In the early 1980s, I was newly married, seeking my first teaching job, and necessarily living in my parents’ home, which also housed my sister, her husband, and child. We were a pretty interesting extended family nestled in the Upstate of rural South Carolina.

One night, I was suddenly startled awake by my sister ripping the screened door off its hinges as she shouted for me to wake up. After a blur of jumping out of bed and following her into my parents’ bedroom, I found my father in his bathroom.

He, the floor, and seemingly the walls around him were covered in his blood.

This is my story of coming to terms in my early 20s with the mortality and humanity of my father, who transitioned for me that day from an idealized Superman to fully (and wonderfully) human, and along with my mother, two people I love deeply and can never repay for the gifts they have given me.

My father was lying there after weeks or even months of hiding what had to be obvious signs of the bleeding ulcer that could no longer be ignored that night. My father is a hard-ass and a worker’s worker. He was captain of the first state-championship football team of his high school (which I attended and where I later taught for 18 years) and had a full set of false teeth while in high school (teeth were often knocked out in the 1950s, it appears). And my father still works part-time in a machine shop as a quality control supervisor, often having to ask his fellow workers to move heavy parts he can no longer lift because of arthritic shoulders.

And I am a teacher, a professor and scholar. I lift a grande Dos Equis (about 32 oz.) after bicycle rides, but mainly, I teach, and I write.

My father was never remotely close to being rich, but I was raised in a working-class home that put on a damned good mask of middle class. I am certainly not rich by American standards, but I am certainly living in privilege, and also certainly didn’t attain that through the physical and mental toil that my father did.

Mine is literally the result of my father’s blood, sweat, and tears.

And, thus, this is also a story of my “hostile rhetoric.”

“Hostile Rhetoric,” Laziness, and the Education Debate

Anthony Cody has ventured into a dialoge with the Gates Foundation (GF) about education reform, a decision I remain conflicted about since I have more than once offered arguments about not seeking a place at the table with Corporate Reformers. My compromise has been to comment only at Cody’s blog (the dialogue is simultaneously posted at the GF blog).

Recently, after confronting a GF post, a comment after my post discounted my rebuttal for its “hostile rhetoric,” leading me to consider a couple questions: (1) Was my discourse genuinely hostile?, and (2) Was the tone of my work building walls against readers considering fairly the content of my message?

Let me examine that charge against my work (the comment thread clarifies that all of my work fails due to hostile rhetoric, by the way) through two examples.

First, note this from Gina Rinehart, the world’s richest woman:

Rinehart, whose family iron ore prospecting fortune of Aus$29.2 billion (US$30.1 billion) also makes her Australia’s wealthiest person, hit out at those who she said were envious of the rich.

‘There is no monopoly on becoming a millionaire,’ she wrote in an industry magazine column.

‘If you’re jealous of those with more money, don’t just sit there and complain. Do something to make more money yourself — spend less time drinking or smoking and socialising, and more time working.

‘Become one of those people who work hard, invest and build, and at the same time create employment and opportunities for others.’

Rinehart blamed what she described as ‘socialist’, anti-business policies for the plight of Australia’s poor, urging the government to lower the minimum wage, as well as taxes, unless it wanted to end up like Greece.

‘The terrible millionaires and billionaires can often invest in other countries… maybe their teenagers don’t get the cars they wanted, or a better beach house or or maybe the holiday to Europe is cut short, but otherwise life goes on,’ she wrote.

‘The millionaires and billionaires who choose to invest in Australia are actually those who most help the poor and our young. This secret needs to be spread widely.'”

Apparently, if my father hadn’t been so lazy, he too could have been a millionaire or billionaire. I wish Rinehart had let us in on the secret earlier.

Next, consider this paragraph from Irvin Scott of the GF:

“We believe that despite a child’s circumstances, she should be given every opportunity to succeed and lead a life better than the one she was given. That is in direct contrast to the belief that because of a child’s circumstances she is destined to live a life of obstacles regardless of the opportunities she’s given. In our opinion, the purpose of K-12 education is to help provide and shape those opportunities.”

Scott’s claims, unlike the bitter tone from Rinehart, can reasonably be called civil and even positive, so my two examples can also be fairly compared to examine the content, regardless of the tone.

