South Dakota, Part 1

Due to the aforementioned delays, I was behind schedule for Leaf 3 and I had to compensate by booking it out west at an uncomfortable clip. I did about 8-10 hours of driving per day, and sadly I had to skip North Dakota. Sorry North Dakota! Nothing personal — just maybe try and get a few more residents, OK?

The first day, a remarkably friendly Couchsurfer by the name of Teresa Dzieglewicz gave me a call while I was driving aimlessly through South Dakota, and offered me a couch. She was in Mission, SD.

“Where the heck is Mission, SD?” asks everyone. Answer: here.

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You might also notice that it is smack dab in an Indian reservation. What you may not notice from the map, however, is that Teresa and her roomies are all teachers with Teach for America, which places teachers in under-resourced areas to make the world better.

“How could we have noticed that from the map?” asks Attractive Girl.

Well, you couldn’t have, of course.

“So why… you know what? Never mind.”

Whatever. On the way there I saw tons of signs for South Dakota’s famed Corn Palace! There were tons of signs, saying such things as:




and even


so I thought I may as well. It turns out those signs were a tad misleading.

The Corn Palace is only partially either corn or palace.

See? It’s just a regular building, covered in corn. I was expecting a building actually made of corn. They totally should not have hyped it so much.

This is pretty neat though.  It's corn.

“Ooh a fresco!” says the unattractive passerby.

“No, its a bas-relief!” argue several of the teenagers. “Frescoes are done in paint!”

Wow, how did you-

“Actually,” points out one of the nerdier teenagers, “since the entire ears of corn are protruding it would be more of an alto rilievo.”

Um, guys. It’s Mount Rushmore, depicted on a wall using ears of corn.

In Mitchell, George Washington is all ears.

I arrived late and Teresa and her roomie Sara Kock were busy preparing their lessons and such for the next day, along with another teacher friend who had an awesome name.

“Was his name Attractive Guy?” asks Attractive Girl hopefully.

No, those sorts of names only exist in the bizarre narrative-devices-with-personalities-infested world of this blog. His name was Zach.

“That is a pretty awesome name,” you agree insightfully.

We spent a pleasant evening hanging out with our laptops, arguing about interesting topics, reading about life-changing inventions, and suddenly


Wow. He totally interrupted me. Anyway, suddenly, it came up in conversation that tomorrow would be the day when all the kids sang the Flag Song around the flagpole after school!

I was highly interested, and upon inquiry they informed me that the Flag Song is roughly the Indian equivalent of the National Anthem. They sing it in Lakota, the primary language of the Sioux being spoken today. It is a song of national pride and identity. I ask you, is there anything that could fit better into a nationwide recording of all of America’s many peoples?

“Pretty much nope,” says one of the teenagers.

Um… you weren’t supposed to answer. That question was supposed to be rhetorical — it’s an obvious no.

“Whatever, dude.”

I mean, seriously. That answer was so inappropriate.

(Here is where I go get a drink.)

So I figured an hour early would be plenty of time to introduce myself to the powers that be and clear it with them, set up my equipment, and give it a go. Nothing formal, you know, just some dude recording an off-the-cuff song sung by students after school. So, one hour before sing time, I headed over to South Elementary, where Sara taught.

Attention lawyers!  No students are recognizable in this photo!

This is where America, land of liberty, made me sad, as I was unable to record these children’s singing as part of my project.

The school leaders did not object. They thought the project was a great idea and were very helpful as I tried to get it to work. In particular, one of the staff named Carmen Eagle Pipe went around with me introducing me to people and trying to help me make it happen.

The song was public domain, available for recording without permission. Carmen called somebody in the know, and was told that the Flag Song has been recorded both informally and formally many times. People at their powwows over in Sioux Falls were always recording that song.

The parents and students didn’t object.

But. But. One of them might. One of them might object strongly and bring legal action against the school. And one hour was not enough time to ask all the parents. Had I shown up a week ahead of time, the school could have sent home permission slips with the students, and those students with signed permission slips could have participated in the recording (which was audio only, by the way, no video).

So the problem was lawsuits and fear of same (I actually heard the phrase “lawyers breathing down my neck”). The problem was parents solving educational dissatisfactions with litigation rather than discussion. Ensuring their child’s safety with threats rather than trust. Taking from the educational system rather than contributing.

