On Education

For years I have championed public school. Perhaps in a hardheaded way, because I am a product of public school. Notwithstanding the wonderful memories and relationships that public school afforded me, I would like to take an objective look at the education system.

Wesley started the first grade this year. The pandemic has caused his school to implement some resources that we have known were available, but never thought we’d actually have to use; namely virtual learning from home. Our experience with the first couple of weeks of virtual learning has caused me to do some critical thinking about education. For years I have championed public school. Perhaps in a hardheaded way, because I am a product of public school. Notwithstanding the wonderful memories and relationships that public school afforded me, I would like to take an objective look at the education system.

One of things that I still like about public school is that a child will be exposed to peers in their community. I do think it is good for children to learn how to interact with other children who are being raised with different values, beliefs, and traditions. After all, this is how life will be as adult. The simple principle Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself still takes quite a bit of practice and I think it is best taught to practice as a child.

Exposing a child to the peers in their community is also one of the things I dislike about public school. In my public school experience-especially in Middle School-much of the class time was spent disciplining children who had no desire to learn. I imagine that this is one of the greatest challenges for a teacher. Some of the same troublemakers that I watched purposefully disrupt class are now troublemakers in society. I see them from time to time when they make the news for criminal activity. So the time taken away from my education to discipline an incorrigible student was essentially wasted for everyone. On the other hand, learning how to deal with difficult people has come in handy many times in my adult life.

Perhaps there is an advantage in attending a smaller school. My wife is always surprised when I recall any of my teachers. She attended a much larger school than I did, and remembers her teachers as impersonal if she remembers them at all. There were only about 45 students in my graduating class and I had known most of them since kindergarten. So our teachers-I am related to a few of them-had a better chance of getting to know the students, which I think is a good foundation for a quality education.

It is unfortunate that public education is entangled in politics. Often decisions are made by bureaucrats that probably would be better made by teachers and even parents. You can read Year-Round School for a good example of that.

As a parent I am thankful for the opportunity to enroll my children in our Church’s Christian School. This was not an option for me as a child. In the last couple years of his life, my dad had the chance to work with Cornerstone Christian Academy. He was impressed by the curriculum-Abeka– and the freedom the administration had in organizing the school.

I am currently chipping away at my college education a couple of online classes at a time. It has taken this long because I have never been keen on going into debt for a degree that may or may not land a quality job. Even before the pandemic, online classes were really my only option. After reading some of the posts from my fellow students on the class discussion boards-a common assignment in online courses-I am strongly convinced that online classes are not working for everyone. It is painfully clear to me that many of the concepts being taught are not making sense to some students. More than likely these students will still pass the class with an imperfect understanding of the subject. Which is ultimately a failure.

No doubt we’ve all encountered people like this who may have eventually earned their degree. My dad used to tell a story of a college graduate at work who had made a really boneheaded production decision that cost the company a lot of money and time. Anyone with any kind of sense should have known better. In response to this error, one particularly perplexed blue collar worker shook his head and said, “He been to college though.”

To some degree home schooling is not much different that online college classes. Fortunately, most parents that I know with ambition enough to home school their children care enough to make sure their children are getting sufficient understanding of the subjects. Much can be said about the presence of a teacher who is genuinely interested in the education of a student.

Maybe the highest level of quality of education comes from a private tutor, or someone who is focused on only one student. This would be quite expensive. In many ways I think that this is where a parent is responsible for a child’s education. There are some things that are best learned from a father or a mother.

I grew up in a house where reading and discussion were valued. The arguments we had at the kitchen table were hardly ever about personal matters, but history, science, art, literature, or culture, and often could be solved by referencing the dictionary or the encyclopedia. To hear “Look it up” in a confident tone meant that you were about to lose an argument and be schooled. Even so, we never dwelt on who was wrong, but moved on to the next subject. That, I think, is how to create a culture of learning in the home.

Kindergarten

I cried when my mamma left me at school on my first day of kindergarten.

I cried when my mamma left me at school on my first day of kindergarten. “Look Zane, there’s a little boy with red hair.” She tried to comfort me as she pointed to Scottie, a boy with flaming red hair and a rat tail. Eventually I quieted down and took my seat directly across from Corey, a boy with a flat top haircut and perpetual drool on his chin. Miss Whitehead, our teacher, must have told him to wipe his chin at least six times a day for the rest of the school year, because I can still hear the frustration in her voice. Once all of the little children settled down and stopped sniffling a boy named Blake threw a bottle of glue across the room. As if on queue, the entire class stopped what they were doing and said, “Ooooohh”. This was the standard instinctual reaction for anything out of the ordinary for the next six or so years.

