Where Few Dare Tread

I was sitting in the Peabody Library last semester when I overheard a conversation between two students that ended with one saying to the other, “Well, I guess public school isn’t for everyone.” This sentiment was spoken with what I judged to be irony aimed at humor.

The fact that it was uttered at all, let alone at the Peabody College of education and human development at Vanderbilt University, suggests the troubling ease with which it is possible for some of our country’s best and brightest aspiring educators to joke about the state of public education. Our public schools are far more important than most people appreciate.

It is a disturbing sign that we as a country have reached the point of no longer taking seriously the tragic failures and deplorable conditions of our most basic and universal public institution.

What gives me hope—and drives me to continue down my chosen career path to teaching in one of those countless overcrowded, ill-equipped classrooms you see on the evening news—is what I learn every day in class at Vanderbilt.

If I had to point to a specific lesson I’ve learned during my first year as a student in the master of education program that has changed my outlook on the world around me, it is that our country owes almost all its successes to the highly educated populace the founders envisioned and took steps to create in order to preserve our radical new democracy.

“Highly educated” may seem like an overstatement, until you remember that the idea of a free public education for all citizens—and not just the entitled—is a very young one. The fact that 90 percent of our country’s population could read by the turn of the 20th century is a remarkable credit to our country’s commitment to differentiating itself from the great cultures that came before it. The free public election in which all adults can vote may be the very basis of our government, but in order to make intelligent choices and ensure that our elected officials work for us, American citizens need an education in civics, politics, economics and history, among other subjects.

What does that have to do with public schools and their necessity or relevance in our technological age of instantly available information and cheap abundant learning materials? Can’t any religious or other private school, or sufficiently motivated parent, provide students with a proper education? The answer is yes; there are lots of places for children to be educated, and an infinite number of sources from which to gather information. However, I don’t believe these options should or could ever replace the public school system.

One of my professors at Vanderbilt once referred to me during class as a “public school success story.” From kindergarten until my graduation from college, I attended medium to large suburban public schools. I graduated from high school and college with above-average grades and excellent standardized test scores. I now attend one of the country’s preeminent private universities as a graduate student in one of its top programs.

I do not, however, consider myself a public school success story. I have gotten to where I am right now largely in spite of the public schools I attended—with a delay, in terms of time, that was due in some part to the dysfunction of those schools and the way they dealt with me.

I didn’t have a choice where I went to school. I am the second oldest of five children. I was born the year my father was accepted to medical school. My mother split time between working long hours as a pharmacist and raising five children—extremely well, I might add; she should be beatified. Public school was the only option for us, as it is for a very large portion of the population. There was no time for home schooling, no voucher program for private-school reimbursement. My mother had gone to parochial school and promised never to subject her children to the same experience. Magnet and charter schools did not exist on the south side of Indianapolis—a solidly middle-class part of town reluctant to adopt any new education programs or policies that might be viewed as frivolous, or worse, expensive.

I’ve had terrible teachers in my life. Terrible. Lots of them. I was bullied in school—occasionally by my teachers. I left high school with absolutely no idea of what I was passionate about in life that might translate to a meaningful career. As a student I was intelligent and motivated, so it was all but assumed that I would succeed on my own and find that bridge to professional life. It was assumed that the schooling and guidance I had received during those 12 years had equipped me with all the tools needed to become a happy, successful citizen.

I’ll spare you the dull story of how I spent my undergraduate years floundering at two Midwestern public universities until I came to the conclusion, thanks largely to a lovably cantankerous creative writing professor, that I should just study what I love and find out how to make a living doing that.

But the “making a living” part wasn’t so easy. I was earning $70 a day as a substitute teacher and looking for work as a writer/editor when I began to wonder how I had arrived at that point in my life. I was working on a freelance piece for a local newspaper one day while babysitting a class of high school seniors when they asked me what I was doing. I explained that someone was paying me to write an article about an upcoming concert downtown.

That was the moment—sitting there and explaining why someone would pay me to listen to a free CD and then attend a concert for free—when I realized where my public school career had gone wrong. If I had spent four years of high school and four years of college focused on becoming a writer, I realized, then perhaps I wouldn’t have been sitting in that classroom making 70 bucks a day to babysit.

Even so, I was really glad to be there, answering those kids’ questions, sitting on the same side of the desk my teacher had sat behind eight years earlier while absentmindedly scrawling “good job” on my papers. It felt just as good as seeing my name on a byline—and was much more meaningful.

As a teacher I can take what I learn and make a difference, even if only for 120 students a year. I believe my personal talents and graduate education are best utilized under the most difficult of conditions, which is why I came to Vanderbilt. I wanted to learn from the best so I could be ready for the worst.

Public schools may not be for everyone, and they may not have been the best option for my siblings and me, but for millions of families like my own, no other options exist. Public schools are the first, best and only opportunity for the children of these families to receive the education needed to secure good-paying jobs and to become contributing members of our society.

One of the central roles of our government, I believe, is to provide for us that which we cannot do for ourselves. Schooling is a prime example. And we, the voting, taxpaying public, should expect our government to provide the best possible education for our children.

I’ve heard the arguments about money mismanagement, tenured burnout teachers, violence and safety issues, and fear of children being inculcated with secular values. It’s true that too many schools have become stagnant, poorly staffed, and content to cruise along below the radar somewhere between mediocrity and irrelevance. While No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has tried to do something about public schools, those schools are still failing too many of our children.

My answer to those people who have doubts about the future of public schools is that we need to redirect our efforts toward holding schools accountable, rather than giving up on them.

Hold me accountable. I would love to have students, parents and administrators asking me about my lessons, intentions and objectives. If I demand to be regarded as a professional, then I have no problem being treated with the scrutiny that goes along with that. I wouldn’t mind some more professional pay while you’re at it, but I digress.

Get involved. Let your schools, your government and your children know what is important to you and that you are willing to do what it takes with your time, your money and your vote.

I am going to be a teacher. I am going to work in a public school. I know at least 50 or so grad students just like me who are going to make a difference any way we can. We will do so because we believe in the incontrovertible importance of public schools.

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