I am not talking specifically about the parents of the children at this school. Nor am I even talking about most parents. I am talking about that vocal minority of parents and organizations who sue schools over ridiculous issues and cultivate an attitude of fear among educators.

What happened at South Elementary is a very small, rather insignificant example of a large problem. I’m not sure if there is a good way to remedy a situation that has been reinforced by judicial precedent. But I do know that something is wrong when American teachers cannot even give their students side-arm hugs.

Note to American parents and “concerned” organizations: suing a school is a socially irresponsible act. If a school does not deliver the education you want, I assure you that taking that school to court will not help it improve. How can teachers share knowledge confidently when there are thousands of things that could make them lose their jobs? How can students learn in an atmosphere of fun when teachers teach in an atmosphere of fear? In this particular case, students lost an opportunity to know that the larger world values them and their culture because of that fear.

My teaching experience in Korea was highly gratifying. I helped students learn skills that would be valuable to them in the future. My greatest triumphs were those students in whom I helped instill or reinforce a love of learning itself, an engagement with life, a joy in discovery. But the atmosphere there was one of pressure, not one of fear. I felt like I had to take many steps where a normal mortal would take one, but I never felt like any step might be my last. Rather than walking on eggshells, I was trying to leap buildings which were a little too tall. Neither is the best environment for a teacher, but I know for a fact which one gets more done. When I asked Korean teachers about discipline issues, hitting the students was the most recommended solution. But, they explained, that is what the students understand and expect. I even asked the students and they told me I would have better results with them if I hit them when they misbehaved! (I never could quite bring myself to do it though.) When teachers and students had difficulties, the parents would thank the teacher for their patience in dealing with the child. Students and teachers would freely exchange hugs. Students would come climb on my lap while I was preparing lessons. In fact, students would occasionally mug me. I could talk with students about my religious beliefs. I could post pictures of my students on the internet. I could have email and phone/text conversations with my students without fear of it being monitored.

Not so America. American schools as dictated by watchdog organizations attempt to keep the educational environment unnaturally sterile, which in the end leads to greater vulnerability to the world’s social ills.

This particular situation absolutely did not warrant my lengthy reponse. If I were responding just to my inability to record kids singing without permission slips, I would be completely overreacting. Permission slips are not that big a deal, and help make sure everyone is OK. I understand why I couldn’t record them and I’m OK with it. But I don’t think I am overreacting to the fearful attitude I felt there and elsewhere from other friends who are teachers in the US.

As an excercise, let’s imagine a school made parents sign this release form before enrolling their child:

In signing this form, you agree to the following treatment of your child. We will discipline your students as they require, including the possibility of corporal punishment and/or public humiliation. We may publish images of your child in news, personal, and nonprofit publications. We may take your child on educational day trips which will be listed on the school calendar. We will allow frank discussion of issues about which people have varying beliefs, such as intelligent design and evolution, racial backgrounds and different cultures, the history of western civilization from various vantage points, and religious beliefs, so long as one view is not taught to the exclusion of others. If you or your child are offended by the existence or presentation of any of these views you may voice your disagreement but not take any further action against the school unless the view is itself represented inaccurately. We will not treat your child as special — all children will be encouraged and disciplined following the same guidelines. Teachers may use their judgment to resolve teacher-student issues. Teachers may hug and otherwise show normal adult-child physical affection to your child. Teachers and students alike are responsible for their actions. We reserve the right to fire teachers who violate laws rather than be legally liable for them. We reserve the right to expel students who continually refuse to adhere to the school’s policies.

I wonder how many parents would put their children in such a school. One permission slip at the beginning, minimal lawsuits. Would you? Why or why not? If you’re agreeing in principle but not in method, which sentence(s) would you change? Discuss.

But I digress. I digress hardcore. Sorry about that.

I would like to thank the staff of South Elementary in Mission, SD for their willingness to help out and their friendliness in trying to work out a solution for me. They are making a positive difference in the lives of students despite the world’s system not working for their benefit. I would like to extend grateful thanks to Teresa and Sara for their incredibly positive and hopeful outlook and their genuine caring for their students — and by extension, all the teachers of Teach for America that share those qualities, which I feel most must.

I’ll leave you with a shot of the flagpole around which I almost recorded lots of students singing a song in a very old Amerindian language. The person has been blurred out because even though he looked older he may be a student and he did not sign a permission slip and the staff asked me not to publish any pictures that included students.

The flagpole around which many awesome unpictured children sang an awesome unrecorded song.