Miss Whitehead was a petite lady and was still in the early years of her teaching career. She had one of those bob haircuts that we popular in the early nineties, and she wore stirrup pants. It also seems like she wore a lot of horizontal striped shirts. I’m sure she was pretty trendy at the time. She must have gotten married and moved away because I only remember her being there for the first year of Elementary School. I did not move away, and neither did most of my classmates, Jordan, Ashleigh, Amanda, Stephanie, T.J., Maurice, Bexter, and several others. We would make memories together for the until we graduated thirteen years later.

I look back in regret at how much I hated nap time. I’m fairly certain that I never went to sleep anyway, although I did enjoy faking going to sleep so that the child assigned to wake everyone up would have to shake me. There was one kid that went sound asleep everyday and always woke up slightly dazed and grumpy. I might have been Corey, the drooler. I do recall Miss Whitehead calling me out for not being quiet during nap time. I had gotten some cowboy action figures, which Mom wouldn’t let me bring to school, but I had cut the trading cards out of the back of the cardboard packaging and I kept them in my pocket. Miss Whitehead caught me red handed playing with my cards instead of napping. I was upset with her for confiscating them, but I eventually forgave her.

We were mesmerized by the water fountain. Each of us waited out turn to get a drink of the cold water, all ignoring the exasperated pleas of Miss Whitehead to “Keep your mouth off of the water fountain!” Looking back, I think we all thought that she was talking to everyone else. I must admit that most of the water fountains I’ve experienced look ergonomically designed for your mouth. It wasn’t until she yanked my head off of the spout that I realized that I had been putting my mouth on the water fountain for as long as I had been drinking at water fountains. I try to avoid water fountains in general know that I’m an adult.

You learn a lot about change in kindergarten. About midway through my kindergarten year, we switched classrooms. We were all led en mass down to the new classroom so we wouldn’t get lost when the move finally happened. For whatever reason, Mom was late dropping me off to school on the day that we finally moved. I went straight to the old classroom only to find the door locked and the lights out. I wandered back to the front of the school to try to find the new classroom, but I couldn’t remember which door. I peered through the door windows of each classroom on the new hall, but didn’t see any familiar faces. I made the trip back to the old classroom before looking into another strange new room. Eventually someone from the office found me and took me to my new classroom.

Story time was my favorite part of kindergarten. We would all gather around Miss Whitehead’s chair and sit “Indian Style” on the floor. This was back when we sat Indian Style, today they call it criss-cross-apple-sauce, which confuses the kids. Anyway, we would sit there as Miss Whitehead would read to us from a book, holding it open so we could see the pictures, the most important part. It was during one of these sessions that Keisha, a mouth breather, stood up with he skirt dripping. It’s one thing to have an accident, but another to have an accident in public. “Why didn’t you tell me you had to go?” Miss Whitehead said with a tender voice although she was visibly frustrated. Keisha just stood there and shrugged, breathing heavily. The entire class remained completely silent and stared open mouthed at Keisha, each one of us grateful that we had not been the one to have an accident. There is nothing quite as intimidating as the kindergarten stare. We were old enough to know what was going on, and pure enough to hold anyone’s gaze unflinching. In many ways it was worse than the entire class saying in chorus, “Ooooohhh!”

 

 

 

Skipping School

“Middle School is one of the most trying times for a young boy.”

Middle School is one of the most trying times for a young boy. Middle schoolers can be some of the meanest people on the planet. Perhaps it’s because the average middle schooler is a walking identity crisis and unsure of their self. This insecurity causes many to lash out at everyone else. Combine this with questionable parenting and the rural Alabama Public Education System and you’ve got the makings of a pretty miserable place for anyone to be, much less try to learn. When I was in Middle School, so much of the teacher’s energy was spent on misbehaving kids who weren’t interested in learning and their parents who weren’t interested in anything that there was little left for students who were there to get an education. As I recall, I got in a number of fist fights in middle school. I don’t say this to brag, but to let you know that I’m not embellishing when I say that middle school was one of the most trying times for me as a young boy. I guess it did prepare me for the real world. I remember everyone getting picked on in my middle school, fat kids, skinny kids, tall, kids, short kids, black kids, white kids, mixed kids, locals, new kids, foreigners, boys, girls. Maybe your middle school experience was different. You should write about it. My experience in middle school is one of the reasons that I am still in youth ministry today.

