As a high school principal who has spent the last 15 years in a burgeoning charter school movement that now boasts 93,213 students in Arizona alone, I have worked alongside many of the directors of an eclectic group of schools, almost 500, in fact. Regardless of the facility – a state of the art campus rising elegantly from the desert foothills or one that has been innocuously squeezed in a storefront space in a strip-mall – the single most important attribute of a charter school is apparently its clear sense of purpose, its mission. A perusal of the mission statements of most charter schools in Arizona reveals a prominent focus on life beyond classroom, beyond high school; graduates will be “equipped with the desire for lifelong learning,: and “prepared for the workforce.” These ‘lifelong learners,” and “productive citizens” will, according to one mission, have strengthened civic, moral, and ethical values. Really? Given this, it would be appropriate then, to expect these forward-thinking missions to drive every curricular, instructional, and assessment decision.

In reality, however, just like their traditional public counterparts, charters are measured not by the extent to which they live up to these revered and all-important missions, but instead are evaluated according to the national Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) measure, which is determined by academic achievement in reading and math as well as the graduation rate for high schools like mine. Further, AYP requires schools to disaggregate achievement data by different subgroups: White Native American, Asian, Hispanic, Black, English Language Learners, economically disadvantaged, and students with disabilities – all of whom must make the statewide benchmarks in reading and math. What AYP does not tell us, is the measure of a child’s humanity, his or her commitment to community or anything about work-readiness – the very stuff of those mission statements emblazoned on the backs of business cards or engraved on a welcome back apple given to a teacher.
Perhaps it’s time to expand our definition of progress – inherent in these mission statements is the need to determine just how well the schools are doing in preparing students for post-secondary Life. Is anyone asking? Which skills are being taught and tested today that will help young people become literate, humane, community and civic minded tomorrow?
Beginning this Fall with the class of 2013, Arizona students will be required to complete an ECAP, the Arizona Education and Career Plan prior to graduation. At the bare minimum, this requires students to keep track of their academic, career, post-secondary, and extracurricular-activity goals over four years. It involves goal-setting and reflecting – hopefully on how well they measure up to the mission and why, in fact, that matters.

Yesterday, I encountered a former student, an earnest young woman who wants to be a nurse. Hardworking and resilient, her ambition almost breaks my heart. Her mother cleans hotel rooms for a living, for a boss who takes advantage of the fact that she is without the papers the rest of us take for granted – the social security number, the proof of insurance, the library card, and so forth. This future nurse who goes to church every Sunday, who volunteers in her community, who never misses a day of school, lives quietly, in the shadows, afraid of being deported to a country she left as an infant, in the arms of her mother.

And then there’s the student who called me last week, out of the blue, to ask if I knew any rich people, if I knew anyone who would sponsor him to continue his college education. A bright student, he tells me he’s spending his summer doing ‘Mexican jobs’ and that the scholarships have all been exhausted. I don’t know what to tell him. No longer the innocent little toddler who took his first steps on American soil, he is now a man, considered illegal, an alien, and worse. While his American born peers have graduated from high school and landed trendy jobs at the Mac store or the local Starbucks, he has depended on the kindness of strangers to get by, working for cash under the table and being transported by friends with easily acquired driver’s licenses and social security numbers. What stings most for me, as an immigrant and as a principal, are the college credits accumulated, at no cost, by his American friends, those who were able, by virtue of their birthplace, to take full advantage of the early college high school program I founded in 2003.

I continue to be dismayed and disheartened by this. Federal law guarantees a free and appropriate education (FAPE) to all K-12 students, regardless of status. In Arizona, with its plethora of charter schools, ‘free and appropriate’ can run the gamut. Mission driven, a charter school does not have to be all things to all people My school, with its early college focus, differs from from a school sponsored by the NFL, let’s say, and that’s a good thing. Families should be able to choose a school that fits their needs. But here’s the rub. Proposition 300, a referendum overwhelmingly approved by the voters of Arizona in November of 2006, provides that college or university students who are not United States citizens or permanent residents, or who do not have lawful immigration status, are ineligible for in-state tuition status or financial aid that is funded or subsidized by state monies. Students like my future nurse or my modern-day Pip, desperately seeking a Magwitch-like benefactor. This means that successful early college high schools are forced to discriminate against minors, denying undocumented children the right to the ‘free and appropriate education’ funded by their very attendance!

