What’s most important in the school-board election?

Here’s the big picture in the current school board race. We have three open seats. There were eight. One withdrew before the deadline for withdrawal. Another seems to have dropped out after the deadline. So that leaves six.

Three of the six are the “Caledonia United” candidates. Another day maybe I’ll tell you about my experience attending Cal United meetings in late 2021 and early 2022. (Spoiler: it turned out not be about uniting.) Now they have taken to calling themselves “The Fighting Scots.”  Really? Can they take our Cal High School team name as their own like that? These candidates are John Brandow, Tim Morris, and Jennifer Nichols. They are not the Fighting Scots any more than they were Cal United. In truth, they are Team Rigas, allied with and sponsored by Trump-endorsed state rep candidate Angela Rigas. But I’ll call them and the group from which their candidacies emerged (as did mine, but in a different direction) Cal United.

The other three candidates are calling ourselves Team V-E-T, to help you remember which names to check on the ballot: V for VanGessel, E for Ernest, and T for Timmer. (We are not veterans or veterinarians, unless V and T have secrets they haven’t told me, but other ways of arranging the letters didn’t work out.) You can see more about us on our websites; for example, on mine. We are not all connected with the same party, and we aren’t allied (endorsed, sponsored) with any local or national politician. I’m pretty sure we don’t agree with each other on every political issue, but we agree that the political and cultural issues that divide us nationally must not be allowed to divide the Caledonia Board of Education. We think it is possible to disagree on various questions of policy and political philosophy and work together well for the good of the schools and our students.

We think that in Caledonia we need school-board trustees who will (1) put kids over ideology and partisanship, and (2) be competent to do the real work of our school board. There is serious work to do, and we need to focus on the local needs.

That’s a high-level overview. But I want to give you a more personal perspective.

Things I remember

In September 1965, my parents dropped me off at Dupont Elementary School in Hopewell VA. In 1977, I graduated from Hopewell High School. Twelve years of public school. I had many excellent teachers. I remember many of their names and faces and voices. In the year 2022, they are still with me.

After that I went to college. I stayed in school for a long time. That’s not all I was doing. Beth and I got married. We had two beautiful children. Beth pastored several churches. I worked at several jobs. But I was a student until January 2000, when Boston College awarded my PhD in the history of Christian life and thought.

My twelve years in public school formed me. In my public school every morning the teachers led us in the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord’s Prayer. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, we learned the American Way—1950s style.

My elementary school in central Virginia was still segregated. Lots of African American schoolchildren in my hometown, but I never met any of them until junior high school. Everyone in my elementary school was White.

Everyone was alike in other ways too. If they weren’t, they paid. A boy name Carter was fat. Other boys taunted him and knocked him down on the elementary school playground. Some days I was one of those other boys. Then afterward I felt bad and was nice to him the rest of the day.

In junior high, puberty hit. It hit different people differently. Many boys started groping the girls. No one stopped them. Girls wore long, heavy winter coats in the hallways in warm weather to make their bodies less accessible for groping.

In junior high, a boy named Steve was tall, wispy, effeminate. He was hounded and taunted. The boys called him Suzie. I think I was the only other student who would sit with him and talk with him kindly. I liked him. I also felt sorry for him.

Sometime before graduation, Carter and Steve and others disappeared. I have searched for them on the Internet without finding them. How long did they live? What would have made them want to live?

Junior high school and high school were racially integrated. I got to know Black kids. We got along fine. Some of them are now Facebook friends. But I didn’t understand some things. Why did all the Black kids walk out a couple of times every year? And the principal would call in Mr. Epps or Mr. Harris—highly respected Black leaders in our town—to talk with them in the school auditorium. What did they say to them? We White kids never knew.

In high school, our government teacher was named Jerrell Q. Sober. He was an elegant man with lovely white hair and a beautiful tenor singing voice. For a side job he arranged the display window at a men’s clothing store. Everyone wanted Mr. Sober to sing at their weddings. Mr. Sober did not have a wedding of his own. His middle initial stood for Quintus, but there were jokes that it stood for something else. But he was such an excellent teacher and sterling person that he kept the high regard of nearly everyone in town. He became a high-level administrator in our school district. The deal was: if you will pretend you’re straight, so will we. Mr. Sober taught us about the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, Congress, the executive branch, the courts. He never once said this: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is working OK for you kids, but not for me.” Couldn’t say that then. But he also believed in what he was teaching.

