Stretching It: Schools and Strudel
Sometimes, as when you're making strudel, stretching makes a good thing much better. But too often these days, we experience the other kind of stretching, the kind that distorts the truth and makes it hard for people to trust one another. I tasted both kinds of stretching yesterday, and I like the edible sort much better.
The afternoon took me to D.C. schools headquarters, where Superintendent Clifford Janey was announcing the closing of six schools. The event seemed straightforward enough: The city's system has vastly more space than it has students to fill that space. By shutting down schools, the District could save a boatload of money and use that to give children a decent place in which to learn. Of course, no school system likes to shut down buildings, and surely the administrators and school board members will face the wrath of parents and neighbors who are losing their schools.
But the news conference quickly turned contentious and even antagonistic as reporters tried to hack their way through the school system's intentionally obscure lingo. Instead of just putting out the news of the closings in an honest, clean fashion, Janey and an army of fancy consultants tried to bury the bad news in words that could only serve to anger. There was no talk of closings, only "consolidations" and "operational efficiencies." The system isn't being shrunk, it's being "right-sized."
The principal of one of the schools chosen for closing, Fletcher-Johnson Educational Center (its very name is a relic of another era of eduspeak obfuscation--in the 1970s, it was somehow cool to use words other than "school" to mean, um, school), kept pronouncing himself "positive" about the dismantling of his facility. He was so positive about it that he sounded like he wasn't going anywhere. He did concede under questioning that "most" of the students from Fletcher-Johnson would be moved elsewhere.
Wait a minute, reporters said. "Most?" Are some students staying at Fletcher-Johnson? Is the building remaining open?
Finally, Janey had to step in and use actual English. No, he said, "all" the students would move. Two other administrators jumped in to clarify that Fletcher-Johnson was really closing, except that even then, they couldn't bring themselves to use that word.
Why stretch the truth? If the school closing process is anywhere near as rigorous or honest a process as the system claims it is, why hide the facts?
Janey has chosen to do something that many previous superintendents were unwilling to tackle. He deserves considerable credit for doing that. To be charitable, perhaps he is merely in the thrall of the consultants who put together this package. But while eduspeak is ubiquitous, that doesn't make it any less depressing. If anyone should be straight, it's people who teach children.
Better stretching: Last night at the Kalorama home of Austria's ambassador to the United States, Eva Novotny, the great Washington food writer Joan Nathan delivered a splendid lesson on the strudel.
The occasion was a reception for my old friend Ed Serotta, a photographer whose work illustrated many of the pieces I wrote from Germany while serving as the Post's bureau chief there. Serotta's current project, centropa.org, is a digital museum of Jewish life in central Europe, with extraordinary stories by the ordinary people who survived not only the Holocaust but decades of Communist rule.
Serotta's work takes him to the entire strudel belt, and diplomats from Austria, Hungary and Romania were on hand, so Nathan had to walk gingerly as she assigned credit for the fine spinach and feta, leek and ham, grape and apple strudel that we enjoyed. It seems the difference between phyllo dough and strudel dough is one of rolling vs. stretching. Strudel is stretched, pulled so thin that, as the Austrian ambassador put it, "you should be able to read the newspaper through the dough." Many strudel stories were told, and Nathan lamented the fact that far too much strudel is now produced with a phyllo-making machine invented by Greek immigrants in Cleveland.
But we were served the real thing, stretched by hand by the embassy's chef. Excellent stuff--the kind of stretching that builds trust, serves truth, and expands the belly.
Now, please find me some top-quality strudel available for purchase in the Washington area. Nominations, anyone?
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