Public School, Part 4

Dunce -- Public School Part 4 photoReaders, I am sorry I got myself into this mess of a series.  It’s taking me forever to edit.  From now on I am writing only about bunny rabbits and whether to give your babies almond milk or the regular kind.  

During Ray’s first music class of the kindergarten season, the teacher grabbed his arm and yelled in his face, which made him cry.

We went to see her. Lynn and I didn’t just hightail it to the school with no plan. We discussed what our approach would be, and we purposely did not telephone the principal or write a formal letter to the superintendent of schools.

Mrs. Cohayn is slim, with thin blonde hair. She moves quickly and nervously, like a little bird. She is middle-aged, speaks shrilly, and seems very high strung.

After we introduced ourselves, Lynn said, “We heard you had some trouble with Raym– ”

“Well,” she said, breathlessly. “He was — he was sitting cross-legged in his seat. And you know how small they are. They can just fall off so easily! And I always tell the children” — and here she took on a singsongy affectation — “safety first, safety first!” She dashed over to the chart and pointed to some words scrawled in magic marker on a gray piece of paper that was taped to the blackboard. I don’t remember the exact words on the paper, but the whole thing was ridiculous. Kindergartners cannot read.

“We’re here because we don’t want our son to give you a hard time,” I said, my tongue slapping itself against the sides of my mouth in an effort to form the shape of a huge lie.

“Oh, no, no,” she said. “Of course not.”

“We’re all working together,” Lynn said. “To make sure he doesn’t disrupt the class.”

“Oh, yes, yes, yes,” she said, and her lids moved sideways and then back again, suggesting that she needed us to get out of there, fast, and that it took great effort to be so false. I also noticed that she wasn’t aware of being false, which brings this whole analysis to a very deep level, indeed. Too deep for the hour of the day that I am writing this, which is well past midnight.

She never even brought up the matter of arm-grabbing and yelling, I told Cindy, later.

“It doesn’t matter,” Cindy said. “Everyone knew the subtext of the conversation. You were flagging yourselves as parents who care about your child. She knows the score.”

“Well,” I said. “If she so much as touches the hem of Ray’s garment, I will write to the district faster than you can say Mississippi Hot Dog.”

I don’t think it’s the worst thing that he got yelled at, or even that this ninny grabbed his arm. When I calmed down and acknowledged that he was probably being annoying, I empathized with her frustration. I’ve taught in schools for years, and I know how irritating children can be. In fact, a colleague of mine once came into my ESL classroom full of seven-year-olds because she overheard me saying with great exasperation (and probably volume), “Will you please stop acting like such a child!”

But I don’t think we should scream at children, and I certainly don’t believe we should touch them in anger, unless of course they are our own children. I’ve worked with plenty of teachers in the public schools who shout at little kids. It’s always appalling. Especially when it’s a classroom full of five-year-olds. These are little people, and to scream at them is terribly offensive and unfair, let alone rattling and unproductive. Once, when I was working with another teacher, I even went so far as to say, “Do you realize you are screaming at five-year-olds?” But never, ever, did I feel as unconscionably furious as I felt when my own child bore the brunt of it.

The other day, while I was reading the newspaper, Ray wandered into the living room and said, “Mama, can I try a different school?”

The next day he had a stomachache and wanted to stay home. When I told him that he was welcome to stay home if he wasn’t feeling well, but that we would not be watching any television, he said he would go to school. But he seemed lackluster.

“So, do I keep laying the groundwork?” I asked Cindy, the next day. “Because there is no newsletter and there is no parent volunteering unless it’s a field trip. I don’t think I will be spending much time in the classroom. Even if I bring her a dozen rare orchids every week for a year.”

Cindy sighed. “I think you have made your position clear to this music teacher, anyway,” she said.

“I’m going to tell the principal that he is allergic to music,” I said. “He can just go to study hall instead.”

“Yes,” Cindy agreed. “Right after geometry class.”

Ray also did a funny imitation of the lunch aides: “Young Man, if you leave your seat for even a second you will stand by the wall. Young Man, do not speak unless I say so!” Like the music teacher, the lunch aide also sounded like an ill-informed meathead. It was funny, sort of, but mostly it made me sad.

I realize that I am stating the obvious, yet again, as I declare that the public education system in our country is in a state of crisis. But it must be said.

