Transcript

624:

Private Geography
Transcript

Originally aired 09.01.2017

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/624

Prologue.

Ira Glass

OK, I don't know exactly what this says about Australia, but when you win this big literary prize they have there, the Melbourne Prize for Literature, you're required to spend half the money, half of it, to get out of Melbourne and travel abroad. Which is sort of weird, right? Like they're saying simultaneously, let's celebrate the culture of Melbourne, and then they're giving you the money to escape it.

A few years ago when this great Australian novelist named Gerald Murnane learned that he was nominated, he asked that his name be withdrawn from consideration.

Helen Garner

Because there was no way he was going to leave the country.

Ira Glass

This is Helen Garner, an Australian who's won this prize herself, and who wrote about what happened when they wanted to give it to Murnane.

Helen Garner

He's noted for the fact that he doesn't like to travel. I don't think he's ever been outside Australia. And he makes a point of saying that he's never going to leave this country. He's never wanted to, and he thinks that everything one needs to know could be known just as well here as anywhere else in the world.

Ira Glass

But he's this deeply original writer, and the committee decided to bend the rules for him. Helen was in the auditorium when he received the award.

Helen Garner

And he was obviously in his rather inward introverted sort of way terribly happy to have won the prize. And he explained to the audience his stand on international travel.

Ira Glass

But he said, in the spirit of the prize, he would do something else. He would use some of the prize money to fill his car with gas and drive around to some of the places that he had lived in and around Melbourne.

Helen Garner

And that was when the speech became really wonderful, because he just kind of tilted his head back and closed his eyes and reeled off this list of addresses, his former addresses in the suburbs of Melbourne. And they were very undistinguished parts of town. They're the very obscure suburbs that nobody ever talks about and nothing dramatic ever seems to happen there.

And he reeled them off like somebody chanting or praying by heart. He had them all by heart in chronological order.

Gerald Murnane

Yes, all right. We would say The Avenue, Coburg; Breese Street, Brunswick; Plenty Road, Bundoora.

Ira Glass

There's no recording of this speech, but when I phoned Gerald Murnane at his home, he was able to recite for me all 20 locations from memory in the order that he lived in them.

Gerald Murnane

And the end of the list is Ray Street, Pascoe Vale; Bakers Road, North Coburg; Peter Street, South Oakleigh; and then Legon Road, South Oakley; and then Filbert Street, South Caulfied.

Helen Garner

What we knew was that he was really reciting a kind of a poem of such modestly named places that had such meaning to him.

Gerald Murnane

Gweno Avenue, Frankston; Fitzroy Street in Kilda; River Street, South Yarra.

Helen Garner

And there was something so wonderful about it. And then when he finished and opened his eyes and looked around, the whole place just went up in a roar where everyone was delighted, and half laughing, and half tearful. It was very moving and wonderful. I'm terribly glad that I was there.

Ira Glass

Gerald Murnane told me even he was moved by it.

Gerald Murnane

Place and locality and these things, they do matter much to me. I've got this sort of mental geography. In a way, it's probably been bred into me by the fact that I move so often. We moved almost every year because my father was a gambler on race horses and also a reckless man who was always looking for-- he just couldn't sit in one place. We lived at all these different addresses.

(INTERVIEW) IRA GLASS: When you list them off like that, is the feeling nostalgia, or is it even stronger? Is it a feeling of like, this is me, that in some way you're describing yourself?

Gerald Murnane

You nearly got it right, then-- I feel a sense of pride-- I'm not boasting, but I feel a sense of pride that I survived all that. I mean, when I say survive, we were quite poor.

(INTERVIEW) IRA GLASS: I grew up in the suburbs of Baltimore, which is a city not far from Washington, DC.

Gerald Murnane

Baltimore, Maryland.

(INTERVIEW) IRA GLASS: Yeah, yeah. Baltimore, Maryland. And when I look back on it, I feel like I understand that it shaped me in certain ways. But I also feel like this is just a random place that happened to be the place that I grew up. Like, there's nothing special about it. I feel no attachment to it. I have no sentimental feelings about the place. And is your attachment to these places now that they seem special in some way, or are they simply familiar?

Gerald Murnane

Well, they certainly don't feel special, and I've said already that I don't go back to visit them. I'm not attached to these places. They attached themselves to me in a sense. And I don't want to go back there. I don't want to be the person I was then. But I do want to remember them. I can't put it any better than that.

(INTERVIEW) IRA GLASS: Why?

Gerald Murnane

Remember them, because they made me. The combination of all the strange experiences that I had, or lack of experience, or yearnings, or unfulfilled wants, they made me.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our program, we don't choose where we grow up. We don't choose the family we're born into. And when we head out into the bigger world, that's the private geography we carry with us. Today, we have two stories where we see what that geography reveals about two very different people. One of them, current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One. Vouching Towards Bethlehem.

Ira Glass

Act one, Vouching towards Bethlehem. So the issue that our Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has fought hardest for over the years, the issue that she hopes to engage as education secretary, is school choice in all of its forms.

One of those forms? School choice means fostering a system of charter schools as alternatives to the regular public school system. These schools are supposed to be laboratories of great teaching, places where some of the rules and regulations of regular public schools don't apply. School choice also means vouchers, which, of course, lets parents pull their kids out of public schools, and put them into parochial schools, or church schools, or private schools of all kinds. And state money that had gone to the public schools would follow the children with a voucher to the private schools they enroll in.

DeVos says her interest in all this started when her son was entering Kindergarten. She realized that she had the means to send him to any school she wanted to. She had a lot of money. Why shouldn't every parent be able to do that?

Betsy Devos

So we decided at that time to help some other kids have the same opportunity as our children. We started work with that school, and then more broadly in our community funding scholarships, and realized very quickly that while we were helping individual children, which was important, it wasn't an effort that was particularly scalable. So I really decided to get involved in public policy, which I thought was going to make the most difference.

Ira Glass

Betsy DeVos made it into the President's cabinet with as low a vote as you can get and still squeak by. It was the first time in U.S. history that the Vice President has had to cast a tie-breaking vote to confirm a cabinet secretary.

