Of Dolphins and Dancers and Teachers and Tricks

The Elegant Bastard believes that Ken Kesey’s protagonist, Randall Patrick McMurphy, was correct when he told his friends that those who lose their laugh lose their footing. But there are times when laughter must be tempered. This is one of them.

(Dedicated to the public school teachers of Ontario, Canada)

 In which the Elegant Bastard explains to the governments everywhere the essential importance of flowers and fish chunks to all our futures.

Imagine a dolphin, elegant and graceful master of sea and air, leaping forever into a succession of suns, scattering diamonds across the sea’s surface as it rises and returns, rises and returns. Nearby, the crowd is enthralled. Later it will speak of symmetry and strength, power and poise and beauty.

There will never be any mention made of the chunk s of dead fish the dolphins’ choreographer will subtly distribute to each performer after each trick. The chunks seem distasteful. They deny the magic. But for how long would the dolphins climb the air for the benefit of others without those less than elegant chunks? We all know the answer. We understand what we would rather not see. No chunks; no tricks.

Now consider, Dear Reader, the following question. How different are teachers – or any of us – from dolphins? No different at all; this we know. What? You do not like the dolphin metaphor?  Then consider a dancer. A partner approaches, perhaps with flowers. At the sound of the music, the two enact a graceful pattern across the shimmering floor. The crowd marvels at the intricacy, the shared confidence, the natural flow and the subtle shifts. No one notices the sweat or realizes that one of the dancing pair experiences the pain of a blister on one toe.

The teaching arts, done well, are always subtle, always natural. However, they are also transactional and because they are so, fair exchange must be involved. In fact, exchange is part of every transaction in life, so much so that we overlook its fundamental nature. As much as we may wish to believe that others are driven solely by Truth or Beauty or Duty, we know that at a fundamental level it all comes down to fish chunks or flowers. We ignore that at our peril.

Canadians have always seemed more aware of the fish and flower dynamic than most. Thus I was surprised when the Government of Ontario, a province generally as far away from Wisconsin as Neverland is from the Middle East, decided to run a Scott Walker steamroller over its teachers. The vehicle was nicknamed the “Putting Students First Act”. Essentially, this piece of legislation eviscerated the idea of sick leave and retirement gratuities, froze teacher remuneration for two years, and reduced the concept of collective bargaining to a charade for the same period of time. The Premier of Ontario, then one Dalton McGuinty, a liberal, said that this was necessary to preserve the progress made in education over his tenure.

(Here I notice a few readers yawn, mutter “about time!” and turn on their cell phones to see if they can access NetFlix. Please – a moment or so longer!)

I do not doubt that Ontario faces difficult financial times. In my own situation I am also made to exercise financial “restraint” by greater powers.   I do not like it, but if this genuinely and demonstrably serves the Greater Good, I might find it in myself, if asked very nicely, to agree. If a convincing case can be made that some long cherished entitlement must go the way of the dinosaurs or at the very least evolve dramatically, I may summon forth a stiff upper lip and try not to cry too loudly. But please, Mr. McGuinty, Mr. Walker, Ms Merkel and the many other Mr’s and Ms’s, hear this.

I will not do so alone.

Neither I nor Ontario’s teachers nor New York’s bus drivers nor D.C. Walmart workers nor Greek pensioners will walk down this path without protest so that those who govern and those who seek to govern can spin competing narratives. If, in the Ontario example, Premier McGuinty was cruel in introducing the Act, his opponents, social democrat Andrea Horwath and (Tea Party style) conservative Tim Hudak, responded with predictably sycophantic and self-serving drivel.)

Why ?

Let us pause for a moment and consider the nature of the average voter in the average western democracy. Ontario, like any other similar state, is comprised of people who, while they can rise under duress to benevolence and even sacrifice, are essentially self-focused. In fact, Dear Reader, we all on occasion chant some part of the following mantra.

No one works harder than I do. No one is as abused as I am. No one is as underpaid and overlooked as I. Those who have more than me stole it. Those who have less don’t deserve what they have. Everyone else is in it for what they can get. No one has ever been so screwed as I have been. Canonize me now you bastards. (By the way, that’s why I cheat on my taxes, steal grapes at the supermarket, speed and watch porn on my office computer.)

An occasional recitation of the above – accompanied by several Coors (not light), a good sized bottle of Seagram or a box of  the best Lindt – can actually restore our battered egos and drive away those nasty niggledoubts that attack us all.  (Repeat after me: Catharsis is King!) But eventually, the vast majority of us recover our equanimity and return to our less selfish states of mind where we are ruled by sweet reason.

The problems emerge because many, many others are permanently caught up in this “Haters” mentality. Their  jaundiced eyes see the external world as filled with those who have so much more than they: a pompous Lord Black “jailed” in a mansion, an arrogant Justin Beiber scampering away from traffic tickets , a randy Prince Harry with a better butt than theirs, a long-haired patched-jean university “student” with his grant in one hand and his dope in the other, the welfare bums with booze bottles and all the others who seem to laugh as “We” (Haters are always “We”) work our fingers to the bone.

Inevitably, the Haters notice the teachers. Now their anger creeps up another notch.

What a sweet deal, eh? A six hour work day. Spares.  A big salary.  A massive pension (that “We”are paying for.) A union that keeps the lazy incompetent bastards from getting fired. Sick days. Summers off. SUMMERS OFF! And now they want more? Screw ‘em!

