recipes 22 & 23; sourdough blueberry pancakes and pizza
I haven’t posted here in a while because instead of cooking and writing and writing about Luca cooking, I’ve been engaged in an epic battle with the monolithic bureaucracy called the Los Angeles Unified School District over its abrupt decision not to allow children who live within their boundaries to attend schools in other districts. Never mind that these kids have been going to these schools for years, forming friendships and deep attachments. Never mind that it should be glaringly obvious to any clear-thinking person, much less an educator, that a school is more than a place where numbers and letters are learned. A school is a place where a child learns to succeed and fail, and surrounded by strong relationships developed over time, learns to take intellectual risks. A school, if it is successful, is a sort of second family. It is not a community thrown together by force. But the LAUSD is in the hole $640 million and getting the permit kids back, even though without so much as a warning or a public hearing, could bring in some $51million according to their calculation. But as so often happens with such matters, the permit issue became about much more than money; it became about class and privilege, the dire state of public education in California, and because this is America, it became about race.
Luca is one of the more than 12,000 Los Angeles kids who attend school on an inter-district permit, and he has done so since kindergarten. Applying for the permit in the spring has amounted to so much paperwork. In February rumors began to spread about a possible shut down of all LAUSD permits, and in early March an internal memo from LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines began to circulate announcing the end to all inter-district permits effective immediately and with few exceptions. Within days the memo had found its way to thousands of email inboxes as well as to Facebook and the Los Angeles Times which published a forceful editorial against the cancellation policy.
At Luca’s school where many children are on permit from LAUSD, parents gathered in huddles asking if it was true. Could it be possible? Panic and dread spread through the school like a virus. As confusion and bewilderment to turned to outrage I met with a few fellow parents at the school and we determined a course of action. We would write letters to the seven members of the LAUSD Board of Education, the only people who could overturn the Cortines edict. We would bombard them with calls, emails and faxes. We would be heard.
Over the next five weeks we wrote hundreds of letters to the LAUSD Board. We called their offices and spoke with their understanding and beleaguered staff. “We’re getting a lot of calls,” we were told. We hammered them with more. We organized a meeting with parents from other schools and to a packed cafeteria we laid out an advocacy plan. We handed out sample letters. We encouraged over three hundred anxious parents to express their outrage to LAUSD. “Tell your story,” we told them.
One African-American mother in the back of the room raised her hand. “Tell me one thing!” she yelled. “What the hell am I supposed to do in September? I’ll be damned if I’m gonna send my son to Crenshaw High!” Suddenly, we had become the man. How did that happen? I wondered aloud. It happens, I was told. It’s part of the deal when leading the charge in a community effort. A few minutes later we were accused by another parent of putting our own kids ahead of everyone else’s because we wrote in our letters about the particulars of our children’s specialized language program. “Write about your special program!” we told the crowd. And so it began: the fight against giant LAUSD became itself this giant unruly animal; at times we were united and powerful; at other times it felt like a few of us herding cats.
For the next five weeks, this is pretty much all I did. I worked at my regular job for fewer hours than I should have, and then I worked on the LAUSD. Forget about my sourdough starter or the promise of fresh bread. Fueled by stress, adrenaline and the chorizo soft tacos from Tacos Por Favor, the battle with LAUSD was on. A friend of mine said: “Remember, there is no force as powerful as a committed, persistent parent.” I would add that, although there were a couple of dads in our core group of advocates, there is truly nothing like a band of pissed off moms. How often throughout history, I wondered, have women abandoned the kitchen for a good political fight? And how many of those fights have begun with a threat to our children?
Alice Waters’ Fanny at Chez Panisse gathered dust. Perhaps when this was all over, our friend’s fig tree would have gown leaves and Luca would finally be able to make what had become a wistful mantra for him, “Hali-Butt Baked on a Fig Leaf.”
“Why are you on the phone all the time, Mommy?” Luca asked. Determined that he should know nothing about the whole permit nonsense, I gave a vague explanation about trying to make the schools better. There were some kids at school who knew all about it and even wrote their own letters to the LAUSD board. As much as I was tempted by the idea of demonstrating to Luca the power of grassroots advocacy, I didn’t think he could handle the uncertainty of not knowing whether he would return to his beloved school. How to explain the idea of forcing him out? Who were the people in charge of his education? Keeping him in the dark required whatever was left of my energy – making sure he was out of earshot when listening to news stories on the radio, speaking in code on the phone when he was in the room. And for the sake of normalcy, I even oversaw his first batch of sourdough pancakes (“all by myself”).