Rinehart’s assertion that people in poverty, the working poor, the working class, and the middle class are all simply not working hard enough—that they all are in fact lazy—is not significantly different than the often less abrasive claims coming from politicians, corporate leaders, and specifically the new crop of corporate reformers in education: Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, and all the other “no excuses” reformers expanding across the U.S.

Rinehart’s comment is a “no excuses” message that may impact readers differently than Scott’s comment, but once we peel away the tone, examine what Scott is implying against what Rinehart boldly states. Focus on this from Scott: “That is in direct contrast to the belief that because of a child’s circumstances she is destined to live a life of obstacles regardless of the opportunities she’s given.”

At the heart of the “no excuses” ideology is the suggestion and even direct statement that there exists some people who do use poverty as an excuse, some people who have thrown up their hands and somehow actively embrace “poverty is destiny.”

That implication, by the way, is being directed specifically at teachers now, and the teachers’ unions being accused of protecting these fatalistic teachers.

So now let’s come back to the intersection of me holding in my mind simultaneously the image of my father lying in his bathroom covered in his own blood and the image of Rinehart telling all of us who are not millionaires or billionaires (like Bill Gates): “If you’re jealous of those with more money, don’t just sit there and complain. Do something to make more money yourself — spend less time drinking or smoking and socialising, and more time working.”

I must wonder how my public commentary and scholarship have come to be seen as “hostile rhetoric,” how the working poor and working class in the U.S. have come to be characterized as lazy, and how we justify telling children trapped in poverty to suck it up, work twice as hard, and above all else, do as you are told.

Nothing can be more hostile, mean-spirited, and accusatory than to create a false dichotomy between those who reject poverty as destiny and those who accept poverty as destiny.

Nothing is more hostile than to suggest that any teacher accepts and even feeds off accepting poverty should be destiny.

These civil claims and implications have nothing to do with tone.

And so let’s set tone aside and examine a couple concluding points:

In the U.S., poverty is destiny. All the rhetoric in the world cannot mask that the U.S. has two justice systems, two health care systems, two educational systems—one for the affluent and another one for everyone else too lazy to be rich. [One reality of the U.S.A.: White males outnumber African American males about 6 to 1, but African American males outnumber white males about 5 to 1 in U.S. prisons—a disturbing set of data that parallels pre-kindergarten expulsion patterns. When will “no excuses” reformers explain that inequity, and when they do, where will they ascribe the blame?]

• Educators and scholars (often demonized as embracing “poverty is destiny”) are in fact arguing and actively working within the belief that poverty should not be destiny, which can only be addressed once we admit poverty is destiny, which cannot be realized until we overcome social and educational inequity.

I find myself, then, almost thirty years into a career as an educator recognizing that, in fact, a good bit of hostility and anger tinges my public commentaries and scholarship.

Guilty as charged.

You see, I learned an ironic lesson from my father, who was a disciplinarian when I was a child and teenager (“Do as I say, not as I do”). My father was apt to demand that I know my place, that I hold my tongue, that I do as I was told.

Increasingly as I grew up, I didn’t, of course, and it created more than one clash between my father and me. He was much stronger, but that rarely if ever paused my tongue.

As an adult—as a teacher, coach, and parent—I came against that same rising anger against my adult authority, and in it I recognized a pattern of anger: When the tone is hot and in the voices of the subordinate, you’d better consider the content. My students, my teams, and my daughter all taught me and reminded me of these angry moments between the one with power and the one without power.

Angry children as subordinates often had damned good reasons for being angry. Often, that reason was my fault.

Calling for civility and “knowing ones place” is the refuge of the privileged. It has been used against women, against people of color, against speakers of languages other than English, and always against children.

When civility is demanded by those with power from those without power, it is ultimately an act of oppression.

If the tone of my work offends, blame my lazy father who worked himself onto that bloody floor that night but not enough to be wealthy. Blame my 18 years teaching and coaching in a rural SC high school. Blame the millions of lazy teachers who have accepted the call of selflessness at the heart of teaching.

Or better yet, consider the consequences of suggesting my father is lazy, that teachers are lazy, and that children trapped in poverty are just plain lazy.

That’s the hostile rhetoric we need to address, I suspect, and thus, it seems unlikely I’ll apologize for my tone any time soon.