“Let me get this straight,” I said to Lynn, removing the oven mitts and laying them on the counter. “If you put your child in public school, then are you pretty much sending your kid to be taught by a bunch of people who are intent upon reproducing the labor force?”

I didn’t listen to Lynn’s response because, frankly, the complexity of her answer exhausted me so much that I nearly dropped the casserole. But I will share with you three thoughts that come to mind when we speak of public school in America (more than three would be too difficult).

The public school system focuses on order first, and on pedagogy second. It attempts to socialize children to become good cubicle workers by having them stand in line without fidgeting, even though they are little and need to move their bodies for more than the allotted  20 minutes per day.

Bad teachers constitute only one small part of the reform equation. Administrators and business leaders have worsened the schools by focusing on the wrong things.

There is no system in this country for recruiting talented, well-trained people to teach. Right now, we rely on luck to find talented teachers — someone who has a calling or happens into a rigorous education program.

Kids get screamed at in school when you set the bar very low, when you do not recruit the best and the brightest to teach, when you don’t pay teachers competitively enough to capture the valedictorian’s attention, and when anyone with the IQ of a tomato can get into a cheap teacher-ed program and come out with certification. See? I did the algorithm. (What is an algorithm? I have no idea.)

Sending your child to public school means that uninspired nimrods will be shouting at your kids. You get the folks lower down on the education totem pole, the ones who were probably slapped as children and who, in turn, slapped their children as a primary form of behavior modification. This isn’t something I am just pulling out of my, um, ear, thank you very much. I’ve been around educators all my life. My parents were teachers, and so was I, and the truly gifted teacher is a rare species indeed (I was not one).

Here are some quotations I took down when I worked in public school. At the time I had no idea what I would use them for, but they seemed noteworthy at the time.

“Amy, your hair is a totally disaster.” This was from my ESL co-teacher, with whom I worked for three years. A truly lovely person and a sweetheart besides, but English was not her forte, and she was the full-time English language teacher in the school.

“You should join my church. It’s non-dominational.” Again, another English language teacher from another school.

“I can’t give ya books. I can’t give ya knowledge. What I can give ya, is common sense.” This was from a professor in a supervisory program, who had taught for thirty years and was teaching a course in administrative principles.

“I am not going to be deduced to this.” The classmate sitting next to me during a professional development seminar, on test preparation.

I’m not trying to indict all teachers. Administrators and public school reformers are equally — if not more — culpable than the teachers. They focus on the wrong things, like firing teachers who don’t produce good test scores on racially biased assessment exams. I guess what I’m trying to say here, in what is purportedly a “personal essay,” is that we can do better. I don’t want our public education system merely to reproduce the labor force. Education should be transformative, not indoctrinating. If you don’t believe in this simple principle, you have no business being an educator or an administrator in the first place.

Another hostile remark that I must lay claim to responsibility was, “I think sending my kids off to a public school means that they’re going to be knocked around by a bunch of working class idiots who don’t know anything about pedagogy.” Indeed, this is how I, and many of my friends, felt about my son getting yelled at by the music teacher and the gym teacher and god knows how many lunch aides. We dismiss these teachers as working class behemoths and don’t really bother thinking about the speciousness of this claim.

The truth is our children are getting educated in the public schools by people who cross all economic strata; I’ve seen improperly trained teachers from working class families as often as I’ve seen ones from wealthier origins. Crappy teachers exist all over, and this is because it’s not that difficult a field to get into, and if you don’t feel like working very hard or being particularly good at what you do, teaching can be downright easy. It’s no harder or easier to be a shitty teacher than it is to be a shitty CEO. It’s just that when you do it badly there’s so much more at stake.

Teaching is a noble endeavor at its best, but we’ve created a system where it is not operating at its best.

In Finland, only about 10% of people who apply to teacher training programs are accepted. Teachers are paid a living wage, and children are offered a wealth of social services, if they need them, from the time they’re born. In this country if you were born poor and to parents who sang you no songs and gave you no love and who tossed you into your first classroom in early September at age four without actually treating you like a human being, we still expect you to be able to listen during circle time. To sing a song or to perform well on a test. Please. These standardized tests do nothing to address the naked fact that through no fault of their own, by accident of birth, children find themselves in families with parents who are addicted to drugs, who are impoverished, who are food insecure.

