My Friend's Fantastic Commentary (If you're a teacher, you've got to read this!)
Shortly after school let out, I received an email from George Larson, an old friend of mine and a former hockey coach. George was a long-time English teacher at Brooklyn Center High School, and now he is the principal there. He had heard about my book, so he was writing to congratulate me on its publication, but he also told me that he was sending me a couple of articles he had written on public education a number of years back.
He sent them via regular mail, or slow-mail, as George puts it, and they ended up in my school mailbox. Since I don't check my school mail very often in the summer, I just got them last week. They were both excellent and left me thinking that I'm not the one who should have written a book.
One of the points that I tried to make in my book, and still try to make from time to time on my blog, is that a lot of things going on in our society make our jobs as teachers much more difficult. In one of George's artcles, he made the point much better than I ever could, and I'm going to share that article with you now.
To set the stage, the year was 1989, and President Bush "41" had just conducted an education summit with the governors of the 50 states. I think you'll find like I did, that even though the year was 1989, all you'd have to do is change a few names and what George had to say is completely relevant today. The title of George Larson's article is "The Cleavers Don't Live Here." Here it is:
I knew I should have invited them here. Thomas Jefferson's University of Virginia campus is a wonderful place, but I think Room 28 would have been better suited for a presidential summit on education.
I'm sure there would have been room for all 50 delegates, and all the 13- and 14-year olds scurrying around Room 28 would have created an appropriate setting for such a meeting. I don't suppose there were many kids that age on the Virginia campus.
If meeting in Room 28 proved impossible, at least Mr. Bush could have invited some of us to Virginia. After all, the summit was about kids and teachers, wasn't it?
I think I was qualified to take part in the summit. I've been teaching for 22 years. I love kids, teaching, and learning. Too bad I didn't receive an invitation, because I would have spoken right up when my turn came.
First I would have talked about my father. He had an eighth grade education. He’s 80 now, but I think of him often when I reflect on my 22 years in the "trenches." No man valued education more than he did. Filling his home was an atmosphere that shouted "School is important" and "Learning is important."
Mr. President, as my 13- and 14-year-olds come to my classroom each day, I wonder how many, if any, come from such an atmosphere? Does such an atmosphere exist anywhere in this country today? These children come to me each day, wearing the cloak of 1989 America. You see, America’s schools and students are a microcosm of our nation.
Next, I would have told the president and governors a little about those warm, wonderful, loving beings that enter America’s schools each morning.
Some haven’t had breakfast; others didn’t have supper last night. Some have four parents, some have three, some have two or one or none. Some watched TV for four hours last night, others drank beer for four hours. Some are pregnant, others wish they were pregnant because then they’d get some attention. Some were kicked out of their beds last night because mom’s boyfriend was sleeping over.
Some worked the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift at a restaurant last night. For some, TV Guide is the only reading material in the house. Some watch in wonder as Mom and Dad scramble, claw, and climb the corporate ladder, working 15-hour days. On weekends, their parents are equally busy climbing the social ladder.
Some claim Metallica and Morton Downey, Jr. as their heroes. Others rush home at 3 p.m. to learn all they can from Jesse, Geraldo, and Oprah. Still others skip school to watch soaps. Some skipped school for MTV and Nintendo.
Some have never been inside a museum. For some, a family trip in the summer is going to the movies two blocks away from home. Some shower only once a week. Some can only think about their divorcing parents, so schoolwork isn’t their first thought of the day.
Some live near the 7-Eleven where three murders have been committed. Some belong to gangs. Some haven’t seen Mom in a week and have never seen Dad. Some must rush home from school to babysit, instead of staying after school. Some are depressed because Seventeen tells them they must look a certain way, which they never will. Others throw up daily so they can look like Seventeen’s cover girl.
Some think about ending it all. Some do. Some were abused last night, so nouns and verbs aren’t really a priority this morning. Some were kicked out last night, and some were high. Some are sick, but there’s no insurance, so they stay sick. Some are substitute moms and dads for their three brothers and four sisters, and they’re only 15. Some are 13 going on 30. Some consider Pete Rose and John McEnroe "cool." Some think anything goes as long as you don’t get caught.
Some can’t read, but no one ever took the time to read to them. Some have questions about sex, but parents, schools, and churches juggle responsibility, so the streets supply the answers.
Some say, "What’s the use? Dad went to college, and now after 15 years on the job, he’s unemployed." Some say, "Mom gets more on welfare than she does when she’s working." Some ask, "If I go to school and then to college, will I find a good job like the one I have in the crack business?"
Some watched Dad cry as the bank took the farm. Some watched and listened as Mom and Dad waged their daily battles. Some watched Dad hit Mom. Some have black eyes from frustrated dads. Some watched porno on cable last night. Others were stars of a porn film. Some cried because their were no dollars for prom dress, but always enough for beer.
Some know that Mom and Dad have never been inside their school and never will. Some know that the manager of the local fast-food place will give them 25 cents an hour more if they can find a way to get out of school at noon to work for him. Some say "nigger" or "spic" because everyone at home does. Some watched their parents cheat on taxes, lie to the policeman, and run a red light. Some have read about government scandals and corruption in the 1980s. Others know about corporate greed and astronomical salaries and believe that’s where it’s at. Some believe only money matters.
Some have been latchkey kids since they were 5. Some are left alone all day and all night. Some hear parents laugh at or belittle their teachers. Some are the 10th child in a third-generation welfare home. For some life begins with Sunday football. Some live in homes that haven’t been turned off in 10 years. Some are 15 and haven’t sat with their family for a meal since they were 3.
Sorry, Mr. Bush, I see that my time is up. I just wanted to tell you a little about some of America's schoolchildren. You know, the ones the summit was about. The ones who each day come into the Room 28s of America and bring with them the residue of 1989 America.
If there exists a crisis in American public education, then it exists because there's a crisis in America. This is not the voice of condemnation, nor is it the voice of a school teacher trying to pass the blame or point a finger. I tell my students to be careful when they point a finger, because the remaining three fingers point back at them. There should be no pointing of fingers. Amercan classrooms are what they are today because of what America is today.
Columnist Cal Thomas says, "Fixing public schools should mean privatizing the entire system." His theory places responsibility in the hands of the parents and takes it out of the hands of the government. He may be referring to parents like my father and to a post-Sputnik attitude toward public education. That's not the way it is in 1989. That's why the summit is a start, but it must be the start of total commitment by our national government.
The summit was a thoughtful, noble venture. It's a beginning. But the summit will not change 1989 America. I'm not sure what will. Whatever educational system we use in coming years, it must be one which knows that the child of 1989 is not the child my father sent to school. Before any real educational change can occur, America will have to take a look at itself and make some adjustments.
I would comment on George's article, but despite the fact that it's 17 years old, any addition from me could only detract from it's eloquence. I mean, how do you top that!