Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The General Public

     As kids, my siblings and I always caught the big yellow bus that stopped right before our cul de sac in the morning and took us to school, and later in the afternoon, took us back home and dropped us off at the same place. Separate buses served elementary, middle, and high schools—all for free!
     Last year, our oldest child, as a seventh grader, started catching the county bus to and from school because only then did we deem him responsible enough to handle it. (There aren't any public school buses in our district that I'm aware of.) The vast majority of his school mates still get dropped off and picked up by parents or relatives. Although a bus pass at forty dollars a month certainly makes economic sense, having him catch the bus also benefits the environment and him. The sense of independence, confidence, and accomplishment (no matter how small), exercise walking to and from the bus stop, and exposure to the real world and real people helped mature him from a self-centered brat to a fine young man.
     I've been catching the county bus to and from work for over twenty years and continue to observe compelling things that I would otherwise have missed. Some are funny, same are ugly, some stink, and some are quite nice: reality that helps keep me grounded.
     It requires a mental shift to catch the county bus. For the most part, the people I hang out with live in safe, comfortable (or at least predictable) environments, so catching the bus affords such individuals one of life's few opportunities for discomfort and unpredictability. Will it be late or crowded? Which driver will I get—the kindly slow-poke or the disgruntled speedster? Will I get a seat? Will the only open seat be next to a jerk that sticks his or her leg a quarter of the way into my seat so that our legs touch, forcing me to sit half-sideways if I want to avoid contact? Will the air reek of body odor or stifling perfume? Will the temperature be too hot or cold?
     For this very reason many of my friends and relatives shun the bus and even take pride that they have never caught a bus their entire lives. And truth be told, this is also one of the main reasons why many of them send their children to private primary and secondary schools—something they'd never admit, instead claiming they're better schools that get better test scores, with superior alumni networks, opportunities, and facilities, but beneath it all is the unspoken preference that they and their children minimize the potential discomforts associated with contact with the general public. Whereas I and many others believe that one of the main benefits of public schools is learning to deal with just such things (after all, real life includes real people) and even more important, to learn to get along well with a diversity of people—including those of lower socio-economic classes, which often includes some of the nicest people around.
     I told my wife even if our kids got full scholarships to attend the Number One Rated Private School in the state, I wouldn't send any of them there. The best students will do academically well anywhere. They'll find a way. Their parents will find a way. Even their teachers will help them find a way. Moreover, if all the students in the Number One Rated Private School in the state were placed into any public school, it's a certainty that that school would instantly attain number one ranking (however that's decided). It's not about the school, facilities, faculty, or resources, it's about the students and parents. They determine academic success. Everything else can foster learning, though even the best schools can't bestow upon pupils superior work habits, abilities, and performance, which must come from within.
     All parents desire academic environments that are conducive to learning, with limited unnecessary distractions, etc.--but that's seldom the main issue anyway. The main distractions usually come not from external sources (peers, teachers, and facilities), but from internal sources—what's going on in each child's mind. Is he or she preoccupied with problems at home? Problems with friends? Anxiety? Fears? Depression? Body image issues? Materialistic regrets?
     In life there are so many major issues for children to work through and problems to avoid, that expecting perfection in academics just seems overboard to me. If it happens, great, but to try to force it on every student, even those not so inclined or endowed, gets counter-productive. (My wife recently took a teacher's aide position helping a special needs child. They try their best, but his attention span is limited and he struggles with his memory. He has been unable to keep up with his peers, which is understandable to me.)
     A friend of ours shared that her daughter at the Number One Rated Private School in the state was eating her home lunches alone in a bathroom toilet stall. The girl had wanted to transfer to this school but was obviously experiencing difficulties fitting in. This daughter is one of the sweetest, humblest, yet most outgoing girls I have ever met, so upon hearing it, my heart ached. Perhaps her peers were ostracizing or hazing her due to her public school background or jealousy over her healthy good looks? If so, then I question their, their parents, and the school's values. I've never heard of this happening in a public school among all my many relatives and friends. And before dismissing the situation as oddball aberration, consider that another friend of ours who attended this same school a generation earlier said she also ate all her home lunches there in a girl's bathroom toilet stall. 
     If this happened to any of my kids I'd feel very upset, flabbergasted, and concerned. Why are you doing this? Are they treating you badly? What happened? Are their cliques that bad? Can't you eat on a bench outside or in a classroom instead? Are you okay? What can we do to help? What do you propose doing to remedy this unacceptable situation? Anything you wish to talk about? 
     I'm sure my friends asked their daughter these same types of questions and she told them that she's fine and wants to stay, as did our adult friend to her parents (if they ever found out) when she was a student there. But is it worth it to pay tens of thousand of dollars per year just for a name-brand education if your child must suffer such indignities day after day for months on end? What will that do to a growing child's psyche and morale?
     (Full disclosure: In high school, two friends and I skipped lunch and hung out in the band room because we couldn't stand all the lunchroom cliques that froze out all outsiders. My friends started bringing and sharing home lunches, I just forewent because bringing home lunch was so uncool and satisfied myself with an after school snack at a drive-in we always went to. It's okay, kids around the world get by on a single tiny meal a day; I didn't suffer malnutrition or short-attention span as a result.)     
     In my experience, the most personable primary and secondary school students were all products of public schools. They spoke with humble charm appropriate to their ages and clearly enjoyed my company. To be fair, private school students have spoken well to me too, with organized thoughts and speech structures, but that was the odd thing, it came across like work for them to have to talk with me, not like something they enjoyed doing, and that they just wanted to get it over with, or as if they didn't quite feel comfortable in their own skins. They'll succeed fine later in life, I'm sure (they come from stable, academically-oriented families), but was it really worth it to have lost a piece of their carefree childhoods and unabashed informality?
     Having your children catch the county bus or attend public schools won't guarantee superior character development or real-life adaptability, but neither will sending them to expensive private institutions guarantee them academic or future financial success. (Four friends of high moral character who attended either of the Top Two Rated Private Schools in the state are now: among the long-term unemployed, doing odds and ends jobs on rare occasion, barely making it as a self-employed software designer, and selling cars. Though qualified, none of them contented themselves with ordinary nine-to-five type jobs and I suspect that's why they're doing what they do now.)
     I suppose we all do our best with limited knowledge—no one can foresee the future—and resources. And many are motivated by fears (of kids devolving into sex, drugs, or academic mediocrity or worse). It takes a lot of faith to trust a child, although, in the end, I believe that that tends to work the best. Give them what they can when they can handle it and trust God to protect them. No matter what, sooner or later, we'll all have to let go anyway.

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