She'd been an education advocate for decades, pushing for choice and vouchers in Michigan, where she's from. Her critics said she was a know-nothing, just some rich Republican donor with no qualifications for the job of education secretary, and specifically, no experience in the public schools. That was the rap against her. One of our producers, Susan Burton, grew up in the same home town as Betsy DeVos, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and has been aware of the DeVos family since she was a little kid. There are certain things you can learn about Betsy DeVos and her agenda by going to Grand Rapids. Here's Susan.

Susan Burton

One of the things you'd hear over and over in the weeks leading up to Betsy DeVos's confirmation hearings was that she'd never set foot in a public school. It was often phrased exactly this way. People said it to news reporters, repeated it in speeches.

Man

Betsy DeVos has never set foot in a public school.

Woman

This woman has never stepped foot in a public school.

Woman

He nominated a woman who had never worked in, volunteered in, ever stepped foot in a public school until he chose her to be his Secretary of Education.

Susan Burton

That's the head of one of the two national teachers unions. But when I talked to people in Grand Rapids, I heard a different story, that she had spent time in a public school, volunteering as a mentor. At first, nobody could give me details. It was all rumors and secondhand information. Here's Elizabeth Welch, a local public school advocate.

Elizabeth Welch

In just community conversations with people, we knew she hadn't been deeply involved in Grand Rapids Public. And so, I was through a few discussions where it was through the grapevine I had heard, oh, I heard she tutored some kids at Burton Elementary.

Mary Bouwense

Well, I had heard that she had said she had done that kind of stuff. But I didn't know where.

Susan Burton

This is Mary Bouwense, the head of the local teacher's union.

Mary Bouwense

Because when she said I tutored in Grand Rapids, well, she could have been tutoring at one of the Christian elementaries. You know, it could have been in the area of Grand Rapids, 'cause sometimes people say Grand Rapids, but they mean Kentwood, or Wyoming, or one of the suburbs too. They just say Grand Rapids as a general term. So I just assumed it was going to be the Christian schools that she tutored in when she showed up, because a lot of their money goes into those buildings. So.

Susan Burton

I'm from Grand Rapids, so I knew what Mary was talking about, the schools associated with the Christian Reformed Church. I have friends who went to these schools. My next door neighbor, Jason, went to Ada Christian. So did Jenny from swim team. Nicole from acting went to Seymour Christian. Betsy DeVos went to these schools, and also sent her own four children there.

The Christian Reformed Church has its own history of school choice. Back in the 1850s, a group of Dutch settlers in West Michigan split off from their church to form their own denomination. And one of the big reasons-- they didn't want their children in public schools. They wanted their children to be formed in the faith, in their own schools, before sending them out into the world.

The idea that parents of all backgrounds should be able to choose a school reflecting their values and beliefs, that's part of the theological history of the CRC. At first, I had a hard time finding people to talk about Betsy DeVos and the public school she volunteered in, partly because the DeVoses are such a prominent family in Grand Rapids. They're major philanthropists. Lots of buildings have the DeVos name on them.

At age 10, I performed "It's a Hard Knock Life" from Annie with seven other girls on the stage in DeVos Hall, which is inside DeVos Place, which isn't so far from the Helen DeVos Children's Hospital, the Richard M. DeVos Center, and a bit further out, the DeVos Center for Arts and Worship at Grand Rapids Christian High School.

The DeVos fortune comes from Amway. When I was a little girl, I wasn't exactly sure what Amway did. Sold stuff in a weird way, not in stores. Betsy DeVos married the eldest son of Amway's founder, but she's also from an iconic local family. Her father, Edgar Prince, made his millions in West Michigan as an auto parts manufacturer. One of his inventions? The light up mirror visor.

I finally did reach someone who'd been at the public school Betsy DeVos volunteered at, Burton Elementary. I'm Susan Burton, but that's not my family's name on the building, by the way. The woman I reached, I'll call her Denise.

Denise

A lot of teachers were like, she's never been in one of our schools. And I said, well, no, she has. I've seen her. What? You know, they couldn't believe that she even set foot in a public school, and in a Grand Rapids public school. They could not believe it. Yeah, they were shocked.

Susan Burton

Denise used to be a teacher at Burton, the Grand Rapids public school where it turns out Betsy DeVos volunteered for five years. As far as I can tell, it's the most sustained encounter with a public school that she's ever had, and Betsy DeVos says it affected her deeply.

She didn't respond to any of the questions or interview requests I sent to the Department of Education, but she did talk briefly about the experience at her confirmation hearing in January.

Betsy Devos

I've worked as an in-school mentor for students in the Grand Rapids Public Schools, and have had the privilege of interacting with students and their families and teachers in ways that have changed my life and my perspective about education forever.

Susan Burton

Here's how Betsy DeVos wound up at Burton Elementary back in 2003. She was not a random parent walking in to help out. She was one of the most powerful educational activists in the state, a major Republican donor. Since the early '90s, she'd been advocating for increased choice in Michigan schools.

In 1993, she helped the governor make Michigan one of the first states in the nation to allow charter schools. In 2000, she introduced a ballot measure to get vouchers in the state. At the time, she was the chair of the state Republican Party. The governor didn't support her measure, so she quit. It was that important to her.

She and her husband spent more than $2 million of their own money to promote the measure. The campaign flew people to see voucher schools in Milwaukee on a private Amway jet. When voters rejected the measure, she spent even more to influence legislators. She started lobbying groups at the state and national level.

Her former lobbying director told me that when somebody challenged her about what she was going to do to make local public schools better, she signed up to mentor students. She did this through a group called Kids Hope USA. It's a national organization that pairs churches with public schools. She was in the first group of mentors from her church.

Sharon Olette was in charge of the Kids Hope USA program at their church for years. She says they knew the kind of school they wanted to partner with and set out to find it.

Sharon Olette

I mean, we're a very Caucasian, white America church and didn't have the opportunity to interact with inner city kids and the Hispanic community like we wanted to. And this was such a wonderful avenue for us to do that, to really live out our faith.