I’m no lawyer, but surely Prop 300 flies in the face of FAPE? Then again, who could file a complaint? Not my students. To do so, they would have to step out of the shadows and most certainly into removal proceedings.

The DREAM Act must pass. It makes sense. But we must also do something about those students who have yet to graduate from high school. How do we keep them safe?

Last year, I appeared on Horizonte a couple of times to talk about this very dilemma. A student, Noemi, accompanied me to the station and sat, in silhouette, to tell her story. What keeps her going? Easy. The knowledge that one day, when she is a pediatrician, she will take care of the grandchild of someone who voted for Prop 300.

In case you missed it …

I admit it. I’m a snob when it comes to what is and isn’t literature. The stack of books I take to the beach isn’t, while the collection of aging hard-backs in my bookcase undeniably is, its spines bearing the names of Wordsworth, Keats, Trevor, Yeats, Joyce et al – for all intents and purposes, the literary canon. So it was with some cynicism that I read an article in the Harvard Education Letter this morning.

By Michael Bitz, founder of the Comic Book Project, “Manga Is My Life,” left me gobsmacked. Comic books as literature? The very thought. But these are not the comics of my youth, of the Wonder Woman or Superman variety. Not even close. These manga, Japanese comic books, with their stylized artwork, their honorifics (my 11 year old just explained to me the importance of adding “-san,” “-sama,” “-dono,” the suffixes that indicate relationship or social status in Japanese society.) I was every bit as impressed had she provided an explanation of the stratification of groups and individuals in Shakespeare’s Othello.

Back to Mr. Bitz. Turns out his project has engaged over 50,000 kids since 2001, and they have created thousands of comics. Thousands. All the while, these writers are improving their word choice and syntax, crafting whimsical stories as they develop what is most difficult to teach – ‘voice.’ Typically, they give themselves Japanese nicknames and even include Japanese words and phrases in their narratives. Really. Well, really. A quick consultation with my resident expert reveals that indeed this is the case. With a sigh and a roll of the eyes she informs me that her manga name is Sasori, and her two best friends are Rikku and Tomoko. The plot thickens.
My daughter’s devotion to the craft is evident in the pages and pages of what I had, until now, dismissed as elaborate doodling. As I read her most recent story – starting on the back page – I learned some time ago that the bookbinding was not wrong; translated manga reads backwards – I can see quite clearly how her everyday vicissitudes have been transformed into manga narratives. Authentic writing with plot and theme and all the elements of literature that students are expected to grasp.
So, I’m on something of a mission today. For further information, I’m going to take a virtual tour of the Comic Book Project, Cartoon Studies, and Teaching Comics, and, to my daughter’s delight, on the shelves of my pretentious bookcase, I plan to make room for manga.

I read, with sadness, some of the comments about Al Sharpton who flew across county to this Arizona that has yet to address the crisis of immigration policy. One in particular, a 53 year old Brandy Baron, called him a ‘a loser who needs to mind his own business.’ This brought to mind the hate-mail I received following an August 2007 column in the Arizona Republic. Absolutely at a loss about what to do when I realized that Proposition 300 prevented me from using my state funds to pay for the early college component of the high school program where I was Principal, I picked up the phone and contacted a sympathetic Ed Montini who agreed to write an article. Naive about the level of xenophobia that exists in this state, I was wholly unprepared for the comments that poured into the blogosphere. Pages and pages of hatred. Like Rev. Sharpton, I was told to mind my own business, to go back where I came from, and much worse. Several months later, I gave a speech at the MLK “Living the Dream” Breakfast; but unlike Al Sharpton, I’m no big gun when it comes to civil rights issues, I can’t organize freedom rides, but I am an immigrant who loves the idea of America, and the fact that my daughter can pursue it without fear. But it is a travesty and a tragedy that her friends who were carried across the border as infants, by well-meaning parents, are denied this dream.

