Annie In My Life

” Now We Know Our ABCs, Come and Watch the Soaps With Me” was published (Boise Weekly) June 5, 1997.

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Chapter Five

Now We Know Our ABCs, Come and Watch the Soaps With Me

School’s out. At this very moment, your children are mixing up a pitcher of sugar, tap water, and something out of a package with a picture of happy fruit on the front. When they’re finished—and they’ll know they’re finished when every surface in your kitchen is sticky, including under the Mr. Coffee, which you won’t discover until after the ants hatch out—they will sit down with their drinks and watch the Montel Williams Show, followed by Ricki Lake. After a lunch break, during which peanut butter, bacon fat, and Spaghettios will be spread to a depth of several millimeters over the brand-new couch/love seat ensemble you got for Mother’s Day, they will join Jenny Jones in progress, chase her down with Sally Jesse Raphael, then turn to PBS so’s if you happen to come home early, you’ll catch them pretending to solve today’s Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego puzzle.

But they’ve earned their vacation, huh? It’s been a tough school year, and not just for students. Teachers are hanging close to home, afraid to be seen in public until their eyes un-glaze. Administrators have all rented cottages in far-away places for the summer, vowing that if they have to listen to one more disgruntled parent bitch about how little “Guido” didn’t deserve to be sent to the principal’s office in handcuffs, they’ll just explode.

Anne Fox is holed up in the Department of Education, and she knows that if she say’s anything beyond “please pass the federal grant,” everyone in the state will be mad at her. The Idaho Education Association is digging in for next winter, when the legislature will be back in town dreaming up new ways to shortchange public education. And key Idaho legislative leaders are spending the summer at “HOW TO SHORTCHANGE PUBLIC EDUCATION” seminars.

* * *

To say public education is going through a rough spell is like saying Hiroshima was subjected to a little urban renewal. Duck, or you’ll be beaned with another story of how many graduating seniors are reading at a pre-Bronze Age level, of how colleges are forced into providing freshmen courses in Remedial Everything, of how the average high school kid doesn’t know Canada from the Caribbean, and of how every nation advanced enough to have a Pizza Hut is beating our pants off at math and science.

Every other Tuesday—every Tuesday if you live in Meridian—there’s another bond election to build a dozen new schools because the ones we have are so crowded the kids have to go to the bathroom alphabetically, and disgruntled taxpayers are organizing anti-bond committees faster than they can come up with new names to call themselves.

The state legislature, ever eager to look like they’re doing something helpful, considered approving school vouchers this year, which would have taken money away from already strapped districts and put it into the “WE NEED ANOTHER ABANDONED CAR IN OUR FRONT YARD” fund of those parents who’ve decided the world’s just way too racy for their kids to belong to.

Teachers are being portrayed as a bunch of union thugs who show dirty movies to pre-pubescents for nine months, then swing in a hammock all summer long, with pay, thinking up new ways to turn your kids away from God.

The state Democratic Party was last seen packed into A.K. Leinhart’s over-night bag, so the IEA is looking through their list of those Republicans who haven’t called them “union thugs” anytime in the last three or four months for someone to endorse in the next election.

An Phaucks thinks a return to phonetics will solve everything, along with a class or two in shooting guns. The religious right thinks a return to school prayer will solve everything, even though it’s a fact the Dark Ages were full of people who prayed and virtually empty of people who could read. Bill Clinton and Al Gore think on-line computers in every classroom will solve everything. And maybe they’re right …  assuming what kids need the most are chatrooms where they can talk dirty to one another.

If one thing is certain in our search for meaningful change to the beleaguered education system, it’s this: whatever anyone suggests, no one else likes. Suburban parents don’t like what might work for inner city kids … be it Ebonics, midnight basketball, or bi-lingualism … thinking “So what if minorities can’t transcend the ghetto? They’ll just end up moving next door to me.”

The ACLU doesn’t like the idea if bringing religious values back into public classrooms, in spite of what fine things are being accomplished in Northern Ireland, Iran, and the Vatican.

Conservatives don’t like anything Bill Clinton offers because …  well …  he’s Bill Clinton. I sympathize. I don’t like anything Anne Fox offers because …  well …  she’s wrong.