And one of the pastors at the time just drove around the inner city and looked at the different schools and was kind of praying over all of that situation, what school we should partner with. And he had actually another school in mind, and he happened to go by Burton Elementary, and he said it was just clear to him that God was saying this is the one. This is the school. So that's kind of an exciting story.

Susan Burton

The volunteer mentors were not teaching religion. They were just there to mentor the kids, every week for one hour. The kids at Burton are mostly Latino, speak Spanish as a first language, and they're almost all poor. Denise, the former teacher, was proud of the work she did that. The school had a great principal, and Denise felt like she was part of a dedicated staff, a group giving it's all, trying to help these students with the limited resources they had. Into that walks Betsy DeVos.

Denise

And then I still remember the first time I ever saw her walking down the hallway in a really, really just old school. Burton Elementary's a really old school, and just drinking fountains that didn't work, and the bathrooms that didn't have soap. And there she was in her $1,000 suit and her really pretty shoes. And I just thought how odd she looked. She just looked so out of place.

She had this beautiful like, tan camel hair jacket. And just the visual of her walking through and looking at everything. And I remember the story being told of that her husband would drop her off because she didn't want to park her car in the parking lot.

Susan Burton

Like, were the cars at risk of being broken into? Was that the idea, that--

Denise

I don't know. I really don't know what was running through her head.

Susan Burton

Three other people who worked at Burton in those years told me Betsy DeVos had a driver who'd drop her off. One said he'd park a big black SUV up on the sidewalk near the school's front door and wait there until she came out.

Betsy DeVos was assigned to mentor a little girl in third grade. She was a girl who needed extra attention in the classroom, and outside school, her housing situation was unstable. Again, Denise.

Denise

You know, her living situation was really difficult. Many times, she just came to school hungry. She came to school tired. It was a sad situation.

Susan Burton

Denise says when Betsy DeVos came to school, with the teachers, she was cordial, but not overly friendly. Denise was wary of her. But I talked to a counselor at the school, a social worker I'll call Megan who knew the little girl, and interacted with her, and who appreciated what Betsy DeVos was trying to do.

Megan

I thought it was great that she was taking an interest in our lower income school. So I remember the student telling me, Miss Betsy was here this week, and just feeling special because another adult took interest in her.

Susan Burton

The little girl would talk to Megan about the mentoring. The attention pleased her, made her proud. And then one day, the little girl had some other news to share about Betsy DeVos.

Megan

The student told me that she purchased a car for her mom. Her mom was having a hard time getting to her employer. And so to keep that momentum going with her employment, I know she purchased a car and did other things for the family beyond the school.

Susan Burton

Four different people at the school told me about the car. One said it came up at a staff meeting. Teachers thought it was great news for the family, but they also struggled with what to make of this kind of generosity, and whether buying the mother a car was setting her up for failure or success. Sharon, the church coordinator, heard about the car and understood the impulse.

Sharon Olette

We all come to care for our mentees and do things to help the family in need, bringing them Thanksgiving dinner or something like that.

Susan Burton

Sharon remembered that one mentor, her husband was a dentist, and he fixed a mother's badly decayed teeth for free. This kind of stuff wasn't part of the Kids Hope USA mission. Sharon describes it as above and beyond the scope of the program. But lots of mentors developed relationships with students and families. Lots of them wanted to do more. Betsy DeVos just happens to be a billionaire, and her more is different.

And then Betsy DeVos gave the student another gift, one that shows her generosity and also reveals a lot about her beliefs and assumptions when it comes to educating children.

Denise

Burton is a K-5 program, so when the student got to be at sixth grade, she put her and paid for a private school, for her to go into a private school.

Susan Burton

I couldn't confirm this directly with Betsy DeVos, but five people at Burton and a close friend of Betsy DeVos's said they heard this. The way school funding works, when a child leaves a school, the school loses the funding for that child. School choice advocates say this encourages competition and innovation. Schools have to compete to attract children and the dollars that go with them. It's the free market applied to education.

What makes this complicated is that this money pays not just for that individual child, but for salaries, and programs, and infrastructure, for all the costs of keeping the school open. Losing that money has ripple effects. And at Burton Elementary, when teachers saw one of the state's most powerful education activists, someone widely seen as anti-public school, pull a child out of the public school system, it did not go over very well with everyone. Again, here's Denise, the teacher.

Denise

It's super insulting. It's very insulting. Like, what you do-- all the hard work that you put in-- is not good enough for me, or for people I know, or for people in general. It's just not good enough. And I find it rather ironic that she would tutor a student and then take her out of the school that she was working in. I thought she wanted to make the school better. She could have used her power way differently.

Susan Burton

Instead of helping fix the school, Betsy DeVos paid to place the child elsewhere. That was her solution. It was like vouchers for one. Megan, the school social worker, says there are lots of things Betsy DeVos could have done.

Megan

So, I mean, there were so many great things going on at Burton Elementary. I mean, there really were. We had ESL classes for the parents. We had a parent leadership group that would meet once a month and hear kind of what's going on in the community. And so I really feel like, even talking to the building leadership about trends, or what's keeping our students from reaching those academic milestones that we need them to, and really tapping into the pulse of the school and the community, I feel like there could have been a lot more there.

Susan Burton

Does this story of what happened at Burton connect to any of the concerns you have about her appointment as Education Secretary?

Megan

Yeah, I mean, I think it kind of illustrates that while she may have supported individual children or causes that were in line with her values, I don't think overall she saw the big picture. So while I see there was some great generous acts, it wasn't directly supporting the school building or district.

Susan Burton

Helping individual children, but not supporting the school district as a whole. This is consistent with what Elizabeth Welch, the public school advocate in Grand Rapids, has observed of Betsy DeVos's policy agenda in Michigan.

Elizabeth Welch

I actually am probably not as cynical as some, in that I believe she probably really does believe the agenda is going to help kids. The problem is, as someone for 20 years who has been living here and watching the agenda be implemented, I see it as more about helping that one person.

