Wednesday, October 31, 2012

9/20: Linden to Princeton Part 2

9/20: Linden to Princeton: Part 2
As we walked we talked, I was almost disturbed about how different Princeton was from any other place I'd been. It seemed as if there was a bubble of well being around the town. Even when we'd been smoking a spliff on her back porch, there was no fear that anyone would take notice. Strange considering any other place I'd been in New Jersey, if you stopped more than a couple of seconds someone official would show up and tell me to "move along move along."  I kept saying "this is so weird" unable to shake the disturbing feeling that I'd just stepped into some kind of Stepford scenario.  Shaking it off as we arrived at the Seminary School, the gothic tower standing dark, an ominous finger only noticeable by the void of stars.

"It's so intimidating" I said. My host nodded, agreeing.

"Especially moreso when it's unlit..."

Lighting a smoke I faded out, unable ot pay attention, totally captivated by the details I could see suggestions of, but was unable to see at night. That's when it hit me, this isn't a place for tourists, no one that isn't "supposed" to be here is actually here. I was stunned. Every other place I'd been architecture like this was lit up like a Christmas tree, not the case in this sleepy little affluent town nestled in the heart of a dying state. The rot of apathy has been growing Westward, affecting cities and towns alike. Trenton, Orange, Elizabeth, Irvington, Camden. I wondered to myself how long it would take to come knocking on Princeton's door, or if the wave would pass leaving the town untouched. Shaking myself from the inattention, I finished my smoke, snubbing it out and indicating I was ready to go in.

We entered the grounds through an arch into a well manicured courtyard. Trees lined the walkways, vines trained to grow up the walls, lawns stretching between the paths. Following my host closely, thinking in the back of my head 'any minute now they're going to figure out you don't belong'.  My host chatted on, I responded, still to captivated by the architecture and the dichotomy between what I'd seen elsewhere in the state to really pay attention. Entering the building she offered to show me into the tower. We meandered through wood paneled halls, taking more rights and lefts than I could keep track of. I stuck to her like a burr, unwilling to get separated and therefor lost. Knowing that if I misplaced my host I'd be unable to find myway outside, much less back to the house. There was a class in the tower room so we were unable to go inside, although I'm sure it was as impressive as everything else I'd seen so far.

We rattled around for a few minutes, until we got to the "cafe" which I would call a "parlour" and settled at a long table with about a dozen and a half chairs around it. The room had three or four such arrangements, hardwood dining style tables surrounded by padded chairs. We sat, and folks started to file into the room. I was completely unable to keep names and faces straight, I recognized a couple of people from the house, we'd passed them in the hall. Other than that my brain was buzzing with unasked questions, figuring this was the time to shut up and listen. My host had brought me to a gathering of "P.A.N.D.A.M.O.N.I.U.M. Which is an incredibly long acronym standing for something to the effect of "nobody understands what we do, so we started a group to talk about our studies".  The group was comprised of graduate students participating in non-directional programs, which basically means they get to write their own curriculum.  I don't know  how I did it but somehow I'd landed in the middle of the best of the best of Princeton's graduate students.

The meeting started with introductions of the two speakers Katy from education and Allison from Seminary. Katy kicked the night off talking about her work at Anchor House, a charter school in Trenton, NJ. She prefaced the discussion with her initial reluctance to take a teaching position at a charter school, largely because of the focus on matriculation to college, and a militaristic discipline structure. I respected her gumption. If you don't like the way something is done, learn as much as you can about it, see if you can improve it.

Katy quoted some interesting statistics about the Trenton Public School system. The facts seemed distant, almost unreal as she rattled off a 20% - 30% matriculation rate from first grade to graduation.  Even more startling, given that 90% of the students that start school in Trenton in the first grade, don't leave the eight mile radius of the city. Coupled with a 17% to 22% unemployment rate the picture she painted was pretty bleak.

I still couldn't wrap my head around the idea that this woman had planted herself into a charter school in the middle of one of the most depressed cities in America in order to learn more about teaching. For all of my earlier snootiness about the "bubble" that existed around Princeton, I got a bit of a reality check when Katy opened her mouth.

The odds on charter schools, while saving the state a bit of money are still long on being feasible. 85% of funding comes from the public, with the school being responsible for coughing up the other 15% either through investors, fees, or donations. The school holds a lottery and students have a 50/50 shot of being accepted. Students have to maintain an average of 70% or better to remain in the charter school, and once they're out because of discipline or failing grades, parents can't reapply. Charter schools are a non-union venture, so we'll probably be seeing more of them pop up here in Massachusetts since Stand For Children effectively gelded the teachers unions.  With an eye to meeting more strict standards than public schools, their numbers inevitably come out looking better, for all that they are testing a more select and smaller cross section than public schools.

A goal of charter schools is to prepare students to get into college, Katy pointed out that after acceptance less than 30% graduate from college after acceptance to a higher institution. One hypothesis being; since there is no longer this overbearing pressure to perform within a rigid structure, why try?

I had a lot to think about, considering that tomorrow would bring me into Trenton via the NJ Light Rail. I still feel pretty terrible that I'd only listened to Allison's informative discussion on what the Seminary at Princeton really is with half an ear, I was so wrapped up in planning for the following day, the next half hour flew by without my noticing.

We cut out after the meeting to the bar under the Seminary school, the gentleman checking ID's was put off by my Mass State Liquor ID. I started babbling about Mass ID law, and he finally handed it back to me in disgust. I'd learned on the road that if you babble at someone you increase the chances that they will view you as harmless, and let you do what you want.

My host and I bellied up to the bar, I ordered a soda, she ordered a screw driver, and proceeded to play the most pathetic game of pool imaginable. I won't make excuses for myself, I was nervous, and I don't perform well under pressure. Needless to say I was relieved when my host indicated a desire to head back to the house and catch some shut eye. We walked back in the dark, I was still in awe of the magnitude and isolation of the campus, even unlit. It was as if the entire city was saying, "We don't need to light our monuments, churches, and statuary for others, those who belong already know they are there." Which may only be part of the case, Princeton is wicked into being "green". With a solar farm; the surplus electricity from which is sold back to the grid, and a multi-stream recycling system that would make even the most stodgy Sommerville hipster proud.

The supreme feeling of "rightness" that permeated the campus set my back up and my teeth on edge. Expecting at any moment that somehow the Cosmic Karmic Ledger in the sky would somehow balance itself to appease the outside observer. That any second now someone would pop out and try and sell me kiddy-porn. Not that I would have felt any more comfortable in that situation, but at least I'd have something to cut the cloying "goodness" of the place that seemed to stick in the back of my throat.

I showered as soon as we got back to the house, re-packing my bag and preparing myself for my trek into Trenton.  I'd be taking the "Dinky" down to the Junction, then the light rail to the Trenton Transit Center. Arriving earlier in the day on the train rather than walking would give me some more time with my host, allowing me to volunteer with a current project at the Boys and Girls Club.  I couldn't bring the rest of my trip into focus, all of my energy thus far had been spent on getting as far as New York, and the places I'd landed in Jersey so far had been pure serendipity. The last minute add on of Trenton, NJ after waffling for a week made me nervous, but I shied away from just taking the train straight into Philadelphia, especially since my host wasn't expecting me for another two days.  I closed my eyes on that thought and promptly fell asleep. 

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