Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Criminal Education

I live in a state with an educational system that is ranked 50th in the nation. 50th! To put it into perspective, Nevada is ranked 50th out of 52 states in a country that trails just about every other industrialized nation in education. That means that Nevada has some of the dumbest kids in the free world. A new study shows that 43% of Nevadans have "rudimentary literacy skills" meaning basic or below basic literacy. This means they can read street signs, fill out applications, and read the cover of cereal boxes but reading the warnings on medications or the material safety data sheets on hazardous jobs, any type of legal forms, or a newspaper or novel is pretty much out of the question. Of course, this is not the children's fault or even the adults who grew up in this screwed up system. The learning capacity of American children is no different than that of children in Tokyo, Holland, or Denmark. The difference is how they are taught and the emphasis on education.

I was watching a documentary on prisons in California and in it, one sociologist quoted a statistic that I found both sad and unsurprising. 80% of the inmates at one prison in Oakland can be traced back to the same three high schools. 80%! I'm not saying that all the blame is on the education system but certainly a larger portion than most people are willing to admit. The link between poor education and crime is certainly not insignificant or coincidental. There are other factors to be sure. Those three high schools were undoubtedly in low income areas and we know that crime rates go up as incomes drop as does alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, and broken homes. None of which creates a great climate for learning and any one of which could lead to crime. If you live in a drug-infested crime-ridden neighborhood and are the product of a single-parent home with no father-figure, where there is spousal and/or child abuse taking place, the chances of you winding up joining a gang or engaging in some other criminal activity increase exponentially. Still, 68% of prison inmates are high school dropouts. It is hard to ignore this statistic. It is hard not to draw a causal link from poor education to incarceration.

In my own neighborhood I saw one friend after another turn to alcohol and then drugs. Crime was such a casual everyday thing that I remember walking into a store with my friends, stealing a bunch of TastyKakes, and walking back out while the place was being held up at shotgun point. Store robberies were so common that none of us were even scared or even paid the hold-up man much attention at all. We just saw it as an opportunity to steal candy. The robber even laughed and shook his head once he realized what we were up to as he went about emptying the cash register. This was normal in my neighborhood. This was life. Fights in which somebody wound up going to the hospital were normal. Drug dealers were normal. The occasional fatal shooting was normal. Only one of my friends had a father who lived with them. One out of more than a dozen friends. Normal.

I enjoyed fighting when I was young. If there was a fight going down I wanted to be a part of it. Fighting was my passion, still is. Only now, I do my fighting in the ring and I get paid for it. However, when my friends started stealing bikes, I did not. As Dr. Cosby stated in his speech, I didn't want to disappoint and embarrass my mother. She understood fighting because she had been a fighter herself when she had grown up on those same streets. But our family were not criminals. When my peers began stealing cars and all got police records, I wasn't among them. When they started selling drugs and walking around with wads of cash stuffed into their pockets, I declined their offers to join them in their new enterprise. When they all started carrying guns I still relied on my fists. When they started drinking, smoking, and using drugs, I remained clean and sober. To this day I have never smoked a cigarette or experimented with any type of illegal drug, not even marijuana, not even once.

See, I was in a good high school with prospects of going to a good college and one day getting a good job. I could see past my present environment to my future and I didn't want to screw all that up by going to prison, dying, becoming a drunk, or getting hooked on drugs. My friends had all gone to the neighborhood high school where prospects did not look as promising. Their future were scarier to them then the prospect of being shot down in the street or going to prison. They could see no way of getting into a good college or eventually getting a high-paying job. They could not see past the neighborhood and I do think that this was a failing of both parents and school. Their futures should have been as clear to them as mine was to me.

When I was in Junior high, teachers used to threaten us with the neighborhood high school the way you threaten kids with reform school or jail in other cities. "You keep acting up and you're going to wind up in Germantown High!" Because everyone knew that going to Germantown High or Martin Luther King High School meant that you would never rise any higher than you were. It was as powerful a threat as jail or reform school because for most it was the first step towards jail or reform school or dropping out and going back to the streets. Back in Philly, if you lived in the ghetto and weren't accepted into one of the many magnet high schools, than all hope was pretty much lost. Neighborhood schools were no different than the streets. Drugs, crime, violence, and apathy were your daily diet in the neighborhood schools. They were underfunded, understaffed, over-crowded, warzones, where you worried more about avoiding becoming a victim of violence than about getting good grades. Nearly every last one of my friends who went to Germantown High School now have criminal records and many are dead, on drugs, or currently incarcerated. The ones who avoided jail time have, predictably, rose no higher than their parents and, in many cases, sunk lower. There is definitely a causal relationship between quality of education, crime, and poverty.