Susan Burton

Take the West Michigan Aviation Academy, which is a charter school founded by the DeVoses. They've given more than $4 million to it. It's out at the airport, and kids learn how to fly planes, go up in the sky in little Cessnas.

Elizabeth Welch

Wonderful school. I have friends who send their children there. Aviation's your background, your kid's kind of a science kid, maybe your kid doesn't fit in well in the structure of traditional public school. It's a great school. However, it's not scalable. It's a great option for those families and those kids, and I don't deny that.

But again, I'm looking at the bigger issue of if we create these little microcosms, and then eventually bring vouchers with it, we are still going to be crumbling our infrastructure, which still is going to serve the vast majority of children, because frankly, there's not enough little schools like that to serve the kids.

Susan Burton

The vast majority of children, 85%, that's how many in this country attend traditional public schools.

Elizabeth Welch

We will help some kids, but I don't believe we're going to help most kids. I believe it will actually harm them in the long run.

Susan Burton

For almost the past 20 years, Betsy DeVos and her husband Dick, maybe more than anyone, have shaped education in Michigan by advocating for policies that increase choice. The results? Both traditional public schools and charter schools are doing worse academically.

To give one example, in 2003, Michigan fourth graders ranked 28th in the country in reading. A decade later, they've fallen to 41st. For all the promises about charter school performance, three quarters of all Michigan charter schools are in the bottom half of all schools as measured by standardized tests. Public school funding, the money actually available for schools to use, has declined.

Segregation has increased. Under Michigan choice policies, white students transfer to districts or charters that are more white, black students go to charters that are more black. Meanwhile, a staggering number of Michigan charters are for profit, 80% according to researchers at Western Michigan University. Way more than any other state.

Sheldon Whitehouse

I have read that 80% of charter schools in Michigan are run by for-profit entities, and most of them perform below the state average.

Susan Burton

At Betsy DeVos's confirmation hearing in January, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse asked her to respond to concerns about her record in Michigan.

Betsy Devos

I will be an advocate for all great schools, no matter their form, their version. I will be an advocate for parents being able to make those choices because they're the primary educator for their children.

Sheldon Whitehouse

I get that. But the question is, do you understand that when the parent makes that choice, and the child moves to the charter school, and the funding moves with the child, that leaves a funding gap at the previous school that it can't instantaneously or magically fill, that that is a real problem that [INAUDIBLE] respect--

Betsy Devos

Indeed. And I mean, I think this is a good example of an issue that is best addressed at the state level. Again, I will--

Susan Burton

They went back and forth but this was as much of an answer as she gave. But what public education advocates criticize Betsy DeVos for-- focusing more on the individual than the whole public school system-- DeVos welcomes that criticism. It's not a criticism to her. She says that's exactly what she's trying to do.

Betsy Devos

This isn't about school systems. This is about individual students, parents, and families.

Susan Burton

Betsy DeVos, speaking in July at the ALEC Conference. ALEC is a national group for conservatives who want to privatize all kinds of government services, including schools. Betsy DeVos is standing behind a lectern in a bright pink skirt suit.

Betsy Devos

Just the other week, the American Federation for Teachers tweeted at me. Can you please put it up on the screen?

Susan Burton

The tweet reads, quote, "Betsy DeVos says public dollars should invest in individual students. No. We should invest in a system of great public schools for all kids."

Betsy Devos

I couldn't believe it when I read it, but you have to admire their candor. They've made it clear that they care more about a system, one that was created in the 1800s, than they care about individual students. They are saying education is not an investment in individual students, and they are totally wrong.

[APPLAUSE]

Susan Burton

This isn't just semantics. This is right at the heart of Betsy DeVos's argument. The way to improve education is to focus on each individual child. She and her backers say the system is broken. We've tried to fix it for years, and it hasn't worked. The most vulnerable kids are trapped in the worst schools. We have got to address this. We need to try something new.

One of the reasons Betsy DeVos might believe in focusing on the individual student is that she's seen it work herself with some of the students she's helped.

Betsy Devos

Take a moment and picture a child whom you have helped get a great education. For me, I picture Angie, a young girl I've mentored since the first grade who is now entering her senior year in high school.

Angie

My name is Angie. I'm 17 years old.

Susan Burton

Angie is the second student Betsy DeVos mentored at Burton Elementary. I visited her during summer vacation at her house in Grand Rapids. She'd just gotten home from work, and she was wearing bleached jeans, her hair in a bun.

She remembers being pulled out of her classroom in first grade and told, you're going to have a mentor. She was shy around Betsy DeVos.

Angie

I was shy. Like, she would have to like ask me over and over again to get things out. And even to this day, I still get kind of shy when I'm around her and talking to her. Like, I know I can talk to her about anything, and I know I can trust her for anything, but I still get shy.

Susan Burton

Betsy DeVos became close to Angie and her family right away. On Christmas, she came over with presents. She did stuff with them on weekends.

Angie

First memory, the earliest memory I have a way of that, of doing something like that, is when she took me, my mom, and my oldest sister to a bookstore. And she helped my mom get a book so that she can learn English. She let me get-- I don't even know what books I got. But she let me and my sisters get books.

So after that, she would really ask about my mom. And then if I ever told her anything, that she would help out my mom, and my mom just really like, looked up to her.

Susan Burton

Angie's mother grew up in the Dominican Republic and speaks mostly Spanish. Back then, she was working factory jobs. She was always on the night shift, keeping her away from Angie and her sister. She has a chronic illness, and when it flared up, she'd missed work. She kept getting fired, so the DeVoses hired her.

Angie

Well, she's like the laundry person at all their houses. She's the one that does laundry for them, and that's it. Basically, she's been doing that ever since.

Susan Burton

Betsy DeVos's impulse was not to keep Angie and her family at a distance, an hour a week, meet the program requirements, do the minimum. Her impulse was to invite them into her life. John Booy is a close friend of Betsy DeVos, one of a handful of people she brought to her confirmation hearing.

