By any of the standards used to measure children and predict their performance in the future I was a disadvantaged child living in a dysfunctional family destined for a bad end. All around me were children from the same kind of homes on their way to bad ends; either to low paying jobs, dead end positions, domestic chaos or prison.
Yet that did not happen.
Most of my friends went to high school and then to college. From there they entered the “wide world of work” and did remarkably well.
Few, if any, of them graduated from either public grade schools or public high schools. None of them endured days of ease while teachers and administrators went out on strike for better wages, smaller class sizes and no standardized tests.
No, we attended what were called parochial schools; hundreds of thousands of us in the town that I called home. In grade school we sat together in classes whose average size was fifty, endured hours of silence in and out of class during the day and slogged through hours of homework each night and on weekends. Books, books, books and learning, learning, learning were our communal lot for twelve to sixteen years of plodding drudgery.
Dickens at his most dystopic could not have written about a more bleak house than mine or hundreds of young people like me. Hundreds? Thousands, millions over the years is more the correct number.
My parents both worked. Over the years my father, increasingly frustrated by life and his problems with it, descended, like some character in a bad play, into alcoholism dragging my mother along with him. I have the death certificate to prove my father’s diagnosis. My mother, may she rest in peace (may they both) ended her days in dementia. We children watched and slogged along to school and back. What was so different, we thought and saw, from so many others around us? Nothing but the degree of intimacy with the problems.
In high school we took part time jobs and still we studied, and our money was used to pay the rent, the grocery bills, the utilities.
Funnily enough 98 to 100 percent of the children I endured school with graduated. They could write their names, by God, in legible script, with good penmanship. Moreover, they could write a letter, an essay, a research paper using correct grammar and spelling correctly. They could add, subtract, multiply and divide without the aid of machines and computers. They enjoyed reading good books. They liked to work. While they liked popular music and popular culture, they knew of and appreciated the classics. They knew about the world around them, where they were in it, what had come before them and had realistic notions about and plans for their own place in the world to come.
They were citizens and knew what that meant.
They had never spent a day in a school room before a unionized teacher. They had never spent a day in a school room remotely connected to a “school system”. They, we, knew nothing about, and had never been in a school influenced by a Department of Education.
I mention this, now, simply because I have been reading about the latest teacher’s strike in one of our largest cities, Chicago. It has the third largest Public School system in the country. One of the main reasons that the teachers are striking is that they object to being assessed according to, to having their jobs depend on, the way their students perform on standardized tests. That’s not fair, they say. There’s a lot more to it than that, they say. Primarily, they say, lots of these kids have tough home lives. And, that makes things tough for them in school.
Here’s a quote from a story in the Chicago Tribune. The quote supports the position of the striking teachers and their union that basing teacher effectiveness on student performance in standardized tests is unfair: “FairTest policy analyst Lisa Guisbond called Chicago’s strike “the tip of the iceberg of teacher frustration with so-called ‘reform’ policies, which place the blame on educators for problems largely caused by the impoverished settings in which their students must live.””
I know a fellow who lived in such a small place that he had to study in the bathtub. He’s a university professor, now. The Malvey’s were a family of nine children in three rooms in my apartment house. Nurses and cops and businessmen came out of that little apartment over the years when kids went to school and didn’t have to stand around shifting from one foot to the other waiting for the strike to end. They were certainly not unusual. I knew only three children growing up whose parents were divorced. Only two other children I knew came from a home where the parents were not married to each other.
I knew a woman who as a child studied in a home periodically emptied of everything by her father to pay for his weeks long benders before he finally abandoned them. She passed all of her “standardized” tests with flying colors, including her trigonometry New York State regent’s exam. She never even thought about college, and went to work right out of high school. On her way to a darn good career in a large insurance company in New York, she gave it up in a heartbeat to become that most horrible of things, a stay at home Mom. She returned to the work force after her children were out of grade school in the school department of a mid-sized city. Exposed to the bureaucracy there, she often said that students and their welfare were the least thing that concerned teachers, union officials and administrators. She was convinced that anyone who ran for membership on or served on a Board of Education was certifiably insane.
I suppose we were the Lucky Generation.
We thought school was a place for work. And, so did the people who taught us.