Neil Heinen

Heinen: In search of wisdom in our schools

I'm looking for wisdom and guidance

I am an avid reader of the Sunday Book Review section in The New York Times. I save it, savor it and use it. Over the years it’s been a major factor in determining a sizable allocation of the family budget to the purchase of books. I have a weakness for books. I buy a lot of them. But while many of The New York Times reviews are very well written, rarely does a review so eloquently and elegantly complement a book as did James McBride’s critique of Toni Morrison’s most recent collection “The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches and Meditations.”

If this book helps me navigate the current racially charged issues in Madison’s public schools — and with the racially charged issues in our city and our country — I will be grateful to McBride.

I’m looking for wisdom and guidance. I’m having a very hard time comprehending the recent revelations of racist behavior in our schools and I’m unsure of the influence my own white bias has on my thinking. It must be profoundly hurtful and infuriating to be a black student, parent or member of this community and be confronted in recent months with the reality of teachers uttering racial slurs in school. A physical altercation with a student, which happened in February, is unimaginably worse. 

Clearly this is not limited to our schools. Our nation is grappling with a racial divide reminiscent of the 1950s, which has either again reared its ugly head or has simply been simmering in a cauldron of white obfuscation and denial. 

The recent incidents in our schools has further revealed the racism — both latent and blatant — in our society as a whole. It is again dividing us, or keeping us divided, and diminishing our ability to agree on what to do about it. And that’s where I’m having the most trouble. I’ve heard the lament about words absent action, and I wholeheartedly agree. Enough talk. 

But what action is the right action? After one recent incident, Madison School District Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham issued an open letter to the community that reiterates the district’s equity goals, says work is underway to bring about meaningful change and that “we are going to work hard to get it right.” 

Over the last five years I’ve spent a lot of time studying the district’s strategic plans and analyzing the results. And while no one argues we don’t have a long ways to go, I trust Cheatham and her staff of color and the many community leaders of color who support her and her strategic framework.

But how can I say that? Six teachers and substitute teachers have made racist comments in front of students in the past few months. A school staff member was involved in a physical scuffle with an African-American child and while the staff member was not arrested and not charged by the Dane County District Attorney, he was placed on leave and will not return to the school, and members of the African American community are outraged. 

There is understandable concern that the discipline of school staff in these and other cases falls short while unacceptable treatment of black students continues. And there have been calls for the removal of all law enforcement officers from city schools and a policy of zero tolerance for racial bias by school administrators. So Madison once again feels racially divided, and it’s gut wrenching.

McBride writes of Morrison that “in this time of tumult and sadness and continuous war, where tawdry words are blasted about like junk food, and the nation staggers from one crisis to the next … the mightiness, the stillness, the pure power and beauty of words delivered in thought, reason and discourse, still carry the unstoppable force of a thousand hammer blows, spreading the salve of righteousness that can heal our nation and restore the future our children deserve.” 

I hope to find in Morrison’s words the salve of righteousness that can pull our community together around its schools in search of that future

Side Notes 

United Way Business Network turns 20
United Way of Dane County is, among many other wonderful attributes, a big tent. And a lot of the people in that big, diverse and inclusive tent are volunteers. This year the United Way-affiliated Business Volunteer Network of 44 member companies in Dane County is celebrating its 20th anniversary. That’s two decades of supporting workplace volunteer programs, part of the backbone of United Way’s work. United Way’s annual Community Volunteer Awards luncheon is on April 30. Expect to celebrate an anniversary then.

A food oasis opens on south side
The Allied/Dunn’s Marsh neighborhood is a food desert no longer. After some challenges and setbacks, husband-and-wife team Joe and Miriam Maldonado have opened Luna’s Groceries, a full-service market with a meat counter and fresh produce. Maldonado says the response from the community “has been nothing short of phenomenal and inspiring.” Good. The grocery business is anything but easy. It might be nice to stop by if you’re in the neighborhood.  


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