I always hesitate to talk about being a poor kid. It is really cliché and I've grown up to be a much cooler guy than that. But 1984 was particularly tough for us. Mom made $10,000 that year (median income in New York was close $42,000) and we just barely scraped by. The gas furnace broke and our house had no hot water for the entire year. She was two months behind on the mortgage by the time school ended and it concerned her. The cheapest hot meal a working mom could make was probably scrambled eggs and we had them for dinner every Monday and Thursday night (and some Wednesdays too!). That said, there were more than a few people we knew who weren't doing so great back then and mom and folks from our Lake Streets neighborhood were always quick to remind me that there were tons of people out there who were far worse off than we were. Funny thing about self pity, whenever it isn't allowed to enter into the equation of a tough situation (and it never was for me), it doesn't hurt as much.
What did hurt was being compelled to watch these boring news shows! My mom made me watch them each and every night. The usual routine had me in front of the TV with her watching Roger Grimsby and 6:00, followed by Frank Reynolds 6:30. I would try to distract myself and think about other things during this time, but it was no use. During commercial breaks, she'd always quiz me and explain the background information from some of the stories we'd just seen to make sure I was paying attention and that I understood. And whenever news "specials" were aired, I'd always have to watch them with her. So, when the summer came and the politicians started talking on the TV, there I was, in our hot living room, listening to the roar of two loud old metal fans trying to cool us off and watching an incredibly boring National Convention on a TV that had to be turned up to almost full blast just to hear. I was a prisoner that night, like so many night before it, and I totally hated it.
My mother turned up the TV and called me in from the kitchen just as the crowd was clapping and he was taking the stage. I walked in thinking how torturous and painful the coverage up to that point was, and wanting just to make it through without pulling the hair out of my head.
And then he spoke. Oh my goodness.
The first few words I heard from that keynote forever hooked me on politics and on Mario M. Cuomo. I read over a text the other night as I was putting this post together and I can almost remember hearing the words blaring out of the old Zenith just over the hum of the fans. "Please allow me to skip the stories and the poetry and the temptation to deal in nice but vague rhetoric". There was a sense of urgency in his voice that just grabbed you and drew you in by sheer force. It was a tone that had no time for BS or to be just grateful for being there but wanted to get straight to the point. After a moment or two I stopped paying attention to the fans or the heat or my mother and zoned in on this guy in the suit -speaking.
But the hard truth is that not everyone is sharing in this city's splendor and glory. A shining city is perhaps all the President sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well. But there's another city; there's another part to the shining the city; the part where some people can't pay their mortgages, and most young people can't afford one; where students can't afford the education they need, and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate.In this part of the city there are more poor than ever, more families in trouble, more and more people who need help but can't find it. Even worse: There are elderly people who tremble in the basements of the houses there. And there are people who sleep in the city streets, in the gutter, where the glitter doesn't show. There are ghettos where thousands of young people, without a job or an education, give their lives away to drug dealers every day. There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces that you don't see, in the places that you don't visit in your shining city.
Less than a minute or so into the speech, right about here, something happened that I don't think I'll ever forget. When Cuomo started talking about poor, and said that there was 'more poor than ever' in America, my mother, never a melodramatic woman, welled up and started to cry.
I had no idea why she was crying but, in what seemed like an long instant, the crying turned into this weeping and then straight into all out sobbing. I had never seen that before. It was weird watching it happen, too. I mean, I felt terrible for her and everything (what son wouldn't?) but I had never thought that anything these boring suits ever had to say was connected with my mother in any way. Yet there she was. Sobbing.
She started to cry so hard that she decided to call it a night before the speech had ended. Without another word she shut off the TV, unplugged the fans, closed all the lights, then motioned for me, because it was all she could muster, to go to bed. In a flash, the house was silent and I was up in my room wondering what the hell had just happened.
Of course I snuck back right down after she closed her door! Sure I was interested in the speech and all, but I really wanted to figure out exactly what it was that made my mother cry. There were no fans this time and no lights. Just me and the Zenith. And Cuomo.
We believe -- We believe as Democrats, that a society as blessed as ours, the most affluent democracy in the world's history, one that can spend trillions on instruments of destruction, ought to be able to help the middle class in its struggle, ought to be able to find work for all who can do it, room at the table, shelter for the homeless, care for the elderly and infirm, and hope for the destitute. And we proclaim as loudly as we can the utter insanity of nuclear proliferation and the need for a nuclear freeze, if only to affirm the simple truth that peace is better than war because life is better than death.
We believe in firm -- We believe in firm but fair law and order.
We believe proudly in the union movement.
We believe in a -- We believe -- We believe in privacy for people, openness by government.
We believe in civil rights, and we believe in human rights.
We believe in a single -- We believe in a single fundamental idea that describes better than most textbooks and any speech that I could write what a proper government should be: the idea of family, mutuality, the sharing of benefits and burdens for the good of all, feeling one another's pain, sharing one another's blessings -- reasonably, honestly, fairly, without respect to race, or sex, or geography, or political affiliation.
We believe we must be the family of America, recognizing that at the heart of the matter we are bound one to another, that the problems of a retired school teacher in Duluth are our problems; that the future of the child -- that the future of the child in Buffalo is our future; that the struggle of a disabled man in Boston to survive and live decently is our struggle; that the hunger of a woman in Little Rock is our hunger; that the failure anywhere to provide what reasonably we might, to avoid pain, is our failure.
The words he spoke were among the most profound I had ever heard. That my own current world view is aligned with the contents of that speech may be total coincidence or may not. Certainly, I freely admit to not understanding 90% of what I heard that night, but what little I did understand at age twelve lead me to one of the first adult realizations I had ever had.