He runs the Potter's House, a private Christian school in Grand Rapids that enrolls a lot of low income kids. Over the years, Betsy DeVos has mentored students there, and John's seen her help out several families.

John Booy

Betsy would also involve herself in whatever other ways that they could partner with the family. Now, they don't believe in the kind of helping that hurts, or the kind of helping that keeps somebody just dependent on you. They're very much about work and responsibility. But it's done in a way that's not patronizing. It doesn't take your dignity away. It's just walking alongside, and how can, you know, together strategize to meet your goals?

Susan Burton

After two years, Betsy DeVos suggested to Angie's mother that Angie transfer out of Burton to the private Christian school that John Booy runs. At first Angie was not on board with the idea. She didn't want to leave her friends and the school she knew.

Angie

Oh, I cried. I remember it was the last day of my second grade, and I had just came home, and they said that I wasn't going back, and I cried. Like, I did not want to switch schools.

Susan Burton

But when she got to Potter's House, she understood why her mother and Betsy DeVos had wanted her to go there. Angie loved reading, and with more attention, she progressed faster. The work was more challenging. You had to want to do well.

Betsy DeVos continued to mentor Angie. When she got to middle school, sometimes Betsy DeVos would take her out at lunchtime.

Angie

A few times, we went to Biggby's downtown to get hot chocolate. So that was fun. It was nice. She always has nice cars. That was just like-- I was always like amazed, because it was always a different car, or sometimes even a driver.

Susan Burton

As Angie got older, Betsy DeVos helped her choose a high school to go to, suggested tours of three different schools. None are traditional public schools. She ended up at a private Christian high school, which she loves. Betsy DeVos pays part of her tuition and her mother pays the other part. This summer, Angie's working with her mother for the DeVos family.

Angie

Oh, I'm cleaning. [LAUGHS] Yeah, that's all I do every summer since eighth grade. Clean.

Susan Burton

She likes working, making her own money. She vacuums, mops, smaller stuff too.

Angie

We're house detailers. We make sure everything looks nice and good, and there's no dust anywhere, that the beds are like, fixed up pretty, that the bathrooms, everything like that. Anything you do in a house, that's what we do.

Susan Burton

One of the other kids the DeVos's mentored works with them. He lives in the neighborhood, and they give him rides home. They're down at the family's summer compound in Holland most days, a lake shore estate with a mansion filled with delicate objects.

Angie

Everything has to be a certain way in a certain position. So we take pictures of everything, so that if we ever have to move something, we know exactly how it goes, like exactly how it goes. So, yeah.

Susan Burton

Wanda, Angie's mother, is out on the porch, giving Angie privacy while also remaining near. She comes inside to talk.

Susan Burton

How would your life and Angie's life be different if you hadn't met Betsy?

Angie

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Wanda

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Angie

Basically, it's like, a very private, kind of very sentimental thing. But she feels like Miss Betsy is someone who after God, she feels like God actually put her in our lives at the perfect moment, because she just came in when things were just very wrong and very bad for our lives.

Wanda

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Susan Burton

As Wanda says this, she cups a hand over her heart.

Angie

But she's very grateful for Miss Betsy and everything she's done, because she's somebody who, without even asking for anything in return, gave my mom a hand and has just been there to help us with whatever it is that we need every step of the way.

Susan Burton

Angie doesn't totally follow the news, doesn't totally trust it. But for while, she was seeing things online about Betsy DeVos that upset her.

Angie

It would just make me feel like, really, like, bad in a way. Because it's not how things actually are. I know the actual truth. Like, I have a really close relationship with her, so I know how things actually are. And it's just-- it's whatever. I mean, everybody's gonna think what they want to think.

Susan Burton

Angie's quick to say that Betsy DeVos is good for this job, because she's passionate about education and helping kids, all kids, and making it easier for kids to choose. But when I ask her what Betsy DeVos should do in this job, she doesn't pretend to have studied up on policy. Then a moment later, she suggests something.

Angie

OK. Something I think she should hopefully at least like look into is making public schools better. Because public schools, they're not bad. But like, there's just some public schools that just like, the teachers don't really care to help our students and stuff like that, and they just want to give the students an A. So I feel like if she would look more into public schools, and just making them better for any kind of student no matter where, then that would be a good thing.

Susan Burton

Of course, that's basically the job description of the Secretary of Education, to oversee the country's public schools and make them better for any kind of student. And what's so different about Betsy DeVos is that she doesn't care whether schools are public or not. It doesn't matter what word comes before school, she likes to say-- public, private, charter, home, virtual, magnet, parochial. That's a radically different way to see this job. But seeing what she did in Michigan, not a huge surprise.

Ira Glass

Susan Burton, who's one of the producers of our program. Coming up, rumors about cartoon characters coming alive in real life. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two. Kids in the Hall.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, Private Geography, stories of the places that we're from and how those places make us. We've arrived at Act Two of our program, Act Two, Kids in the Hall. And by hall in this case, I mean the Kingdom Hall.

Your cultural identity, somebody once said, is not a suitcase you can lose at the airport. And that's true even if you're trying to lose it. One of our producers, Neil Drumming, discovered that truth recently, when he read an email that somebody sent to the radio show.

Neil Drumming

I was raised as a Jehovah's Witness until the age of 17, when I left the faith of my own volition. There are roughly 1 million Jehovah's Witnesses spread across the United States, few enough that every time I come across a former one, an ex-JW, I can't help but feel like it's an opportunity to share some rare communal experience. Like, what happened to you, or what made you leave?

That's why when I read the email that Will McMillian sent to This American Life, I immediately wanted to talk to him, though his experience was different from mine, in that he was once a Witness and also gay.

Neil Drumming

Do you remember what the Jehovah's Witness Bible says about homosexuality?

Will Mcmillian

Like from the Scriptures?

Neil Drumming

Yeah.

Will Mcmillian

I remember there's a-- I apologize for not being more-- like, a better memory on this, but I actually gave a talk about homosexuality once.

Neil Drumming

That's Will. And when he says he gave a talk, he's referring to these speeches Jehovah's Witnesses are required to regularly give each other based on Scripture during services at the Kingdom Hall, which is what they call their house of worship.