And so I have made a decision. I’ll carry my green card, and I will renew it when the time comes. I will pay my taxes. But, I will not vote because I cannot vote until I become a citizen. And I cannot, in good conscience, become a citizen until the process is available for those undocumented dreamers who have sat in my classrooms, whose parents have tended the lawns of my neighborhood.

I’m glad Al Sharpton came to Phoenix. We need more voices like his. We need Oprah and Bono. After all, as Linda Valdez pointed out in today’s AZ Republic, the Mexicans are the Irish of yesterday. Oh, and on that, I recall Hillary Clinton and Ted Kennedy at a New York event, holding up T-shirts bearing the imperative, ‘Legalize the Irish!’ Let’s bring that same event to Phoenix. What are the chances of Hillary or Ted donning shirts emblazoned with “Legalize the Mexians?” Slim.

I dug out the speech I gave at the 2008 MLK ‘Living the Dream’ breakfast. 18 months later, I feel much the same way, but there are signs that the silence may finally be breaking.

“Not too long ago, I asked our daughter, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Without missing a beat, she said, “Happy.” She’s off to a great start – born in America to a citizen and a legal resident, she has health insurance, a little savings account, a passport. She has a City of Phoenix library card. In several years, she’ll have a driver’s license; soon after that, she’ll be able to vote. She has a Social Security number so she’ll be able to work. She is documented. Sadly, there are other daughters and sons in this state who also want to be happy when they grow up but through no fault of their own, they lack the documentation that would make their pursuit of happiness more than just a dream. They are the children of immigrants who have become the collateral damage in this war over immigration – and make no mistake, it is a war. When hearts harden, dreams diminish and possibilities narrow for these kids. Unlike my daughter, who can join me today to openly celebrate the legacy of Dr. King, these students have no choice other than to live in the shadows, afraid of being forced to leave the country they have always called home.

Anna Quindlen says that immigration is never about today; it is always about tomorrow ‐ the kind of tomorrow that Dr. King talked about when he described his dream of an America with a place at needy child. The kind of tomorrow I dreamed about as a little girl in Northern Ireland where one day Catholics and Protestants would attend the same schools. Basically, immigration is an exercise in hope, in deferred gratification, and deferred dreams. Dr. King reminded us, “disappointment is finite, but hope must remain infinite.” The immigrant children among us have little other than hope, but recently they have had to face adversity and disappointment that no child should have to face: disappointed that Proposition 300 limited their access to a college education, disappointed that the DREAM Act died in the Senate, disappointed that there are those who are willing to discard them while, at the same time, import professionals from other countries to do the very jobs these talented students are qualified to do!

I marvel at the resilience of these young men and women, many of whom have taken their first steps on Arizona soil, placed their hands on their hearts every day to pledge allegiance to the flag of the only country they’ve ever known, and with dedication and gratitude have risen to the educational and social challenges they have faced. This prestigious award belongs to these undocumented dreamers and to their undaunted immigrant spirit. It also belongs to their tireless, courageous champions some of whom are here today … brave Manuel, Carmen, Marcos, Amanda, Ed, Maria, to Genie and Hector Zavaleta who are not here today, but have devoted the past fifty years to protecting civil rights.

In closing, I thank the Arizona Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee for this beautiful morning, and from the bottom of my heart I thank the Phoenix Human Relations Commission and the city of Phoenix Equal Opportunity Department for their courage in presenting this award which hope is the first step in breaking the silence about these children, these future lawyers, engineers, teachers, doctors. They are here. They are here. We need to listen to their dreams and we need to act to make those dreams a reality.”

I spent most of today with a resilient young woman, a former student, who is trying to do what she can to pursue a nursing degree. Several scholarships in hand, she is still short $5,000 a semester. She lacks the nine digits of a social security number that would make it possible for her to find a part-time job to help make up the difference. The nine digits that would enable her to apply for a driver’s license so she could drive across town to attend college. She tells me she’s washing dishes, and that her mother’s on anti-depressants from Mexico. She tells me she married an American without realizing that it wouldn’t help. She’d still be at the back of the line, except there is no line for kids like her – in reality, she’d have to ‘go back’ to Mexico, a country she doesn’t know, because she left it when she was a baby. She also tells me that her parents can’t make the house payments any more. And I tell her to hang in there. Hang in there? It’s an inexcusable situation in America in 2009. It’s obscene.

