By Brian M. Howle
One of the things that will send me on a tirade at light speed is the current state of our education system. Each new day seems to bring yet another scathing assessment of a perceived failure in its very existence. And every election year, you will hear politician after politician espousing his or her dogged determination to create legislation that will resuscitate education reform. All the experts from both arenas agree that the dang thing is broke – but they just can’t seem to get together on the fix.
Let’s just clear this part up right now. The problem with our education system is in the machine that is those politicians – and those who voted them into office.
In other words, we are all culpable – with the exception of one important group.
A recent report on education concluded that a program instituted by the Pentagon (yes, that’s right, the military) was the most successful model of all contenders to date. It is based on (surprise) a military mindset when it comes to discipline. There’s no screwing around in these classrooms. The students are all “military brats” – their parents are members of the various branches of service.
Discipline is understandably a positive influence on these kids’ overall development. The clincher, however, is the second point of interest in the report. The involvement of the parents – on every level, at any time, doing whatever is necessary – has been deemed the key to the program’s success. Students’ grades and test scores increased so dramatically – even for kids who showed little ability – that their parents opted to re-enlist solely to keep their kids in the program.
The panel assembled to determine the results have concluded that this pilot program is far and away the most successful ever employed. The most glaring aspect of their findings is that without the parents’ participation and support, the brightest teachers and the slickest politicians can’t do it alone.
Um … somebody, please tell me … exactly when did this become news?
Perhaps it became glossed over in all the years of “peace and love” during the ‘60s; or the groovy laid-back obfuscation of the ‘70s, or the obsessive need for personal gain that befell the masses during the ‘80s, or during the wake-me-when-it’s-over ‘90s. But somewhere along the line, the very cornerstone of a viably necessary part of what made our country the greatest on the planet has been neglected – to the point where society as we know it is in grave peril.
So, you want to know what the hell happened? I’ll tell ya …
That post-WW II boom of jobs, babies and prosperity turned around and bit us in the butt. The quest for the American Dream became all consuming, to the detriment of our nation and our moral fiber. The sacrifices that so many brave Americans made on the battlefields around the globe, to ensure our freedom of choice that enables us all to pursue our dreams, have been mocked in an axiom of irony.
School, along with television, became a convenient place to ditch the kids, as the masses competed for personal wealth and material possessions. Considered more as a daycare facility than a place for education, parents dumped their young on school steps each morning, expecting the teachers and administrators to mold their little angels into model citizens. Long hours and busy schedules conspired to slowly kill the family sit-down evening dinner – where everyone relayed the events of their day, and children shared their questions and opinions about life and school with their folks. Now, everyone eats at different times- between cell phone calls – and then quickly retreats to the confines of individual televisions or computers.
Some have bemoaned that it is the schools that are at fault, somehow rationalizing that if the school has their kid for eight hours a day, then it should be responsible for how the child progresses.
Honesty must prevail – I am somewhat biased on this subject. My mom was a teacher, and later a guidance counselor. I was raised among a covey of teachers in my little town of Andrews; some were mothers of friends (as with my best friend), and some were just down the street from us. Actually, most everyone was “just down the street” from us.
Even as a naïve, gullible child, the grit, savvy and compassion of these professionals immediately impressed me. Of course, I didn’t always understand that what they were attempting to do – in educating me – was a good thing. But even a kid knows when an adult is disingenuous when it comes to communication between the two. And these women – and men – always had time for a child’s universe of questions, culled from a cornucopia of curiosity, ideas and dreams.
Take my mom, for example. One of my earliest memories is mother, running me through a series of flash cards. I’ll bet you I went through several thousand flash cards – and learned what was on them, and what they meant – before I ever set foot in a school. Now, don’t get me wrong – I loved my cartoons and my toys and games – but when a lot of kids were doing whatever kids do to pass the time, I was perusing dictionaries and thesauruses.
Which is why, when my first day of kindergarten arrived, it didn’t impress me all that much. All these kids running around – screaming, fighting, laughing, crying – and poor Mrs. Gilland trying to keep all the BB’s in a thimble. And then to top that off, once she established some order in the class, she started up with flash cards. Hey, I didn’t need all this external aggravation and distraction from the others – and the alphabet was long old hat in my repertoire.
So while the letter “A” entranced the others, I opened up a window and bailed on kindergarten, hightailing it back to the house. There, my dad unexpectedly confronted me when he came home for lunch and found me kicked back in the recliner, watching soap operas.
About 10 minutes later, I was back in kindergarten. Mercifully, it was lunch recess, so I didn’t have to sit down for a little while.
Not long after that first day, Mrs. Gilland instructed each of us to pick a book from the bookrack. As I reached for – and began to retrieve – the book I wanted, a girl reached over and scarfed it from my anticipating little hands. I immediately protested, loudly, and Mrs. Gilland intervened. “You should always respect little girls, Brian, and let them have first choice with our materials,” she sweetly explained. (Actually, she was just preparing me for dealing with women as an adult). “Here, this book is about the same subject as the one you wanted. Now, go sit and read it, and then we’ll all tell the class about what we read.” Then she turned and started walking over to another child.