In his email to the show, Will said that he'd been a practicing witness since he was a teenager. He's 37 now. He also wrote that since he was about 10, he knew he was gay. He kept that fact a secret for 20 years because Jehovah's Witnesses believe that sometime in the near future, when Jehovah God cleanses the earth and remakes it into the paradise that it once was, those who have not faithfully obeyed his word will be destroyed.

Will Mcmillian

And there's a scripture that talks about some of you were thieves, some of you were murderers, some of you were tax evaders, and some of you were men who lied with men. Kind of this laundry list of, these are sins that will get you killed.

Neil Drumming

OK. You know where this is going. In his early 30's, Will's homosexuality was uncovered, and he was kicked out of the religion. Witnesses call it being disfellowshipped. Will wrote in his email to us that at the time he got the boot, he felt like his life had come to an end.

But as he and I emailed back and forth, the thing that really struck me about him was how torn he still seemed to be. Here he was, finally happily living as a gay man a half dozen years later. And yet even now, Will doesn't smoke, he doesn't do drugs, he won't accept a blood transfusion, all things that Jehovah's Witnesses say the Bible forbids. He's still clinging to the dictates of a religion that forced him to deny his identity for two decades.

"My spiritual beliefs remained the same after I was disfellowshipped and after I came out," he wrote. "You want to accept yourself for who you are while at the same time condemning yourself for it." Will wrote that when he's around other openly gay men, he feels like he has to hide his spiritual beliefs from them, like some sort of closeted disciple. And when he sees great tragedy in the world, like an earthquake, a school shooting, or a hate-filled attack on an Orlando nightclub, his mind goes immediately to prophecy that was drilled into him from an early age.

Quote, "I am seeing the signs. I need to be close to Jehovah. I need to stop being a pawn of Satan with my debauched life. I need to save myself from eternal destruction." All the stuff he used to believe.

Will Mcmillian

I really believed it. I really believed what I was being taught, or what I was trying to teach other people. I really did believe that we're in the last days of this system of things, and I can watch and see rainforests get destroyed, or I can see politicians come in to office and do terrible things to people and think, it's OK, because Jehovah will take care of it, and all these things that are going wrong are only temporary.

Neil Drumming

The last days, this system of things, Satan and his demons. It was both freaky and familiar to hear Will using all this ominous terminology I'd grown up with, but almost completely forgotten. When I read his emails, I knew that I wanted to talk to Will, but I wasn't exactly sure why until it happened. It just felt familiar. I wanted to revisit that.

Will Mcmillian

When you're a witness-- and maybe you'll remember this-- when you're told that anything supernatural is demonic, you kind of shut those things down.

Neil Drumming

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Will Mcmillian

At least I did. I shut those things down.

Neil Drumming

Yeah. And I really loved fantasy novels. And I felt that I couldn't read them.

Will Mcmillian

Yeah, right?

Neil Drumming

Like, I felt like I shouldn't be reading them.

Will Mcmillian

Exactly. Yeah, and I loved science fiction, and there was a period of time where I was writing a lot of science fiction, and I was like, kind of doing it secretively.

Neil Drumming

Yeah, you know, when I was a kid, there was a rumor in the Hall. This is crazy.

Will Mcmillian

The Smurf rumor?

Neil Drumming

The Smurf rumor. No, you heard the Smurf rumor? OK. Tell it to me. Tell it to me the way you heard it. I want to hear this.

Will Mcmillian

Oh, my gosh. As soon as you said you heard a rumor, I'm like, is it the Smurf rumor? Yes, the Smurf rumor, for everybody who doesn't know the Smurf rumor, apparently a sister came to the congregation with one of her children who had a Smurf doll, and during the meeting the Smurf doll came to life, and started running back and forth through the aisles saying, [BLEEP] you, [BLEEP] you, [BLEEP] God, [BLEEP] Jehovah, back and forth through the Kingdom Hall. Is that your version of it?

Neil Drumming

I feel like I'm about to cry. I've never heard this corroborated. You have more detail. The way I heard it was, a kid came to the Kingdom Hall with a Smurf in their back pocket, and it jumped out and ran out. But it's essentially the same idea, is that the mythology around the Smurfs were so demonic that they were, I don't know, somehow associated with Satan.

Repressed nerdiness is about where the similarities between Will and I end. I grew up in Queens. He's from the Pacific Northwest. I'm black. He's white. I'm straight. He's gay. And my mother raised me in the Truth, which is how Jehovah's Witnesses colloquially refer to their faith. No one in Will's immediate family was a practicing witness. He found the Truth and chose it for himself, although family has a lot to do with why he did.

Will Mcmillian

I had a very physically violent father. Everything that I felt like I did or that I was interested, my dad hated. Like, you could tell if somebody is enjoying being unkind to you. If I wanted to go outside, he'd say no, you can't go outside, and would say with a smile on his face.

Neil Drumming

When Will was about 11 years old, his family moved into a new place, and he met the Planks. The Planks were a neighboring family of Jehovah's Witnesses, a mom, a dad, and two daughters. As soon as he started going over to their house, Will notice something different about them.

Will Mcmillian

Oh, these are people who are nice, and they really seem to love each other, and they really seem to be close to each other. And so it was just a complete diametric opposite of what I was experiencing right next door in my own home. I felt that I could kind of be a little more silly, that I could be a little more calm.

And I associated how they behaved with them being Jehovah's Witnesses, because they would always say things like, Jehovah provides, or we do these things and Jehovah blessed us. And so it was really like, oh, so there's a reason why you're like this.

Neil Drumming

So Will began studying with the Planks, learning Scripture and lessons from the parents right alongside their daughters. He did so in secret. He didn't tell his family that he was becoming a Jehovah's Witness. It was his escape.

Will Mcmillian

It was almost like a form of a very kind of sweet rebellion in a way, where it's like having a clubhouse that nobody has access to but me.