I have an idea. Let’s get more businesspeople to tell educators how to manage accountability in the classroom. Entrepreneurs know all about pedagogy, do they not? This is the model we live under, the regime we celebrate and try to emulate, which is unconscionable. Our education system ranks 17th among 40 developed countries, a fact that is pretty hard to stomach given that the United States ranks about 6th from the top for wealth. Our educational system is a failure. It’s devastating.

There is another elementary school in our area, about five minutes away from the one Ray now attends. We’d heard about it, and I even phoned to see if it was possible for Ray to go to this one, since the school transitioned completely from a traditional model to a Montessori one six years ago. Learning there is project-based, and instruction is differentiated based on student learning styles. But I was told on the phone that the program was likely to be shut down because of budget cuts, and the superintendent was new that year and no longer allowing applications for a variance.

So I let it go. Besides, I had heard that test scores at the school were among the worst in the area, and that it was in a blighted part of the city. Besides, we wanted Ray to have friends in his own neighborhood, which is racially diverse and largely working class but not as poor as the one that follows the Montessori model.

About a year ago, I ran into a woman holding an infant at our local organic butchery. The baby was about the same age as my twins, and the woman turned out to be a teacher at the alternative public school. Of course, her baby was named Alchemy. Alchemy! I felt like hugging this mom.

“I have to see what’s doing over there,” I said to her, after she told me about the teachers who sought to work in this particular school, and who trained for over a year in the Montessori method above and beyond the state requirements for an elementary teaching certificate.

“You should,” she said. “It’s a unique place.”

I asked her what she thought of the school Ray would attend.

“It’s very traditional,” she said, carefully. “They take a more conservative approach.”

I patted her baby. She suggested I take a tour of the school. Then I drove home and went to sleep because that is what you do when you have infant twins. If you are not washing a shirt or buying a grocery item, you are unconscious.

I must stop here.  Everyone in my home is screaming at this moment except me. Part 5 in your inbox or on the blog, first thing Thursday morning.  I  promise…

Part 5


  1. Fascinating essay. It’s like you’re going along with Ray on his Kindergarten journey and bleeding ambivalence at every step. Impulse control? check. Contain and channel the rage? check. Think before you say something hurtful? / shut up? check. Don’t get punished for flaunting the safety rules that keep you in check check.

    So how does all that feel?

    Feel free to not pass this through moderation if it feels too much like I’m poking you with a stick. You’re wrestling with intractables here. It’s a good, thoughtful, useful essay – it’s just that it emerges from the other essays in this cycle like a spooky, too-calm pod-person. And I’m more than half serious about the analogies that I draw above. There are good reasons why little kids have to be controlled and taught control, and good reasons that we adults practice the same self-control, restraint and self-repression. And there are bad reasons as well – which is the crux of things here, I guess.

    I don’t want to imply that you should be down at the school lobbing verbal hand grenades – at least not yet. It sounds like you are doing what you should. It’s just . . . five-year-olds need to manage (but not erase) their passions without biting or breaking things, sure. So do parents. And so do writers, as I too well know. It’s not something I do well, but I think you do, and I confess to wanting another draft of this . . .

    • Hey! Thanks for your great comments. I’m writing specifically to Matt, Deb, and Mr. Anubis. It’s wonderful to know that you guys are reading and that the piece made you want to write back.

      As I see it, both of your posts throw the real underlying issue into the sunlight. Both of your experiences with public schools reflect the privileges of living in a predominately white, upper-middle class (and, in the case of Rhinebeck, wealthy) school district. Unfortunately, that’s not the experience that most families have with public schools, particularly in majority minority communities. Kingston, where we live, has more minorities than any other neighboring community in the Hudson Valley with the exception perhaps of Hudson, which is about thirty minutes north of here. That minority population also has a higher incidence of poverty. Matt, when you list Rhinebeck as being in the top 10 public schools in the country, you make my point precisely: Rhinebeck is the exception and we shouldn’t generalize about public schools from that exception particularly when we’re speaking about predominately privileged white children. The real question for both of you is what do we do with the schools in working class and majority non-white neighborhoods? They don’t receive the science foundation grants and the great teachers of which you speak, Matt.