I tell you this so that you will understand why I would have rather strung tomatoes than taken a field trip to Atlanta with some of the meanest people I knew. When I convinced my Mom that most of my class would be on the field trip and there would be no point in going to school, Dad decided to take the day off and float the river with me. Ordinarily, we would have just gone fishing, but as I recall the boat motor was out of commission, so we decided to float from the Kelly Creek landing to McGraw’s landing, a few miles down the Coosa River.

I remember it being cold as we got an early morning start at Kelly’s Creek. The morning was still and there was fog on the river as we launched the boat. I think when you’re on the river at daybreak you get a more perfect understanding of what God meant in Isaiah when he promised to extend peace like a river. The river is one of the few places where you can still imagine what it the world was like before the industrial revolution, automobiles, and, well, before people moved in. When you’re out there it’s not hard to imagine that the forest you see on the bank goes on for miles and miles.

It was always fun to observe the wildlife on the river, a turtle as big a manhole cover, or a water moccasin, but on this particular day it seemed like we saw more wildlife than usual, probably because we didn’t have our loud outboard motor to break the still air and disturb the peace. One of the first things we saw that morning was a raccoon sitting on a log that hung down into the river from the bank. After pausing for a moment to study us, the raccoon turned around scurried back into the woods. As Dad steered the boat to the Eastern bank with the trolling motor, we watched a pair of turkeys fly silently through the fog across the river, they were just a few feet above the water. When we got to the eastern bank a deer jumped into the river and began to swim across. All of this happened within a few minutes of being on the river.

It seems that the fishing was good that day, even if Dad had to do it all himself. Dad knew all the best spots. We would anchor the boat and sit until the fish stopped biting. Bass like to be around underwater structure and we were anchored by an old concrete pipe when we noticed a school of gar breaking the water not far from the boat. Gar have swim bladders that can be filled by gulping air. They do this to supplement their oxygen in poor water conditions. If you’ve ever seen a gar, it will make you think twice about swimming in the river. They are long skinny fish with long snouts and long sharp teeth.  Gar comes from the old English word for spear and they just look mean. Normally, you wouldn’t want to catch a gar, because they’re not good to eat. But on this day, I thought it might be fun to catch one. Dad made a single cast into the splashing school of gar and caught one on the first try. When he finally reeled it into the boat, it was about four feet long and too big for our net. The top snout had been broken off about halfway down. It’s funny how you remember odd things like that. You have to be careful cutting your lure loose because those gar teeth are sharp.

As the day wore on it began to get hot. We anchored the boat a little south of Buzzard Island in hopes of catching a few fish. I forgot to mention the other wildlife creature that we always seemed to encounter on the river: mosquitoes. The mosquito’s favorite food source is human blood. They sound pretty sinister when you read it like that. We sat in a visible cloud of mosquitoes while Dad tied on a new lure. Since it was so hot and the mosquitoes were eating us alive, we decided to jump in the river to cool off and escape the mosquitoes. It’s surprising how cold the water can be when the sun is as blistering you on the surface. I can never swim too long in the river because my imagination gets the better of me and I start thinking about gar, and alligators, and alligator gar, and water moccasins, and the Loch Ness Monster, and before I know it I start thinking that I’d rather take my chances with the mosquitoes. It’s a little harder to get into the boat than it is to dive out. Especially when you think that there is a five hundred pound snapping turtle about to get you. You’re afraid for a second that you’re going to sink the boat as you climb to safety. Even so, every time we went fishing after that I wanted to go swimming. You tend to forget about the river monsters when you’re about to die of a heat stroke on the river.

Somehow, Dad knocked a rod and reel into the river as he was climbing back into the boat. I should have been more sympathetic, but I was just glad that it wasn’t me that did it. He tried several times to dive and retrieve it but to no avail. He had owned that reel since he was just out of High School, and I know he was upset about losing it, but he didn’t let it ruin our day. It’s never fun to lose a tangible object that is dear to you, or worse have it taken from you. But I value the memories that I’ve taken from the river more than I value the physical things that I’ve lost in the river. Or that Dad has lost river. I think he shares the same sentiment, although I’d be afraid to ask him about it if I had have been the one to lose his fishing pole.

We finally made it to McGraw’s Landing in the late afternoon with a cooler full of fish and a heart full of memories. Of all the years we spent fishing, this particular time stands out vividly. Maybe it was because I was skipping school with my Dad to go fishing. Not that anyone else was at school, since most everyone in my class went on the field trip to Atlanta. I’m sure they had a good time too, making fun of each other, and stressing out the chaperones, but I am pretty confident that many of them might have benefited more from a day on the river with their father than any field trip our public school system could have offered.