One Big Family
Parents should at least be able to count on schools as their allies.
My wife and I have—God bless them—four children, two boys and two girls, ranging in age—heaven help us!—from 11 to 20. While they may have come out of the same kitchen drawer, so to speak, they are as different from each other as knives from spoons, or can openers from corn holders. Nonetheless, we are bound by blood and duty to love each equally and give each an equal chance at happiness. Our situation isn't unlike that of a teacher confronting a classroom filled with students of varying abilities and interests. The teacher is expected to teach them all, the underachiever as well as the overachiever, the dim as well as the bright.
But how? My wife, a wise woman with an ironic sense of humor, believes that the key to raising children, especially teenagers, is to figure out what it is they want to do and then, if it is legal and under your credit card limit, advise them to do it. She claims this greatly reduces the risk of parental stroke.
And she may be right. Certainly when we tried to bend our oldest to our will, the results were less than impressive. He still got speeding tickets, still failed courses, still hung out with kids who looked like extras from a "Mad Max" movie. We finally realized we couldn't order him to grow up—or, rather, we could, but only at the cost of further eroding our already crumbling relationship with him. Yes, we are disappointed that he flunked out of one college and dropped out of another; yes, we are frustrated that he simply shrugs whenever we ask about his long-term plans. But we are also increasingly aware that life unfolds without much regard for parents' dreams and wishes. He will grow up; just on his own timetable, not ours.
If there is a lesson here for educators, it is perhaps that you can't force children to become what they aren't ready to be. The current nationwide trend toward more frequent standardized testing seems to ignore this basic fact. Its supporters envision education as a kind of automated assembly line, all students in the same grade learning the same things in the same way with the same outcome. They take little account of the child who develops along a different path or at a different pace.
To go back to my oldest, I have often felt that he was at a disadvantage throughout his years of public school because his best qualities weren't among those generally measured by tests or prized by teachers. He has, for example, an uncanny ability to relate to animals, big or small, wild or domestic, fur-bearing or scaly. I have seen him rescue panic-stricken birds that found themselves trapped in our screened-in porch, calming their frightened flapping with his own lack of fear and then scooping them up in his bare hands and setting them free. The birds recognize what standardized tests can't, his gentleness and sympathy. A district may have high test scores, but how good, really, is a school system that treats as insignificant the very qualities a cruel and bloody world most needs?
My second son, unlike the first, is an outstanding student by all the conventional measures—test scores, grade point average, class rank. I would have to add together my grades in two high school courses to equal his grade in one. The real irony, though, is that his school career began rather inauspiciously. Following kindergarten screening, he was assigned to a class for at-risk students. When my wife and I questioned the placement—and who knew him better than we did?—the principal said he could go into a regular kindergarten class, but that if he struggled, it would be our fault. Intimidated by the prospect, we backed down.
That this story has a happy ending, with my son eventually casting off the inaccurate label slapped on him, doesn't mean it is a happy story. To me, it illustrates the difficulty too many parents have in making themselves heard above the groaning of a constipated educational bureaucracy. These are challenging times in which to raise children, and parents should at least be able to count on schools as their allies.
I never feel more like I need an ally than when I look at my oldest daughter, soon to be 15, parading around with her bellybutton fashionably exposed. Sometimes it seems the whole culture is conspiring to turn her into a mall-going, instant-messaging ding-dong who derives her role models from MTV, her insights from movies, and her greatest gratification from shopping. And where can a parent get help in beating back this sea of cultural crud? Not necessarily from schools. The ideology of relentless, ever-escalating consumption—what novelist Ted Rall bluntly called Americans' obsession with "earning as much as they can so they can buy as much worthless crap as they can as quickly as they can"—has penetrated even there. School leaders now often promote education to a skeptical public by emphasizing its role not in preserving democracy or building character, but in increasing the purchasing power of graduates.
Isn't it more important to be a good citizen than a smart shopper? Shouldn't schools be a haven from, and not simply an extension of, the prevailing commercial culture, with its over-the-top worship of material success? When so much of society has become infected with the virus of greed, don't teachers, entrusted with the mental and moral development of the community's children, have an obligation to carry forward the true values of life?
For the sake of my youngest child, I hope so. She is just entering middle school, which, to the overactive imaginations of anxious parents, seems like the dark woods in a Grimm's fairy tale, inhabited by evil spirits, hairy beasts, and ready-to-bake witches. Research shows that the American middle school is, in fact, a perennial trouble spot; the casualties are self-worth and academic achievement.
I don't have an easy solution—I leave that to the so-called "experts"—but I do have a suggestion, and it won't raise taxes a single cent or require state education department approval. It is that school boards, administrators, faculty, staff, and students acknowledge that our fates are inextricably intertwined, and treat each other accordingly, as members of one big, raucous family. Of course, we would still have problems and conflicts. What family doesn't? But we would also have the encouragement of knowing that we are, at bottom, more alike than different; that we are bound to each other by silver cords of memory and tradition; that indoors or out, we are surrounded by people who would lift us if we fell and cheer us if we succeeded and love us whatever.
Howard Good is the coordinator of the journalism program at the State University of New York at New Paltz and has been a member of the board of education of Highland, N.Y., where he lives with his wife and children.
Vol. 21, Issue 5, Page 43Published in Print: October 3, 2001, as One Big Family