Commentary

The Painting Lesson Taught More Than Met the Eye

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As far as I can see, the painters have come and gone, probably forever. For years there's been talk of giving our school a major overhauling and, Lord knows, we need it. Our walls and ceilings are a mess, the window frames are literally rotting away, and scores of our "permanent" bolted-down classroom seats are broken or completely gone. A while ago our auditorium was done over. It's still mostly an austere battleship gray, but at least it's clean. Also, the rumors persist that we're going to get a new intercom system. The one we have now is hopelessly eccentric, and dialing a number is like opening a Cracker Jack box prize. You never know what you're going to get.

So, when the painters arrived a few weeks ago, most of us thought that this was it. We were going to enter the 80's in style.

But we were disappointed. After they splashed around furiously for a few days, the painters left, leaving most of the school untouched. Only the administrative offices were done--in other words, only those places where the kids rarely set foot. The furniture is back in place; the pictures are back on the wall. The job seems done.

So my classroom remains as dingy as ever, and the ceiling continues to flake and peel. In the midst of squalor we wrestle with some of the glories of literature.

But we sometimes teach our children lessons without intending to. They are neither blind nor foolish, and little things often bear weighty truths. Our painters taught them something about our priorities.

Administrators and public officials are fond of telling the world about the importance of what goes on in the classroom. Some do it so well that one can almost believe in their sincerity. But in the Great Tallying, actions and not words are what finally count. And what the painters did--and didn't do--is an eloquent lesson about what the people in charge think is important. Certainly it's not my classroom.

Once, when I was in the army, our infantry company struggled to the top of a hill in southern Germany where our lunch finally caught up with us sometime after 3 o'clock in the afternoon. None of us had eaten since our pre-dawn breakfast, and even G.I. liver and onions smelled good. Our commanding officer, like a sheep dog, worried us through the chow line, making sure that everyone, down to the lowliest dogface, got fed. Only then did he scrape together the remaining scraps for his own meal. It was a little gesture, but it showed us that we were all important. That, I suppose, is one of the things leadership is about.

So I still have a hope, that by now has to be called a fantasy, that some "C.O." will make an eloquent gesture that will help us teachers convince the kids that our classrooms matter. So much around us says the opposite. "Good" colleges chase semi-literate athletes with fists full of dollars, and a so-so major league outfielder makes more in a mediocre season than a master teacher makes in a decade.

I'm not foolish enough to ask for parity. In this case I would have settled for a paint job. It would have been a grand gesture if a supervisor, with the painters at his heels, had come to my classroom one morning to tell us that ours was the most important spot in the whole school and would be the first to get its face lifted. It would have been great theater--and a great lesson. Children are impressed by glitter.

Instead, we were shown our true place in the scheme of things. Apparently nobody up there really cares, only those of us in the trenches.

Our tattered texts and bare supply closets seem no accident after all. Our shabbiness appears to be a true measure of our status. The phrase "budget cuts" is a convenient catch-all, but it just doesn't go down every time. The fact is that the painters were here--and now they're gone. Our school stands in the midst of well-kept homes and our students know the relative price of a few cans of paint. And, at the end of every school day, they must be reminded of what those who run the system truly think of them. My colleagues and I had other lessons in mind, but, for those, humiliation is hardly the best motivation.

Vol. 01, Issue 38, Page 19

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