My mother saw to it that, after elementary school, I never went to another school in our neighborhood. She lied and cheated and forged documents to get me into schools in other (White) neighborhoods and, had she not, I wonder if I'd have been able to resist the lure of easy drug money. I wonder if I'd have seen myself as having such a promising future if I had attended Picket Middle School with my friends from the neighborhood instead of Henry H. Houston with kids from Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill? If I had attended Germantown High School instead of Creative and Performing Arts High School would I have had the strength and courage to chase my dream of becoming a published author? I don't think so. I think I would still be stuck in that little neighborhood in G-town.

I read about schools cracking down on parents who lie about what district they live in. A school in Northern California even visits the homes on the school applications to make sure that the kids actually live where they say they live in order to keep parents from lying in order to get their kids better educations. But why should they have to lie? Why do schools like Picket Middle School, Germantown High School, and Martin Luther King High School even exist?

In America, the quality of the school in your district depends on the tax dollars that each district brings in. Poor neighborhoods bring in less tax dollars than more affluent neighborhoods so they have less money to spend on the schools. This situation will assure that lower-income largely minority children will always be at an educational disadvantage when compared to middle-class or upper-class children, which then assures that the prisons will be largely populated by these same lower-income minority children as they grow up with little or no education and therefore little or no hope.

What really pisses me off is that the answer is a simple one. The answer to this problem is one that takes place in many countries all over Europe. The same countries that kick our asses in test scores, scoring higher in English than our own English speaking children. Let the parents send their children wherever they want to send them and give the schools tax dollars based on the number of children rather than how much money those children's parents make. In Europe, the tax dollars follow the kids. It doesn't matter if your parents only make twenty thousand dollars a year and some other kid's parents make two hundred thousand a year. You both have the same amount of tax dollars attached to you and if a school wants to attract you to it it had better be of the highest quality because the parents now have a choice.

Free-enterprise is one of the founding principles of this country. Competition generates quality and controls cost. Why don't we apply this same principle to education? If schools had to compete for kids there would be better schools. If more kids meant more money for the schools then parents wouldn't have to lie and deceive in order to get their children into a good school. All the schools would be good or else no one would go there and they would perish.

The one thing that continues to surprise me about the current presidential elections is that none of the top candidates have given thought to this very obvious solution. If schools had to compete for kids and they received more tax dollars for more children there would not be the problems of overcrowded schools or schools with inadequate books and other supplies and materials, or schools with under-paid, under-qualified, apathetic and indifferent teachers. Those schools would go broke and go under.

When I was growing up teaching was a profession,a life-long profession. The same teachers that taught me were the same teachers who had taught my mother. Now, teaching is what you do when you first get out of college while you try to figure out what you really want to do with your life. Teachers are so underpaid that many of them work two jobs. They don't want to be in that classroom each day anymore than the kids. If the teachers were better paid, the schools better funded, and the kids there because they really wanted to be there as opposed to some other school, many of the issues I stated above would not exist and I have to believe that many of the criminals that currently crowd our prisons would not be there either. Let the schools compete for the kids and you will see an improvement. This is not a theory but a fact that has been tested and verified all over Europe.

Right now, in many cities across America, the streets are educating our children far better than the schools and so that is where many of our children feel the most comfortable. That is why the drop-out rate in some cities is over %50 in the lower-income minroity areas. It is a simple choice, build more and better schools and give the parents the option of what schools they can send their kids to, let the tax dollars follow the student and make the schools compete for those tax dollars, or build more prisons and let the tax dollars follow the inmate.

