Losing My (State) Religion – Part IX

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

It’s an aphorism that’s become a cliche, and for good reason; it’s so applicable to so many things.

In the first seven parts of this series, I detailed a string of events that helped me on the way from being a public school proponent to a solid detractor.

But like jalapeno peppers in a burrito, the events were just the accents, the major mile markers along the way that tipped the hand of the underlying context. The refried beans…well, there were plenty of them, too.

The tipping point for me wasn’t the gruelling parent-teacher conference about my daughter’s “failure” to comply with her school’s demand for emotional transparency. It wasn’t even chasing my son down to the police station to find out if he was going to be charged with making a “terroristic threat”, and the Kafkaesque nightmare that followed.

The tipping point – the moment when I officially gave up on the public school system – was a meeting with my son’s fifth-grade teacher, a social worker, the assistant principal, and two or three special ed specialists.

For the umpteenth meeting, I heard the refrain I’d been hearing non-stop since Kindergarten; Zam’s a bright boy, but…

But. But he didn’t sit still when he was told to. But when the teacher said it was time for math, he kept reading. But when the system said zig, he zagged.

Not that he didn’t know the material; merely that he didn’t learn it according to a schedule set down in a curriculum planner’s office intended to be the least common denominator for teaching a class of 28 kids.

I lost it.

“So the problem”, I said, too depressed to really care about decorum, “is that school is a factory. The factory is designed to turn out thousands of identical sausages. Each of those sausages must be identically-shaped. If any of those sausages doesn’t fall into the assigned shape, fast enough, you take the sausage off the assembly line and call it “special” and and send it the subliminal, but really overt, message that he’s an abnormal bit of sausage. And you take that little bit of sausage aside so it doesn’t gum up the assembly line for all the other bits of sausage”.

Probably not a moment that the Saint Paul Public Schools are going to put on their brochure. I was exhausted and depressed…

…and realizing, bit by bit, that “school” has very little to do with teaching children.

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Losing My (State Religion) – Part VII

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 Let’s sum up what happened in the previous episode:

  1. A child, “Nate”, had made up a story; that Zam, my son, was late for homeroom because he was in North Dakota, “getting a sniper rifle” to shoot a teacher.
  2.  Zam was, in fact, standing beside me in the Assistant Principal’s office – not in North Dakota.  Unarmed.  Bemused.  And in huge trouble.
  3. “Policy” required the Assistant Principal to treat this boy’s goofy story as if it were a full-blown attempt to murder a teacher – by Zam. 

The fun was just beginining.

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Losing My (State) Religion, Part VI

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Note: I have been changing the names of all Saint Paul Public Schools officials so far.  I’m adding real names to the story now.  The actions that took place as part of this story need to be attached to real school officials, who are agents of a system that needs to be held accountable.  For while “the system” – the Saint Paul Public School system and the compulsory education system as a whole – are the overarching problem, people are responsible for what they do, even if it’s the “policy” of the organization they serve.  But I have little idea where I stand, legally, on this. 

Truth is an absolute defense.

 It was February 7, 2006.

My journey – which had started in 1990 as a proponent and supporter of public education, the son of a teacher and grandson of two more – was about to turn a half circle, never to return.

My son Zam had a bunch of behavioral problems, mostly in the middle of grade school, mostly caused by acting out after his mother and I divorced.  Divorce is almost always a nasty whack in the head, and kids react differently.  And of course, like a lot of boys, Zam was not one to sit in a chair and raise his hand and march on cue.  As I noted in the last installment, Zam was a challenge for everyone. 

But by seventh grade, even though he still wasn’t much for sitting in his desk and doing what he was told to do when he was told to do it, his behavior was pretty good.  He was attending Ramsey Junior High, reputed to be one of St. Paul’s “better” junior high schools.

Which didn’t mean he ever caught a break.  One day, he found a pair of scissors on the sidewalk.  He brought them to school – and when he told a teacher, he got suspended for another “weapons violation”.  Note that the scissors were exactly the same as the ones used in the school’s Art Room, and indeed may have been originally taken from there!  No matter.  A second “weapons violation”, another three day holiday suspension.