Here I sit, an immigrant myself, a lucky white one with freckles, the pre-requisite red in my hair, and the remnants of a County Antrim accent shared by the likes of Liam Neeson. From the little country that could and did with its Riverdance, its Bono, The Cranberries, The Chieftains, Sinead O’Connor, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, Sean O’Casey, Seamus Heaney, Van Morrison …. Yeats, for God’s sake!! Land of Nobel prizewinners and women with tempers as wild as the sea. Even here, in Arizona – where the very idea of America seems to be unraveling with its anti-immigrant atmosphere – it seems that everybody’s Irish on March 17th. I’m bemused by the sight of plastic Paddys washing down corned beef and cabbage with their mugs of green beer on a windy March afternoon. Not a decent pint of Guiness in sight. Corned beef? Who eats that? Seriously. Who eats corned beef and cabbage? It’s as American as Lucky Charms cereal, or Irish Spring soap.
Not that we Irish don’t have our own issues. I don’t recall a Halloween from my childhood, when my mother didn’t produce an apple tart, baked with a ring inside. To get the ring was a sure sign that you’d marry. Likewise, there was the widely-held belief that if you peeled an entire apple, and threw the long peel over your left shoulder, it would land in the shape of the initial of your future love. But I digress …
The only beef I ever had back home was far from corned. We had the best of sirloin from Stewart’s Butchers, a place with sawdust on the floor and young butchers in black and white striped aprons. The only cabbage we ever had was fried with a bit of good bacon from Golden’s shop. We never had cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day. That was a religious kind of holiday where it wasn’t uncommon to see shamrocks wilting in the buttonholes of suits. Our neighbors went to mass, all 11 of them, as I recall, and the Protestants really didn’t bother with the holiday at all. Admittedly, it deteriorated into a bit of a pub crawl when I was older, at teacher training college in Belfast. We’d head to Byrne’s pub on the Ballymena line, trying not to think of the publican who had been shot to death in that very place. His wife, Mrs. Byrne, pulled out all the stops on St. Patrick’s Day, with an Irish stew reminiscent of the kind of thing you’d expect Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne to scarf down between takes of “The Quiet Man.” Lamb, onions, carrots, and potatoes. Bland to the American tastebuds, I’m sure, but for us, when it was combined with an aromatic turf fire, a hot whiskey, and Big Mickey in the back bar, playing The Lonesome Boatman on the tin whistle, it was big and bold in flavor, and we could understand why so many Americans loved our country, which is why I’m a little bitter tonight.
I’m thinking of an aspiring nurse, a beautiful, intelligent young woman whose parents carried her across the border when she was a few months old, a young woman who pledged allegiance to the flag of these United States every day at school, a young woman who now volunteers at Hospice of the Valley, who likes to help others, from children struggling with their ABCs to friends with babies, a young woman who is out of luck on all fronts. I can’t help her. I can only feel guilty that I married an American long before the laws changed. Simply put, I’d overstayed a work visa following a stint upstate New York as a camp counselor. I got married. The rest is history.
I’m still a citizen of Ireland with a green card in my wallet, and will remain as such until the DREAM comes true for those kids who have worked so hard to be all they can be, in and for America. Until the DREAM Act passes, I cannot hold my hand over my heart in deference to the flag of a country that doesn’t embrace children – those without social security numbers and those who are trying to fulfill the dreams of their parents who want only the very best for them.
As I prepare to open this new school, I make a mental note that ‘good citizenship’ will not be a criterion for success on a report card. I won’t lie to the kids, but I’ll remind them that this America that we aspire to, this dream we share, is held aloft by an immigrant spirit, proud, and undaunted.

Six months into this new chapter, and the summer-time nervousness is kicking in. I should know better, having worked in ‘charter land’ since 1995. It’s June, and we have 140 freshman students on our estimated count list. Unlike traditional public schools, so much of what is done in charter land requires projections, best guesses of how many kids will actually show up on opening day – huge leaps of faith from time to time.