The phone never stopped ringing with some new heart-stopping setback, or a sudden meeting that needed a delegation, the putting together of which required the utmost political sensitivity. At a LAUSD Board meeting, fifteen permit parents spoke and after the first one, one of the board members stormed out, claiming that he didn’t have to listen to “arrogant parents” besmirch LAUSD schools. A few days later, Cortines went on the radio and accused permit families of not wanting to send their kids to school with people “the same color as me or darker.” A tiny triumphant jolt went through me. Cortines was backed into a corner and this was the best he could do! How cheap was it to play the race card! Ha! We were beating him. But I quickly realized that he had a point. Even though we send Luca to a more racially and socio-economically diverse school than our local one, I had to admit that this is probably not the norm for permit families. Most permit families are just seeking better educational options for their kids. But I couldn’t help remembering an ex-neighbor of mine in Venice who now permits her child into a school that is 76% white. She once told me she would not send her child to her local school because “all those immigrant kids from other neighborhoods bring everyone down.”
Board members began to respond to our emails and we felt as though we were chipping away at the fortress walls. It also became clear that they cared about educating kids. Some emails questioned the validity of the Cortines policy on the basis of what is best for kids as well as the uncertain financial benefit. Others admonished us to think of the kids in LAUSD schools whose class sizes would increase because our kids were absconding with money that was rightfully theirs. The crisis was “painful,” they reminded us. They asked us to consider whether it was fair for some kids to permit out to better-funded districts while those with fewer options were forced to watch their libraries close.
We had meetings with several board members and one City Councilman. One Chief of Staff of a LAUSD Board member shed more light on the complicated aspects of the issue. “The other districts don’t take our special needs kids,” he said. “They take our gifted ones. And then we get dinged for our test scores.” The permit kids represent more than the meager per-pupil spending from the State (currently ranked 47th in the nation), they also represent a brain drain. These are the most involved parents with high performing students, the Holy Grail of school success. Each of the seven LAUSD Board members had been forced to close down whole schools, to fire cafeteria workers and teachers. And here we were, parents who had the mobility to find educational options for our kids elsewhere. The sheer amount of noise we were making made us worth going after.
So it was that the LAUSD morphed from powerful and heartless institution to underdog guardian of the underserved. Deeply wounded, they defended their schools, their students of color, and their hard-working teachers against us, the parents of privilege. How did I end up on the other side of this argument?
The whole story is so tragic, from the under-funding of public education in California to the social problems that plague some of LAUSD’s schools. The problems are too big. The idea of tearing kids from schools where they are thriving is a terrible one no matter how you look at it. But the desperation underlying it is just too sad. At ten or eleven at night, after the hundredth email, the 10th urgent phone call in an hour, I would turn off my computer and break down in tears.
Public schools, including the ones we were fighting to keep our kids in, are facing the closure of libraries and the eradication of their arts programs. Once these things are gone, it can take decades to bring them back. What do we expect things to look like in ten or twenty years? How do we expect our children to succeed? What might the cancellation of a music program mean to a kid who is two steps from giving up entirely? While LAUSD was telling us to suck it up, my fury was turning towards Sacramento.
The date the permit issue would be decided at an LAUSD Board meeting was April 6. A few days before this Luca made pancakes using the sourdough starter, blueberries and strawberries. He must have read Nancy Silverton’s recipe but I don’t remember much of this because I was no doubt on the phone and computer most of the time. I do remember that the pancakes were tangy and airy and that Luca ate them proudly. It was good to know that in the midst of intense civic outrage there could still be whole wheat sourdough pancakes loaded with berries and made by a seven year old.
On April 6 several hundred parents rallied outside LAUSD headquarters. Some of us prepared impassioned speeches on our kids’ behalf. As the board meeting got underway, Superintendent Cortines announced that he was delaying the implementation of his policy for at least a year. Applause went up in the boardroom. In September, he would come before the Board with another plan, one that took into consideration all the reasons that parents were requesting permits. He would not knowingly “harm the education of any boy or girl.”
We left feeling giddy but unsure. Was this good news? Would we be right back where we started in a year? Anyway, we went out and had mojitos.
The next day Luca made a pizza with some sourdough pizza dough we had in the freezer.
He picked all the toppings including mushrooms and parsley and then while he ate, he read about the Chez Panisse fire in Fanny at Chez Panisse.
There had been some discussion about whether it was better to put the mushrooms on top after the sauce or to cook them in with the tomato sauce. We opted for the latter and when it went in the oven, Luca disappeared in his room and came back with a wooden toy pizza he hadn’t played with in years. He put the wooden toppings on just so.
“This, Mommy,” he said. “This is what I want my next pizza to look like.”
Here’s to a vision of the future.