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To Build Places of Joy: Re-Creating High Schools

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At an annual conference of foreign-language teachers not long ago, a fellow high school teacher remarked to me that "high schools are often sad places." Later, in a job interview, I was asked what my ideal high school would be like, and I took my cue from that off-the-cuff observation: They ought to be joyous communities. Too frequently, they are prisons for young spirits and minds.

A New York Times Magazine photo essay last spring illuminated the stark contrast between our investments in prisons and in schools. We willingly build prisons to house the failures our educational system creates. Yet, most people probably would not consent to work in the buildings where they send their children to learn. Too many high schools, in particular, are places truly without joy. They are often decrepit and just as often sterile, devoid of art and music. Places that should have windows of stained glass and walls of books and paintings too often have cinder block painted an offensive color, no air, broken or nonworking windows, and not a scrit of art to be seen.

An older teacher, now retired, remarked to me the first time I hung some student work in his room, "Kids in this school love to see their stuff on the walls." No wonder. If you spend your days in rooms where the bulletin boards rarely change (when there are bulletin boards), and where the halls are dim and darkened with half-century-old varnish, you, too, would be excited to see a blotch of color or glitter, even if you're 17 years old. And it's not just the school that last employed me. Every high school I've ever worked in was like that. I'm sure there are beautiful schools--and I'm just as sure that they're almost exclusively in high-income suburbs.

Consider the mural. When I first began teaching at one rural high school, the kids were working on a mural. Over the course of a year or so, a wall of people developed, a shadow world running, playing, dancing alongside the students. I liked walking that corridor. So did the students. One summer, a new superintendent took the helm, and the mural walls were painted over. The building didn't seem more businesslike: It seemed colder, older, more hostile. So much for joy. So much for preserving the presence of previous students, some of them talented artists. Even the smallest attempt to remove the disconnect that students can feel with school had failed.

We are a deadly serious lot in education now, worried constantly about our own jobs and about our obligations to function as teacher, parent, social worker, and moral compass to all these needy students who enter our corridors. The weight of the world hangs heavy on us--and on them. Certainly, students need to be informed. But they have dismal little lives, just like we do. Why shouldn't school be a pleasant refuge from the problems of their homes and their streets?

I did a project once in an inner-city school that had an innovative "real world" curriculum. I'm not knocking it, it was a great place. I loved the kids I met there. But when I began my project, teaching writing through autobiography, I learned right away that the last thing these girls wanted to discuss was the evils of late-20th-century America. They wanted to talk about the things my friends and I had talked about when I was growing up in rural Maine--hair, clothes, boyfriends, jobs, college costs. Yes, they wanted to explore the differences in our lives--what was it like to grow up in a place where everyone was white? who paid for me to go to college?--but they also wanted to talk about their private, childhood memories--the tea an immigrant grandmother made from herbs growing in her yard, the 5th-grade teacher who held a sleep-over at her house and took the class to see the ocean for the first time, the little yard of the primary school in St. Kitt's, where every child had brought a plant to beautify it and the garden belonged to all of them.

These students had talked until they were blue in the face about the problems the adults around them couldn't solve--gangs, poverty, domestic violence. They wanted to talk about the people and the events in their lives that had brought them joy. They had been encouraged to talk about the evils of their world, but not about all the reasons they should fight such things. The preservation of joy is no small thing, and why no one over 12 or 13 should have it is beyond me.

My students used to say, "Can't we do something fun today?" I don't think that's what they meant, exactly, but it was the only vocabulary that they had. What they meant, I think, was, can't we set aside the aura of this sad place, where failure is defined in numbers and the adults are constantly downcast, and the temperature is always icy-cold or fiery-hot, and we are shuffled wantonly from place to place; can't we for a moment connect with someone beyond here? With ourselves, for example.

I have no idea when high schools became sad, although I suspect the banishment of the arts--for budget reasons, for ideological reasons, for style reasons--has something to do with it. Maybe they were always sad. Certainly, the one I went to dripped with failed dreams and lost causes. There was no light, as if too much sunlight would awaken the ghosts of the past. I was always envious of those schools I would see in the movies--affluent, suburban buildings, full of light and with green trees.

One day last spring, I was startled when my students erupted in a discussion of how disappointing their arrival in high school had been. "I thought it would be nicer," one of them said.

"I thought it would be like the ones on TV," said another. "I was sorely disappointed."

In the 15 years since I left high school, the situation hadn't changed much.

I am haunted by the gardens of St. Kitt's that Kelly, my student, had mentioned. Perhaps if we had more gardens, more murals, more tables instead of desks, there would be more learning. On one of my last days of teaching last year, a notice went up on the school copier: "We have surpassed our budget for copies again, and we have seven more weeks of school." For as long as I have taught, the struggle has been for enough paper, enough books, enough teachers. We don't have time to think about the environment, and we certainly don't have the money. But the message many kids receive is loud and clear: Second-class citizens get second-class accommodations.

We need a new mechanism beyond municipal bonds to finance school improvements. Imagine a high school with a capital-fund outside the operating budget, funded, let us say, by the sale of student art. I have many kids who, in spite of their paltry arts education, have something to say in ink, in oils, in poetry, in prose, and in music. The kids would learn business skills, the community would hear their voices and so be enriched, and American schools would perhaps be as beautiful as many American prisons. What a concept. n

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