Just me and him. Alone in an elevator on a long ride to the top floor. I’ve dreamed of this for quite some time, but even so, my hands are sticky and my mouth is dry. Will I have the guts to say what I’ve rehearsed in my mind so many times? I remind myself that I’m wearing my big girl panties, and I urge my brain to speak, but it doesn’t sound like my voice coming out.
“Hi, I’m Jennifer, a Mom from Tennessee,” I say. He looks up from his gadget that looks like it came from a Star Trek episode. It will probably be the hot item for next Christmas season with people camping-out in front of Best Buy weeks before it is released to get it. “Hi,” he says and looks back at his device which starts blinking a bright red.
I figure I’ll break the ice by telling him about my kids. “I am a Mom of two children who both love school and want to be teachers someday when they grow up.” That sounds lame, but it really isn’t to me. My children are one of the most important things to me in my life.
He looks up from his device to look at which floor the elevator is now at, then looks back at the device.
I take a deep breath. “I know you are Bill Gates, and I just want to say that, um… I just want to say that you are wrong about public schools.” There, I said it. He looks up from his device but doesn't say anything. I let it all gush out, “You are misinformed. You are listening to the wrong people. Public schools are not failing. America is not in an education crisis.”
Suddenly, the lights flicker, the elevator makes a strange groaning sound, shudders, and stops. We are both holding on to the elevator handrail with shocked looks on our faces. The elevator is strangely still. Bill pushes the button for his penthouse office, but nothing happens. He pushes it again. Then he frantically pushes other buttons. Every single one of them. Twice. Nothing happens. He pulls on the little red alarm button. (From personal experience when my children were younger and quicker than me, I know that red button is supposed to make a very loud alarm sound). There is only silence as Bill pulls frantically at the red knob. At least the lights are still on. It sure would be creepy to be stuck in here in the dark with him.
Bill looks at me. I shrug my shoulders, what do I know about elevators? After all, I’m just a Mom. Bill looks at his device which is still blinking. He puts it in his pocket and takes out another device that looks like a cell phone. He starts pushing buttons on it, but nothing happens. He says a mild curse word under his breath, and then he says, “The battery is dead on my cell. I knew I should have gone with an iphone.” I’m not sure if he is kidding or not. I say something lame about how much I love my android phone, but wish the batteries lasted longer, too.
We are stuck. In an elevator. Between floors. Just Bill Gates and a little old Mom from Tennessee. Awkward is a good word to describe it.
Maybe he didn’t hear me before the elevator stopped. I’ll try again. “So, I know I’m just a Mom from Tennessee and you’re the richest person in the world, but I want to let you know you’re listening to the wrong people about public education.”
Bill interrupts me and asks how much money I want.
“No, no, no,” I say, “you don’t understand. I don’t want your money. I just want you to hear me.” Bill’s expression clearly shows he doesn’t believe me.
I continue, “I’m a stay-at-home Mom who volunteers in my children’s schools. I see what is going on with this awful emphasis on standardized testing and the inappropriateness of Common Core. I hear from teachers who are frustrated, but unable to speak up. I see how public schools are being given to charter investors to make huge profits from. This is all so wrong. Please hear me when I say you are listening to the wrong people. You’re giving your money to the wrong people.”
Bill takes out the red flashy gadget again. It is still flashing. He pushes some buttons and it projects an elaborate bar graph of bright colors on the wall of the elevator. I’m amazed that such a tiny gadget can do that! He says, “My advisors and fellow billionaires tell me that children are in failing schools, that their schools have low standards, that their teachers have low expectations and are lazy, that the teacher’s unions are corrupt and causing all of this, that America’s public schools caused the global stockmarket crash, and that schools need to be run like businesses to succeed.” He points to the graph illuminated on the wall, but it looks foreign to me. It shows USA compared to other countries with a zig-zag line across it in red. It looks bloody important, but what do I know, I’m just a Mom.
He points at the wall and says, “Look at the data. See those test scores? You can’t argue with data.” No, I can’t. I don’t understand what that chart means or even what test it is showing. But I do know someone who does! I pull out my android smartphone and pull up “The Assessment Landscape” on Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1r9_ZpNbU6A
We have nothing better to do, so we sit down on the floor and watch it together. I find some Scooby-Doo fruit snacks in my mommy purse and offer some to Bill. He takes them and says thanks. He eats the fruit snacks as he watches the Youtube video. We watch on the tiny screen as Dr. Tienken tells how the tests today are being used to show a problem that doesn’t exist. He gives undeniable, logical proof of how our nation is moving in the wrong direction.
