Monday, September 15, 2014

Two Cents on Education

After a summer lull, which brought the birth of Ruthie Mae, grandchild number 5, and the engagement of daughter Catherine to Jesse Brenneman (check out his YouTube comedy skits on "Loser Bar"), I mean to get back into the swing now. I'm afraid I'll do so rather grumpily, despite these genuine blessings.

This September, our news, and not merely in the sports outlets, has been filled with Baltimore Ravens football player Ray Rice’s brutal assault on his wife in an Atlantic City elevator. Rice was at first slapped on the wrist by league commissioner Roger Goodell: a two-day suspension. Goodell increased the penalty to indefinite suspension only on seeing –for the first time, by his questionable account, when it went public on TMZ—the video of the knockout punch.

Since Rice himself had given a full account of his hideous behavior, and since it was available in the police report, one is appalled that the commissioner needed visible evidence before taking harsher action.

I won’t rehearse the legitimate controversy over the problem of domestic abuse that all this has engendered, though that epidemic will in some cases be directly relevant to my commentary below. As for Goodell’s cover-up (for who can doubt that’s what it was?), so reminiscent of the Catholic hierarchy’s insidious response to far-reaching child molestation amongst its clergy, I’ll stop short, lest the rant that follows grow even more intemperate.

For now, let me cite Mr. Goodell’s annual compensation for his supposed leadership– 44 million dollars.

Let that figure linger in your mind, please. I hope to indicate that that salary’s exorbitancy is also related to what I have to say. But what I have to say is in fact primarily motivated by  a recent reading of Getting Schooled, the latest brilliant book from Garret Keizer of Sutton, Vermont. It chronicles a year in which Garret returned as a leave replacement to a north-country high school where he had taught for an extended time up to a decade or so before.

It is a cliché to say that certain nonfiction reads as grippingly as the best novels, but Getting Schooled is proof of the pudding. Garret fills many of his pages with illustrative personal narratives, some funny, some heartwarming, many profoundly saddening, and all compellingly rendered. Among other things, he brings to light just how demanding it is to be a public school teacher in our time.

It is fashionable nowadays to berate teachers, especially those who belong to unions. Let me insist that only those who have never stood in front of a class full of young people, some more than merely unruly, would ever mount such a criticism. I spent one year teaching in a relatively posh private high school, at the end of which I concluded that I was not psychologically equipped to endure that sort of stress. We should treat teachers, especially those of goodwill and longstanding, as heroes, not whipping boys and girls.

People who note that the school day normally ends in mid-afternoon, and the school year makes for a three-month vacation, fail to consider a number of other factors, first of which is the sheer drain on one’s personal time. There is no water-cooler interlude if you are a teacher, no checking the email (and whatever else) from one’s cubicle, no coffee break. Even lunch requires the teacher to exercise chaperone duties at best. Further, if a teacher in my field of English, for example, assigns a single paper per week, and if he or she has fifty students (I err on the low side in a lot of cases), and if each of those papers demands no more than twenty minutes’ attention (another low ball)... well, do the math, and then multiply that week by 36. Then add the preparation and marking of tests and exams, the reading and commenting on term papers. I could go on.

Ah, those awful unions, we cry, even if in fact they are scarcely an element in American enterprise as I write. Since the Morning in America days, our percentage of organized labor has shrunk to 7%. Might I venture the notion that it’s not union workers who are being paid too much, but so many other working men and women who are getting too little?   And don’t even start to tell me they don’t work hard. Some of the hardest-working folks I know are among the most poor.

Roger Goodell need not worry over all this. Roger Goodell makes 44 million bucks a year.

It is claimed by free market hyper-enthusiasts that society will most abundantly compensate those who provide us with what we most value. There seems to be a lot of truth to this, alas. Clearly we value professional football (and the struggles of no-talent reality TV celebrities) more than we do a vast array of other “services” to our national community.

And yet education having gone south, we think teachers ought to fix our world up, even as we lament the cost.

Roger Goodell makes 44 million per annum.

I am reducing my broad and avid responses to Garret Keizer’s testimony to focus on the main thought it engendered in me. The educational issues we quarrel about –do we need smaller class sizes, better facilities, a core curriculum, standardized testing, and so on?– remain far from exclusively educational when all is said and done. They are social and political, and without for a moment suggesting that I have The Solution, let me opine that we can dream up any educational theory we want; we can pour as much money as we can gather into facilities and, yes, into the salaries of teachers, almost all of whom could make much more lucrative salaries in the private sector; we can test and test and test and test. But so long as so significant a portion of our student body, above all, of course, in our most impoverished communities, where the stress on teachers that I referred to above often involves fear of actual physical harm– so long as that portion goes home to a dysfunctional context, our remedies will amount to little. (Of course, some don’t go home at all: Vermont leads New England in its proportion of actually homeless young people)

Roger Goodell makes 44 million dollars per annum.