It was policy.

And one day when another kid tackled him in the lunch room – even though every witness, including some teachers – said he didn’t hit back, he got suspended, too.  “He has a history of behavioral problems” said the various assistant principals. 

And what did they say?

“It’s policy!”

So he sat out his suspensions (which seems to be the only “punishment” in the school vocabulary these days; they “punish” behavior by making kids stay home.  Someone’s unclear on the concept, and I don’t think it’s just me…), learned his lessons, and basically endured.  I kinda admired him, in a way.

One chilly February morning, Joseph Heller reared his surrealistic head.

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Losing My (State) Religion, Part V

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 In the last installment, we talked about my daughter Bun’s problems with…

 …well, no.  Let me stop right there.  Go back and read Part IV of this series.  The problems were not my daughters!  Oh, the creeping emotional trauma in her life was real enough.  But the schools’ response was too stupid for words. 

Still, the damage it did was real enough. 

And as difficult as her situation was, and as much damage as the schools’ one-size-fits-all mania for following academic “models” to the exclusion of common sense did to her, it was  piker compared to my son Zam’s journey.

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Losing My (State) Religion, Part IV

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 There was a time I felt that the biggest problem with public (and much private) education was that it was a “one-size-fits-all” approach to teaching children.  I’ve learned over the years that that is a distant third, of course, but we’ll get to that.

Still, the fact that the goal of public (and most private) education is to jam all the pegs, whether round, triangular, star-shaped or square, into round holes has been a huge problem to my kids and I; realizing it was one of my way points on the journey from public school supporter to implacable enemy.

It goes without saying that divorce is among the most traumatic things that can happen to a child.  Mine were no exception.  Far from it. I won’t go into details of my divorce – what, indeed, would be the point? 

Suffice to say that for the kids, it was another story.

My son – well, I’ll save his story for another day.

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Losing My (State) Religion, Part III

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As I noted a while ago in the first and second parts of this series, I didn’t start out as an opponent of the public school system. As the son of a teacher and grandson of two more, Education was one of those issues where, even as I swung to the right on most politics, I remained very much a moderate. After all – the schools did a pretty good job with me, right?

Maybe, maybe not. But either way, I went about ten years without any real contact with any kind of school system, from age 18 to my late twenties.

Then, I got a prefab family – my then-wife had a nine-year-old son when we got married – and got a quick education. My stepson was in fourth grade when we got married. We enrolled him in the Saint Paul Public Schools.

Now, my stepson – who is now 25, lives in Manhattan and is a very talented manager who is engaged to a lovely girl who’s involved in the theatre business in NYC – had some big pluses and, when it came to school, a couple of minuses. He was (and is) blazingly intelligent – especially when it comes to tinkering with things. Mechanical things, mental things, systemic and managerial things – he’s a kid who likes to tear things apart, put them back together again, and make them work. Smart? After high school, he got a grunt job at a flailing, wretched business; within six months, he’d risen to manage the place (a store in a national service chain) and become a superstar within the chain’s district management (hence, when he wanted to move to Manhattan, the company gave him the job he wanted pretty much for the asking). He did with that store in the Midway what he did with countless apppliances, toys, and gadgets over the years as I was helping raise him; he took it apart, saw how it worked (or in the case of the store, didn’t work), and put it back together again better than it started (in the case of the store. Not so much with the appliances).

That, of course, is not the way schools work these days. In retrospect, it never was, of course; most school systems, public or private, place a premium on:

  • Sitting quietly
  • Learning by absorbing what’s fed to you, when it’s fed to you. No sooner, no later.

Now, apologists (witting or otherwise) for the “sit your butt in the chair and be quiet” model of education will respond “they’re going to have to learn that anyway, to survive in the adult world”.

It’s true, sort of – although the vast majority of people would learn that without 13 years of reinforcement, anyway, just as they did in the centuries before compulsory schooling – and still misses the point. The public system (and most private ones) teach, at the end of the day, little but obedience and learning according to program. The kids who are, for whatever reason, wired to learn best in that manner succeed, and are labelled “good students”. The rest?