After about 7 minutes of this video, Bill stops the video and asks, “Why didn’t my advisors tell me about all that data?” I shrug my shoulders. I know the answer in the back of my mind, but don’t say it aloud (“because it doesn’t profit them”). He then asks if I have any more fruit snacks. He says Melinda put him on a diet, but he missed breakfast so he’s famished, and these things are amazingly tasty. I tell him he can have another pack if he watches the entire video, and I hold out a package of Dora The Explorer fruit snacks. He is a tough negotiator. He counter-offers to watch the rest of the video and eat the Dora fruit snacks, if I allow him to tether my smartphone to his red flashing gadget. I agree. I just want him to watch the entire video all the way to the end. He lays my android phone on top of the red flashing gadget and the video is magically projected in the elevator in 3-D. No cords! Amazing! The video’s sound fills the small room. All from that tiny little gadget. This is much better than my little phone screen! Bill smiles, opens the Dora fruit snacks, and resumes watching Dr. Tienken’s video.
At around the 10 minute mark, Dr. Tienken gets candid. He talks about the “ideological ideas from a small group of oligarchs and bureaucrats who are all too willing to take public money and peddle this standardized education reform potion.” Ouch. Bill’s eyebrows scrunch up, but he does not say anything.
Then the video changes its tone. My favorite part. This is the point in the video where Dr. Tienken offers proven solutions like: local control, creativity, innovation, using assessments wisely, multiple pathways to success, allowing parents to collaborate with leaders, community control, not one-size-fits all for children, using standardized tests as just one data point of multiple measures, providing support for districts, etc.
Dr. Tienken tells viewers to “stop wasting time, money, and children’s futures trying to make every child the same.” He ends the video by imploring us to, “reject standardization and national testing, and move forward democratically, creatively, innovatively, and locally.”
The video ends. There is silence.
Bill takes off his glasses and rubs the bridge of his nose.
We’ve just watched 13 minutes of common sense together while eating fruit snacks on the floor of an elevator… I mean, what do you say after that?
Just then, the elevator begins to slowly move. We stand up and hold on to the handrail. The elevator ascends smoothly to the top floor and the doors open.
Bill asks for me to please go with him to his office, so I follow him. I throw away the fruit snack wrappers in a trash can on the way past the receptionists. I am a good citizen.
His office is beautiful. The paperclips on his desk probably cost more than my minivan. He tells me to please have a seat as he sits down behind his impressive desk.
He makes me an offer. “You are wise, mother from Tennessee. I want to hire you as an advisor. I have clearly been misinformed, and I need your insight and truth.” He offers me a salary that is worth more than my house.
He then offers me a salary that is worth more than my neighborhood.
(Oh, my dear husband is gonna be so upset with me… That salary offer could have paid off our mortgage, bought us new cars, and we could have bought a yacht! This is harder than I thought it would be!)
I give him my counter-offer, “I don’t want your money. I see clearly how the love of money corrupts people and causes them to do and say things to get more money.” I confidently tell him, “I will be the best advisor you've ever had regarding public education. I will give you honesty. I won’t lie to you to flatter you. I will tell you to trust teachers and parents. But I won’t take a penny from you.”
I tell him, “I will tell you the truth, but it won’t be easy to hear because I will tell you to stop funding organizations and people that hurt students and public education. I will advise you to stop meddling with the American democratic system and our public schools. I will tell you to stop funding politicians who vote for harmful reforms. I will invite you to meet experts like Dr. Tienken who have proven solutions and who will advise you to donate your money in areas you already knew were important from selecting your own children’s private school - like smaller class sizes and enrichment opportunities.”
Bill nods and says, “Okay, but what’s the catch?” (There is always a catch, right?)
I decide to ask for it. I can’t help it, I love technology. I tell him I want one of those little blinky boxes that he has in his pocket that projects 3-D videos with such amazing clarity.
Bill seems surprised at my request, but firmly tells me I cannot have it.
Seriously? The guy just offered me more money than I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, but he won’t let me have that little gizmo? I promise him I won't sell it to Apple.
Then he tells me, "Trust me, you don't want this device. It has a glitch." He explained that this top-secret tiny 3-D projector has a serious bug they can’t seem to work out. It isn’t ready to be released to the public yet because the glitch is so powerful... Strangely, the glitch causes elevators to stop and freeze mid-flight.
I tell him, I'll take it anyway despite the glitch. I have an elevator I'd like to to ride with Arne Duncan.
Bill slowly smiles, nods his head, hands me the gadget, and shakes my hand. We have a deal.
Jennifer is a real Mom from Memphis, TN. She dreams of being stuck on elevators with reformers and politicians so she can talk common sense into them. Even though David Coleman doesn't give a spit about her narrative or fictional writing, she enjoys using her humor and spare time to write for Momma Bears.