The First Day Of School

Today is the first day of school at the Columbus Academy, where Kish works.  This morning some kindergartners will go off to school for the first time ever, as their Moms and Dads watch with quivering emotion.  Kids in other grades will head back to familiar buildings to see their classmates again, after a long summer.

Some of my childhood friends dreaded going back to school.  I felt differently.  I liked school.  As the summer wore on into late August, and the gravity of the calendar tilted inexorably toward the resumption of school, I looked forward to that first day.  I wanted to see my “school friends” again, and was eager to meet my teacher and get back into the rhythm of classes and learning about interesting new things.

I liked the process of getting ready for school, too.  You might get a new pair of shoes, and a “school outfit” or two.  But what I really liked was getting the school supplies — things like a new, unmarked binder that closed with a sharp snap, plastic wrapped packets of 500 pages of fresh, crisp, white lined paper, new pencils to sharpen to a fine point, a bouncy pink rubber eraser, a new lunchbox featuring your favorite TV show, and a ruler. What can I say?  I was a nerd.

I remember getting things organized the night before so everything would be in place the next morning, and by bed time I usually was so excited I had trouble sleeping.  When the next morning finally came, I was ready!


The Zen Of Kid Art

In this era of hard budget choices, many cash-strapped schools have put arts programs on the chopping block.  The stated rationale usually is that arts programs aren’t “essential.”  Such statements, are, I think, code for “no one has to draw or paint on standardized tests, so we can cut arts programs without putting our rankings on those tests at risk.”

I believe that cutting school arts programs is a disaster not only for schools and students, but also for parents.  The most treasured items in my office are pieces of artwork that the kids have created over the years.  Some of the artwork has been created at home, but a lot of it was the product of a school arts class where the kids were assisted by a friendly and patient arts teacher who provided encouragement, ideas, and plenty of available arts supplies.  My office would be so much poorer without Richard and Russell’s various paper mache, wire, clay, and paint and paper creations.

The most impressive thing about kid art is its absolute purity.  The creative impulses flow out, unrestrained by notions of form or style or color conventions.  A horse might be blue and a house might be purple because that is how the child wanted it to be.  And when you look at the result it works, and it cannot help but bring a smile to your face.

For that reason, kid art continues to be happily displayed years after the papers that get an “A” are tossed in a box and forgotten.  Parents of children in school districts where arts programs have been eliminated don’t know how much they are missing.

I recognize that math and science are important, but we live in a world where success often is the product of creative thought — be it the creative thought that leads to new invention, like the iPod, or to a new approach to providing a service, like Federal Express, or to some other product, movie, literature, or process improvement.  Why in the world would we want to cut the one school program that is specifically designed to help children tap into their inner creativity and express it?

Extra Credit

The Goldsboro Middle School in Wayne County, North Carolina came up with a straightforward way to raise money — in exchange for a $20 donations, students would be given 20 “points” they could distribute among two tests and increase their grades.  Apparently the fundraising concept was the brainchild of a parents’ advisory council and was approved by the school’s principal.  After the idea was the subject of a report by a local newspaper, however, district officials stepped in and quashed the fundraising effort.

It’s pretty sad that American public schools have reached the point where, to raise revenue, they are seriously considering selling “points” on tests and, in effect, peddling better grades to those parents willing to shell out a few extra bucks.  It is even sadder that the principal of a middle school would not see the obvious ethical and moral problems with that kind of fundraising approach and nix it immediately.

No Longer Flush

Here’s a sign of how far the once booming Irish economy has fallen:  the principal of an Irish school has written to parents of students, asking that every student bring rolls of toilet paper for the class to use, as an economy measure.  You know your economy is no longer flush with cash, and instead has hit bottom, when you can’t even afford toilet paper in the public schools.

Walking To School

According to this story, a California school district currently bars students from walking or riding their bikes to elementary school or middle school. Although the news article is not entirely clear, it appears that the school district decided that the road that kids would take to get to school was just too busy and, therefore, dangerous. This kind of news story is pathetic — although not particularly surprising in this era of paternalistic government — because it shows how weak, lazy, and risk-averse America has become. And we wonder why we have a problem with child obesity!