For years, teachers (sitting in panels that outnumbered the parents present, always) solemnly intoned their concern for my stepson’s future; “we want him to succeed”, they insisted, even as they drew ever more clearly in the sand that the only criterion for success was becoming engaged in a process that was the exact opposite of how he was wired to learn best – by doing. As years went on, it became clearer and clearer that my stepson had earned the dreaded “bright, but…” label; a smart kid, but he just didn’t care about keeping his ass in a chair for six hours a day learning what he was told to learn.

What he did do – and excel at – was fixing computers. He started by putting computers together at schools, then wiring school computer rooms, and eventually – in ninth grade – working with a teacher to essentially wire and network an entire junior high school. He put in overtime, coming home hours after school let out, doing (according to the school’s netgeek) excellent, diligent work.

“All well and good”, the panels of teachers said, “but he still needs to learn to do his work, and finish what he starts”

By this point, the irony of it even got through to me.

Eventually, though, there was no more wiring and networking to do, and it was back to the grind. He became aggressively unmotivated; waking him up became a dreaded chore. Homework went begging. Finally, he started skipping school. Aggressively so – there were days I’d drive him to school, and find out later that he’d slipped out the back door as I drove away. He got by on pure charm and BS for years, when finally called on it (yet another skill he has)…

…until the week before senior prom, when security met him at the door and told him he’d been expelled. He wasn’t with the program. The school washed his hands of him and the statistical drag he was giving them. “We’re worried that he won’t know how to succeed”, I remember a teacher saying.

The punch line: after he got his diploma at a self-paced alternative program, the Saint Paul Schools hired him to run the network at their crown-jewel, showcase high school.

Not bad, for a kid who never really “learned how to succeed”.

It was after that that he started work at the ailing Midway store in a national chain. He took the chronically-underperforming store apart, cleaned it up, and made it the star of the local chain.

If only he’d learned to sit in a chair for hours on end without becoming distracted, who knows what he’d be today. Right?

I thought that, without sarcasm, for quite some time. Then I had kids of my own.

And it was time for me to learn.

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Losing My (State) Religion, Part II

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As I noted last week, I didn’t start out as an opponent of the public education system [1]. No, in fact the school system had to work pretty hard to make me what I am today – a fierce, intractable, and deeply cynical critic.

It really didn’t start that way.

One of the best things that happened to me in elementary school was my fifth grade teacher, Barry Buchholtz. He’d just graduated from college, after serving a hitch in the Navy, some of it in Vietnam. Buchholtz was a godsend for a group of fifth grade boys, used to being crammed into long, orderly rows for hours on end. He told war stories (he had quite a few), he taught us karate moves, he roughhoused with us (to the horror of the women who taught the other classes, he let us play “tackle pomp”, which was basically a playground cage match), he quarterbacked our sandlot football games, he let us play cops ‘n robbers and cowboys ‘n indians and whatnot, even letting us made toy guns out of branches and sticks.

And he was the best teacher ever, to a group of ten year old boys. Not just because he let a bunch of boys roughhouse – but because letting us out of those dank, airless classrooms and letting us run around and do things other than rote memorizing and listening to readings taught most of us that learning didn’t have to be utter drudgery.

He’d probably be fired today. But I digress.

“Utter Drudgery” may sound dramatic – and I largely didn’t mind school, because with a teacher for a father, I knew the value of playing the paper chase. I’d also learned to read early, which put me on the fast track for most of elementary school.

But I do remember the kids who didn’t have such a good time. Boys who couldn’t sit still in long rows on hard wooden seats (two of my classrooms as a kid still had the desks that were bolted into long rows on the floor) and were labeled “difficult”; kids whose blood sugar ran out about an hour before lunch; kids who reacted badly to the stale, stuffy, miserable air in our 1912 school building (which was later condemned and torn down). Boys who didn’t learn to read as fast as the other kids, for whatever reason. Kids who didn’t take to sitting in long, orderly rows for hours on end doing what someone else had planned out for them, day in, day out, year in,year out.
I remember during my senior year, talking with a friend who was a natural with machines. We’d been in first, second, fourth and fifth grades together. I had very fond memories of all the years (except fourth grade; I had the same fourth-grade teacher as my father had had. The woman, to say the least, was overdue for retirement). My pal denied remembering anything about first, second or fourth grades. I’d done well; he’d been labelled “not much of a student’ – and everyone knew it at the time! In fact, I pondered (years later) – everyone who’d had a rough time in school, or who’d dropped out, came as exactly no surprise at all to those of us who’d known them in elementary school. They just hadn’t fit in.