Neil Drumming

At the Planks's and eventually at the Kingdom Hall, Will found kindness, acceptance, and engagement amongst the brothers and sisters there. And for him, there was a special added bonus.

Will Mcmillian

When I realized that I was gay, I saw it as an imperfection in myself, like if I thought that I was a kleptomaniac. Like, OK, jeez, I've got this huge thing about myself that I need to figure out how to control, and I need to learn how to hate. And so being a Witness was to me like the most strict form of control that I could do.

Neil Drumming

Exercising that control wasn't easy for Will. The Bible says plenty about temptation, none of which I can specifically remember, the upshot of which is that temptation is everywhere.

Will Mcmillian

I loved the show Will and Grace, but I'm like, I cannot watch this show because Satan is watching me.

Neil Drumming

Did you have crushes within the Kingdom Hall?

Will Mcmillian

Are you kidding?

Neil Drumming

It's a lot of men in suits.

Will Mcmillian

There's a lot of suits, yeah, and that are good speakers. I loved to give talks. I loved to write talks. It was smooth. I was very, very good. And it came very easily for me to do. And so when I would have a brother compliment me, getting male praise was kind of intoxicating. And it was-- I would say like, when I got baptized when I was 23 was really when I really began to feel sort of my depression because I was really trying to do more and more in the congregation to suppress that feeling of being gay.

Meanwhile, there were would be brothers that I would have crushes on, and they'd be married. I would be developing these relationships, these friendships, with these brothers, and I would start to get feelings for, and would we get irritated because I can't do anything about this. I found myself getting more and more needy around these brothers because I would want to like, so do you want to come over hang out? Do you want to go do something? Do you want to go for a hike? Do you want to go do this? And they'd be like, let me check with my wife. And I would just be like, ugh, fine.

Neil Drumming

Will persisted for years fighting his natural inclinations and growing more and more active in the truth. By the time he was 30, he was what witnesses call a full-time pioneer, putting in 70 hours worth of street preaching and evangelical work per month, living with a cousin and her family who were Jehovah's Witnesses.

Will Mcmillian

And I was in my 30's and now a virgin still, and your sexuality doesn't really go anywhere. To be blunt, I needed an outlet. And I knew I wasn't interested in girls. And so I would go to gay websites, graphic gay websites.

Neil Drumming

When you would visit those websites, that is appealing to a thing that is intrinsically you. So was there any relief to actually acknowledging yourself, to like acknowledging who you were? Was that-- did you get even like, a small amount of like satisfaction from that?

Will Mcmillian

No. I felt nothing but guilt.

Neil Drumming

Will was out picking up Chinese food for the rest of the family when they discovered his browser history. The cousin's eldest son, a college student, was trying to figure out why internet service was slow in the house that night. He thought maybe Will had left his laptop downloading some big file or another. When Will got back with dinner, the husband confronted him at the door.

Will Mcmillian

It was like having my skin ripped off of me at that moment. And I just started lying.

Neil Drumming

Wow. What did you say?

Will Mcmillian

I was like, you know what? My computer has malware on it, and it keeps bringing up all these pornography websites. And I keep trying to minimize it and get rid of it, but it's not me. And I kept saying like, you know me. You know I wouldn't do this. This is a huge mistake. And so he like, pulled open my laptop and was like, well, this isn't just something from a few weeks or a few months. He goes, this goes back years.

Neil Drumming

There's no defiance there. There's no anger.

Will Mcmillian

No. That he checked my computer and saw that?

Neil Drumming

Yeah, and that like-- you know, I'm projecting because I'm listening to this story, and I'm angry. I feel angry for you. You know, I'm just like, the whole notion that you would say like, you know me, I wouldn't do this. It's like, he doesn't know you at all.

The husband told him to pack up his things and drove him to a hotel. News of Will's transgression soon spread through the Kingdom Hall. He was brought before a judicial committee of congregation elders.

Will Mcmillian

They said a prayer. And they said, so tell us why you're here? Tell us tell us what you've done. And once I made the confession, one of the brothers pulled out this piece of paper, and there was a bunch of questions. But the first question was, are you attracted to minors? Have you ever had sex with a minor? Are you attracted to animals? Have you ever engaged in bestiality?

Neil Drumming

Those are the first questions they asked you?

Will Mcmillian

First four questions that they asked me.

Neil Drumming

He was stripped of his privileges within the Kingdom Hall and essentially put on probation, where he could attend meetings in silence, but little else. On top of that, he was informed that no matter what happened, he would never be allowed to be alone with children in the congregation ever again. Will quietly accept this reprobation without resistance.

The next phase in Will's life began the way so many new beginnings do these days, with the dating app OKCupid. Instead of starting back to the Hall immediately, Will decided he needed some time to himself and moved in with a friend of his, a non-Witness. She had just opened up her own OKCupid profile.

Will Mcmillian

And she was like you should make one too. And I was like, OK. And so I made one, and I made it like, man seeking woman, just to see what would happen. That alone was something I shouldn't have been doing, because if you're a brother, you only date sisters. You only date within your religion.

But again, I was like, I'm just taking a vacation from all of that stress. I'm just going to see what this feels like. And for a couple of weeks, it was, you know, man seeking woman. And then I thought, what if I changed it to man seeking man? Like, I remember like, kind of my finger on the mouse changing the designation from seeking female to male, and I was shaking, and I'm like, am I really going to do this? And I was daring myself to do it. And I did it.

Neil Drumming

Will made plans for lunch in downtown Portland with a younger guy named Jason.

Will Mcmillian

And so we met up at the sandwich shop, and he was gay.

Neil Drumming

[LAUGHS]

Will Mcmillian

And he was gay. And because I mean--

Neil Drumming

What does that mean?

Will Mcmillian

It doesn't mean anything bad. It just means like-- because it wasn't bad. Because we were talking, and he was like, he's been out since he was like, 16 or 17 years old. And I think he was like 25, 26 at the time. Maybe a little older. But he was absolutely comfortable with himself. He was absolutely assured of himself.

Neil Drumming

Will and Jason dated for a couple of months before they had sex. It was a huge step for Will. But when it was over, Will didn't feel the way he thought he would.

