Seeing the projects that Leah is working on, such as her model of an 18th century California mission, the 3-D pyramid she made depicting different themes in the Madeleine L’Engle book “A Wrinkle in Time,” and the Gold Rush musical her class is in the midst of rehearsing, I am filled with gratitude for the quality of her education and her love of learning. I had lunch today with one of my favorite local authors to talk about a new book she is developing for Heinemann. When this woman used to teach Kindergarten, she had the kids studying Picasso and creating art in his style; her third grade class lobbied the Santa Monica City Council to save a historic building from demolition; and her fifth grade class did a simulation of a trial involving fugitive slaves and the people who helped them. Thank God for great teachers. Unfortunately such folks are moving increasingly against the tide.
I was reading about Margaret Spellings, our brand new Secretary of Education (and personal favorite of Karl Rove), and wondering why there wasn’t rioting in the streets when her nomination was announced. It’s no accident that her very FIRST act as Education Secretary was threatening to pull funding from PBS because of a cartoon called “Postcards from Buster” about a bunny who learns about maple sugaring in Vermont and in the process meets two women who are…brace yourself for the shock…LIVING TOGETHER! From all the ruckus you’d think the animated couple were ringleaders of a hardcore gay sex network and were forcing Buster to perform lewd acts on SpongeBob SquarePants. Oy. there is trouble ahead, folks, and frankly, my fears are less about the Department of Education’s new Puritans and more about how the vile No Child Left Behind Act (which Spellings had a big part in crafting) is setting education back about 40 years in this country.
I am a product of the Chicago Public School system. I think it was a pretty lousy education overall but we didn’t really know it at the time. Forty years ago this month I was halfway through my first year at Mary Gage Peterson Elementary School. Our school building was an imposing structure, built on land once owned by Pehr S. Peterson, a Swedish immigrant who made a fortune from his tree nursery. He supplied all the trees for the 1893 World’s Fair and was responsible for most of the trees and shrubs in Chicago’s beautiful public parks. His wife, Mary Gage Peterson, was an expert in forestry herself and one of the earliest advocates for protecting forests from lumbering, mining, and other commercial interests. Mrs. Peterson met with Theodore Roosevelt several times and encouraged him to take an active role in conservation issues. After her death in 1922 it was decided that the school being built on the site of her former estate should be named after her.
The images I remember of Peterson School seem to belong to a different world. For most of my time there we sat in the original bolted-in wooden desks from 1925 with holes for inkwells and graffiti from Herbert Hoover’s presidency. If you ran your hand across the bottom of these desks you’d find stalagmites of ossified gum, most chewed long before World War II. We still had the original schoolhouse pendant light fixtures (the kind that yuppies like me are now searching for on eBay) and the enormous wood-framed windows that opened from the top. We used those incredibly long wooden poles from the 1920s with the brass hooks on the end to open the windows and it was always a special honor to be chosen to wield those poles. I can still remember the sensual feel of the smooth, varnished wood beneath my fingers as I tried to fit the hook in the wooden frame without breaking the ancient glass.
Rumor had it that my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Reid, was there when the school opened in 1925. We didn’t have nursery school back then so the first day of Kindergarten was a huge and often traumatic milestone. I remember the growing panic I felt when I realized my mother was actually leaving me with these total strangers. Even the full-sized slide and miniature log cabin playhouse inside our Kindergarten classroom did little to assuage my anxiety that first day. Helen Kotsoulous cried so much that her mother was called in to take her home but, try as I might, I could not muster up the tears, my natural emotions already deeply suppressed at the age of five.
Miss Stark was my first grade teacher and in my mind she was the clone of Helen Crump, Opie Taylor’s teacher (and eventual stepmother) on the old “Andy Griffith Show.” I remember first grade as the dawn of our literacy caste system that would follow and stigmatize us throughout our long school careers. Early in the year our class was divided up into two distinct reading groups. I believe they had some easy-to-decode labels such as the Tadpoles and the Frogs, but we cut right to the chase and renamed the groups the “Smart Kids” and the “Dummies.” We used those terms openly and I don’t remember Miss Stark trying to stop us. But being a Smart Kid didn’t protect me from social ridicule. Sitting up in front of the class one day in the half-circle of tiny chairs reserved for the Smart Kids (while the Dummies watched us wistfully from their nailed-down desks), I had “an accident” in my pants (number 1, as we referred to it back then). The sensory images of this experience are still white hot in my mind: the pungent odor, the feeling of wetness on my legs, the stain on my pants, the red-faced shame spreading like a rash. I can’t remember who was called or how the situation was remedied so in my mind I’m permanently stuck in that half-circle, exposed as if the Dummies are punishing me for daring to sit with the Smart Kids.