In high school, I was a debater and a minor speech-maker. I entered patriotic-speech contests sponsored by the VFW and American Legion, and on the local level I won them. I loved talking about America and democracy. I had no sense of a gap between the ideals of the American Way and the realities of the world around me. None.

Two tasks: (1) finances and logistics

Why am I telling you these things?

Because in Caledonia we have more than one problem. We have two problems.

One problem: Finances and logistics. Our population is growing and will grow more. We are putting up new buildings and renovating older buildings. You know we have cost overruns. School board members will need to partner wisely and knowledgeably with our administrators to find solutions. This relates to one of the two standing committees of the school board: the Finance and Operations Committee.

Mary Anne Timmer and Eric VanGessel have financial expertise. They know what school board can do, cannot do, and must do, and they have the intelligence, training, and experience to do those things. Competence matters. They have it. They also have a whole-hearted devotion to making this community and its schools the best they can be.

Mary Anne served on school board from 2010 to 2016. We need her again. We need to elect Mary Anne Timmer.

Eric VanGessel has been a deeply involved parent. Treasurer and board member of Caledonia Education Foundation. PTO vice president. He drills into problems and comes out with answers.

I have known Eric and Mary Anne only for a couple of months. Every time we talk they keep surprising me with how much they know. Pragmatic, insightful, get the job done. Serious competence. No baloney.

I also have learned a few things about financial management, personnel management, etc., over twenty-five years in publishing; but those two are aces. We need them on school board.

Two tasks: (2) culture

The second area is culture. Here we go back to my opening stories. Our culture has changed. It has changed at different rates in different places, and we have responded differently. For some, the rate of change has been dizzying. The severe discomfort people feel—the discomfort that came out repeatedly in Cal United meetings—seems to be around race and sexuality.

Cal schools are almost as monochrome racially as my segregated elementary school. In our country in general, the conversation about race is becoming more honest about the realities Black and Brown Americans continue face in 2022 America. But sometimes White people try to dodge the work of dealing with race by claiming to be color-blind—which usually means they don’t really see people of color at all, unless they talk and act just like White people. It’s easy and natural to do that in a monochrome community like ours, but it’s not right.

The #MeToo movement has shined a spotlight on sexual harassment. The rights of LGBTQ people to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are generally recognized—in theory.

But the cultural changes are disorienting and upsetting for many people in a place like Caledonia. So we have people running for school board who won’t openly say what they want to do. They put things in their ads that they can’t do, or that make no sense, or that they have no plan for doing, or that are the opposite of what they are really doing. I think they’re disoriented and fearful, and they get deceived and manipulated.

Just as the financial and logistical problem corresponds to the Finance and Operations Committee, the culture questions tend to relate to the work of the Curriculum and Learning Committee.

As for curriculum and learning: well, every school board member doesn’t need to be more educated than our teachers, but if they aren’t, they shouldn’t pretend to be. But we have an incumbent so unable or unwilling to open and understand a high-school textbook, and also unable or unwilling to trust the teachers who do understand it, that he wasted 37 minutes of a board meeting talking nonsense about it. (You can watch the video of the August 8 school board meeting to see for yourself.) This was either performance or incompetence; I think it was both. The whole thing was painfully awkward.

The thing is, the cultural challenges are real. Race and sexuality are troubled areas in US history and society. Both are deeply connected with individual and community identity. Thoughtful, careful engagement is needed.

You can’t address race issues well by slapping the “CRT” label on every attempt to deal honestly with race. And you can’t address issues in sexuality well by slapping a “groomer” label on everyone who listens to and takes seriously the self-understanding of diverse young people among us. This kind of approach is stupid and wrong. It will not help us. It will not help our kids.

Neither, by the way, is it helpful to tell culturally conservative people to shut up and get with the program when they express concern about race- and sex-related topics in our curriculum. I have not seen or heard that done here. Concerns have to be acknowledged and addressed, and they are. They also have to be handled within parameters set by the constitution and laws of the nation and the state, and they are.

Conversations around such questions must draw on deep understanding of US history and culture, including religious culture. People who can’t or won’t read a book to find out what’s in it are not going to be helpful here.

My concern is that the Cal United people are not well prepared to help school board navigate the cultural issues. I think they want to run from them, shove them under a rug or into a closet, and slam the door on discussing them. I listened to them for months in Cal United meetings and school board meetings. I think they want history classes to be taught in a way that ignores the most massive elephant in the room of US history: the centuries-long enslavement of people of color, with its residual effects. They want everyone to pretend that queer people do not exist: they want them to hide like Mr. Sober had to hide. They must not be allowed to make these things happen.

