Annie In My Life

The following was originally published (The Boise Weekly) September 4, 1997.

Chapter Seven

Multiplication Trouble  … Long-Range Division

My daughter started school Tuesday. Your kid most likely started last week because you … most likely… live in the Boise School District. We live in Meridian, and our kids didn’t have to go back until after Labor Day. Which means, Boise kids have a five-day head start on Meridian kids. Damn, I hope this doesn’t mean my kid’s chances on the international job market are already screwed up.

She’s in the second grade now. Hard to believe. Seems like just yesterday her mom and I were teaching her how laughing loudly when she farts is unacceptable behavior, and here she is… a big second-grader. Hopefully, her new teacher will reinforce what we’ve taught her.

Assuming her teacher has time to fit her in.

There are 125 other second-graders where she goes to school, five second-grade classes x 25 kids per class, give or take. One-hunert, twenty-five second-graders. Think about it. That’s enough to start a navy in some countries. There are nearly 725 people in her school, not counting grown-ups. Think about that. Seven-hunert, twenty-five kids in one elementary school, and there are 20 elementary schools in the Meridian District. If the other schools are as packed as the one my daughter goes to, we’ve got over 14,000 kids grades K-5 in the district. THINK ABOUT IT! Fourteen thousand pre-pubes! Missus Cope and I have spent the summer teaching our daughter how to juggle and sing show tunes at the same time, just so’ she’ll get some attention now and then.

* * *

I was lucky. When I was my daughter’s age, there were two kinds of schools. There were the regular old schools where the town kids went and where, if it was made of wood, someone oiled it twice a day. And then there were the “country” schools, so named because… you guessed it… they were out in the country. In those days, a mile from the center of Meridian was considered “country.” Now, a mile from the center of Meridian is considered “Meridian,” and two miles from the center of Meridian is considered an “area of impact.” But back then, two miles from the center of Meridian was considered “pasture.”

The country schools were named with rural poetry. Cloverdale, Locust Grove, Hillsdale… you can almost hear the meadowlarks, huh? These old buildings had two rooms, three at the most, not counting bathrooms because there were no bathrooms. The bathrooms were in itsy-bitsy houses of their own out on one corner of the playgrounds and also served as the school spider-torium.

So how was I lucky? Other than normally not having to sit down when I went to the bathroom, I mean? What luck was there in attending a school where the heating system amounted to the 12 or 14  kids per class moving their desks closer together in wintertime and the library was all the books the teacher could carry in her Chevy’s trunk? What was so good about when the beginners band rehearsed, it was in a 4′ X 10′ cubbyhole, along with our coats, our galoshes, and a decomposing tuna sandwich or two? What was so damn great about playing on school-ground equipment that consisted of a teeter-totter made entirely of un-painted splinters and a merry-go-’round that tore off our clothing if we got too close to the center?

Twelve or14 kids per class, that’s how. Our teachers knew all our names by lunchtime. We might not have had playground equipment or a library. Or a music room. Or a gym. Or heat. Or toilets. But individual attention, we had. And if there’s anything a kid needs, it’s individual attention.

* * *

Individual attention is to self-esteem what sex is to pregnancy… you gotta have one to have the other.

And I’m one of those people who believe a measure of self-esteem is important to everyone, but particularly to kids. I believe had someone said, “Ach, Adolph! Them’s some mighty fine pictures you drew. Keep up the good work, kinder,” the Forties might well have been a much happier decade.

I believe had someone told Saddam Hussein the Youngster how proud they were of the little experiments he did on his Mr. Chemistry set, he wouldn’t be such a hyper-active brat today.

I believe had someone encouraged little Annie Fox with her playhouse interest in education, she might, as we speak, know something about the subject.

Think of it this way: achievement is the engine that drives both societies and individuals alike, but recognition is the fuel.