I’ve been in this situation before. June 2004 when I’d hired an entire faculty without one freshman student on the list. I cast the recruitment net far and wide, showing up at swap-meets, churches, July 4th celebrations, wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with “Free college. Ask me how!” If I noticed a group of kids hanging out at the mall or at a bus-stop, I would descend upon them with brochures and a barrage of questions about where they went to school, were they happy there, were they interested in an exciting new opportunity for urban youth in Phoenix. I recall buying a mattress, and while supine on a firm Queen, I asked the salesman if he had any high-school aged kids who might want to attend my school. I bought the mattress, the kid enrolled.

Charter school principals understand this behavior. Traditional school principals not so much. Not having to wear the many hats of superintendent, assistant superintendent for curriculum, assessment, finance, development, as well as nurse, chauffeur, substitute teacher, development director, test coordinator, fundraiser, and maker of forms, traditional principals enjoy an infrastructure without which most charters operate.
But this time, I have support and infrastructure in place. I’m hiring slowly. So far, I have four faculty (each inspirational and eager to make history with this new charter) along with a Student Success Liaison who’s helped with recruitment and extra-curricular programming. I have a custodian, a secretary, and a beautiful campus. Classrooms equipped with SMART boards, students with laptops waiting, and last Friday our outdoor seating was installed and reminded me of why we’re here.
The outdoor seating is the color of crimson, the color of Harvard. I’d decided that if we were going to be a college prep school, we really should be preparing kids for the best of college, the best of colleges, so I opted for Harvard Crimson as our school color. One of the perks of being in a charter school before you’ve hired anyone is that you get to make these big decisions all by yourself – the logo, the school colors, the schedule. I’m contemplating a variety of schedules so far …. one for 140 kids with four teachers, one for 140 kids with five teachers (which means they’ll get electives) , one for 200 kids with 8 teachers. I wonder sometimes if I was wrong not to recruit 10th graders, but I know that’s the nervousness talking. To be true to our mission, it is best to begin with Freshman kids, and we’ll grow a culture of teaching and learning together.
Back to Harvard. Several weeks ago, I met with a family whose 14 year old son told me that it is his dream to attend Harvard. He spoke quietly, informing me that he didn’t want to sound big-headed, as if this dream was too good for him. And in my hands, was one of those big fat teachable moments that keep us all doing what we do. I pointed out our crimson Marquee, our crimson logo, our crimson outdoor tables and asked him if he knew that we shared the colors of his dream school. No, he didn’t, but he got it. He understood that at the intersection of 38th and Maryland avenues, we are in the business of going after big dreams by empowering rather than enabling kids who might not otherwise think they can share their dreams of Harvard out loud, with pride.
And in spite of all the panicking about whether we’ll make the projected enrollment, or what the master schedule will look like, and how we’ll get the textbooks ordered before July 1, and the curriculum in order for August 11th, I’m back to the real work. Making college education a reality.

