Lady Liberty, Enter Stage Right, May 29, 2006
I had lunch with a friend of mine on Saturday. She and I hadn’t seen each other in awhile, and we had some real catching up to do. Unfortunately, some of what she had to tell me was more than a little unpleasant to listen to. She wanted to talk — like most mothers — about her children. Though I’m quite a bit fonder of cats than kids, I was happy to listen to what I thought would be a litany of this year’s proud accomplishments by her two school-age children. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
Her middle school daughter had, up until this school year, attended a Catholic school. Though the family isn’t Catholic, they believed that the quality of education she’d get at the parochial school was better than she’d receive in a public school classroom. Unfortunately, finances dictated that she’d have to attend a public middle school this year.
Within a few weeks of the start of the school year, her daughter fell ill. It was a strange disease, seemingly harmless in the main but debilitating. She suffered from headaches. Her stomach hurt. She couldn’t possibly go to school! It didn’t take long for my friend to take notice of another of the bizarre symptoms of this particular sickness: her daughter fell ill, almost without fail, on Monday mornings.
Maybe her physical symptoms were just stress from school work that was more difficult this year than last. But, my friend said, she couldn’t figure out why her little girl also stopped playing her flute. She loved that flute! She typically practiced more than she was required to because she enjoyed it, and she had been overjoyed at the idea she’d get to play in her first “real” band this school year. But now she had headaches and stomach aches, and the flute stayed in its case.
After some prodding, the little girl finally told her mother that she was miserable. She’d go to her locker, and a couple of girls who had neighboring lockers would taunt her and pull her hair. If she didn’t leave, they’d physically move her. Once, they “moved” her violently enough that she hit the lockers across the hall. These same girls, as luck (of the worst kind) would have it, sat behind her daughter in band. They’d kick and poke her throughout practice and, if she’d dare to respond, the teacher would shout at her while completely ignoring the other girls.
Being a good and concerned parent, my friend brought the matter to the attention of school authorities. They promptly reassigned her daughter to another locker, one that was directly outside the classroom of a teacher who could keep an eye on things. Administrators told her confidentially that it would be far less trouble to just keep her daughter away from those other girls than to try to discipline them. They were, they told her, concerned with accusations of racism, or worse, a discrimination lawsuit. The girls, it seems, are black. My friend’s daughter is not.
The older of the my friend’s children still in the local school system is a boy. She says that her son has wanted to play basketball for the local high school team since he was old enough to go to the games with his father. Because of his desire and his hard work, he was thrilled to make the team in his sophomore year. He was significantly less thrilled when he rarely got to play.
In many cases, yes, that’s unfortunate. But if the kid just doesn’t have the talent, the rest of the team shouldn’t suffer. Besides, lots of boys with even less ability didn’t make the team at all! I would have felt a lot better if I’d learned she was merely unhappy that her boy’s dreams weren’t coming true because he wasn’t a good enough ball player. Instead, the rest of the story spilled out while I grew more and more horrified by the details.
The boy was physically harassed by a select few other team members. He didn’t say a word about it, but he didn’t have to: the coach watched it happen and did nothing. He rarely got the opportunity to play in games. Other boys who weren’t starters sometimes did, but he and a couple of others spent most of their game fidgeting on the bench. They sat there because the coach told other kids, some of them less skilled, to jump into the game instead.
Eventually, though she and her husband didn’t want to make a fuss, they broached the subject with the coach. The coach, far from denying his actions, acknowledged them and even went so far as to explain himself: The boys who were harassing their son, and the boys who got to play instead of their son, were black, and the coach feared retaliation. (The coach, long accused of favoritism by many parents whatever his reasons, was eventually let go in the wake of years of complaints.)
Apparently, the coach was right to fear such a thing. As soon as it became known that his parents had talked with the coach, their son endured threats and taunts day in and day out as he walked the halls of the local high school. As matters escalated, the parents took their very real concerns to the principal. He did nothing. A few days later, their oldest son (currently a college student) was attacked on their own front lawn and badly beaten. The police identified his attackers as three of the boys who had been harassing the other boy at school. School authorities did nothing to discipline the three; various criminal charges remain pending.
Over the course of these many traumatic events, the boy who loved basketball quit the team. The boy who had been an A student began getting C’s and worse. He told his mother, who relayed her story with tears filling her eyes, that he wanted to die. Both her son and daughter have been pulled out of the public schools and are being tutored by a former teacher who has a story all her own.
This woman taught school at the high school level. But when she failed a couple of her students, she was called on the carpet by her bosses and told that she needed to treat all of her students fairly. She defended herself by telling them that anyone who had done so little work and so poorly would have been failed, no matter who he or she was, or what he or she looked like. She was never-the-less let go under a cloud suspicion because — far from treating her students equally — she was expected to give favored treatment to some, namely those students who were black.
Some of our local schools are presently on some sort of academic probation or another by the state. It seems that their students aren’t performing adequately on the tests required of various grade levels. In fact, there are students in high school who are functionally illiterate. But instead of looking first to the teachers to ensure each was qualified, and instead of reviewing curriculums or parental involvement, what did our local schools do? They worked to “dumb down” the tests since they were clearly above and beyond the capabilities of some. Local test scores went up last year, largely because requirements went down.
Meanwhile, the city police officer stationed in the high school (in a program intended to foster good and mutually respectful relationships between students and law enforcement) has posted on his wall dozens of photographs of students with their babies as some sort of a mirror-universe wall of honor. School leaders instituted a program they call “Character Counts,” but yet they refuse to demand responsibility from students on the grounds that doing so might somehow hurt their feelings — or worse, might make somebody accuse them of some kind of discriminatory behavior. Political correctness is placed above all other concerns.
Every year, an African flag flies in front of the school during Black History Month — last year, it actually replaced the American flag for awhile — so perhaps we can at least pretend the students there are learning something. I’m sorry to say that a Mexican flag flying above the US flag at a California high school a few weeks ago taught students much the same lessons.
One math teacher at the high school is quite literally unable to pronounce the word “geometry” (ironically, her focus as an educator was reportedly on English, but the school needed a math teacher); the Spanish teacher doesn’t speak Spanish (no, I’m not kidding). Yet they remain on staff while the woman I mentioned to you earlier now scrambles to make a living as a private tutor. Another woman I know who does still teach regularly regales me with horror stories featuring out of control students, frightened and incompetent administrators, and unions which care more about power for themselves than about education for children.
You can disparage government schools all that you want, and you’ll have plenty of grounds to do so. You can suggest all of the things that might make our schools better, and many of your ideas will probably be good ones. But after an afternoon with a friend this weekend, I’m more and more of the opinion that government schools can’t be fixed.
To truly do so would involve eliminating the Department of Education and letting locals take over. It would mean school choice. It would mean getting rid of the National Education Association and hiring — and firing — based on competence and merit. It would mean holding kids who can’t read back in second grade, not merely failing them in tenth grade or pushing them out into the world with a diploma they can’t understand (or worse, making them such abject failures even in their own minds that they leave school all together). It would mean teaching kids such things as reading, history, writing, math, civics, and science with the knowledge that success breeds character far more reliably than do discussions about character.
Those things aren’t going to happen, thus government schools won’t be fixed. The best that we can do at this point is to hope to “fix” our kids. Of course, that’s going to require some parental character. For the sake of our country — our economy, our technology, our freedom — we had better hope there are more parents than not who are capable of living up to it. My friend and her husband have shown that, whatever it takes, they are. Anybody else?