Eighteen years ago was a long time ago. In 1999, Hillary Clinton was admired by most Americans for having gracefully endured the humiliation brought on by Bill’s behavior. In 1999, my drinking was kept a low boil—I relaxed with six or eight beers each week night, relaxing with a dozen or 15 nightly on weekends. (For those of you not familiar with alcoholic jargon, “relaxed with” can be pronounced “got drunk on.”) In 1999, the internet was something we logged onto, not a commodity as necessary as food, water or, even, cable television.
In 1999, my friend Mark Roth was involved in designing, developing and creating a brand new school district—Rivendell—that would span not just two towns, but two states—Orford, New Hampshire, and Fairlee, Vermont. Mark, with whom I am having lunch today, had hired me to run Equity II, the alternative school for John Stark Rgional High School, which Mark had created 10 years before. While at Rivendell, Mark asked me to visit him, and I offered to help him out with some fundraising. What follows is an only slightly exaggerated result of that visit—a funding document that, I suspect, never made it into the hands of the Rivendell School Board. I submit to you a lengthier blog post than my typical fare—to balance it out, it was written before my sense of humor atrophied, so you may find some smiles in it.
Financing Education: A Modest Proposal
My friend Mark Roth is one of the wisest men I know. He is, to use a little Yankee slang, a mensch, one of those people who know exactly what to do when and where to go to get what needs to be gotten. A mensch is the son of whom a mother can be proud. Mark Roth is a mensch. I, whose mother hesitates to recognize him too quickly in public, am not a mensch. I bear Mark no ill will for his good fate; at least I am not what we New Englanders call a schlemiel. But I digress.
In addition to his mensch-hood, Mark is a strikingly attractive man in a toadlike sort of way. Standing somewhere between five-three and six feet tall, Mark looks much like the action-adventure movie actor, Wallace Shawn, star of My Dinner with Andre. Mark’s muscles are much tauter, though, due to his practice of tai chi, an oriental martial art that draws upon the traditions of both karate and karaoke, although its primary spiritual goal is the proper arrangement of dried flowers. Steeped in Eastern thought and mysticism, Mark is capable of maintaining a straight face while tossing off such gnomic utterances as “The foot of the chicken supports the soul of the future.” As a Zen Baptist myself, I have found Mark’s insights into the universe enlightening, if unintelligible.
Twelve years ago, Mark was chosen as the first principal of a brand, spanking new high school in the town of Weare, New Hampshire. John Stark Regional High School, named after a long-dead patriot who is most famous for having given New Hampshire its state motto, “No new taxes,” serves students from Weare and Henniker, a town for which the claim to fame is that it is “the only Henniker on Earth.” One wonders why Intercourse, PA and Truth or Consequences, NM, don’t use the same tagline. For that matter, exactly how many Kissimees, Tallahassee’s and Ybor City’s exist outside of Florida? But, again, being no mensch, I digress.
Under Mark’s leadership, John Stark went on to become the New Hampshire School of Excellence for 1997, which some may see as evidence that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Still, Mark did an excellent job at Stark, and has progressed from opening a new high school to creating a school district from scratch and not just any school district but a first-in-the-nation project, which crosses state boundaries between Vermont and New Hampshire. These two states, of course, share the same kind of love as Arabs and Jews, Hatfields and McCoys or Red Sox and Yankee fans, with New Hampshirites believing that the population of Vermont is borderline socialist, clad in rope shoes and practicing free love. Vermonters, on the other hand, think the typical New Hampshire resident is a loudmouthed wrestling fan who should shut up and go brush his tooth. In other words, Mark is presiding over a marriage made in Hell, with the towns of Orford, New Hampshire, and Fairlee, Vermont, engaged to be joined in schools by September of 2000.
The bastard offspring of this union takes its name from a novel with a huge cult following in the 1960’s. No, lacking poetic justice, it is not to be named Slaughterhouse Five, with its slogan “Corpse-carriers to the slaughterhouse.” Instead, the literary work in question is Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, with the district to be called Rivendell. Its motto? “Rivendell is a haven for all that is kind and just, no evil will pass its borders.” Of course, Tolkien’s book was written in Middle-Earthian, so a more accurate quote might be Dante’s, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
Mark, a visionary of the first rank, hopes to create a new kind of school, one which is central to the communities it educates and one which is able to serve as a model for future bizarre pairings, say the marriage of Patrick Buchanan and Woody Allen. The glue to hold this community together is technology, specifically expensive, high-powered computers purchased by the gross lot. Mark’s vision includes laptops for every teacher and 11th and 12th grader, Internet connectivity for all citizens in the district and the creation of a network of creative, intelligent people sharing their lives in cyberspace. Mark’s vision does not include 5,000 people linked electronically to compete in the world’s largest solitaire tournament, although that’s where the smart money would be bet. Mark’s vision does not include these laptops, routers, hubs and other high-tech gizmos being marshaled simply to allow people on the Vermont side of the Connecticut River to peek into the lives and homes of those on the other side and remarking, “New Hampshire women really are as fat as we always feared and I think the schnauzer is cheating in that painting of poker-playing dogs on the trailer wall.”