      The experiences that I detail are more generalizable – it’s the norm for the majority of the population (which by the way I am sure you already know is increasingly non-white). Read authors like Jonathan Kozol and Diane Ravitch – they detail both the two-tiered system of education and the harsh landscape of majority nonwhite public schools .

      Now, you may argue that we should just leave the district. We’re lucky in that we can move to more prosperous communities, although we’d have to move to a smaller house. But we are in the least going to give our local schools a shot, at least for this year and possibly more, for two main reasons. One, diversity is the future and we want Ray in class with all types of kids. Lynn sees too many kids in college classes who went to school in predominately white upper middle class areas and who insist on seeing the world in colorblind terms despite the reality. It’s a kind of ignorance and it perpetuates racial injustice when we don’t see the ways in which race affects life outcomes, including in the educational realm. Two, ideally we don’t want to contribute to the white flight that has made this country among the most segregated in the world – that has helped create this two-tiered public school system. We want to try to create a constructive community for the public schools in Kingston, one where everyone gets a shot at a transformative education. We want to leverage whatever skills we have to help the schools and to create a better community. I talk more about this in the last section of the Public School essay, Part 5, which hopefully you’ll read on Thursday.

      It’s really hard to argue that there is a structural problem with public schools across the country when parents living in privileged public school communities insist that not all public education is bad – when they wrongly analogize their situation, failing to see their inherent race and class privilege. We can’t create a movement for reform if people like you essentially say, “I got mine”, things are good here, and it’s your fault for staying there. I’m speaking more to Matt and Deb here, not you, Anubis. I know you aren’t really saying, “I got mine,” and that sounds a little harsh (or perhaps this is exactly what you are saying, I will let you both speak for yourselves more specifically), but you are indeed accusing me of bashing public schools in general and this is certainly not my aim. It’s just that your view of public school is not the norm or the overall reality of what’s doing in this country. What’s doing in public school where we live IS the norm, and it’s very worthy of bashing, although bashing isn’t really the word I’d use here. I’d say I’m being extremely critical and anyway, as I say in the essay, I’m not really criticizing the teachers so much as arguing that the whole system needs reform if we’re going to have worthy teachers in the classroom.

      We can do better – and Anubis – yes, classroom control is important but it shouldn’t be the overriding obsession. We could put proper emphasis on classroom control if we had smaller class sizes, teachers that focused on a pedagogy that allows children to learn without sitting like statues, gave these teachers a living wage, and recruited from among the best and brightest. But again, such policies require reform and a social movement to push for them.

      And, just one other matter. I’m not an academic – the idea behind the blog is to tell a narrative with drama, wit, sarcasm, and humor sprinkled with some political/cultural/social analysis. I think the portrait of the music teacher is funny, in my view, precisely because it’s over-the-top and out of proportion with the incident. I don’t think I’m red with “revenge-lust” as you say, Deb. And I do think I’ve been sympathetic. If you look carefully at what I’ve said in the more serious moments I think you’ll see that.

      Thanks again for your comments. I think this is an important conversation. Write again and tell me what you think. xx

      • You’re right, as I said in my post, our school district is largely white and middle class. That’s not something I’m delusional about, nor do I labor under the false and racist belief that every public school in America could be as good as ours if only everyone were white. BUT, I do believe that every public school would be loads better if everyone were middle class. I am arguing that this is a root problem, since it’s clear, if you follow the money, that public schools in towns with more money are often better. Public schools can, and do, work when they get enough support.

        And I’m bummed, frankly, that you accused me of not reading your posts closely enough. That’s a pretty low blow. At least do me the courtesy of letting me have my opinion. You say you’re composing with “drama, wit, sarcasm and humor,” yet you balk at the notion that you’ve conveyed (pretty clearly, to me) that you’ve barely been able to repress your anger long enough to talk to some of these folks at the school (you’ve taken a lot of deep breaths). So, perhaps that’s not anger nor a desire for revenge, but the “dark” in dark humor usually comes from a dark place; that’s why it has power…I think your portrait of the music teacher is hirlarious and nasty.