Soooo, as long as nobody’s listening to anyone else, I might as well throw some suggestions out.

Can’t hurt.

* * *

          And dammit, something’s gotta help. I don’t want to sound like a over-wrought Pentacostal at a sex-ed parent/teacher’s conference, but THESE ARE OUR CHILDRENS’ FUTURES WE’RE FUC … (pardon me) … PLAYING WITH! I, for one, am damn sick of adult pastimes like politics, religion, and budget considerations being mixed up with my kid’s well-being. Or your kid’s, for that matter.

Allow me to indulge in a little sentimentality here. You see, Friday, I picked my first-grader up after school for the last time. I’ll pick her up again, sure, but from now on, she’ll be a second-grader. Or a third-grader. Or … well, I assume you know the pattern.

For the past nine months, I’ve waited outside the Meridian Elementary stainless-steel mesh fence, reflecting—perhaps too much—upon the need for a stainless-steel mesh fence. I went to grade school in country schools, see? And by country schools, I mean when we shagged flies during recess, we stood in a field of corn stubble, waiting for the ball to come our way and moved only when the farmer was about to plow us under.

There were no mesh fences, no playground monitors, no “if your step-father or another stranger tries to abduct you, follow such’n’such procedure” stuff. When the school day was done, there were no teachers’ aides or parent volunteers watching like conspiracy-fed roosters to see that little Billy didn’t mistakenly get in a van with someone claiming to be his long-lost Uncle Ernie. There were no jagged edges when I was in the first grade, none of this “Yes, Billy, Tyrannosaurus Rex is extinct. Besides, there are a lot worse things for you to worry about than Tee-Rex.”

So for nine months at the mesh fence, I’ve feared for my kid, not so much because I feared an ersatz Uncle Ernie might nab her, but simply because the world she had the bad timing to grow up in is so changed. So fearful.

Yesterday, though, it was different. The same teachers I’d watched all year hustle students off were now hugging them, probably for the last time. Parents I’d seen all year picking up their kids as though it was a chore like walking the dog were now beaming as if the little guy had just gotten out of Harvard with honors. And the kids … ah … there was the big difference. Every other day, they came out swinging backpacks and ready for a snack. Friday, they came out floating on a cloud of pure pride.

“One down, ‘leven to go! Give me your best shot, second-grade. I’m ready for ya’!”

          Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m a sentimental fool who sees portent in the trivial and gives depth to the insignificant. But when my special kid came out, lugging a bag that amounted, essentially, to one/seventh of her lifetime’s accomplishment, I saw that she was already dying to pin Mean Ol’ Second Grade to the mat. I commented to no one in particular, “There oughta be a band playing “Pomp and Circumstances.”

A teacher standing next to me swelled up like she knew damn good and well she’d done the best job she could do and said, “No kidding.”

* * *

Those little kids knew something we big guys have forgotten. I could see it in their eyes and the way they walked, that by adding the first-grade notch to their Barbie belts, they’d come a step closer to something grand and noble.

They knew, however briefly, this isn’t just about readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmatic. Education isn’t just about training monkeys to sell insurance or assemble computer chips. This is about Humanity marching on, learning everything their fathers learned, plus what their fathers discovered. It’s about becoming citizens, then adding their two cents to civilization. It’s about climbing from the savage to the sublime, about the world getting better because the people in it get better. And the gilded spheres of education have always been, and by definition, will always be, where the baton is handed off.

It’s been working for centuries, since even before there was a Jesus to pray to in class. And there is no good excuse for us not to dedicate ourselves to making sure it doesn’t work on into the forever more.

Through the summer months, once a month, I will discuss an idea for improving the system. If current levels of tolerance prevail, nobody will agree with me on anything, anyway. But fine. Just damn fine! If you don’t like my suggestions, come up with something better, smartass.

You listen to me … I listen to you … then let’s make it better. After all, God didn’t give us brains just so we could sign checks over to the church potluck trust fund. Conservative or liberal, it’s our duty to move beyond the philosophies du jour and secure the perimeters for our progeny.

And whatever else we do wrong, let’s not confuse this with something that doesn’t matter.

June 5, 1997

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