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Undoing Panic

Posted on 26 November 2008

By Benito Vila

If it wasn’t enough that the sky seems to be falling financially around the world, I was cornered last week at a school event and at an athletic event and heard normally reasonable people reveling in a sort of panic that made me think everyone’s lost their minds.

I listened politely to what was being said, thought to myself, none of this can be true, and went off to find out whether Joan Frisicano was leaving the elementary school because of the school board; whether music programs are going to be cut from the school curriculum; whether morning program was doomed to be eliminated at the elementary school; whether state funding for education would cease coming to Sag Harbor; and whether our school superintendent is out every Friday.

What did I find out? It was all madness and hearsay. Joan, who thought it was time to do something else, changed her mind and is staying because as she said, “there’s more work to be done” which suggests the board is not a big bad wolf; the district has hired a retired music teacher, who for 30-some years built the music program in Miller Place, to assess the strengths and weakness of what’s being offered here and better integrate the curriculum of the two schools; morning program has reached legendary status locally, especially after Jordan Haerter’s classmates sang songs they all learned there at his funeral, and hadn’t been thought of being curtailed until the rumor went on being repeated; only $163,000 of the nearly $1.7 million dollars Sag Harbor receives in state aid is slated to be withheld while the school board has already reduced its expenses $310,000 this year without reducing any educational programs.

How did I find what was what? By speaking to board members, Joan Frisicano and John Gratto directly, and reading the legislative announcements that come into The Express. My favorite moment in all this was walking into Dr. Gratto’s office and asking to see him. Mary, the district clerk, asked me, “When?” I said, “Friday.” And she said, “What time?” And so it was, another rumor put to rest.

When Friday came, Dr. Gratto called me from Patchogue at one o’clock saying he was running late leaving a meeting and let me know he’d be a half-hour late. There was one person after another in and out of his office, not bad for someone supposedly “not around,” before we finally sat down.

I told Dr. Gratto of the “you’re-out-every-Friday” tale and he laughed and said, “People forget I’m human. I was out two Fridays; one helping my mom upstate and another visiting my daughter in Washington, D.C.; it’s what anyone else would have done for their family.”

I asked him reporter-like questions: Where are you looking for cost-savings? What are your long-term goals? What’s the hold-up with the faculty contract? His answers made sense. Without going point by point, I heard him say he wants to “keep strengthening” the district and the opportunities available to the children here; that he’s not interested in cutting programs, that he’s applying for “excellence” and “blue ribbon” credentials because he finds what we have here “to be the envy of many [other districts] on Long Island and across the state.”

In talking about those honors, Dr. Gratto said, “If the district falls short, we’ll know more about what the standard for excellence is, where we are now and what steps we must take to reach that level.”

I liked two initiatives that he’s introducing. The first has to do with state test scores and determining what questions students are missing to see if there are learning points that need reinforcement. Our scores are strong and that sort of numerical analysis, which has nothing to do with blame or failure, can only help raise the confidence and performance of everyone involved.

The second is less empirical and certainly more inventive. Dr. Gratto acknowledged our country is “facing the worst financial crisis since the Depression” and he is asking the board to convene two community focus groups to help with long-term planning. The process he shared with me is something you can read elsewhere in the paper this week. His approach appeals to me; whether it works or not is likely a function of the community’s willingness to lay aside differences and work together in a mutually collaborative and respectful way.

To me, that means moving forward without innuendo, rumor and bias. It means undoing some of the panic around us by talking about perspectives, solutions and ideas that are mindful, positive and inclusive.

In describing what has been most difficult for him so far, Dr. Gratto said, “People’s willingness to impute negative motives to things they don’t know about.” He recited the famous Eleanor Roosevelt quote, “Great minds talk about ideas; average minds talk about events; small minds talk about people.”

The Roosevelt reference seems apropos with financial panic so widespread and Barack Obama cast as FDR on the cover of Time. In his first inauguration speech, the one remembered for “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” President Roosevelt stated, “Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.”

Maybe that’s the way to out-pace the panic this Thanksgiving; let’s give up talking poorly of ourselves and of one another; let’s work together better, be a little more open-minded and expect whatever it is that pains each of us to work out.

Nothing will keep our village humming along and healthy more than doing what we can for one another, on the street, at the school, wherever we meet. If you’re afraid of there being less opportunity in the village and stores closing up, spend whatever money you have here rather than online or elsewhere.

If you find yourself short of gifts to give, go through old pictures and give those moments back to the people you shared them with. The sky isn’t falling. What we must do, in every way, is to lay aside what FDR called, “the nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

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