Monday, April 25, 2005 | Every spring I get the itch. It’s the same itch high school students get, and I’m not talking about hormones. I’m talking about the summer vacation itch.
The idea of at least partial freedom from structure that comes with the promise of summer is intoxicating to teachers and to students, even if we plan to teach or attend summer school. There’s still the idea of long, warm days, lazy afternoons on a porch swing, picnics, staying up late. Some springs I get the itch so intensely that I begin to get kind of cranky, and I see the same behavior in some of the students, especially the seniors who will soon be leaving the safe and structured halls of high school.
It’s times like these that I sometimes begin to wonder why I’m teaching at all. That might seem strange, but here’s the problem: I see on average 150 students a day, and as we near summer, their interest wanes day-by-day. By June, teachers do all they can to simply maintain some kind of order. There’s little illusion that students in June are eager or even willing to learn much; I think students have probably always been this way. So, as I’ve said, I sometimes get to April and begin to question the whole public school adventure.
Why do we have public school, anyway? I think the original intention was to have an educated populace, but I also recall that only landed gentry were permitted to vote, so education wasn’t really valuable to very many people if they didn’t own property. We’ve moved on from those days, obviously; now women and racial minorities are entitled to vote, regardless of whether or not they own anything or have a credit rating. There aren’t even any educational criteria for being able to vote; even if you are a high school dropout, you can legally vote as long as you are of age and can read the ballot, and I wouldn’t doubt that there’s some provision for that eventuality as well.
So, what other reasons might we have for making kids go to school when many of them clearly don’t want to go? Parents might say that they want their kids to be educated so they can move on to college, obtain advanced degrees and get good jobs. But lately, that seems like an unobtainable vision for many, especially here in California. State schools, the places where everyone used to be admitted, have limited their numbers to the point where they’re practically like the unreachable Ivy League to many students. Of course, we still have great community colleges with prize-winning programs, especially here in San Diego. But many students tell me that they could get into community college without even doing the work they are required to do in high school, so why not just skip ahead? It’s a good question.
With the intense budget crisis in the state of California and locally here in San Diego County, maybe we should consider doing away with public education all together. We could take all that money and put it into job training starting in what was the ninth grade. That way, kids could avoid the painful mental gyrations of algebra, George Orwell and the Battle of 1812 while still learning the skills necessary to pull in enough bucks to buy a big screen television. I have to be honest: When I speak with kids who’ve graduated, many of them have jobs that pay much better than my teacher’s salary, and they are managing retail stores or Taco Bells. The really successful ones are working on computers, and have job offers right out of high school in some cases. When I ask them if they plan to go to college, they laugh and say, “What for?”
A good question. Why should people be educated, other than for money or for the social good? My answer would be this: because the only way human beings come to understand what is foreign is to study it. And by understanding that which is foreign, we begin to break down walls that divide us. That’s what education does. It’s not always practical, as in learning a trade. It’s not even always entertaining, like a television reality show. But it can be valuable, even if the learning isn’t easily translated into a paycheck.
That’s what I think has been forgotten. Our culture is so focused on the bottom line that we seem to have totally lost sight of why people are educated in the first place: to promote understanding of the world and its people.
Whenever it gets close to summer, and I start to have these thoughts, I look up at a poster a school nurse once gave me. It’s a beautiful tropical scene with a great story printed on it, a story about a man walking down the beach. On this particular stretch of shore, hundreds of starfish have stranded themselves in the sand. This man is walking slowly among them, picking one up here and there and throwing it back into the sea. A passerby sees him, laughs, and points out the futility of his actions. “There are so many of them” the man scoffs. “You can’t save them all. What you’re doing is a waste of time. It doesn’t matter.”
The first man picks up a starfish and throws it back into the ocean. “It mattered to that one,” he replies.
Whenever I get a case of the spring discouragements, I look up at that poster, take a deep breath, and try to remember: what I do does matter, no matter what anyone says.
Laura Preble is a writer and high school English teacher with the Grossmont School District. She lives in La Mesa.