A good chunk of the teachers, from fifth grade on (especially the males) had paddles hanging from their chalkboards. Many of them didn’t hesitate to use them; if a kid sassed off, left the room, or (in some cases) didn’t do his homework, they had carte blanche to swing away. And they did (although not, ever, with girls). My high school principal had been a Marine fighter pilot in WWII; his assistant in charge of discipline, was a 6’6 guy, also a former Marine, I think. The assistant would prowl the halls; guys who sassed him would be flung across the hall or stuffed into lockers. Smoking in the boys room couild earn you a “swirlie” (the AP would dunk heads in the toilet and flush, or so the rumor had it).

Now, I don’t support corporal punishment – and some teachers did abuse the “privilege”. But back then, I don’t recall a single instance of schools being “locked down”, or of any sort of hysteria over violence. Bring a toy gun to school? It’d get confiscated until your parents felt like picking it up. Sass a teacher? Get paddled, get detention (which, back then, was a solid, miserable hour after school). Draw on the walls? Stay after school and clean all the walls and desks, under the watchful eye of a teacher who was stuck in the building until 5 and not real happy about it.

In other words, dumb actions had dumb and immediate consequences. Consequences which most people eventually figured they could do without.

Consequences that didn’t punish the parents or every other student in the school.

I grew up, graduated, went to college, started a life, married a prefab family (my wife had a nine-year-old boy when we got married), and in 1990 became reacquainted with schools. I was still a big supporter.

After all – they’d done OK with me, hadn’t they?

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Losing My (State) Religion – Part I

Note:  This post has nothing to do with religion, per se.  At least, not in the sense that a person of faith would recognize. 

When I tell you I’m a Republican, those of you who don’t know me most likely resort to stereotypes; I’m white, male, Christian, anti-tax, anti-big-government, pro-defense (so far so good), anti-gay (not really true), pro-life (yes, but much moreso pro-Tenth Amendment), and…

…”Anti-Education”.  It’s an interesting phrase, that one; the notion of “Education” has been corrupted to refer to the institution of the educational establishment – the school boards, administrations, unions and the educational academy – in a sense that really has nothing to do with actually providing an “Education”.

So with that dichotomy understood – you’d be mostly wrong.  I was, in fact, one of those Republicans who was a big proponent  of public education.  Oh, it had problems, things that needed to be tuned up and fixed, but it was the system we had, dagnabbit!

Education was the family business, in a sense; my mother’s parents were both teachers, and my sister works in the system as well.   I even thought – briefly – about a career in education while in college, although that lasted about three days.

Most of all, my father was a teacher for the better part of four decades – and a great one at that.  Dad taught English, Literature and (best of all) Speech.  Strangers as well as friends of mine stop by years – now, decades – later and tell me he was the best teacher they’d ever had.  If every teacher were like Dad was – if every school district and administration let people like Dad teach, for that matter – we wouldn’t have an education crisis in this country.
You’ll note that everything in the previous couple of paragraphs is in the past tense.  I was a proponent.  Ten years ago, I was as strong a supporter of public education as one could find in the GOP.

That’s changed.  The public education system in Saint Paul and Minnesota has taken a guy who was once a firm friend, and turned him into an implacable, remorseless enemy for life. And it has little to do with politics – indeed, the GOP is almost (but not quite) as clueless as the DFL when it comes to education.  But it goes way deeper than that.
And now that both of my kids are at long last out of the public system, I’m going to tell their story, and mine.

There are going to be a number of parts to the story, probably two episodes a week for a couple of weeks.  Stay tuned.

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