When I think of my old teachers I always imagine them towering over me even though I’m sure most were of normal height or below. But even as a short second grader, I remember my teacher Mrs. Kipnis at my own level. Is that possible? Was she a three-foot dwarf? At some point in second grade, a bunch of outsiders “from the city” came to our class and started giving special tests. I never knew if it was because of baby boomer overcrowding in my grade or what, but after the results of these tests came in, Steven Newman, Hilary Kaye, Scott Whitcup, and I were told that we would be skipping third grade entirely and jumping right to fourth.
Here’s my advice if your child is being encouraged to skip a grade in school: Don’t do it! It worked out fine for the four of us academically, but socially, my geekiness was even more set in stone. I would have been branded a complete outcast if not for the coattails of my older brother Bruce who was always a star student, and my popular sister Sue who had one steady boyfriend after another, starting in first grade. Physically, I had already been one of the shortest and youngest kids in my grade, so now I seemed to be from another species than the rest of the fourth graders. Nobody had bothered to tell me what students normally learn during third grade so I arrived in Mrs. Shapiro’s class completely unprepared. After our morning pledge I opened my mouth to sing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” as the rest of the class started warbling “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I was still neatly printing my letters while the rest of the class had moved on to cursive. My main memory of Mrs. Shapiro is that she was obsessed with the multiplication tables and had a permanent twitch in her eye from the time her young son stuck a fork in it.
My fifth grade class was a split with sixth grade, making my tiny size even more obvious, and I was an easy target for the sixth grade boys. One day two of them cornered me in the boys’ bathroom and, in between hurling wads of wet paper towels upwards so they’d stick on the tiled ceiling, asked me if I knew what the word “fuck” meant. “Of course I do,” I replied, and ran out of the bathroom as fast as I could. But in truth I had no idea. Our teacher, Miss Geib, was a borderline sociopath. I remember her frequently smashing unruly sixth grade boys against the lockers even though most of them already towered over her. Oh well, at least I had escaped our sadistic third grade teacher, Mrs. Luby, who kept her room as hot as a furnace all year long, refused to open the windows, and used to punish children by making them sit under the piano while she played it vigorously.
My sixth grade teacher, sweet Mrs. Rosenstein, was a welcome relief from Miss Geib’s venom, and I instantly developed a big crush on her. By seventh grade, I was beginning to catch up socially and attended my first kissing parties. This was the year I had the hots for Judy Stigler, Debbie Shub, and Rhonda Hellstrom. Our teacher, Mrs. Stone, was the first to depart from the dry-as-dust textbooks and engage us with real literature and current events. It was 1970 and the forces of change were finally starting to have an impact on the Chicago Public Schools—a system which had been in a kind of Eisenhower-era time warp for most of the previous decade. Although the Apollo astronauts had landed on the moon in the summer after sixth grade, our science books still treated manned space missions as something we could only dream about. Mrs. Stone left the school for the second part of the year and was replaced by young, hip Mrs. Pink, who bore a strong resemblance to Stella Stevens. I mentioned her in my sex education post and told how we would try to foil her plans to be the grooviest teacher at Peterson School by making her life a living hell!
When I started eighth grade, the design horror of the early 1970s reared its ugly head and we watched as the cool antique fixtures were taken down and replaced by garish fluorescent lights in a lowered ceiling of white acoustic panels. The low ceilings blocked the top of the windows so the antique wooden poles were thrown away along with the original wooden desks which were pried up from their moorings and replaced with hollow metal desks that echoed throughout the building if you even brushed against them lightly. I’ll never forget our slightly batty French teacher, Miss Genitis, lecturing about how she would like to find out who manufactured these desks so she could line them up along the brick wall outside and be a one-woman firing squad, killing them all with her steady stream of machine gun fire to pay for the constant metal clattering that was wearing on her last nerve!
Our eighth grade teacher, Mrs. O’Connor, was a throwback to the old style of teaching but her real passion was music. No matter what we were studying, she’d always end up at the big upright piano in the corner of the room teaching us medleys of patriotic war songs or obscure novelty numbers from long-forgotten musicals. You can see I never made it out of the first row in the class photo.
Our little school did have one famous graduate. NPR correspondent Susan Stamberg went to Peterson in the mid-1940s and a few years ago did a report on "Weekend Edition" about the school's 75th anniversary and her fondness for the place where she began her lifelong love of the written word.
Well, in typical blog style, I haven't really addressed my intended topic of the current state of public school education in this country. But at least this survey of my elementary school teachers has reminded me how far the teaching profession has come in the past 40 years, despite all attempts by our government to turn the clock back.