Okay, if you don’t want to think of it that way, think of it this way: say you spend 40 hours a week…  45, if you’re on salary… working your tail to a nub so’s the outfit you work for prospers. You do it in part because you want to prosper, yourself … but only in part. Whatever you do for a living … whether you’re a genetic engineer breeding Rhode Island Reds with breasts the size of bicycle helmets, or you’re just the guy who plucks the chicken … whether you own 51 percent of the stock in a computer-chip manufacturing plant, or you’re just the guy who keeps the plant’s toilet bowls asparklin’ … whether you’re a rocket scientist for NASA, or you’re just the guy on the MIR space station who keeps tripping over the oxygen generator … now and then, you want to be told you’re doing a good job. Right? You want … no, need … recognition for what you do.

We don’t outgrow that. It’s soul food and we can eat a lot of it without getting fat.

Kids need more of it than we grown-ups. Their souls are still growing, you see, so where a mature person can get by with a yearly Secretary’s Day or his picture on the Employee of the Month wall, kids need a daily dose or their souls get stunted.

But what happens if your child’s teacher has to divide her attention up 25 ways? There’s only so much attention to go around, you know. If you don’t believe me, have 25 kids of your own and see how much attention you have left at the end of the day. With 25 kids, I predict you’ll need a hug transplant by the time you’re 40.

* * *

I have another idea. It probably won’t work, but hey … if it doesn’t, I’ll be in the same dunce cap as Anne Fox, William Bennett, and about everyone else with a notion to reform the education system.

What if, instead of building more and more of these cinderblock squat-body children-storage units at four or five million each, what if we bought up a house every few square blocks and put the neighborhood kids to school in them? More kids in one neighborhood than another… buy more houses. Not many kids, maybe you could get by with one or two houses, see?

Okay, let’s say we have a five or six room house to cover an area with about 40 kids in it, be it 10 square blocks, 20… whatever. Three teachers ought to about do it for 40 kids, don’t you think? They each might have to teach a little first-grade here, a little third there, and a little fifth-grade over yonder, but I don’t think they’d mind … variety being the spice of life and such.

Expensive, you say? Maybe, maybe not. The average price of a house in the Boise Valley these days is about $125,000. Say you take the five million which might be spent on one new elementary school, and buy houses with it. You can get 40 average houses with $5,000,000. Forty. Yer old XL, in Roman numeral talk. At 40 kids per house, that’s 1600 kids in school for the same price it took to put 725 into one squat-body cinderblock children warehouse.

And if for some reason the kids go away on down the line, like if people quit having babies or if they stop moving here like Bosnian refugees, we can sell some houses off. Ever try to sell an old school which is no longer needed? Might as well try to get rid of a used AMC Gremlin.

Ah, you think you caught me. You say 40 houses at three teachers each is 120 teachers, and no elementary school has 120 teachers on staff.

You’re right, of course. But you don’t actually need 40 houses, see? Take for example the area that accommodates Meridian Elementary with it’s 725 kids … round it up to 800 for mathmetical convenience … divide by 40 … and all you need is 20 houses to take care of the same student body. Twenty houses at $125,000 apiece is two and a half million. What kind of school could you build for two and a half million, I ask ya’?

Extra money = extra teachers. Extra teachers = equals extra individual attention. Extra individual attention = better education. Better education = better country.

Work out the numbers, yourself, and see what you come up with. It’s not like I’m a prima donna when it comes to arithmetic.

* * *

We’ve all heard the praises of the old one-room schoolhouse sung often enough. Meridian even has a one-room schoolhouse museum of sorts, all pretty in white with a little bell tower and a porch. If you’re old enough to know what “the principal’s paddle” means, you’re old enough to know how education was better in small, discreet settings, yet we have come to accept education en masse as a given —inevitable and getting worse all the time.

But it’s true: going to school with a batch is better than going to school with a herd. My math may be off base, but my concept isn’t. And if it works for elementary kids, why wouldn’t it work for middle-school kids? Or high-school kids? Meridian Middle School anticipates an enrollment of 1306 kids this fall. That’s yer old MCCCVI. Think about it.

Think of yourself as being 1/1306th of a whole. That’s .00076 in decimal talk. Makes you feel pretty small, doesn’t it?

To the Meridian School District, my daughter will be 1/725 of a whole, itself being 1/20 of a larger whole. Pretty small, and I know better. My kid might be short, but by God, she’s not small.

September 4, 1997


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