Friday, March 07, 2008

National Pride

A couple of weeks ago Michelle Obama made a statement that seemed to infuriate a lot of people, particularly among the Republican party. After seeing so many people coming out in support of her husband she said that this was the first time in her adult life that she was actually proud of her country. She caught a lot of grief for that statement. Shouldn't someone who's running for president be proud of their country? Being a minority she has perhaps a different perspective on things and so do I. It is often difficult to feel proud of the very country that has alienated and oppressed you. You would feel like a fool. The closer America gets to racial, economic, sexual, and social equality, the closer I get to genuine national pride. The further away it gets the less proud I am. I see Obama running for president in order to make America into something he and his wife can be proud of, something we can all be proud of, a place where "...Liberty and justice for all" are not just empty words. If it was already such a place we wouldn't need him.

Part of the fawning adoration his candidacy has inspired has much less to do with him and more to do with a desperation to be rid of the current imbecile taking up space in the oval office. In a moment of clarity, I had to admit that my current uncharacteristic obsession with the 2008 election has less to do with the prospect of electing the first woman president or even the first Black president or the first democratic president in eight years. It is mostly due to a fervent desire to see that we do not elect another Republican. I don't think our economy could stand the blow.

Still, that type of thinking is that "less of evils mentality" that we have all become so guilty of and which has disillusioned many voters to the democratic process. One reason why voters are turning out in record numbers this time is because for the first time in a long time the choice is not between the lesser of evils but there are two candidates whom we can actually get excited about. There are two candidates we could actually be proud of.

I have been proud of my country in the past, though mostly as a child with little knowledge of the rest of the world. As an adult, I have seldom been proud of America. I have looked at this country the way most people have looked at presidential candidates in the past. It was simply the lesser of evils. I think if most people were honest with themselves they would have to admit to the same feelings. It is not so much a pride in this country as it is a realization that most countries are even worst. In the past eight years I have most often been ashamed of America. I have been ashamed of the religious fanaticism and puritanism that Europeans laugh at and which continues to influence laws that oppress women, homosexuals and non-Christians, our low educational scores compared to most other industrialized nations. I have been ashamed of our warmongering president and our bullying of other countries that don't do things the way America believs they ought to, our screwed up race relations and history of slavery and genocide, our incarceration rate that is higher than any other country in the world including the dictatorships that we consider ourselves morally superior to, our childish "I won't change unless they do" approach to global warming while we remain the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases. America is riddled with flaws. The one thing I have been proud of has been our quality of living.

Having travelled quite a bit I can say that Americans enjoy probably the best quality of living of any country anywhere. Our poorest people, on average, still have color TVs, microwaves, and DVD players, and many of them even have cell phones. What we consider poverty in this country would be laughed at by most other countries. I have been proud of America for that. I have never, in my memory, been proud of our president. I guess I came close to being proud of Bill Clinton but that was a waning semi-pride that didn't really last. In fact, if I were being honest with myself, it wasn't really pride at all but more an amazement that he hadn't made any major screw-ups and getting a blow-job from a much youner woman who wasn't his wife was the worst thing they could pin on him. That and not lifting a finger to help the Ruwandans who were being massacred by the hundreds of thousands. But surprisingly, no one ever brought that up. That wasn't a major issue for Americans. And, really, it still has not been brought up. With all the African-Americans who have flocked to the Hillary Clinton camp, not once was her husband's indifference to African's ever mentioned. In America, committing adultery is much worse than standing idly by and allowing the genocide of thousands.

I look at the way leaders of other countries are fawned over by their citizenry and for the first time I long to feel that. I am jealous of them. I want to feel like fighting when someone from another country insults our president instead of hanging my head and nodding slowly, "Yeah, you're right about that. He is an asshole." I want the type of president that I would violently defend. I have never known anything but cynicism, disgust, or indifference, to any of America's leaders. My guess is that indifference is the disposition most Americans have towards the President until he does something monumentally stupid and detrimental to our lives. Americans have grown so cynical that the type of adoration of its leaders that is common in other countries is looked upon with fear and suspicion and ridiculed by us. The press talks about the almost religious fervor of Obama's supporters as being "cult-like". They call it a cult of personality. It has become fodder for late night television. But I had to step back and ask myself, shouldn't we feel that type of pride, admiration and, dare I say it, love for our leader? Don't we deserve to have a president who can inspire that? Don't we deserve to have the type of president that soldiers would willingly die for? Don't we deserve to have the type of leader that we trust unconditionally and love wholeheartedly?

