As I noted last week, I didn’t start out as an opponent of the public education system . 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?
 And, for that matter, most private systems. We’ll come back to that.