I was one of those children who preferred staying inside with my nose stuck in a book to watching television or playing on the field outside our house on the Dublin Road. I borrowed books from the North Eastern Education and Library Board van that parked around the corner every couple of weeks. The newspaper boy, a lanky Hugh McGarry, delivered a variety of magazines – The Twinkle when I was little, and then later The Bunty, The Judy, The Jackie, The Mandy – all very girly. My little brother, on the other hand, got comics, The Beano and The Dandy, Superman and Spiderman. Every Christmas, Santa Claus would leave a selection of ‘annuals’ for us – hardback compilations of the comic’s best features. I’m quite sure I could find these if I crawled into the attic of my parent’s house in Ireland. Too, I’d probably find several Guiness Books of Records as well as the leather bound set of The Encyclopedia Britannica which had been purchased by my parents from a door-to-door salesman circa 1970.
Add to this print-rich environment three black and white TV channels from which to choose – Ulster Television, BBC1, and BBC – and you have my recreational options as a child (later expanding to include Channel 4, its color commercials and edgy content pushing the envelope).
I always had books in my bookcase (including some that never made it back to the library if truth be told). Admonished by my mother’s “neither a borrower nor a lender be,” it never occurred to me to borrow from or loan books to my friends.
The adventures of Nancy Drew kept me up at night, and when I had chickenpox, Nancy and her ilk kept me from going insane with boredom. My mother still remembers being barely able to feed my reading habit during the weeks I was home from school. I’d beg her to go into town to Eason’s bookshop to bring me more books, which she did without fail.
Thanks to the prolific children’s author, Enid Blyton, I was never without company. My best friends were her ‘famous five,’ and her girls who attended the posh boarding schools, St. Clare’s and Malory Towers. Written in the late 1940’s, I’m quite convinced her books would be lambasted today as politically incorrect and sexist, reinforcing class and gender stereotypes, but they provided hours and hours of delight and pure escapism for a working class girl in Northern Ireland. I just can’t bring my enlightened self to criticize Enid Blyton. That would be sacrilege!
Given all of this, it never occurred to me that any of child of mine would consider reading a chore. I’m alarmed to find myself cajoling and bribing my daughter with the promise of a new electronic game if only she would read for 20 minutes. Even more alarmed to realize just how little she has read in her young life. Unthinkable to me. She has an expansive vocabulary – words gleaned not from a copy of Dicken’s Old Curiosity Shop delivered to me by Santa when I was 10, but from the Nintendo DS, a Game Cube, a Wii, an I-touch. The books painstakingly collected by me over the years sit, untouched, in their bookcases.
There will be, I’m quite confident, no deep conversations with my daughter about the heroines of Thomas Hardy’s novels. We don’t go to church, so she won’t grasp all the Biblical illusions in the plays of Shakespeare or the poetry of T.S. Eliot (that is, of course, if she ever encounters these brilliant works). Her teachers, sadly, have done little, if anything, towards helping me establish our very own mother-daughter book-club around the kitchen table.
I realized this morning, while she was applying Cherry Crush polish to my toenails, that my daughter has just completed the 6th grade having read a grand total of two books – Huck Finn and The Cay – and an abridged version of The Odyssey. Along with her ‘gifted’ classmates, she has watched the movie versions of Huck Finn, Hatchet, and The Odyssey. She tells me, with some regret, that they were supposed to watch Coraline but the teacher ran out of time. They did, however, have time to watch Mulan, The Prince of Egypt, and the delightful Fern Gully.
Almost conspiratorially, she tells me that when her teacher ‘forgot to do something’ or when ‘the copier was busted,’ the class watched Planet Earth. Better yet, they got to see the entire series while her teacher ‘played on her computer.’ Further, she tells me that the highly acclaimed Planet Earth is divided into several parts devoted to the jungle, the deep sea, the desert plains, and the arctic. Conveniently, each of these can fill almost an entire class period. As I replay the last year in my head, I recall, with some irony, that when the country was in the middle of a historic presidential election, my daughter’s class was immersed in the opening chapters of the new Social Studies textbook, ‘covering” Egypt and Greece. When President Obama was being sworn in, my daughter was running around her campus in a toga, crafted by me from a white sheet and a piece of rope. When the country was in the grip of a massive financial meltdown, my daughter was learning about what the Pharaohs ate for dinner.

Not wanting to be ‘the parent from hell,’ and trying not to wear my principal’s hat, I had broached, with her teacher, the possibility of a Current Events lesson or two. Well, there was just so much to cover in the new Social Studies adoption that we wouldn’t be able to get to current events until January. This, of course, would be after the most significant current event in the country’s history, the inauguration of an African American President.

And so we are moving on to a new school. Again. Blithely unaware of how she has been cheated, my daughter is quite resilient and socially adept, having been something of an educational tourist over the past eleven years. We’ve tried them all – two Montessori adventures (where she acquired the drink-serving skills of a flight attendant), parochial (where there was some proselytizing but I didn’t mind because of those all-important biblical allusions), public (where she got lice), a small charter (no music, no art), and public again. Come August, she will attend a school that values a liberal arts education. I must admit to feeling rather smug when I informed her of the mandatory summer reading assignment. I could barely contain myself as I logged into and placed the order for My Brother Sam is Dead and Airborn.
Hah. Poetic. The mailman just arrived with two packages from “Momma. Momma! My books are here!! Can I just tear it open?? It’s my books!!’
She has already counted the pages – 501 in Airborn and 211 in My Brother Sam is Dead. There are 14 chapters in the latter, she informs me, so one chapter a day will suffice to complete it in a fortnight. Delaying the agony of Airborn, she is already calculating how many pages she can manage on our annual road trip to California.

