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BY MICHELE HERMAN | I tackled an interesting educational project the other day: I cleaned out the bookcase where both my kids have ritually shoved their schoolwork every June, vast forgotten wads of composition books and loose leaf and folders. We’re talking two kids, K through 12, which means 26 combined school years.
Why now? Because our last child has entered his last year in the New York City public schools, a system around which all our lives have been organized for nearly two decades. We have put an enormous amount of trust and faith and energy into this system and I wanted to take a last look at some of the more tangible things it gave my kids in return.
So on a sunny Saturday I heaved bales of paper to the living room floor and began sorting, thinking about this great and much-maligned experiment known as public education, and trying to decide if my kids’ three schools — P.S. 3, I.S. 289 and Stuyvesant High — educated them well.
First, I cleared the underbrush, tossing all the Spanish and math homework; it may have done its job, but no one was ever going to refer to this dry, unrevealing stuff again. Then I saved the hilariously earnest journal entries and personal reflections (“My Life From My Birth to My Toddlerhood”), even though it meant yanking reams of paper out of composition books and spiral notebooks.
All outward signs pointed to steady progress on the march from kindergarten to 12th grade, from fine motor skills to abstract thinking: a floppy composition book with dotted lines filled with penmanship practice, marble books filled with each boy’s preteen diatribes against his brother, a typed analysis of an abstruse Borges poem called “We are the time, we are the famous.”
The question of whether the Department of Education did a good job led me to a dozen thornier questions, such as, compared to what — my own 1970s suburban education? an imaginary ideal world? every other large, free education system ever devised by humans? a quarter-of-a-million-dollar private education? How much of their education occurred at our dinner table and among their peers and either had nothing to do with the D.O.E. or was held back by its inanities?
I thought about what it means to learn, to become educated. Certainly, I thought, as I reluctantly placed handouts about the Silk Road and about genetically modified foods in the “toss” pile, it means mastering a large body of skills and absorbing a wide body of knowledge, a framework for how the world works and changes and how humans have operated within it.
But staring at all this work my kids did, I realized how hard it is to know which lessons will stick, which bodies of knowledge will work their way deep into kids’ psyches or fingers or intellect or ethics. Here are some of the things I hoped for my kids when they entered the system: that they would emerge confident and unafraid, able to argue a point and make sense of a mystery and place a current event in context. Sure, I wanted them to understand the importance of parabolas and the Geneva Conventions, but I also hoped their schooling would teach them intangibles, like humility and compassion and the art of apology and bouncing back from failure. I wanted them to have open minds and — a trait that seems ever more valuable and elusive, especially in an election year — to learn to disagree without rancor.
You can waste a lot of energy bemoaning the failings of the D.O.E., and I certainly have, and you can fight to make it better and more humane, as I have also done. But as I relived my kids’ years in school and remembered all their teachers (many of whom we are still in touch with), I have to say yes, the system served our kids well.
I can’t speak for the D.O.E. as a whole, which struggles with problems too myriad to fix in a school day or a school year or maybe a lifetime, and only some of them of its own making. But here in School District 2, considered one of the more functional pockets of the system (along with that scary district in Queens that always outperforms everyone), I think there is much more right than wrong. Sure, it’s a mess. The union protects bad teachers in its efforts to protect good ones, classes are overcrowded, high-stakes testing takes up way too much time and energy. Everyone is overworked and exhausted and some staff members have more integrity and intelligence and creativity than others. But yes, I believe my kids came out well educated and, just as important, motivated to keep learning.
In the middle of my pile-making, I had an epiphany: As long as there is public education, there will be hand-wringing about its failure and bitter controversy about how to fix it, and THIS IS O.K.; this is part of the process. It will always be toiling against impossible odds, this system that takes all comers, a system clogged with all their personal and societal baggage and their hormones, a system filled with mensches and boors and budding sociopaths, the gifted and the academic grifters, and, at the upper echelon where my kids spent their high school years, the frighteningly unexamined Olympics mentality, where kids willingly sacrifice sleep and well-being to win an extra point on a test so that they can go to a prestigious college and win more points.
Maybe it’s the sentimentality of my impending loss, but I’m feeling that ultimately it’s a beautiful thing, this monstrous system, at least our little corner of it. I’ve definitely seen the Peter Principle at work. I’ve seen bureaucrats who practically plug their ears if you suggest a creative solution to a problem. I witnessed one teacher who didn’t even pretend to teach on open classroom day when the parents were watching.
But more often I’ve seen kind, decent, smart, hard-working teachers and staff. I never thought I’d find myself paraphrasing Mitt Romney, but the D.O.E. is people. The one thing the system never felt was the first thing you might expect it to be: bureaucratic. We’ve had no trouble getting access to our sons’ teachers. I always felt that their teachers knew and understood them, and I trusted that a lot of grownups in the building had their backs.
At the end of the afternoon I had many piles. A freshly fallen snow of perforated paper bits lay atop the rug. One of my favorite relics in the “keep” pile was a recipe written in careful cursive. This was from Alan’s fifth-grade restaurant, an annual miracle that my older son was lucky enough to be part of. The kids chose recipes, worked out the math of cooking for the whole school, budgeted, shopped, cooked, set up and decorated the gym, took orders, made change, served, cleaned up the mess, tallied the profits and chose charities to donate them to.
The unassuming teacher, who never had much to say at our parent-teacher conferences, taught generations of classes by his own example that sometimes it’s worthwhile to take on a big, messy, time-consuming project, because it will teach all the kids that they are all capable of greatness of one kind or another.