You see, Regan's commercials that year proclaimed that it was "Morning in America" again. But 1984 was definitely not morning in my little Long Island town. The recovery hadn't yet hit anyone on the lower ends of the socioeconomic ladder and between the changes to welfare and the cuts to financial aid, almost every one of my neighbors was actually doing a bit worse than before. My house was definitely not part of any shiny city on a hill and not, so far as I knew, any place that Reagan had ever visited. Sitting there watching the words flow from what was clearly a brilliant man, I realized that my mother and I had been left behind. This is why she cried. But I also realized that people like Mario Cuomo were pissed off about that and this, in its own odd way, is also why she cried. You cry when someone recognizes your pain. It is part of the process of healing.
It wasn't until many years later, during a conversation with a college professor, that I understood what that speech was about. As it turned out, the 1980s left a lot of people behind. Cuomo knew that and spoke out against it in oratory that rivaled anything Lincoln had ever delivered. Of course, I know more about politicians now than I did then and I reflect on his speech today with sober eye. But one night, thirty years ago, the Hamlet On the Hudson made a twelve year old version of me realize that this world wasn't as big as it seemed, that my experience had a place in it and that that place really (really) sucked. I was a different kid when I finally shut the TV off and went to sleep. I can't imagine what kind of person I'd be today had I not seen that speech.
As poor kids go, I drew a lucky hand. I guess all those news shows I had to watch stuck and, unlike some of my friends, I was able to understand most of the books I read so I just kept reading. I went on to be the first in my family to finish college and the first to enjoy a middle class job and lifestyle (that too is cliché but, hell, I earned it). I live a fairly modest life but, in terms of where I started, it feels like the darn Shangri La. In its own small way, my story is one of those small American miracles you see every so often on the Hallmark channel.
I came to teaching for many reasons. They mostly have to do with giving back the gift of education (and with this Pope I know who keeps insisting I have to do my part to make the world a better place). But there is only one reason why I chose to teach Title I students in an urban setting. It comes from that moment, back in '84, when I snuck down to a TV and soaked in what being poor in America really meant. It meant anonymity and struggle and disappointment. It meant hardship and confusion and loneliness. I hated that, no kid wouldn't, and I wanted to do my small part to help others leave it behind the way I had been able to. So it's no small thing to say that Mario Cuomo's speech is a major reason I currently teach in New York City.
Which is so incredibly ironic, because his son is such a heel!!!!!
Since 1984 economic disparity in this nation (the theme of Cuomo's remarks) has ballooned (here here here here) to proportions that Cuomo the senior might describe as catastrophic and have trouble wrapping even his head around. The 'have-nots' in our nation now outnumber the 'haves' by such an amount that inequality has become the new norm and, for many, cliché.
The growth in power of the American service and financial sectors has been a big vehicle bringing this change. From it we have jokes like Grandma Millie and theories like "Too Big To Fail" -both of which have become all too common in our common language- to reminded us that our most powerful institutions are no longer aligned with the rules of the social contract but are subject to the whims of a free market. This trend has infiltrated the most basic public good of any society -education. Financial profiteers now refer to my profession as an "economic sector" (within this context, my school district is referred to as a monopoly). Their funds give tax shelter to the enormous wealth they have accumulated and allow the growth of charter schools, 'foundations' designed to rethink education and "non profits" that are perfectly free to pay whatever six figure salary to their officers they wish. Since 2001, schools have been placed in the untenable position of pumping out miracles like me as a matter of routine. Indeed, if they miss their quota (better than last year's AYP), they face stiff penalties. This trend has created a downward pressure on classroom teachers that is almost beyond description. I now prep late into the night and grade early in the morning just to feel secure that I will keep my job.
And Mario's closest advisor, his own son, has switched sides and joined the winning team. He takes money from Wall Street in general and from Hedge Funders in particular. He employs devices like Orwellian doublethink, cardstacking and banal obfuscation, in hopes of having people believe that teachers should be trusted less and that they he (not they) is the one who looks out for students more. Though they have many flaws, he intends to make the many new teacher evaluation systems throughout the state more difficult than they already are and offers as reason for this only that the test scores do not match the ineffective ratings issued to teachers throughout the state. Bringing 'not the sinner but the righteous to repentance' he wants voters to believe that teachers are responsible for the academic failure on state tests -as though up is down (as though social structures, or economic structures or failed governmental policies championed by him have no bearing whatsoever on the present state of our state) and down is up. And he intends to go full speed -starting this month during the state budget process- down this very policy path.
The other day, when I tweeted that Andrew Cuomo was proving why teachers need a strong union defending them, one of my more favorite Twitter followers replied that Cuomo didn't think teachers were bad at all, just that the money was better on the other side and that his big donors -the banks and the hedge funders- needed to bust unions and get their hands on the wealthy health and pension funds that we have amassed. I won't argue with that assessment. I think it's accurate. Andrew's not such a bad guy. But he is answerable to people who have probably been helping him since 2008 and he his quite ruthless. The new governor is all about his power. That means he is all about taking care of those who placed him in power and teachers most certainly did not place Andrew Cuomo in power. He has become a living lesson in how you can go from associating a name with Hamlet to associating it with Macbeth in one quick generation.
Thirty years later, that city on the hill has become a lot smaller and places that the folks like the real governor's son do not visit have become a lot more populated. We need a leader to start talking about that again -we all need to start talking about that and stop talking about bad teachers. I am deeply disappointed that Cuomo's son is not that leader, even if I am eternally grateful for a few important words he spoke when I was a kid.
"...you ought to know that this nation is more a "Tale of Two Cities" than it is just a "Shining City on a Hill...." -Mario Cuomo (1984!)