Wednesday, April 1, 2015
I was in remedial kindergarten. Every day after my regular kindergarten class, which ended around lunchtime, Mrs. Waterston sent me and some other kids to an adjoining classroom for 5-year-olds who needed a little extra learning help.
It was fun. That teacher—I think her name was Ms. Pearson—introduced me to zucchini. She also brought me books because I was the only kid in the class who could already read. I vaguely remember Ms. Pearson meeting with my mother one day and telling her that I didn't need to be in the class because I was so smart. I don't recall the resolution of that meeting except that I remained in the half-day class, so Ms. Pearson always brought me—and only me—books to read, presumably to keep me motivated, including one that used characters from the PBS show "The Letter People." At the time, the olive-green and black book seemed to be the size and heft of a phone book, but it was one of my most cherished possessions then.
When I hear people talk about the state of public education and the need to purge bad teachers, it's such a foreign concept to me. I don't doubt for a second that there are bad teachers who just show up to collect a paycheck, but I can't recall ever having a teacher who I didn't believe cared deeply for all their students.
Some of the best include my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Uhl (forgive me if that isn't the proper spelling of her name; it was, after all, almost 30 years ago), who divided the class into three spelling groups. The bluebirds were the top spellers. The redbirds were the mid-level spellers. The yellow birds were the spellers who needed the most help, but anyone who ever suggested they were dumb kids drew a sharp rebuke from Mrs. Uhl, a tall, elegant white woman who drove a silver Volvo. Secretly, I wanted to be a redbird because of my deep love for our hometown baseball team, the St. Louis Cardinals, but as a bluebird, I got to learn how to spell words like C-Z-E-C-H-O-S-L-O-V-A-K-I-A, which is no longer a country.
In third grade, I had Mr. Fields, a cheerful, diminutive black man who still dressed like it was 1975 a whole decade later. Mr. Fields also sought to challenge me and other advanced students with supplemental learning materials, so he would periodically give us books from his TimeLIFE collection. Reading titles like "Africa," "The Birds" and "The Plants" was, for me, a primitive form of surfing Wikipedia.
In subsequent years, I learned under Mrs. Kersting and Mrs. Green, two tough ladies who wouldn't hesitate to give their students an affectionate punch in the arm, sometimes as a form of discipline and sometimes as a little extra motivation.
In middle school, civics teacher Mr. Villars taught us how the stock market works by having us pick out stocks and track their performance over the course of the year. (I want to take this opportunity to point out to my father that had he taken my advice and bought Dell in the early 1990s, we'd be loaded now.)
I had wonderful English teachers in high school with people like Mr. Calloway, who always believed in my writing and encouraged me to work toward getting published one day, and Mrs. Massey, who used every inch of available white space on the front and backs of writing assignments to give us feedback. If I had to credit one person with taking me from a kid who could write and making me into a writer, it would be Mrs. Massey.
I could probably go on and on, but I'll cut to the chase: Back then, I had absolutely no grasp on the politics that no doubt affected the quality of the education I received. By some measures, perhaps some of my teachers were "bad" for hitting us, but even as a 9- or 10-year-old, it just felt like it was coming from a place of love, not antipathy. I don't really know if my district was rich, poor or middle-income compared to other school districts, or whether my schools were adequately funded, underfunded or had more money than they knew what to do with. I honestly can't even say that my education was good, whatever that means.
And like we see year after year in Mississippi and at capitols and city halls across this country, there were undoubtedly spirited debates and nasty fights over curricula, how many Apple IIe computers to buy and which elementary school got new playground equipment and HVAC systems.
What I do know is that there were a lot of people, from my mom and dad to my teachers to principals and various other school administrators who, however they made it all work, seemed to create an environment where students were insulated from the adult nonsense. Resources, however scarce or abundant, were marshaled toward helping us kids.
This is not the point in the essay where I step up onto my soapbox and scold the Republican-led Legislature for refusing to approve bottom-basement levels of funding for K-12 schools (or for cooking up a scheme to kill an education-funding statewide ballot initiative, a tool the state GOP loves when it comes to hawking Personhood and voter ID). I'm not interested in cheerleading for or skewering charter schools or private-school vouchers at the moment; plenty of data exist to do a thorough job of either. I still don't fully understand Common Core, but I also suspect I'm no less informed than a lot of education policymakers around the state.
I just think back to a few years ago, shortly before I came to Mississippi, I met a man at a casino bar. A bigwig with a publishing company, he recoiled when I said I'd taken a job in the Magnolia State. "That's where we send the dogs," he told me, referring to jobs that didn't make his company much money, and therefore, quality wasn't of paramount importance.
The projects that mattered went to other states with better-educated, more skilled workers, he told me over beers.
Dogs—that's what they still think of Mississippi's educational system despite all the talk and so-called reforms of the past few years.
We clearly have work to do, but I worry whether, in the midst of all the policy debates, we're doing enough as a state to simply create supportive, loving spaces for educators and their students that lead to success—whatever that is. My gut says it's happening, and we often feature teachers, advocates and lawmakers doing the hard work of educating young Mississippians.
A few weeks ago, when I first started thinking about this piece, I thought I'd try to find Mr. Fields, but a Facebook friend responded that he'd passed away a years ago. We should remember to tell them how valuable they are and how much they're appreciated. I plan to.