How I fit in

The culture problem is my own main focus. I am a book publisher trained as a classicist, theologian, historian of Christianity, and pastor. Why should you care about that? Because developments in American Christianity over the last two centuries, including truly alarming developments over the last decade, mean that a certain form of Christianity is one of our biggest problems. I say that as a Christian. I go to church every week and pray every day. But in the decade between 1981 and 2000, I learned some things about religion and culture. I was not doing nothing for those two decades of graduate study. And I have learned more in the last two decades.

I cannot scorn people who believe that the whole universe was created in six days six thousand years ago. I cannot despise people who feel (perhaps without being aware) that White people (and maybe people of color who are assimilated to White culture) should be in charge. I cannot look down on people who think queer people are queer by choice and ought to be punished for being that way. I was raised to be one of these people. I WAS one of them. But I have studied and listened and gradually learned some. I do not expect anyone to learn in a day or a week or a  year or ten years what it took me twenty-five years of higher education to learn. Higher education may not have been the best way to learn those things. It was my way for two decades, but there are other ways.

One could, for example, look people in the eye and listen to them without prejudice.

I also do not despise the people of the Cal United movement, who for many months have been echoing nonsense off the Internet about CRT, SEL, and other abbreviations they don’t understand. They are not bad people. Face to face, they are friendly, respectful, likeable. But they are dangerous to the health of our schools, because they think school board can do things that it cannot do. They think school board can nullify directives of our health department and put our whole community at risk because they don’t get science. They are afraid their kids might come out as gay or trans, and they think school board should stop that from happening. They will try these things, and they will throw our school board into gridlock with their trying. But they are not evil. They are dizzy, which is understandable, given the rate of social change.

The six-day, young-earth creationist cannot be the science teacher. And people who can’t read a high-school textbook and understand what it does and doesn’t say shouldn’t be school-board members.

How we talk to and about each other

There is much to appreciate in our Cal United friends. They love their children. They love our country and our community. I believe they even love people very different from themselves.

Some people who repeat outrageous and hateful things about people who aren’t right in front of them show exemplary kindness to everyone in person. People who say horrible things about people in the third person (“them,” “those people”) sometimes are perfectly lovely when talking in the second person (“you”).

But this is an inconsistency, and it’s a problem. It’s not sustainable. If you are say our schools are overrun with pernicious, radical leftist ideology, and at the same time say that you appreciate, respect, and trust our educators—and can’t see that you’re contradicting yourself—we have a big problem. If you say that you want to engage with and learn from our teachers but at the same time refuse to tape an interview for them because you think they might doctor the video to misrepresent you, you are contradicting yourself. I don’t think this is malice. But it is certainly confusion.

My conclusion is that, based on what they have been saying for the last year or two, Cal United people should not be in charge of our schools. They don’t know what school board is for, and they are not equipped to do what school board needs to do. This is not about partisanship. This is basic competence and good process.

The conservative Christian culture warriors in our society believe they are following their own scriptures and their own religion, but they do not understand their own scripture and their own religion—or the First Amendment. So we get decent, well-intended school-board candidates teaming up with a politician who prints “I am a Christian” on her campaign lit and then fills out the rest with guns, slander, and intimidation. This is confusion. This is also fear and misunderstanding turning violent—at the moment in print and in speech, but we know where that leads. Saying horrible things about people eventually leads to doing horrible things to them.

This needs to be our aim

Let Caledonia be a place where no one is treated like Carter, or like Steve, or like Mr. Sober, or like the girls in my junior high. Let Caledonia be a place where students of all races are welcome without checking their culture at the door. Let Caledonia be a place where students learn not only grammar and arithmetic but history and literature, honestly taught. Let Caledonia be a place where students learn not only how to make a living or go to college but also, especially, how to uphold life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, justice, the common good, equality, truth, diversity, and yes, also popular sovereignty and patriotism—these are the core democratic values that I saw posted on the walls in Kraft Meadows Middle School when my kids started there. This is not indoctrination into leftism. This is patriotism without bigotry. This is being human. This is grounding in the ideals on which this country was founded and which constitute its only hope for enduring. Our only hope for enduring.

You can hear me sounding some of these things at the August 8 school-board meeting.

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