No better way to spend a summer than with your nose in a book.

When Greg, my trusty side-kick, (erstwhile Student Success Liaison) go out to recruit students, we always find ourselves having to come up with disheartening responses to the barrage of questions about music and the arts. “Will there be band?” “What about art?” “Will you offer chorus?”

As someone who has always had easy access to the arts, it breaks my heart to know that – most likely – these hopeful kids won’t have band or chorus unless they find a way to do it themselves hopefully under the guidance of an as-yet-to-be-hired teacher who might just happen to be interested in an after-school club. More disheartening for me, is that these kids don’t even know to ask about orchestra, choir, a recorder group, or individual music lessons taught by itinerant teachers who also played in a national orchestra – all that I had when I was in grade school in Northern Ireland. Nor do they ask about annual summer trips to Europe, where they stay with a nice family, learn about the culture. The trip culminates with a concert after a week of rehearsals. I remember staying with a family in the Black Forest region. They had a harpsichord in their living room, and the father owned a Stradavarius violin!
I played second violin in the North East Ulster Schools Symphony Orchestra, along with students who were brought by bus from all over Northern Ireland every Saturday morning to Antrim Grammar School. Catholics and protestants, rich and poor, each with full access to the very best of a musical education. I didn’t appreciate it until now when I can’t offer it to my own students.
I recall one trip in particular where we had the opportunity to visit East Berlin – long before President Reagan told Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down that wall. I remember the Checkpoint Charlie stamp in my passport and how sad I felt when I realized that our tour guide wouldn’t be able to come to West Berlin to hear us play Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor. The soloist was Sheila Brown, a Belfast girl, and she was amazing. I remember our conductor, Mr. Fletcher – brilliant, bawdy, and given to embarrassing us when we were out of tune. He knew when we were playing quietly because we didn’t want him to hear our mistakes. He’d yell,”If you’re going to make a mistake, make it a good one! Otherwise, take that instrument outside and jump on it!”
Before I was born, my father had purchased a violin, so there was no question that I would play. Nonetheless, our music teacher, Miss Fletcher (no relation to the conductor) would have made sure that we all had instruments. When my grandfather died, part of the inheritance was used to purchase a piano, and my parents drove me to a neighboring town every week for lessons with Mrs. McKittrick. Between my parents and the school system, there was no question that music would be a big part of my life.
I wasn’t a gifted musician, but when I played in that orchestra next to Clifford Lowry, Brian McAteer, and Padraig and Anna O’Brien, (outstanding Irish traditional musicians) my heart soared.
Mr and Miss Fletcher would, I’m sure, be aghast at the very thought of a school without a full orchestra. I shake my head every time I attend a school concert where the choir is accompanied by a recording. It’s like karaoke for kids in school. Where is Miss Fletcher conducting from her piano? And why is ‘band’ the musical section that is clearly the favorite? Where are the string quartets?
Where is the music? In Phoenix, it’s at Arizona School for the Arts, a charter school. For the rest of us, it’s in private lessons. For families who can’t afford the instrument and the lessons?
There is no music.

Truly, the best part of my job is talking to kids and their parents. Talking about their dreams, their goals, why they want to come to my school, a fledgling college prep charter school in Phoenix.

Today, I had a great conversation with a 14 year old kid who told me that, ten years from now, he sees himself as ‘a business owner with pure intentions.’

When I asked him to tell me more, he reminded me of our crumbling economy and various examples of business folks who have been anything but pure in their intentions. And so I wonder about Bernie Madoff. What goals did he have as a freshman in high school? Did he aspire to be a business owner with pure intentions? Maybe. If he didn’t, then who was there to redirect, to inspire, to prevent a calamity half a century later?