I'm not saying that Obama can inspire that in everyone. I am certainly not there yet and may never be. I have perhaps been too cynical for too long. But I would certainly not ridicule those who are and if Obama were elected president, I would feel something that I have never felt for any president in my entire life... pride. Ever since Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Black Americans have been pining for a new Black leader to come along and unify and galvanize the Black community. Everyone from Jesse Jackson to Al Sharpton to Louis Farrakahn have attempted to fill the void with little success. Perhaps what we needed all along was not a Black leader to lead the Black community. Perhaps Barrack Obama was what we needed, someone who can lead all people, Black, White, Asian, Latino, and Middle Eastern and unify and galvanize them all into action. Not a Black leader bu a leader who just happens to be Black. A leader that all Americans can be proud of.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

The Last Hurrah

So this is my last year as a fighter, definitely, without a doubt, no more comebacks. After this year I am concentrating on my writing. My goal was to have six fights this year and then to call it quits. So far I have had two fights with mixed success. One win. One devastating loss. I am now going to take another fight next month on March 22nd at the Las Vegas Hilton.

Why am I doing it? Because, as I have said, this is the last year my body will allow me to and I don't want to have any regrets when I hang up the gloves forever. I have been haunted by the feel of my shin sinking into an opponent's ribcage for years now and the thought that I might never feel that sensation again. I know that sounds violent, unfathomable for some. How could I possibly long for such a grotesque feeling? But for me that feeling of my shin cutting deep into a ribcage and shattering bone is no different then the feel of a baseball bat connecting perfectly with a ball. That feeling that you know you have just hit a homerun. I'm sure every baseball player who retires from the game misses that feeling. It is no different then the feel of a basketball rolling off your fingers at just the perfect angle with just the perfect spin and you know even before it goes swishing through the hoop that you have just hit a three-pointer. I'm sure Larry Bird still misses that sensation. For me it is the same as a quarterback throwing the perfect pass or a golfer landing the perfect putt. It is a moment of perfection. And I will miss it when it is gone.

Since I started training again I have lost 25lbs. I almost feel like a kid again. When I first started training I was walking around at 255 and would balloon up to 260 if I wasn't careful. I weighed in for my last fight at 229. Only 3 pounds off my fighting weight before I retired. In fact, most of my fights back in my twenties took place at about 226. By this next fight I may even weigh that again, though I am trying to pack on some more muscle. I look better. I feel better about myself. At this moment, I am living the way I have always wanted to live.

I am managing myself right now so I don't have anyone making backdoor deals or passing up good fights waiting for the bigger, better, deal. I see a fight I like and I sign the contract. This is how it should have always been.

I will be 38 years old this year. It is definitely time to call it quits. I will have my first mass-market paperback coming out this year. For the first time I will be able to say that I am a published author without putting any qualifiers on it or having to explain what the small press is and how it works and why my books are not available at Borders or Barnes and Nobles. Now my book will be available at Barnes and Nobles. It is all perfect timing.

Next year all of my goals will revolve around writing and perhaps opening my own gym somewhere. I have two unfinished books that I need to finish and two more finished novels that I need to rewrite to make them saleable. That should keep me busy. Hopefully, I'll still find the motivation to workout and won't start letting myself go. I really don't want to fit the stereotype of a writer and look like a sedentary blob. I want my skin to always be at least within half an inch of my skeletal muscular system with very little fat between the two. Some guys can pull that heavy look off. I ain't one of them.

I'm thinking of taking up running marathons and long distance bike racing and then learning to swim so I can one day complete a triathalon. It's now been four years since I ran the San Diego marathon. You know what? I think I'll sign up for the next one today. It's not until June. That gives me 13 weeks to train. I can do it. Whatever gets me away from the computer for a few hours so my muscles don't completely atrophy and I'm sure I'll still get in the ring to spar with my students every now and again once my career is over. At least until I get too old and that becomes too much for me to handle.

At any rate, it will be with no regrets that I will say goodbye to the sport of Muay Thai kickboxing this year. It has been good to me. I hope I will go out victoriously with more wins this year then losses, but either way, come 2009, I'm out.