An ex-student writes me from far, far away, thanking me for being her teacher years ago. I respond by thanking her, and then telling her I'm not at all sure what it's going to be like not to teach, whether I'll manage it okay or go completely bonzo. She says there's things she wouldn't miss if she'd quit (she's a long ways from retirement age). And then this:
And you don't have to deal with crabby moms who are so bent out of shape because of a D on her son's paper that she meets with the principal to let him know how unfair and unjust his teacher is. At least I hope you don't have parents calling/e-mailing you about grades. =)She's right, and in the eternal debates about education, what she registers here is an attitude almost completely forgotten--that parents play an oh-so-huge role in the education of their children. Not long ago, candidate Romney claimed that class size wasn't much of determiner in the quality of education, because anyone, he said, would rather be in a huge class taught by a world-class teacher than a little tidy one taught by a train wreck. Well, duh. Why don't we just crown one teacher Master-of-All and create a single classroom. Good night, we'd save bucks.
Conservatives believe classroom reformation begins with the death of teachers' unions. Democrats believe if we only throw more money at failing schools, we'll leave no child behind, etc. What few talking heads seem to mention is the hatchet-job my ex-student suffered. Maybe too many parents are too indulgent. If moms choose to breast feed their kids until they're 12, it's no business of mine; but what struck me most offensive about Time's most infamous cover in the last 20 years was what the photo said about patronizing parents who truly believe their children are so darn "special."
Just one of the major differences between the college I attended 45 years ago and the one where I worked for the last 36 years (they were one and the same) was the requirement profs now have to sweet-talk high school graduates into believing that here--and only here, at this college--will they find all their blessed needs met. "Can you guarantee my daughter will get published?" the parent of a prospective student asked me a few recruiting seasons ago? I told him I couldn't. The young lady went elsewhere on her way to the Pulitzer, I presume.
Of course, if we don't recruit madly, some other college down the block is going to get our warm bodies, and then the administration, like a drunken surgeon, will have to cut staff, programs, departments . So we write and call and beg, and we kiss sweet high school fannies week after week because, Lord knows, we need warm bodies.
And who suffers? Okay, maybe my ego gets punctured--I'll admit it; but I say it's the students themselves, each of whom starts to believe that he or she and not the sun is the center of the solar system.
That's why I love the grad speech David McCullough gave recently at the high school where he teaches, an incredible old-testament-like jeremiad which let his own students know that they weren't special. You read that right.
"Your ceremonial costume. . .shapeless, uniform, one-size-fits all," he told them, "whether male or female, tall or short, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic X-Box assassin, each of you is dressed, you'll notice, exactly the same. And your diploma. . .but for your name, exactly the same." And then this: "All of this is as it should be because none of you are special. You are not special. You are not exceptional."
Imagine that. Imagine you're at a commencement when the speaker holds forth in that tone and register. Imagine being a parent.
The speech wasn't a rant--read it and see it here. It's not. But Mr. McCullough, speaking to his own students, makes it perfectly clear that the world is full of indulgences these days, indulgences to be avoided. "The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life," he told his students, "is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap because you're a nice person or mommy ordered it from the caterer." Or Daddy.
Seems to me a precious bit of sanity, something neither Romney or Obama would dare to say.
Did I mention?--McCullough teaches English. Pardon my pride.