Rankin Elementary School in Akron, Ohio

Rankin Elementary School in Akron, Ohio

In the early 1960s, when I first started going to school in Akron, Ohio, UJ and I walked to school every day, from our house on Orlando Avenue to Rankin Elementary School on Storer Avenue. We would turn right out the front door and walk to the end of the block, turn left on Delia Avenue, then walk 11 blocks down Delia Avenue to Storer, where we turned right for a few blocks and then crossed the street to Rankin. We walked that route rain or shine, snow or sleet. On some days Mom would tell us that we were to go to Gramma and Grampa Neal’s house for lunch and we would walk the six blocks from Rankin to their home on Dorchester Road over the lunch period; on other days we were to go to Gramma and Grampa Webner’s home and we would walk the six blocks from Rankin to their house on Emma Avenue.

Perhaps Mom worried about us as we took our walks, but I doubt it. Walking to school was just an accepted part of the day; it was something that everybody did. For a kid, too, it was a time of freedom and high adventure to be savored. You were on your own.

The spiny outer covering of buckeyes

The spiny outer covering of buckeyes

You hustled on the way to school to make sure you weren’t tardy, but the walk home was a bit more leisurely. There would be interesting places to examine, and things to do. On the route back home from Rankin, for example, there was a triangular “island” in the middle of an intersection, and at each corner of the island there was a large buckeye tree. UJ and I called it “Buckeye Island,” and on the way home on a crisp fall day we might stop to see if buckeyes had fallen. We would try to pry open their tough and spiny outer covering and see if we could find a nut or two worth polishing to a brilliant dark shine.

A polished buckeye

A polished buckeye

Sometimes, as we gathered our nuts, older bullies would come up and take the best nuts from us, and we would have to get out of there. But, really, what did we care? They were just nuts. The important thing was that we were on our own, making our own decisions, and the prospect of bullies just heightened the sense of excitement and fun.

Why would any school district want to deprive kids of that kind of experience? Why would any parents be so protective that they wouldn’t want their children to feel that sense of freedom? Why wouldn’t any community demand an environment where their children could walk to school without fear of anything more threatening than a fifth-grade bully?

Just Talking To Kids

President Obama is to give a speech to American schoolchildren on Tuesday. There has been a pretty strong reaction to his giving that speech, and I have to admit that I am a bit mystified by that reaction. Apparently the Department of Education came up with a suggested “lesson plan” related to the President’s remarks that involved schoolchildren writing letters to themselves about what they can do to help President Obama, and some commentators have reacted negatively to that. Still others have suggested that the President is trying to establish some kind of cult of personality, as if a single speech could convert kids into brainwashed automatons.

This whole issue is another example of how everything a President does is now viewed from the perspective of partisan politics. I think everyone, of every political stripe, agrees that kids should be encouraged to stay in school, work hard and study, and get a good education. Why can’t the President, as duly elected leader of our country, speak to kids to deliver that kind of consensus non-partisan message? Isn’t he an appropriate person to deliver such a message, and perhaps in doing so to convey to kids the importance of the issue?

When I was in grade school in Akron, Ohio, our classrooms included the American flag, portraits of Washington and Lincoln, and pictures of the current President. We recited the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of every school day. We learned about past Presidents when we studied American history, and students would talk about what the President was doing when we discussed current events. We watched national events, like the launches of the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft, and were encouraged to think of ourselves as Americans who wanted America to succeed. I have no doubt that if President Kennedy or President Johnson wanted to give a speech to schoolchildren on the need to study — say, to study science to help America win the space race with the Soviet Union — it would have been accepted without much comment.

I think President Obama should give his speech. Who knows? It may actually convince some kids to change their study habits, and equally important it may convince some people that not everything the President does should be viewed suspiciously, as if it is necessarily a means of obtaining some kind of incremental political advantage for his political party. Even in this jaded, hyperpoliticized world, I think Presidents sometimes still should be able to do what they sincerely believe is in the best interests of the country as a whole. Talking to kids about school is one of those instances.