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Reading a School Like a Book

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My well-educated and elevated college students frequently hear me insist that they can learn to read the material and cultural world around them as well as they can read a book. It's really, I tell them, just a matter of seeing. I have even told them that I, yes the professor I, can walk into a building, especially a school building, and read it. I can read the scuffed shine on the linoleum, the downturned looks on the kids' faces, and the slouching body language of teachers and administrators.

I've been visiting and reading a handful of Cleveland's public high schools for more than a decade. I've read, through half a dozen superintendents, the shuffling and reshuffling of protective administrative layers, and more principals (yes, I remember the rule--the principal is your pal--that I learned in the 2nd grade) than you can or should shake a stick at. It's kind of like life. When you only observe or visit someone at two- or three-month intervals you can see, or read, things whose changes are literally invisible to the gaze of daily contact.

And so it was with the schools I visited just the other day. What I saw was distressing, in fact, deeply depressing.

Something has changed in just a few months. Now these hulking old buildings seem almost ghost-like, their wood floors and ill-working radiators creaking under the weight more of memory than human presence. Classrooms filled to overflowing--on paper anyway--are virtually empty. Students, in groups of twos or threes, cruise the waste-strewn hallways aimlessly. They nod to one another, give a high-five or two, and disappear silently around a corner, their low-slung jeans and high tops mopping up the dust and debris as they shuffle along.

Suddenly the bell rings and for an instant the halls are filled with animation, with the noise of students joyful in their brief liberation from the grind and boredom that they seem to suffer almost silently. Locker doors clang metallically open and shut as they always have, kids banter and tease before joining the parade to lunch or the next class.

As the corridor empties I notice that the doors of the classrooms, normally locked, closed, and more often than not with their glass-windowed upper halves papered over, are open. Beside each one stands a teacher, like a doorman caught at work on a day off, looking vacantly out at the human windstorm that has just passed by. In short-sleeved sweaters pulled down over fraying gray pants, or perched on old high heels, they seem as tired and world-weary as the students they...what?...teach, minister, watch.

It's hard to tell who are more dispirited and depressed--these dedicated adults who scratch their heads less in wonder than in resignation or their glassy-eyed students. It's clear that they are in some awful symmetry, mirror images of what has gone wrong in "the system."

I decide to visit the classroom of the best teacher I have ever known. He's sitting casually on the table in the front of the room, holding a copy of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" in his hands. About a dozen students are scattered in a circle around him. They look exhausted, as if the simple act of picking up the book and reading the dialogue between two characters who have once loved and now despise each other will be too much for them. The students, who have not the slightest clue about the meaning or intent of the play (and for the first time I ask, why the hell should they?), look as if they are reading something written in Romanian.

Of course, I remember, it's not a history class, neither is it an English class. These African-American kids, their eyes glazed with ennui, are reviewing for the proficiency exam. The play has no context for them, it can't be read at all. The passion of love and betrayal that it examines is empty. It becomes something to be endured, nothing more.

Is it any wonder that the schools don't work? I can read them and their buildings like a book. The problem is that the kids can't begin to read the books in their hands. They are the wrong books, the wrong environment, the wrong story. It can only end, "You fail." That sure as hell isn't what school is supposed to be about.

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