Mark, being a mensch, believes that the people in his fiefdom will progress past this point and will create a true “virtual community,” where people will be unified rather than divided, supported rather than criticized, warmed by the promise of e-mail rather than burned by flame wars. Mark, being a mensch, knows that his vision will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, in order to equip every student with enough computing power to predict accurately the motion of a ping-pong ball in a tornado. Mark, being a mensch, is sometimes too smart by half and occasionally does crazy things. For example, Mark has asked me to help him find ways to fund this vision of a brave, new, wired world. My Internet experience has been that I can never find what I want, unless what I want is to waste time in new and creative ways; my experience with fund-raising has been that it is considerably easier to spend other people’s money than my own; envisioning the synthesis of these two qualities is the sort of thing at which Mark excels.
Mark already has a head of technology, Barrie North, a computer whiz who can tell the difference between Windows 98 and Windex with ammonia and who can use the word Linux without wondering whatever happened to Schroeder, Lucy and the other second-tier Peanuts characters. Barrie has clearly thought about the challenges the district faces in trying to secure and maintain world-class technology. In short, Barrie is a realistic, levelheaded man with his feet planted firmly on the ground. He makes me very nervous.
Mark recently arranged for Barrie to meet me and discuss possible strategies, walking us to the New Hampshire banks of the Connecticut River, seating us at a picnic table facing beautiful cliffs. As soon as we sat, Barrie opened a calfskin briefcase that cost more than my car, and produced sheaths of paper with charts, tables, graphs and other creations of which my word processor is still ignorant. Not to be completely upstaged, I reached into my pocket for my pocketknife and carved my initials into the top of the picnic table. Barrie is an Englishman, I believe, from the funny way he talks and he is clearly much brighter than I, having had the advantage of growing up in a nation that has been declining steadily for the past 90 years, although he can be a bit of a stick in the mud. He sat through our meeting chuckling quietly, if unappreciatively, at my fund-raising ideas, which would have been fine except that I was serious. Regardless of their legality or morality, each of the following ideas is possible and should be treated respectfully.
Riverboat gambling on the Connecticut. New Hampshire is, of course, the state that decided that the best way to fund education was by selling cut-rate liquor on its highways and lottery tickets to its stupidest citizens. Give even the smartest person enough Wild Turkey and he will believe that seven-million-to-one odds are not really that bad. After all, somebody’s got to win. From drunken scratching of tickets to drunken vomiting off the side of a riverboat is one small stagger for man, one giant payday for the Rivendell School District. Fill the decks with roulette wheels and the Rivendell School District has the educational equivalent of a currency printing press. When I finished explaining this idea to Barrie North, he looked at me and said, “I don’t believe the school board would wish to make alcohol abuse and wagering on the river the foundation of its fiscal future.” Perhaps not, but they might wish to have enough money pouring into the district that they could afford to buy disposable Pentium-III computers and still give every man, woman, child and dog enough cash to buy satellite dishes and snowmobiles.
Native American Casinos on the Shore. Although I may not be the smartest guy around, having received my education in New Hampshire, I have studied a little logic and philosophy and can quod erat demonstatum with the best of them. Ethics tells us that we should honor that which is good, eschewing the evil. History tells us that Indians once lived in the Rivendell School District area, but that these Indians are now dead. Folk wisdom tells us that the only good Indian is a dead Indian. Using inductive reasoning, we can see that by running a drunk-infested, mob-influenced casino with a name like Mohican Mama’s Bingo and Slots Emporium, the Rivendell school district would be honoring good Indians while pulling in mad cash hand over fist. When I put forward this eminently logical argument, Barrie looked at me quizzically and said, “I don’t quite follow your reasoning about dead Native Americans and somebody’s mother.” I’d like to know what exactly is the advantage of having a fruity, refined accent that calls out for an honorific title and a monocle in one eye if you can’t even see the color of money when it’s right in front of you.