        Have I met you??? I’m not out of touch with public school problems in America. I went to a totally crappy working class public school myself. My cop dad had to pick my sister up in his squad car one day for fear that she’d be hurt during the riots that closed the school. I spent many a gym period walking the track behind kids who were shuffling along smoking, having been sent out there because there wasn’t enough equipment for all of us to play ball. I had a French teacher who said “if you want to cheat, sit next to someone smarter than you for chrissake!” In English!! But I also had some great teachers (who knows how they stuck it out).

        It was a class issue then, and it’s a class issue now. If we want better public schools, we need a healthy middle class, in every city and town, that believes in great public schools, in every city and town.

        Back to work.

  2. Matt Wright says:

    I’m writing this knowing that you’re a friend and that if I rub you the wrong way you’ll still (probably) return my texts or call me when you’re having a panic attack in a used car lot.

    I’m starting to take offense at the way public school in general is being portrayed in some of these essays, and by the people you’re quoting. Has it ever occurred to you that the school Ray ended up in just sucks? I know that public school uses the lowest common denominator as a launching point more often than we’d like, but there are many, many public schools that are full of caring, bright, energetic teachers. The school system Calder attends is regularly ranked in Newsweek’s Top 100 Schools in the Nation list. Big deal, right? So they train the kids to take those standardized tests really well. But the elementary school Calder is in is full of Science Foundations, Discovery teams, a Lego club. His teacher told us the day of orientation that there are no archaic discipline practices used there, and that any problems that come up are dealt with on a case by case basis by talking.

    Believe me, I’m not trying to say the public education system has it all figured out. But I think bashing public schools is easy and cheap. Each school is different, and sadly their focus and practices are to some degree dictated by the socio-economic situation of its students. Lower incomes mean less pre-school. Less pre-school means more adjustment issues when they are dropped into kindergarten. The best teachers naturally work there only until a better slot opens up. If I were sending my son to a pricey private school I’d probably be knocking the publics, too, if only to justify the checks I was writing. We could afford to send Calder to one of the excellent Day Schools in the area, but we decided to do tons of research and find the best public school we could find, and move to that area. It’s not perfect, but as you and I both experienced, you can write the giant check and STILL be disappointed!

    Again, sorry for the rant, but if we start repeating all of the tired rhetoric about how terrible public schools are, we’re forgetting that most of us reading this are fortunate enough to have choices. For some, that choice is living in an area with average schools and sending their children to private school. For others it’s taking a proactive stance and refusing to resign themselves to the system being the way it is (go Amy!). For us, it was finding a place to live where we liked the public schools because it was important to us.

    We love your boy and hope everything works out.

  3. Deborah Noel says:

    Hey–got to agree with Matt on this. You’ve got lots of experience with teaching, I know, but you’re red with anger, frustration, revenge-lust, and all kinds of negative vibes at this point. Your portrait of the music teacher is darkly comical, and not at all sympathetic. Perhaps she deserves no sympathy, but I’m not sure you should bleed over into dark satire during an otherwise very serious discussion of the problems with public school. The public elementary I’ve been dealing with for 8 years now (in South Burlington, VT) includes lots of parent volunteering (in the classroom!! I led folksong tutorials and sing-alongs for three years in one teacher’s room (both of my kids had her)); a vibrant, sell-out drama club; a chess club; foreign language clubs; an organic garden (and a localvore ethos…they eat from their garden-classroom and from other local farms). There’s a “magical woods” section of the very nice playground. We just bought a new set of soccer goals for the field. There are pick-up games after school when the weather’s fine. I could go on. The teachers there are like most populations of humans anywhere (or maybe slightly better); about 1/4 of them are amazing, another 1/2 are o.k; 1/4 of them should seek another vocation. This city is largely white, upper middle class, but it’s changing each year. True, many of the amazing programs happen as a result of the PTO and parent volunteers (largely middle-upper class, educated women like me who are either not working or have flexible schedules). But it’s been a very good experience for both my kids. You already know the problem with public school; we need to hold the profession to a higher standard, in terms of training, professional development and salary. But we also need to make every community healthier financially (we need to have a real, substantial middle class) so that communities can support schools, children and teachers.

  4. Jennifer klein says:

    Can we do a doners choose to send ray to private school?

    • Thanks, Jen. If we end up sending Ray back to private school then I’m going to get a job at a local fast-food chain to pay for it. Although if you want to write a grant on Ray’s behalf I will not argue. xx ABZ PS Let me know how the girls are doing.