Well, all that “respect the gals’ talk was fine – but the fact that I had chosen it first had been completely ignored. I was annoyed; no, I was incensed. And for some unexplainable reason, I took exception at the ruling, and proceeded to fling my second-choice-thrust-upon-me book at Mrs. Gilland’s still-in-range back.
And with that, I became the first – and as far as I know, the only – child to both run away from school and then be expelled, all in the first week.
And you can believe that, after my parents were through with me, I never tried anything like that again.
Unfortunately for my backside, I was quite adapt at discovering other means of exasperating my teachers through those elementary school years. But with each episode, I learned.
Episodes usually resulted in the double whammy of getting whupped by our principal, Mr. Woodbury (who was renowned for his legendary 5-pound paddle), and my mother. All things even, I would always take Mr. Woodbury’s retribution over my mother’s.
Finally, after surviving elementary school, I made it to the “big” school and Jr. High. There, the whooshing rush of a paddle was seldom heard in the classrooms, and none too soon for yours truly.
But I guess we all have one last hurrah left in us, even when it comes to punishment.
I learned very early that I had a propensity for language. I also learned, at the same time, that I woefully lacked any comprehension of all things mathematical. My poor dad – the numbers cruncher extraordinaire in the family – would spend hours with me, going over equations and finite rules of algebra and geometry. Every now and then, one would sneak through the wall of ignorance that encased me – and I would actually get it. It was like winning the lottery, with the payoff being my unbridled joy in finally understanding something about the one subject I hated more than any other.
So it shouldn’t have been any surprise that I tended to lose focus when I was in math classes. On one such day, I did so for the absolutely final and last time.
I was in Mrs. Thelma Haselden’s algebra class in the 7th or 8th grade. As usual, things weren’t going well for me, and I might as well have been on Mars. Distractions came all too easy, and the day came where my lack of attention – combined with my tendency to be a smartass – drove Mrs. Haselden’s patience to a cul-de-sac. This was a truly bad deal for me.
You see, Mrs. Haselden was not just a math teacher. She also instructed Physical Education, and was varsity girls’ basketball coach. And she was one healthy woman, if you get my drift.
It was most probably my patented “talking back” that triggered it; I honestly don’t remember. But whatever it was, Mrs. Haselden had reached the end of the line on reasoning with me. She tersely instructed me to step up to her desk, as she pulled her chair over to an open space in front of the blackboard. I was told to lean over the chair back and grab the seat, my back to the class.
Mrs. Haselden grabbed her teacher’s edition math book – the one that’s about 12 pounds – and proceeded to tee off on my hiney. With her girth, the book’s weight, and simple – but extremely powerful – kinetic energy, the contact with my derriere lifted me up and over the chair, headfirst into the blackboard with considerable velocity.
At least I learned a lesson in physics, which I never forgot. And I never said another word back to her unless asked. Of course, I also stopped taking math classes after that, too.
So, if you’ve got kids in school today, don’t go blaming the “system” or “the man” if your children aren’t cutting it, academically. Chances are that if you showed a little interest in their studies and personal development – by curbing their television, computer and video game time, have them in the house by 10 each night, and impart on them the social faux pas of answering the teacher’s request for homework with “I ain’t got no homework, bitch” – then their teachers and your politicians just might stand a chance of succeeding in this whole endeavor.
September 11 and all that is inclusive aside, President Bush has not impressed me greatly on other issues. But whenever I find myself questioning his reason or motive, I try to remind myself of his one greatest decision:
He married a teacher.
And Now, A Biased News Report
There’s just something fun about the back and forth ribbing that we Southerners and Northerners engage in with palpable zest. I guess that, from one another’s perspective, there are just some things we’ll never understand about each other.
It’s a good thing that doesn’t keep us from laughing at each other. Well, for example:
Two boys are playing football at this park in a small town in South Carolina when one of the boys is suddenly attacked by a crazed Rottweiler. Thinking quickly, the other boy takes a stick and shoves it under the dog’s collar, twists it, and breaks the dog’s neck, thus saving his friend.
A local sports reporter who was strolling by sees the incident and rushes over to interview the boy. He tells the boy he’s going to write the story and says, “I’ll title it ‘Young Gamecock Fan Saves Friend From Vicious Animal.’”
“But I’m not a Gamecock fan,” the little hero replies.
“Sorry, since we’re in South Carolina, I just assumed you were,” says the reporter and he starts writing again. He asks “How does ‘Clemson Fan Rescues Friend From Horrific Attack’ sound?”
“I’m not a Clemson fan either,” the boy says.
“Oh, I thought everyone in South Carolina was either for the Gamecocks or the Tigers. What team do you root for?”, the reporter asks.
“I’m just visiting my cousin, I’m a Syracuse Orangemen fan,” said the boy.
The reporter smiles, starts a new sheet in his notebook and writes: “Little Yankee Bastard From New York Kills Beloved Family Pet.”
For any of my “slow” Northern friends who may take umbrage with this little joke: You can change the team names around, alter the punch line and amuse your friends at our expense, too.
If we can all laugh, then there is hope.
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, April 25, 2002.