Using the District Web Site, Rivendellschool.org, as a Portal for Internet Pornography. Although I have no personal, first-hand knowledge of how pornography on the Internet works, I understand from acquaintances that people are regularly asked to give out their credit card numbers in order to view pictures of women engaged in unseemly behavior with sports equipment or barnyard animals. I have small children; had I any desire to view some woman locked in carnal embrace with a llama, I would not like an item on my Visa card reading “$49.99 to Madame Suki’s House of Nookie” lying on the coffee table. On the other hand, a charitable donation to a school district would slip right by any curious nine-year-old. In fact, if we could change the Web address to amnestyinternationalsavethechildren&greenpeacepresenttherivendellschool.org, even the local Unitarian minister could view candid locker-room pictures of cheerleaders without raising his congregation’s suspicions. When I asked Barrie North how easy it would be to assess a surcharge of five dollars per transaction, he coughed nervously and said, “I, ahem, assume, ahem, that is a joke?” No, ahem, it, ahem, wasn’t.
Auctioning Off Virtual Items from a Virtual Marketplace in the Virtual Rivendell Community while Collecting the Bills in Cold Hard Cash. As long as the site is clear about the virtual nature of its merchandise, how can any state attorney general complain that a customer’s virtual refrigerator or garden hose never arrived? One doubts that any court has jurisdiction over virtual transactions; if possession is nine-tenths of the law, how define possession of that which has no objective existence.. Even if charges are brought, imagine the fun of watching a state prosecutor trying to prove the absence of a non-existent object in a customer’s home. In fact, ancillary money could be made by selling the rights to a movie of the trial, either as an existential experiment in the meaning of nothing or as a boffo laugh riot. When I suggested to Barrie that Robin Williams would be perfect for Mark Roth’s part, he replied, “While I don’t know Mr. Williams, I doubt his advisors would allow him to become part of a felonious conspiracy to defraud the Internet public.” I bit my tongue rather than ask him what an Englishman knows about entertainment, now that Bill Shakespeare has shuffled off to mortal Buffalo
Solving Social Problems in the Real World with the Resources of the Virtual Community. Rural New Hampshire and Vermont have long, cold winters, with not a lot of recreational opportunities that don’t involve expensive clothes and frostbitten extremities. Teenagers, especially, lack much to do but begin an evening drinking beer on back roads, ending it by mating, then vomiting or vice-versa. Regardless, these couples’ coupling leads to the social problem of teenage pregnancy. Enter the Internet, with its easy access to millions of childless couples the world over, many of them with Platinum Cards and a willingness to pay any price necessary for a little baby. In one fell swoop, what was previously a problem, drunken teenagers rutting in the woods, now produces a cash crop which the district can sell, passing on to the teenage girls enough seed money to buy makeup and beer for the next crop. When I completed the idea, Barrie North looked at me and said, “I believe, sir, you are suggesting that the school district should promote promiscuity and make a profit off what is, in effect, a slave factory.” Well, duh.
I could sense from Barrie’s tone that he was tiring of these ideas, so I quickly outlined a few more— having declared the Connecticut River international waters, as it connects to the Atlantic and is more than 250 miles from the ocean shore, hosting mano a mano fights to the death between world leaders; selling the Rivendell School District’s combined computing power to the highest-bidding third-world dictator; mud-wrestling PTO moms on live Internet feeds, etc.
As I enumerated these ideas, a certain vein in Barrie’s forehead started throbbing. I know that vein well, having seen it in a lot of these reality-laden people, from third-grade teachers to traffic cops to employers. Just as migraine sufferers speak of an aura appearing before a headache’s onset, I know that I am on a roll and thinking clearly when that particular vein starts pumping away. At the very moment my riff is just starting to achieve transcendence, my audience’s forehead seems unable to contain its pressure any longer. To stave off an embolism, Barrie held up a hand to stop me and spoke, very slowly, through those clenched teeth that seem to follow throbbing veins as autumn follows summer.
“When Mr. Roth suggested that we meet to discuss the district’s technology funding needs, I assumed you would have some familiarity with the subject. I assumed you would present a series of practical proposals from which we could create an action plan. I assumed, at the very least, that you were prepared to write a grant proposal or something.”
Or something. Here in New England we have a word for a person who appears foolish in order to further a cause for which he is hopelessly unsuited. We have a word for a clown who recognizes that meeting the technology needs of a new school district is a task far beyond his capabilities, but that there is a chance that his folly will lead one person who reads his work to pick up the telephone and call 603-353-2170 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with ideas for how to make this vision a reality. We have a word for that sort of person. Not being a mensch, though, I can’t remember the word.