Education Opinion

A Tale of Two Schools

By Anthony J. Mullen — September 29, 2009 4 min read
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Growing up in New York City presented many challenges but one of them was not dealing with snakes. I fear snakes. The very word snake elicits a creepy, tingling sensation around my ankles. But what benign synonym do I substitute for snake?

“Hey, look at that serpent crawling toward our tent.”

No, I am not writing a blog about snakes or ophiophobia. The focus of my blog is about the poor condition of some of our nation’s schools. Snakes just happened to literally slither into the story.

I am standing outside a two-story wood frame building that leans to the right. The roof is missing many shingles and oddly enough resembles a game of Tetra. Wood rot is eating away at the school’s foundation. It is the type of building one is tempted to kick just to watch it collapse. The image of this decrepit building collapsing like a deck of cards would be comical if school children and teachers did not occupy it.

The inside of the school is not much better than the outside. The walls are coated with several layers of olive green paint, a shade once popular in institutional settings. Collections of aging portraits of principals past decorate the wall outside the main office. The principal in the middle of the row bears a stark resemblance to Andrew Jackson.

A first grade teacher who takes me to her classroom meets me in the hallway.

“It’s too bad the children are gone for the day, she said. “You would have enjoyed meeting some of them.”

Yes, I would have enjoyed meeting with some school children. I spend most of my time meeting with adults. Her classroom is filled with old wood desks and a blackboard. I glanced around the room looking for an abacus.

“How many children are in your class?” I ask.

“Thirty, but two are home schooled and don’t show up anymore.”

My eyes are quickly drawn to the floor. It appears to be rotting away in some spots. “The floor looks old.”

“The whole school is old and the floor came with it,” she replied. “But we do our best and the children get a kick out of guessing which crack the snakes will come through.”


“You have snakes in your classroom?” I asked.

The teacher takes my question in stride while moving some papers off the top of her desk. “Yes, but the children know what the poisonous type look like. The snakes that peek through some of the cracks are not dangerous. They live under the school and eat mice.”

I figured this was a good as time as any to enter the theater of the absurd. “How do your children know which snakes are dangerous?”

“The colors and stripes,” explained Mrs. G. “The black ones with a red stripe are harmless but the red ones with a black stripe are poisonous.”

I was about to ask if any of her students are colorblind but was interrupted by an art project placed before me.

“One of my students made this,” she exclaimed. “He has a learning disability involving reading and writing but paints beautifully.”

The painting was indeed beautiful, a watercolor showing a family playing with a Frisbee in an open field of grass. The young artist captured intricate facial features. Mrs. G showed me some other art projects and a science experiment involving Lima beans. The beans were placed in a variety of growing mediums, including soil, sand, and gravel. Colorful wall posters recorded the germination of the beans and the growth rate of the embryonic plants. The teacher did a wonderful job trying to stimulate learning despite the dilapidated classroom and lack of resources.

“Are there any plans to build a new school?” I asked.

“No. People around here are suffering and can’t afford to fund a new school building.”

A few days earlier I had visited an entirely different type of school. The building was new and designed to provide an abundance of natural light throughout the school; a paradise for those suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder or paying the monthly electric bill. The floors were covered with terracotta tiles and the walls painted a blend of reds and yellows that mimic a summer dawn. Classrooms contained the 21st century learning tools needed to teach 21st century learning skills. A SmartBoard, bank of computers, and a science workstation for group activities filled each room.

“We’re also a very green school,” the principal said proudly. “We were thinking green before thinking green was in vogue.”

The school was indeed very friendly to the environment. Even the trash cans are labeled MADE WITH 100% RECYCLED PLASTIC. Students can been seen actively participating in the “plastic cycle” by depositing placing plastic water bottles into plastic garbage cans, knowing that some of the bottles will return as plastic garbage cans.

The contrast between the two schools says a lot about the present state of American schools. Children in one district are being taught in a building not fit for human habitation while other children are learning in contemporary state-of-the-art “green friendly” school. One school has a lab that can extract DNA; the other school has termites and crawling interlopers. I am saddened by the condition of too many schools, particularly in rural and inner city locations. All children deserve a level playing field to be able to “reach to the top.”

Now a pop quiz: is it the red snakes with black stripes or black snakes with red stripes that are poisonous?

Only the children know for sure.

The opinions expressed in Road Diaries: 2009 Teacher of the Year are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.