Enter Mr. McGuinty, Mr. Hudak, and Ms Horwath, bellows in hand. Let’s stoke these fires, boys and girl. There’s votes in them there embers.

I was once a teacher, by all reports a reasonably good one. I remain proud of my former profession. But to the Haters out there – and you, Dear Reader – I admit the following. Villains do walk among the teaching ranks. There are incompetent teachers and they are more dangerous than bad doctors. Doctors kill one at a time; teachers can massacre whole classrooms. Yes, there are lazy teachers in the world, so many that other teachers have nicknames for them, like the “3:00 P.M. Track Team”. Oh yes, teacher unions are often appallingly amateurish, riddled as they are by “I Hate The Man” refugees from badly re-formatted 1960’s socialism. And if you want more to hate in public education, try cowardly Supervisory Officers, petty ego-driven Trustees and self advertising Directors who can’t even copy well.

However, we need to remember this. Every Hater and everyone else can remember the dedicated Teacher. Imagine this heroic figure, preferably clad in a flowing toga and carrying a golden sword. Let us add a blizzard raging all around. We’ll have a few ravenous wolves circling for added effect. Does our heroic teacher falter? Never! The lessons are always compelling, the voice caring, the hand on the shoulder comforting, the marking effective, the grades fair, the smile genuine and the hours of work endless. The impact, finally, is enormous.

Nor are these heroes few in number. In my experience, they actually outnumber the villains, albeit not by the desired margin. Why then did the mass of Ontario citizenry not respond to Mr. McGuinty’s “Putting Students First” and Ms Horwath’s sneers and Mr. Hudak’s histrionics with loud outrage? Why did so many in Wisconsin, apparently a quite mild-mannered place in the best of times, leap on board their governor’s bash-the-unions juggernaut? Simply put, hate and fear are more powerful than fond memory and gratitude. Every politician knows this.

The Ontario government knew if it offered up teachers (“lazy and overpaid”) and their perks and salaries, followed by the doctors (“greedy and REALLY overpaid”) as scapegoats for all that ails Ontario’s economy, the Haters would coalesce. They would enjoy what they see as vengeance obtained on those who dared to be better than they.  Ms Horwath knew that if she claimed that the government was “absolutely” doing this to serve its own selfish and hidden agenda, Haters and conspiracy theorists would believe her and revel in their own now validated cynicism. Mr. Hudak knew that by declaring he would act even more decisively against teachers, he would remind the “Give everyone except me Hell!” Haters that he was of their tribe.

The fact that “Putting Students First” didn’t in any measureable long-term way put students first is irrelevant. Politics is optics and even teacher strategists conceded the optics here were brilliant.

What political leaders in Ontario did to teachers is precisely what class has done to class and race has done to race and ethnicity has done to ethnicity and sect has done to sect and damn near everyone has done to the Jews: make one group the target for all resentment, fear and self loathing. If you want to see the same drama enact itself with far more bells, whistles and music, watch the Pro and Anti gun people rip each other apart in the US for the foreseeable future.

And when all is said and done, what’s the harm?

The harm is profound. McGuinty and the others did not start this rot, nor will it end in Ontario, but they have caused it to spread. They have done so by splitting society into good and evil groups. Even the name of the act, “Putting Students First Act”, is divisive, implying that all who opposed them were nothing more than so many greedy guts lined up at the public trough! After the teachers and doctors have been scapegoated, who will be next? The civil servants have been butchered, roasted and well picked over already so will it be other union contracts? Corporate pay scales? Expense accounts? Pension indexing? Why not? I can hear the Haters now:

Lazy union labourers! Cheating business people. Seniors who got us in this mess with their cushy pensions. And while we are at it, let’s make all those drug taking students pay “their fair share”.

(To Haters, everyone else’s unfair share is exponentially larger than their own.)

In these times when restraint seems a necessary option, politicians from all sides could sit down with representatives of all interests groups and together produce something like a Restraint Act. Had this happened in Ontario, perhaps everyone there would have made some meaningful but not grossly expensive contribution to balancing the books. The pain and the potential gain would have been shared.

Perhaps we would have seen the rise and spread of Restraint parties, Restraint parades, Restraint awards and Restraint buttons, scarves and beads. We are an enterprising people, are we not, and as I said earlier, we can rise to compassion and sacrifice if the need is there. Teachers and everyone else would have shouldered the burden.

But no. That scenario would provide no useful optics, would offer nothing to entrenched political machines. Instead there was finger pointing and organized teacher bashing.

Again, what’s the harm? Think back to the dolphin and the dancers. Ontario wiped the blood from its corporate hands and turned back to its teachers, expecting the same tricks, the same shared music. Instead they found seething resentment, the elimination of extra-curriculars, an unwillingness by many to do anything that sounded remotely voluntary, and a whole new cynicism. Teachers will continue to teach just as dolphins will continue to swim. But there will be no tricks or worse, much worse, the tricks will be done badly.

Nor will the dancers leave the floor. But their message has been made clear. When you step on our feet or dance on our heads, then you will dance alone.

And you, Dear Reader, now sitting in the audience and more than a little disappointed in the performances you’ve seen lately, look about you. Look at the legion of Haters grumbling in their seats. Do they make you nervous? Do you wonder, “Am I next?”

Ah, Dear Reader. Yes. You are.

One thought on “Of Dolphins and Dancers and Teachers and Tricks

  1. If only there was a way to compensate teachers on merit rather than propping the villains and disincentivizing the heroes.

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