As Garret Keizer points out, many students experience literal trauma on the home front, with addiction and/or domestic abuse often part of the picture; many have one parent only, often herself the product of a similar background, confused, devoid of personal or professional resources; many, in today’s economy, are essentially parentless, because mom and/or dad is/are out working a whole slew of jobs just to pay rent, buy food, afford doctor’s bills, what have you?

Roger Goodell makes 44 million per annum.

One of my dear friends is an energetic, committed, and imaginative elementary school principal. His school, like most in Vermont, has been described as “failing” by our state educational monitors. But as he points out, it’s the same kids, year in and out, generation in and out, who account for the failing measure. They will go on doing so until each can somehow be assured a measure of safety and sustenance. Some high-tech company may generously offer free laptops to every student in School District X, as Getting Schooled indicates, but who will provide each with freedom from terror and want?

Roger Goodell makes 44 million dollars per annum.

We are at a curious and lamentable place with regard to education. We ask teachers not only to teach what used to be called the Three Rs and more; but we also seem to think it’s their job to socialize children, too great a number of whom have had no such guidance at home. But before any of us relatively comfortable critics start keening over the loss of so-called family values, before we start lecturing the parents of our dispossessed, let us in all humility imagine how we would cope with dire poverty, joblessness, addiction, poor mental or physical health. How well would we raise our children?

Roger Goodell makes 44 million dollars per annum.

We all need fuel, food, medicine, and other stark necessities, and for many parents, to choose one or two is to slight a number of others. But what the heck? Let’s dress the kids (in whatever we can) and send them off to those fat-cat teachers, so outlandishly compensated and perked. They have a job to do.

Do they ever.

Roger Goodell makes 44 million dollars per annum.

Let me repeat. I am no political or sociological genius. I don’t want either liberal or conservative readers to take what I say and mold it so as to lengthen their list of slogans. Indeed, our recourse to slogans plays too big a part in the mess I speak of: rather, can’t we all, simply as concerned citizens, come to recognize that everything we consider a plague on educational success is in fact a societal issue, not a narrowly educational one? Can’t we put our heads together, at least on a regional basis, in the admirable old Yankee manner, and come up with some strategies? And while we are at it, can we quit scape-goating the teachers, most of the ones I know doing their level best against odds they did nothing to create?

The football commissioner banks 44 million bucks a year.

Years ago, I was asked to participate in a publishing project at a local school. Each student would compose a story that would address some experience he or she felt important. I saw then in too many sad cases what I have been trying to address in this column. This poem came out of that experience.  You'll have to guess at the format here and there, as I am too low-tech to make it look right on the blog.

Publishing Project

It was a great idea, so sure, of course, I volunteered to type
for the local fourth graders, who wanted to “publish” a book of their stories;
I myself had been publishing stuff for years, but my early attempts
still somehow felt important, even if glory

didn’t attend them (and hasn’t elsewhere since, I moped in self-pity): Jeep
was one of my earliest magazines, and Creative Moment, and The Lamp
and the Rabbit (Say what?)
But after a while, as I sat at the keyboard, I felt trapped

in some pop culture dream, where everything had to do
with Power Rangers, Nintendo, and boom and zap and budda-budda-budda.
Where, I wondered, did imagination ever go?
Or so remained my attitude till one narrative came along, in which, rather

than reciting the struggles, lapses, and recoveries
of superheroes, the author provided an unheroic account
that rang too unhappily true. “Too true
a tear” it almost evoked, to quote the 17th-century poet Vaughan. (Who?)

It was one of those same-old same-old stories of discovery,
although the heroine didn’t seem to know what she’d actually found.
(The fiction, clearly, was no fiction.) It involved a wedding,
at which, she said, Daddy kept shouting and laughing also dancing 
                                                                                                                                                                             and Mommy and me and Tiffny however didn’t dance with no one not once                                                                  
She spoke briefly too of the moon, but more tenderly of standing by a fence
behind the groom’s trailer, which, unlike her own (on good days)
was not kept neat,  and of how there was a pony out there

it was between a brown and a bay
(she knew horses, I guess) and acted better than where it came from
and there was so much wiskie and smoke the pony smelled better than the air
and it was a dirty rotten shame to leave him and a shame

me Mom and Tiff had to go home with Uncle Ware
which wasn’t ever that nice to us and isn’t an uncle but Mom says he’s a friend
and look!! this is supposed to be a story of one of the good days
and you can see how it ends up just like this by Tami THE END.