May 15, 2008

a million miles beyond wrong

Ida B. Applewood and John Taylor Gatto would have such a field day comparing notes over a slice of Macintosh apple pie. From her descriptions of school and the school bus as the "Pit of Sacrificial Agony" and the "Yellow Prison of Propulsion," Ida B is the ultimate poster child for JTG's Pro-Homeschool / Anti-Compulsory Schooling Movement and Assorted Rants on the Subject. The difference is I love JTG's ideology but would probably despise him as a person, whereas I love Ida B completely.

"There was a rabbit in a cage in the room, but we couldn't pet it until it was time. There were books on the shelves, but we couldn't read them until it was time. There was a big playground with slides and swings and balls, but we couldn't play on it till it was time. There were lots of kids, but we couldn't talk till you-know-when."

"And every day I'd be slower and slower coming back to myself after school was finished."

Initially, I wrote Ida B off as an older, less spazzy Junie B. Jones, but was pleasantly surprised by the depth of Katherine Hannigan's protagonist. She is the product of the sort of parents we want for all our students - smart, loving, and so caring that they - gasp - leave her alone on many occasions to befriend and learn from the earth itself. She's not yanked from soccer practice to painting lessons; climbing a tree provides exercise and solace, lying in the river cleanses her body and spirit. For teachers there is a valuable connection to make - between the sullen, contrary newcomer and the deep, reaching-out need within.

How do you reopen your heart after it's been hardened over by what can only be seen as the ultimate betrayal by your own flesh and blood? How do you go to fourth grade when two weeks in kindergarten made you shrink so rapidly into someone else's much smaller ideal of you? How do you leave your home when you know how to talk to trees and befriend a river, but can neither talk to nor befriend a girl your own age?

Ida B truly is all she proclaims herself to be: "Superhero Deluxe, Friend of the Downtrodden, Foe of Cancer, Meanness, Mindless Destruction, and Traditional Schooling."

John Taylor Gatto, on the other hand, is just a crank. But even as I strive to make school worthwhile for the droves of kids who come through our classrooms, I believe to be true - at least to a degree - one of his most profound statements:

"Government schooling is the most radical adventure in history. It kills the family by monopolizing the best times of childhood and by teaching disrespect for home and parents. The whole blueprint of school procedure is Egyptian, not Greek or Roman. It grows from the theological idea that human value is a scarce thing, represented symbolically by the narrow peak of a pyramid."

An an employee of the DOE, I have a hand in killing the family. Everytime I tag an absence as "unexcused" in the database - because a child has gone on a camping trip with her family (and that's not an acceptable excuse, according to the powers that be) or has stayed home because his father passed away this year and sometimes he just can't deal (also not an acceptable excuse) - I think to myself, how is what I'm teaching more valuable than time spent with her family in the wilderness? What's more educational than spending time outdoors? How is what I'm teaching more important than relocating the feeling of safety he had before his dad died? Why can't I excuse this absence? I can't think of a better place for a kid to be than turning things over in a tidepool or ironing alongside his mom.

"How much more evidence is necessary? Good schools don’t need more money or a longer year; they need real free-market choices, variety that speaks to every need and runs risks. We don’t need a national curriculum or national testing either. Both initiatives arise from ignorance of how people learn or deliberate indifference to it."

Ida B could articulate her unease far better than a lot of kids for whom school is just not right:

"Right then I was wondering if I got in a class for bad children who needed fixing, and my punishment included losing my name and never being able to make a plan again."

"And every day I'd be slower and slower coming back to myself after school was finished."

If that's not what Gatto's talking about, I don't know what is.

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