Hope Springs in Thermals: The Future of Education

We started playing around with malapropisms in class the other day when a student of mine asked me if I found it annoying when people say things like “it’s a doggy dog world.” Mostly, I’m amused rather than annoyed, I said. I understand that if a person has misheard a word or phrase that she has never had the opportunity to see in print, that it’s easy to make the mistake. Song lyrics are this way, too, and Jimi Hendrix comes to mind: “Excuse me, while I kiss this guy” remains my personal favorite. I told the class that, years ago, I had a student who was writing about a trip to a fancy restaurant with her family where she ordered “flaming yawn.” Always on the lookout for rich connections, all of this stirred the memory of another personal favorite, the origin for which might be my own head, but I can’t be sure. In my last blog, I briefly described the ugly state of public school financing and what havoc that might be wreaking on the experience of teachers and students, and I said I remained hopeful, and now I imagine all my little hopes about the future of education dancing around in the February chill wearing long underwear and throwing snowballs at each other. Hope springs in thermals, indeed.

Let me quote myself on the current financial crisis in education, and, in particular, my school district: “I remain hopeful that somehow we will figure it out. The alternative is bleak. Something has to give.” These, I realize, are big, broad, and excruciatingly vague things to say. I wanted to put it to the test. Am I really hopeful about our chances or am I just hopeful that I’m hopeful? Am I wearing rose-colored glasses? Or worse, am I nuts? What are the “alternatives”? What gives?

This might be Pollyanna speaking, but I have difficulty believing that the public at large will allow our school system to die—and that seems to be the alternative—that if we don’t find a way to finance education in America, the institution will crumble, public schooling as we know it will go away. And this has frightening ramifications, if you believe, as I do, that a free and equitable education for our citizenry is the key to holding on to a democracy, and is a right and not a privilege. My optimistic self says that, by and large, people believe this, and finally, perhaps, the joke about the military holding a bake sale to build more weapons may someday come to fruition. And the alternative to this optimism, I think, would simply eat at my soul and make life miserable for me and those around me, my family, my colleagues, my students. So do I have any evidence that things will get better? No, not so much. However, we’ve gone through these kinds of crises before and have come out on the other end during an economic recovery, although, it seems, it’s never been quite this bad. But there’s an anecdotal piece of evidence.

Here’s a more powerful one, perhaps: while recent events in Wisconsin are frightening, I am heartened by the numbers of people, 70,000 at the state capital yesterday, who are fighting against these oppressive, misguided and disingenuous government leaders. There’s some evidence. I don’t think Scott Walker agrees that public education is the key to holding on to a democracy. Maybe he doesn’t really want to live in a democracy. I think he will lose this battle. Meanwhile my hopes are outside in thermals throwing snowballs.

People will have to come to terms with some things. Class sizes will grow and grow. Academics, in consequence, will be diluted. Electives will be lost; music, athletics, clubs, safe buildings–lost. And then when the pain becomes untenable, something will give way and folks will demand the return of those things about public education they most value. It will likely get uglier before it gets better.

A teacher friend of mine said, “This is not what I signed up for.” Yeah, me neither. I didn’t sign up for six classes of 45 students each. Again, thinking of alternatives, I don’t have any. Teaching literature and writing are the things I know—and the other things I know are not shining out as bold new occupational possibilities. And, I am (shockingly, I find) in the last stretch of a thirty-year teaching career. No, I’m in it, I think, for the long haul. I have to be hopeful and I have to have a sense of humor and I have to do what I can to survive while trying to effect change–as a hedge against despair, and, because, while it may be next to impossible to get to know them well, let alone learn their names in a year’s time or give any kind of close attention to their work, those students need me. Ah, I feel better already. I am needed. And when it begins to suck as bad as it can possibly suck, they’ll need me even more then.

It may, after all, be a “doggy dog” world that doesn’t care about education and public schools. The snow has melted. On Thursday it was gone before noon. It was rather a “wet pavement day” than a snow day. But it did get cold again afterwards, unusually cold for our banana belt valley in late February, so my little hopes had to keep their thermals on just to go out on the porch to get the mail. I’ve got to keep those guys toasty.

* * *

Postscript: hey, does anybody have any questions? Are there topics or issues you’d like me to ramble about? If so, please send word. Sometimes it’s helpful to be given an “assignment.” No guarantees, but if it’s something that I know a little bit about, I’ll give it a whirl.

2 Comments

Filed under Teaching

2 responses to “Hope Springs in Thermals: The Future of Education

  1. Thanks Michael. It is a doggy dog world.

  2. Laura Pelofske

    I was really inspired by the Wisconsin protesters, too. That many people actually took time and energy out to fight for what’s right, in apathetic USA! Making me feel like a slacker, signing petitions on Change.org from the comfort of my laptop.

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