sideways rabbit

Thursday, January 26, 2012

From Scarred Souls to Smartboards (Back When Grammar School Wasn't for Chickens)

Not that we're competitive or anything, but my husband and I love to play a macabre little game that could be titled: "Whose Backwoods Elementary School Inflicted the Greater Amount of Physical and Emotional Damage?" Both of us attended rural grammar schools in the mid-1970s, albeit in different sections of the country: me in the wintry farming valleys of extreme western New York State, he in a sparsely populated Piedmont county straddling both Carolinas.

I had a teacher who tied errant students to their seats with jump ropes and shut any saucy mouths with swaths of masking tape. Another smelled continually of cheap gin and once slurringly remarked about an art project of mine: "That looks like a pile of crap." (Her self-satisfied air suggested she'd let me down easy, choosing a relatively wholesome adjective when she might have used a word better suited to her earthy, explosive nature.) In fourth grade, a male teacher body-slammed me against the blackboard for allegedly laughing during the Pledge of Allegiance. It was a "gifted" class. Our enlightened leader was a disgruntled, 400-pound Vietnam vet struggling with some, ahem, massive personal issues.

Scott talks about his elementary-school principal who stalked the halls with a spanking paddle in hand. The giant wooden slab was pocked with large holes, which somehow, thanks to physics, made its eventual contact with its targets all the more painful. Field trips, no lie, were to the county jail. (At least in our school we were bused to the inner-city planetarium for fun.) Instead of educational, these excursions to prison were meant to be cautionary. Fly right, or get used to your final destination behind bars. The young students were invited to feast their eyes on the offerings inside the evidence lab. Scott clearly recalls a pickled finger floating accusingly inside a briny Mason jar, casualty of a domestic disturbance involving a sharp kitchen knife.

The well-documented Horrors of the Bus is where my husband stretches our little contest into the winner's circle, earning what they term in horse-racing a "photo finish." The most spectacular bus incident I remember is some enterprising hooligan lighting a marker on fire and rolling it under the seats. But Scott and his peers were treated to an extracurricular show of human sexuality. He says -- he swears on his copy of Church of the Subgenius -- that the busdriver, a high-school student, drove his young charges to their various destinations while being pleasured in a creative way by his amazingly fearless girlfriend. A blaring boombox set near the bus's vestibule thoughtfully masked the auditory portion of the proceedings.

Delicate readers, how things have changed. No longer are our children required to attend whatever unholy assemblage of cinderblock, pitiful funding and tenured nutcases happens to comprise their neighborhood public school.

Today, here and now in Asheville, N.C., lucky parents who live in the city proper get to choose from no less than eight public elementary schools, three charter schools and five "magnet" schools. Plenty of you already know the idea behind magnets -- schools with themes (science, arts, etc.) that are intended to attract parents who've decided (probably prematurely) that their child shines in one of these disciplines. Really, what's great about these schools is that the competitiveness for enrollment means they all boast similar progressive features and reasonably competent teachers. Each school has a computerized "Smart Board" (what, you thought they still used blackboards?), and each one tries to outdo the others in after-school programs and stimulating classroom environments. I saw free-range chickens and rabbits, obelisk-topped music rooms, pillow-strewn lofts for "quiet time," beautiful woodland trails. In our local-food-loving city, each magnet school features a much bragged-about garden in which students are required to sow, eat, and deeply appreciate their own vegetables.

In fact, I'm quite sure that a school without a garden will eventually be considered as abusive as a school with a paddle-wielding principal.

Recently, open houses for rising kindergarteners were conducted at all the city's magnet schools. I dutifully attended each one. Despite our herd mentality as Concerned Involved Parents, my fellow tour-mates and I diverged sharply in our points of interest. My issue is anti-bullying: who has the most intensive program in that area? Others wanted to know whether the national push to improve school-lunch offerings had yet to reach local cafeterias. What about drama programs, all but leveled by state budget cuts? How interactive was each school's principal?

I have my favorite school, with high hopes of getting in. But when I find myself getting too torqued up over the decision, I have to remember that whether or not my son gets to enter the Room Formerly Known as the Library (now "media centers" in all schools) once a week, twice a week, twice every other week, accompanied by a teacher picking out his books or left to his own selections, it will make a negligible impact on his overall scholastic career and emotional health. No crap. No gin. No pickled fingers. It's all (mostly) good.


  1. Melanie - this is my favorite post of yours so far! What a contrast - from Marquis de Sade teachers to milquetoasts in 30 years. I think we need a middle ground between the way we were thrown to the wolves and the way we're raising little hothouse flowers today

  2. And you didn't even mention getting body slammed for coughing during the pledge. So many memories... As much as times have changed, fear not; substandard, falling apart, lackadaisical education is alive and well in Alabama! We are in a "good" school district, and the buildings look new and shiny and the teachers are all pretty and blonde, but in Rohan's Honor's English class the teacher told the kids to just read the Cliff Notes for "Uncle Tom's Cabin". He added that it's just "too long and hard" for most kids. In the elementary schools the kids are allowed one visit to the library every 3 weeks. (In Naperville they could go every day). So maybe this is the middle ground? BTW, not a garden in sight...

    1. how could i forget the body-slamming incident? going to add it right now

  3. Excellent blog Melanie. Asheville has such great opportunities for learning...let's hope rural areas follow such models. I have a couple of stories of my own, not unlike your experiences from back in the day. Praise Bob! Keep up the good's great that through blogs and social networking folks have a voice. Oh, this is an interesting site...I am aware of / watching issues at Hayesville in particular because a family member has a child there:

  4. Thanks for the kind words, Kathy!
    ... Yikes; what a disturbing story. Something similar happened to a friend of mine with a severely autistic child...they even sued the county, a big urban one, apparently it still happens, everywhere. UGH.

  5. Great commentary. A new take on "walking to school up hill both ways". Good luck to you and the little man. You both deserve the best! ~Carmen

  6. Great article! I have always loved your writing and reading it on subjects that are so close to my heart is a real joy. I am so happy we are friends and I get to journey into a kinder gentler kindergarten with you! xxoo m

  7. Thanks Miss Michele !!!!
    Hopefully we will journey into Vance together. Or maybe Dickson. :)