The new needs friends: an optimistic note to supporters and skeptics

This is my favorite sequence from the Disney movie — Ratatouille. The all-powerful food critic, Anton Ego, confronting himself after a life-changing meal cooked by a rat. It’s one of my favorite scenes in any movie, ever.

Here’s the key quote:

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgement. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations — the new needs friends.

Do you hear the modern public education world in that? In Polk County? In Florida? In America? I do. I hear it in the underpaid, overstressed men and women engaging our children every day. They offer themselves and their work without recourse to Gary Chartrand’s detached, anti-human, and gratuitously “fun” judgement.

I also recognize the self-indictment of the critic.

Indeed, I won’t say Anton Ego goaded me into running for School Board and subjecting myself and family to judgement. But I’ve always known how little I really risk as I type my judgements comfortably from my porch or air-conditioned office. I decided to run in May because I came to consider it a moral duty to do more than type.

Support is created, not given

I also hear Anton Ego’s words in the digs of some of my critics — and the anxieties of some would-be supporters.

A nasty anonymous letter sent to my wife last week declared:

“If Mr. Townsend continues with his bid to be elected to Polk County School Board, he is likely to find himself out of order many times. He will be only one of seven members.”

It’s really not that different from an email I received from a reader and supporter about the same time last week.

I wanted to voice a particular concern I have so that you can, perhaps, settle some uncertain minds. I have made quite a few teacher friends over the years and, in fact, am considering getting my certification. I have heard from several of them in private conversation that, while they support your stance on many issues, there is fear that, upon being elected, you will “stir things up”, but not have the support needed to implement change. And, by support needed, they mean by other board members and/or district staff.

I’m stuck by the language here. Out of order. Stir things up. These are abstract, emotional outcomes that I can’t really define. Indeed, I don’t even understand the mechanism by which the anonymous letter-writer expects me to find myself “out of order.” I may lose some votes; I may not. But I’ll get to talk and advocate if I win. Elections have consequences that way.

Ultimately, both of these points boil down to: “You might fail.” Well, yes. That’s a risk. Failure is always an option, because life isn’t a movie. But failure and success are rarely clearly defined. And anyway, what would you call what our School Board is doing now?

Common sense

I can’t promise anyone that other human beings will provide “support” for what I want to see happen. No elected official or activist can promise that. Indeed, activism exists to create the political power to generate support where little or none has previously existed.

I expect to do this, day-by-day, piece-by-piece, through the discovery and the defense of “the new.” In this case, “the new” is:

1) Honest attention to the human experience in our schools.

2) Recognition that rebuilding the morale and pipeline of traditional school teachers supersedes any strategic goal. We will achieve nothing without it.

I don’t know why any board member or district leader would find those priorities controversial or threatening or “out of order” or even “new.” Yet, we have not prioritized them in Polk County for years, if we ever have. Thus, anonymous angry letter writers to my wife consider me oddly radical and “out of order” for insisting that we do so — both here and at the state level. They consider me out of order for having the nerve to want to speak about my son’s middle school to my state Board of Eduction. What an odd conception of authority and self-government.

In truth, what I’m pursuing is largely common sense. Any number of policies can serve those goals. I think I’ll find far more votes for action than people think. They don’t always need to be the same votes.  I don’t care about credit. And I don’t need to beat anybody. This isn’t a football game. Everybody can win. If we’re treating kids and teachers like human beings and thinking hard about what’s good for them as people, I’ll be happy and quiet. If we’re not, I’ll be asking why.

Building something new

I’ve been hyper-engaged in the politics and operations of the Polk School District for about 10 months now, building on years and years of writing and analysis prior to this period.

During that 10 months, the Polk School Board has largely publicly ignored my existence. And yet, I’m proud to say the landscape looks quite a bit different now than it did 10 months ago.

Here are the results of the public movement I’ve led. It’s a pretty solid foundation for building something new and better.

1) Kathryn LeRoy’s personal tyranny, incompetence, and behavior no longer plague us.

2) Test reduction and reform is a political priority. Ask Hunt Berryman. (We still have to make it an operational one.)

3) My idea of organizing geographically around high school feeder systems is becoming consensus. Ask Hunt Berryman.

4) Our most powerful district leaders know that someone with the means to publicize their performance is watching them closely. The 4-year crusade to cheat teachers out of masters degree money has carried public political consequences — as has the insult of offering a zero percent raise as part of “negotiation.”

5) The public has learned about the failed LIIS system; questionable IT no-bid contracting; Wes Bridges’ generally abysmal legal advice and performance; Heather Wright’s dishonesty about her travel habits; the 18 principals in four years at the Stigmatized 5 schools under Tony Bellamy’s watch; and Hunt Berryman’s complete inattention to all of it.

6) Teachers have gained a voice they trust to tell their stories. And through that voice, they’ve found each other’s voices. They’ve found their courage together. And they’ve found that they are strong — that they are the glue holding our public school system together under tremendous duress. More on this to come.

7) Perhaps most importantly, the accumulated force of those first six points has created the beginnings of a new political coalition — one that crosses party, race, class, school type, and even business philosophy. This coalition believes that all of our children are individual humans, not spreadsheet cells. This coalition recognizes that distant critics and judges are often corrupt and wrong and utterly lacking in self-criticism. It respects the moral function of teaching in action, not just words.

I’ll be writing more about this coalition — and these points — in days to come. I may or may not be the right messenger to hold it together. But it is real. And it is “new.” At a time of dreary and disheartening division nationally, the diversity of the people supporting my campaign gives me great optimism about the future of my community and my country.

Indeed, I think some pretty selfish people in power recognize the long-term implications of this new political coalition. That’s why my opponent — or someone acting on his behalf — has been running a nasty name-calling phone campaign hurling various tired old political insults at me.

They’re afraid of the new. My supporters and I are not. We’re here to take risks for it. We’re here to defend it. With malice toward none. Will you join us?

You can do that literally Monday night by marching with us at the Winter Haven Public Education Partnership Homecoming Parade. Meet us at Denison Stadium between 5 p.m. and 5:45.

Or join us financially by contributing here to help us drive our message of change and new priorities.

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