Happy days


You can’t count all the reasons why giving your children a good education is so important and so difficult. Money is always an issue. Exceptional teachers are, well, exceptional. The structure of public education in the United States is a bit chaotic, what with town school boards, state boards of education, and a federal Department of Education that most people would like to keep at arm’s length. Not to mention the PTOs and the school advisory committees.

Then there are the pedagogical trends, which change almost as frequently as hemlines. The school day, which hasn’t expanded much over the years, no longer encompasses just reading, writing, and arithmetic. Sports, arts, music, and electives by the score must be crammed in somehow. Distractions have multiplied, especially TV, but also computer games, texting and sexting, instant messages. Life, we are assured, will soon be lived entirely on our smart phones.

To fit all the non-educational activities, school districts nationwide are weighing school day and school year extensions against the political turmoil such changes will present. Can’t the children just spend their days in their rooms learning online, or at Starbucks on the cell phones?

And parents, let’s be frank: some are good and some are bad; some are over involved and others are never involved. And, as if all these weren’t obstacles sufficient to guarantee that no one will learn a thing, there are the kids, variously intelligent, engaged, motivated, and annoying. It’s daunting.

But even if a parent manages to get all the educational ducks in a row — good school, great teacher, safe community that supports education, a reasonable balance of educational and extracurricular activities, steady parental pressure to make learning the number one goal, and even a good breakfast before school, which we know every child needs — the successful education of a reasonably intelligent child depends to a significant degree on the written word, in books and tests. And getting kids face to face with good writing, bright ideas, and surprising concepts may be the biggest hurdle of all. The once celebrated, now disparaged Western Canon cannot conveniently be tweeted.

For the most part, all that is in my rearview now. The two older kids are through college and graduate school, and they are beginning lives as parents, planning to avoid all the mistakes we made raising them. Good luck to them.

The two younger ones, also through college, are spreading themselves in the workaday world, trying it on for size. The reports are mixed, but we are confident they have passed the psychological divide between youthful college kid and nine-to-five aspiring adult. There’s no turning back. We watch hopefully to see how it all turns out.

In this warming season of graduations, after several years of flying here and there to bask in the reflected glow of their successes and hear the commencement speakers with nothing original or hopeful to say, there are no commencements on our schedule. There are reunions. In June, we’ll go to my 50th high school reunion. Before that, we’ll go to Moll’s 45th elementary school class celebration. It doesn’t matter whether the occasion is mine or hers, the flavor of reunions doesn’t vary much. The classmates who attend are always reliving what was a pleasant interlude with a lingering influence.

I’ve been to other reunion celebrations along the way, as the numbers of my classmates in attendance — about 140 originally — have dwindled. Every event was great fun, an occasion to make fun of our goopy selves and see if the fabric of old friendships, with their remembered foolishness, chivvying and mocking, can be rewoven. The thinning hair and general decrepitude of the assembly never seems to be the most important takeaway from such events. Paul, the quarterback on the football team in those days, is planning the dinner/dance. He’s recovering from knee-replacement surgery — he was also the first singles guy on the tennis team and the first one of our set to get married — and he’s utterly committed to the event. He’s programming the music — think Del Shannon, Little Richard, Chubby Checker, Roy Orbison, the Crests, Connie Francis — and he’s writing a script for the DJ to use remembering the names of teachers, the scores of big games, the love affairs and breakups, the study evenings we spent torturing the kind, lovely, older female librarians at the beautiful Millicent Library, making insect noises in the stacks to set them scurrying after us and putting bras on the sculptured Venus in the reading room.

There was the handsome chemistry teacher, the friendly physics teacher, the former semi-pro lineman who taught social studies, and the older calculus teacher who showed no particular interest at all in us seniors as barely formed human beings but fascinated us with the simple, serious practice of his educational art. There were no cutups in his calculus class and very few bad grades. In those days, we did our calculations on slide rules. He had a six-foot slide rule hung above the blackboard at the front of the room. He used it to demonstrate solutions to problems, and he explained that its size made it possible for him to be more accurate than we could be with our pocket versions. His intensely focused, peculiarly bland, disinterested nature — not the conventional model of a modern educator — somehow attracted devoted attention.

I was struck in the aftermath of the Marathon bombings at the descriptions of the younger scoundrel by his college classmates at UMass Dartmouth. Each described him as a normal teenager, social, liked to party and smoke pot, good soccer player, just like all of his classmates, a typical American teenager. On the other hand, the portrait developed by investigators describes him as a young man on his own, living off and on with his older brother, no parents in the picture, not only smoked pot but dealt pot, lived off and on in a dorm room, ate at the commons, used the gym, missed a lot of classes, his best mark in two college years was a D. And, when he wasn’t living the campus vida loca, he murdered and maimed more than 200 innocents.

“Censors on the right aim to restore an idealized vision of the past, an Arcadia of happy family life, in which the family was intact, comprising a father, a mother, and two or more children, and went to church every Sunday,” Diane Ravitch wrote in her book describing the pernicious influence of censorship in the development of reading lists for high school and college students. “Censors from the left believe in an idealized vision of the future, a utopia in which egalitarianism prevails in all social relations. In this vision, there is no dominant group, no dominant father, no dominant race, and no dominant gender.”

The orderly past or the blissful future? We’ll see, but for sure, there’ll be no reunion celebrations for the young bomber.