Not long ago, Ann Bauer was a successful but little known Twin Cities writer who had published a few well-reviewed novels, as well as essays in national publications including Elle and the Washington Post, on subjects like grieving for her son in an angry America.
Then Bauer sat in on a Zoom meeting that a group of parents held with state Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina. Bauer tweeted about it, describing the situation in a suburb so exclusive she described it as “the Shangri-La of Minnesota.” But these parents were in deep distress, and their children were in even more dire straits.
“These parents looked terrified. Two of the fathers cried; one turned off his video because he could not keep it together. Two of the moms had outbursts,” Bauer wrote.
Among the 6,000 people who retweeted her were Alec MacGillis, the ProPublica reporter who published a long article in the New Yorker about the harms being done to children out of school since the pandemic.
And: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who tweeted that her thread “powerfully speaks to the need to open schools. NOW.”
Which showed how treacherous it can be for anyone who tries to be a public intellectual: You never know when the likes of Cruz will use you for the latest culture war sally. It was hard not to suspect Bauer was driving some kind of red v. blue agenda, because in these polarized times, we’re conditioned to think that way.
In an interview, however, Bauer said her greatest fear wasn’t being used by the likes of Cruz — “Ted Cruz retweeted me?” she asked, incredulously. (She later tweeted that she was a “two-time, all-in” Bernie Sanders supporter.) Rather, she said her biggest concern was that her aims were misunderstood, like she was some kind of spokeswoman for Edina. Quite the contrary, she said.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Why do you think the thread went viral?
I don’t know, and I’m a little bit frustrated about it to be honest, because my concern was never kids in Edina. I’ve been talking about the schools issue for seven months, but my focus is on at-risk kids. I live on the east side of St. Paul. I’m concerned about the 20% of kids who are just missing. We withdrew the fundamental services that we provide to students. Not just educating them but feeding them, after-school activities and the mandatory reporting required if there’s abuse or neglect. It seemed even more critical to kids who are already at a disadvantage. I started volunteering at North High School in August 2019. I’m terribly concerned about racial gaps in education. And I think opportunity gaps are getting worse due to the school closures.
So when someone invited me to this Zoom of Edina parents, I said, ‘Ok. I don’t see a need there, but I said I’ll do it.’ I said to myself, they aren’t much in need, but then I realized, this is the best case scenario. This is a home with a bedroom for every child and a device and parents working from home. And it’s not working. It’s awful. If this is the best we can do, what are we doing to people who are already living on the edge?
What do you make of the politics of the school closure situation?
I’m kind of at sea politically because I’m bewildered by the fact that my fellow Democrats are not as exercised about this as I am. I don’t know how you can be marching for Black Lives Matter, as I did for Philando Castile and then again with George Floyd, and not be outraged about what we’re doing to children of color.
The teachers union has been against going back to in-person schooling until they deem it’s safe, and they have influence with the governor, who was a teacher. What do you make of their stance?
I don’t understand the union’s position because from a purely pragmatic point of view, the position is going to devalue teachers. It’s important that teachers are in that classroom with their expertise in psychology and child development and learning styles. I don’t want big tech doing content and teachers being digitized.
You mentioned volunteering at North High School. Talk about that experience.
I was so impressed and so worried about this population of kids. I loved them. They were real and grateful and creative. Granted, I was being sent kids who needed extra help. But the boys in particular, young men aged 15 to 18, were so far behind in terms of reading and writing. I believe the school system was failing them even before this. Minneapolis has had unacceptable education gaps for years and years. So when the schools were closed, this blew my mind.
What animated you to take on this issue?
I quit writing when my oldest son died. I did not intend to write anything that anyone noticed ever again. And I don’t want to be anyone’s spokesperson, but I can’t shut up when I think things are wrong. There was a drumbeat in my head that we’re doing things here that cannot be undone. We’re hurting already marginalized people. We are asking people who can afford it the least to be the front line. We are protecting ourselves at their expense. The Super Bowl is on! Men are crashing into each other, but schools are closed. You can’t imagine how that enrages me.
I don’t understand a society that keeps bars, shopping malls and adult sports facilities going but not schools. I don’t understand these choices.