Will Mcmillian

That sense of devastation that I was like, oh, my gosh I've completely severed my relationship with God didn't happen.

Neil Drumming

It didn't happen.

Will Mcmillian

It didn't happen. No, which was equally weird. I'm like, oh. Here I was thinking I was going to be completely destroyed. And--

Neil Drumming

It's like you're waiting for the lightning bolt.

Will Mcmillian

Yeah, and it never-- it didn't drop on me. But I mean, I still felt kind of weird. Like, I remember feeling like, well, you've done it now. There is no going back from this experience. You're going to have to tell the brothers that you did this.

Neil Drumming

And he was right. As crazy as this sounds, the very morning after he lost his virginity, Will came home to an email from another witness, an old friend, who had somehow stumbled upon Will's OKCupid profile and was now threatening to out him. I mentioned to Will that it seemed to me rather suspicious that this righteous and straight and happily married brother just happened to have discovered Will's men seeking men profile.

But Will, good-natured as he is, refused to go down that speculative road with me. He said the brother wrote, either you tell them or I will. And so with the proverbial gun to his head, Will called up one of the elders and told him that he had, as he put it then, a problem. He was kicked out, officially disfellowshipped.

Unlike Will, I was never disfellowshipped. When I was 16 or 17, I gave my mom this long handwritten letter informing her that I had stopped believing in God and that I no longer wanted to be one of Jehovah's Witnesses. I don't remember exactly what was in the letter. I'm sure I didn't mention that hormones and a sudden vexing need to talk to girls were factors in my decision.

Anyway, I slammed that door really hard, and it became one of the defining choices of my life. Shortly after I gave Ma the letter, I flew 3,000 miles away to college, and by the time I stepped off the plane, I was an atheist. For the most part, I'm relatively proud of everything I've become after that.

When I first read Will's email, I couldn't understand why he was holding onto the truth. The Jehovah's Witnesses had publicly slammed the door on who he was and who he was becoming. It wasn't that I thought he should be angry, although I felt like he should be a little angry. But I wondered why he wasn't free, why he sometimes still thought that Harry Potter was satanic, or that his sexuality was a sin, or why he couldn't just move on.

After talking to Will for a while, it became obvious that it's just not that easy. He was a witness for a long time. What he learned won't just go away. And then something more surprising hit me, a pang of envy. I was a little jealous of the way Will remembered specific scriptures, even the ones that condemned him.

Will Mcmillian

Were you around for the Knowledge book?

Neil Drumming

Was that the red one?

Will Mcmillian

No, I think that that's the Live Forever book maybe.

Neil Drumming

Oh, yeah, yeah. It sounds familiar, but I don't remember which one it was.

Will Mcmillian

The Knowledge that Leads to Everlasting Life. I remember I was reading out of that book when I was a teenager, and I loved it.

Neil Drumming

Will recalled the details, what the different Jehovah's Witness books were called and their corresponding colors, the meetings, the designations of all the elders. I had made turning my back on the truth such a significant part of my identity that I had lost these memories.

Neil Drumming

I'm sorry, can we nerd out on Jehovah's Witnesses just a little bit, just a little bit. One thing.

Will Mcmillian

Sure. Yeah, totally.

Neil Drumming

I have heard that nowadays, that you don't have to necessarily analyze Scripture anymore. You just have to read it.

Will Mcmillian

I was there for that transition.

Neil Drumming

Oh, OK.

Will Mcmillian

Yeah, so then these yahoos are getting up to read through a couple of passages, and I'm just like, man, in my day--

Neil Drumming

Yeah, back in my day, we had to like, actually know what the Scripture meant.

I should say in recent years, Jehovah's Witnesses reorganized their meetings again to focus more on understanding and interpreting Scripture. I don't remember half of what I learned in the Kingdom Hall, but there is enough that has stuck with me that still occasionally affects the way I see the world or the decisions I make, even if I don't like to admit it. Will calls it a spiritual aftertaste.

Neil Drumming

Just this morning I had like, something that I really, really, really wanted to happen, and I was hoping it would happen. And I had a gut feeling of, what can I do about this? And the word "pray" came to mind, which is ridiculous for me. I've haven't prayed since I was 17 years old. And it's like, I don't believe in the power of prayer. But it's like built into your DNA at a certain point, or like, you know, more into your muscle memory. And it just-- it made me actually angry to feel that way because I try to be self-determined.

Will Mcmillian

Yeah. It's almost like, I think if you think of in terms of military training, you kind of react to situations based on what your training has told you.

Neil Drumming

After I quit, my mom sent me a few long handwritten letters urging me to come back to the Kingdom Hall. At least, I think that's what they said. I never read any of them. I felt like I had made my decision, and I hated that she questioned it. These days, when I see Jehovah's Witnesses in the street handing out material, I sometimes go rigid and quickly look away. I just don't want to deal with it. I picked a side.

But Will stands halfway between them and me. He's half in and half out. Somehow, that made it possible to look back for a couple of hours, to remember that it meant something to me then without it having to mean something to me now.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Neil Drumming is one of the produces of our show.

Our program was produced today by Dana Chivvis. Our staff includes Elna Baker, Susan Burton, Ben Calhoun, Zoe Chace, Sean Cole, Whitney Dangerfield, Neil Drumming, Stephanie Foo, Kimberly Henderson, Chana Joffe-Walt, David Kestenbaum, Seth Lind, Miki Meek, Robyn Semien, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Julie Whitaker, and Diane Wu. Our senior producer is Brian Reed.

[ACKNOWLEDGMENTS]

Gerald Murnane, the Austrian novelist I talked to at the beginning of the show, he's the author of The Plains and other books. He has not one, but two books coming out here in the States soon. One is Border Districts. The other Stream System-- The Collected Short Fiction of Gerald Murnane.

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, he's still wearing those special glasses that he bought to watch the eclipse. He says they are so powerful.

Torey Malatia

And I can watch and see rainforests get destroyed, or I can see politicians come into office and do terrible things to people.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.