A Teachable Moment

By Polly Mann

It could have been a teachable moment  for forty or fifty elementary school students visiting  the Minnesota State Capitol, but unfortunately it died before it was born. Several of us from the Peace Troupe—an ad hoc group of WAMM─were the “Billionaires,” and we were expressing our views through dramatic actions and talking to and leafleting legislators, aides, lobbyists, petitioners and janitors.

Terry Burke, leader of the clan, had prepared leaflets for distribution thanking legislators for keeping the  tax rate low at  7 percent for us, the wealthy, compared to 10.3 percent for the middle class, explaining that  we  “applaud the Minnesota House cuts of $411 million from higher education (resulting in $200 million in tuition increases), $l.6 billion from Health & Human Services, $22 million in cuts for schools” —on and on and on.

A silver-framed sign hung from my neck proclaiming, “You can be a member of the 400, too.”  Older people remember that years ago “the400”were the 400 most elite families in the country.  I explained to all who were willing to listen that today 400 Americans own half the wealth of the country and that it is imperative to keep taxes low on the rich so that they, too, can be a member of “the400.”

Standing at the foot of several stairs leading  into the Minnesota House chambers was ColleenRowley with  a huge  sign  identifying her as Leona Helmsley, an honest-to-gosh billionaire of the 80s known  as the “Queen of Mean.”  The sign was an actual quote of Helmsley’s:  “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.”   A capitol guard then placed  barriers around the stairs, forcing Colleen to move a few feet away. Colleen reminded all who came within hearing distance that 66 percent of U.S.corporations today pay no taxes and that this fact could be verified by a Google search.

I was about to forget the teachable moment: It occurred as the students referred to first paragraph were walking by.  Terryand I tried to hand leaflets to them but each and every one, sober and somewhat adamant, refused. I asked a very pleasant woman who was obviously an escort, why all refused them.

“They’ve been instructed not to,” she responded.  “Why?” I asked.  She shrugged.  “Mr.Turner said so,” she replied.  (That wasn’t his name, of course. That’s long gone into the sieve of my memory.)

“Is he the principal?” I asked.  “No.”  she said.  “I think that’s too bad,” I said, “even  if he disagreed with every word on the page.”

“I agree,” she responded and then walked swiftly down the hall to catch up with the children.

Polly Kellogg, Terry and I discussed the incident on the way home.  Assuming that Mr.Turner was a teacher, why  didn’t he give a reason why the leaflets were forbidden.  In the classroom he could have spent fifteen minutes or so discussing the issues of the pamphlet, the democratic right to freedom of expression, the rights of dissenters to government policy, and perhaps the importance of the State Capitol as a symbol.  All this just for starters.

But further discussion brought forth further explorations.  It could be that the teacher’s time was so regimented that he wasn’t free to introduce something unplanned into the day’s agenda.  With so much emphasis placed on test scores, the teacher may  be bound to a curriculum with no additions.  Then there is the influence of school board members with strong political beliefs who threaten teachers who express unpopular views.

Years ago, during the Vietnam War, I was, on a few occasions, brought into talk about the war to high school students.  The teachers explained that there was as little likelihood of reprisals against me as there might be against them.

 So it goes.  Oh freedom!!

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By Published On: May 7th, 2011Comments Off on The “Billionaires” at the State Capitol: A Teachable Moment?

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