  5. Deb –
    Where does Amy accuse you of not reading closely enough? It seems to me that you’ve taken both the original post and the comment as a personal attack on your experiences. Nowhere do I see Amy engaging in an ad hominem attack yet you have repeatedly. Let’s keep in focus the larger debate.


    • Hey M.


      “I don’t think I’m red with “revenge-lust” as you say, Deb. And I do think I’ve been sympathetic. If you look carefully at what I’ve said in the more serious moments I think you’ll see that.”

      And BTW, I’m not concerned about a personal attack. I like truly lively debate. The “have I met you?” comment is a joke…I lived with Amy for several years, a long time ago. She knows I like lively debate, too….I hope.

  6. Truly lively debate doesn’t mean you accuse people of being “red with revenge-lust”. That’s ad hominem — you’re not attacking the argument on its merits. Moreover, your argument in both comments takes place on the terrain of the personal. You object to her first characterization of public schools based on your own experience rather than aggregate experiences. When Amy calls you out on that unique experience, you again refer to the special insight you bring to the debate as someone who went to a “tough” school. In the end, though, you’re saying the same thing as Amy – the public school system needs reform.

    • “Accuse”? Amy joked about murdering a teacher (a strangling, I think) and bore out the joke until we were all invited to picture her writing her memoirs from jail. Heck, I might be her cell mate. I’m red with revenge-lust (a phrase I still like) every time I feel like one of my kids has been bullied, especially by an adult who should know better. And this kind of anger can certainly motivate. But it can also make you want to strangle somebody…

      This whole discussion has been played-out on the terrain of the personal, and a lot of the highlights in the series come from anger well-managed (even when it seemed like it might spill over). But it’s hard to balance vivid personal narrative and formal argument, which is a major challenge in this series.

      Amy said I was “failing to see [my] inherent race and class privilege” (see above), and that “people like [me]” are obstructing healthy debate about public schools. Yikes. Truth is, after reading Amy’s contrast of the idyllic private school with a failing public school, it only made sense to me to plug for a decent public school. I think it’s worth it to look at successful public schools as models, but no one is confused about why some are failing and others are not. In fact, it’s the existence of better public schools in whiter, richer communities that makes Amy’s point crystal clear. Follow the money and the white privilege to the better public schools…

      I think the public school debate needs a broader scope because public schools are populated by the public. When the public is overworked, underfed, undereducated, living without reliable transportation, crammed into inadequate housing and dealing with all sorts of cultural challenges that are unmet, those problems come right in through the front door at school. Walking smack into the problems at a public school means walking smack into the problems in the broader community, the nation. We can argue pedagogy, but the root problem may be bigger…

      And if this thread continues to teeter between creative personal essay and sober-minded debate, it may continue to violate the rules of argument. I, for one, took personal offense to the innuendo around the beer-bottle collection thing (see the series). If that’s supposed to be evidence of a n’er-do-well community, I take offense! I drink beer. I hate going to the redemption center (because I was raised a Baptist so “redemption” makes me nervous…). A couple times a year, we load a ton beer bottles off for returns. And, sometimes, I drop them at a bottle drive for the school (just had one last month). We try to make sure they’re clean first.

      Wow, this time I really do have to get back to work…

      • Deb –

        You’re right – a good portion of the debate has taken place on personal terrain. The difference, of course, is that you’ve violated you’re own principles. You have a problem with Amy mixing personal narrative with more sober analysis yet you’ve done the same thing. When Amy calls you out on your failure to acknowledge your racial and class privilege in the first post (which should have been included in the sober analysis section), you respond with a very personal narrative meant to convey that you have special epistemic insight about class given your upbringing. Again, that class insight was completely absent in your first post.

        Your main critiques concern tone and mixing the personal with the political. I think the tone makes for an interesting read – we may disagree here. The second objection, in my view, is far more problematic. Every social movement since the beginning of time has intermixed the personal with the political. Some of it has even been quite “dark” as you call it. I’m thinking here of someone like James Baldwin, but there are many, many others. Some would argue that personal narrative, including satire can go way beyond “sober analysis” in winning support. People empathize with the personal and then move to the analytical.

        Finally, blogging is an area where personal narrative is mixed with analysis. It’s a defining feature of the genre. If you want more sober analysis turn to other venues.


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