My prefered method is to bring in a lot of guest speakers talking about their life choices and lifestyle. Often it’s never occurred to students that people who seem to have things once had nothing. They commonly think that either you’re born with money and skill or not.

  • Nextset

    TheTruthHurts: I’m old enough to have known some of the domestics from the ’50s. You are mistaken in assumning they were all unhappy and put upon. Many of them got things important to them and their families out of those careers. If you read oppression into every action taken and contract made with a black person you are not going to get what was really going on. Life didn’t work that way – it still doesn’t.

    Everybody is not a victim just because they are black. And some of those domestics were a LOT sharper than you give them credit for.

    You have little to worry about now. All the domestic jobs that were once taken by blacks are largely taken by other ethnics now and the blacks can’t even get an interview. I for one notice when industry by industry is being ethnically cleansed. I don’t like it. Honest work is always a good thing. Be concerned when opportunities are no longer open.

  • Sharon

    Nextset: I have no idea why OUSD does not address these ideas, in fact this entire body of knowledge. An OUSD African American Task Force used to meet. If they still do, why don’t they push the district to address these issues either?

    My kids have been OUSD schools for the past 15 years, nine of them at the secondary school level. I also worked as an employee at one of the middle schools for seven years until the district asked me to leave because of “things I had written” (criticizing them). Being on campus, I was often shocked and saddened by student (and parent) behavior and ended up becoming incredibly driven to learn more. I’ve been trying to sort this all out ever since.

    Maybe the Eli Broad-trained Expect Success folks like Vince Matthews and his other top administrators can chime into this conversation and tell us why these crucial concepts are so infrequently addressed.

    You know, many of the people working in OUSD’s top administration aren’t from Oakland, aren’t sufficiently familiar with serious urban issues, have no ground level experience in these schools, aren’t willing to send their children to these schools, don’t want to get sued, etc.

    These new approaches really should be coming from the top down. Otherwise, any efforts that school sites make won’t be supported when the inevitable conflicts arise.

    By the way, Elijah Anderson’s new book “Against the Wall: Poor Young Black and Male” will be released imminently. Because I admire his work, I recently contacted him to tell him so. He sent me the introductory chapter to read. Once again, he has hit the nail on the head.

  • Jake

    The poetry anthology was not the product of classroom assignments. It was an open submission contest run by Project SOAR, an organization that serves the OUSD students in the class of 2011. Some students wrote poems in street lingo and rhythms, others used iambic pentameter.

    Those of you using Ms. Stewart’s poem to beat your breast about the state of education in Oakland are simply revealing your own prejudices. It’s a shame that your critical viewpoints (valid or vapid) obscure your vision.

  • Nextset

    Sharon: I was struck by your experience being asked to leave because of something you’d written criticizing them. It’s no fun being the skunk at the garden party is it? How do you think I’d do in that organization??

    Remember I was briefly a sub in an urban school district a lifetime ago. I can say that I found very little to complain about there. The administration backed all the teachers to the hilt and routinely suspended and expelled behavior problem students (for even being tardy, much less referral form the classroom). The students concentrated on class and not on their social lives around the campus. There was no violence. Flunking students were transferred to alternative schools. Students never defied teachers or talked back and remained on the campus. (The tardy policy was more severe than I’d ever grown up under.) All classroom doors were closed and locked when the tardy bell rang. No admittance w/o a pass.

    And I thought all this was normal. I was told that the next school district over was a complete war zone and nobody wanted to work there. I only worked a semester before the bar results came out.

    So when I taught, I had nothing to complain about and the students were pretty settled also. They didn’t complain about much either. They did their work and looked to promotion and graduation with some nervousness at having to find a future life at 18.

    Apparently that’s not the way things are at OUSD. Could OUSD ever get back to this point?

  • Sharon

    Last fall I put some pieces together and was trying to get PBS Frontline, Michael Moore and others to take interest in doing a story about what has happened in Oakland.

    I believe that billionaire Eli Broad arranged with Jack O’Connell to get a hold of OUSD. Broad operates a training ground for district administrators and needed a place for them to be able to practice what he’s taught them. Every one of the state administrators that O’Connell has assigned, and many of their top level people, have been trained by Broad. Their group project is what “Expect Success” is all about. I don’t think their focus was ever to aggressively manage the fiscal recovery that was needed. By the way, Broad gave a significant campaign contribution to O’Connell just before all this happened. Funny, huh?

    I became an irritant to them in other ways, too. For instance, I was disgusted to learn that the Student Success Guide for this year (annually given to all ninth graders) contained a photocopy of a real student transcript, complete with her personal information. I used the phone number that had been printed in the guide to warn the student that this had been done, then sent the district a nasty complaint letter. I think they had to pull all those guides, so all that money was wasted. I am sure that it was these types of things that made them want to get me out.

    I had been working as a part-time “consultant” for seven years (a Parent Coordinator) when the Network Executive Officer (the principal’s boss) met with me and told me that she had read some things I had written, that I seemed unhappy with the District and that I should make plans to leave. Pressuring me out had nothing to do with the quality of my work at the school. It had everything to do with being a person who would speak out. So in my time now I occasionally write and post at http://perimeterprimate.blogspot.com/

    I am a very strong supporter of public education. I have been a parent in this district for 15 years and have three more years to go. I have never seen things so bad.

    We desperately need a good leader to put things straight, but I don’t see one in sight.