Don’t walk away Renee

Renee Van Nett made the most compelling argument for her election to the school board early on; that when she comes to a school board meeting she doesn’t see anyone like herself.

Had things worked out differently I can imagine that before our meeting yesterday, I would have put up five Van Nett signs beforehand and not five Alanna Oswald signs. I’ll keep putting up Oswald signs for the next sixteen days but not because Van Nett is not a good candidate. She’s just not Alanna. My unwavering support for Alanna will become more apparent in future posts. I just can’t deny that Renee Van Net is a poster child for children who have been ill served by modern public education as much as she is a model of resilience in the face of great hardship.

When I met Renee at a Coffee House her daughter, Nevada, was playing on her Mother’s cell phone watching videos produced by some crazy Dad who evidently dresses up like Batman while his wife waves a frying pan at him.

We spent about an hour and a half getting to know each other. She met a sort of cerebral, white guy who defined “agnostic” for her. The white guy met a woman who gave him invaluable insights on growing up Native in Minnesota.

I didn’t take notes and it’s not for me to write Renee’s history but I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t mind my sharing a few of the basics which are key to her character. Her Dad came back to the Rez from “the war,” Vietnam, in bad shape. Some combination of Agent Orange and too much alcohol brought about his early death at age 35.

Although born in Red Lake Renee, unlike her father, was not “enrolled” into the Red Lake band. In this she is like many other Native Americans who have tenuous ties to their tribes. She has moved between multiple Ojibwe reservations, the Twin Cities and Duluth through the years. She attended both the Duluth and Fon du Lac schools. In comparing notes it seems she might have been at Washington Junior High in ninth grade about the time I was teaching there in 1984-85. She has taken in foster kids to give the stability she had so little of during her youth.

I don’t know if Renee has ever read my blog but I’m sure someone has brought my previous comments about her to her attention. I haven’t really had much critical to say other than to point out that her cheerleading for our District’s successes seems to be in conflict with her real world experiences. At any rate Renee didn’t seem the least bit concerned by my comments.

I asked Renee what it was like in the Twin Cities with other Native Americans from a variety of Reservations. I got the impression that the main thing that connected many of them was their sense of otherness which also has driven them into the same neighborhoods. This is true of the Ojibwe from different bands and even more true of different Tribes. Renee told me that the Sioux and Ojibwe have kidded each other for generations about their dining habits. Today its kidding but it was more likely taunting a few generations back. The Sioux call the Ojibwe “rabbit eaters” while the Ojibwe call the Sioux “dog eaters.” I asked Renee how long it had been since she had eaten rabbit (I’m not sure she ever has)and pointed out that I’d be surprised to meet any Sioux today who had ever tasted dog.

I teased both Renee and her daughter and poked fun at myself. Nevada, like my grandsons, was too engrossed in the cell phone’s offerings to pay much attention to the adult conversation. I told her how I had put our movie “Zombie Grandson” on youtube and they both wanted to watch it before I could escape. I just told them to type in its title in Google with my last name. Of course, its also on the blog.

Renee strikes me as having a naive but also profound faith that she can find solutions and answers to the problems in our schools. Just as important is a welcome lack of egotism to interfere with finding those solutions. Whatever I might have written about Renee didn’t bother her. If anything it prompted her to ask me to meet with her and I was grateful for the chance. Her erstwhile allies both have two advanced degrees apiece but are keeping their distance from me lest, I suppose, I quote them out of context or say something unflattering about them. About the toughest thing I’ve said to date about either of them is their apparent trepidation to meet with me. Should they be elected they will have to meet me eventually. I can’t help but wonder if they could endure a meeting with a thousand angry Duluthians lined up to lambaste them like I have.

I know both David and Nora have much to offer. At Myers-Wilkin’s forum on Thursday both were asked about their previous experiences with minorities. Dr. Kirby surprised me by saying he had marched with Martin Luther King in Cicero, Illinois. I instantly envied him. My regard for King is so high that he is one of the few American luminaries I regret never having seen in the flesh. Dr. Kirby marched with him.

And I remember that march well. It made the news when I was 15 because someone threw a brick that hit the Reverend’s head. That was 1966 the year I entered high school. It was also the year the Left Banke put their one-hit-wonder “Walk Away Renee” (borrowed for this post’s title) on the pop charts.

Renee’s campaign was handed a blow when the Tribune changed its tune. Prior to the Primary the editorial board lavished praise on Renee. More recently, and to my delight, they lavished praise on Alanna Oswald. In this second endorsement the Trib confidently predicted that Renee would remain and offer valuable help to our schools after the election. I hope the Trib is right. I can’t help but like anyone that tells me I’m funny. I can’t help but respect anyone who has overcome so many obstacles placed in their path and then turned around to help others get past the same obstacles.

About the author