Big Bird goes to school


I was afraid they’d call and I was afraid of saying no.

They called and I said no.

They had always offered an honorarium, but my saying no had nothing to do with money. Some things are too hard to do.

It seems easy enough. Every year an educational foundation sponsors a writers’ conference for children in grades 4-8. My job was to meet three classes for two days in a row, smile, answer questions, and behave like a writer.

I did it off and on for several years, and then one morning, months before the next conference was scheduled to take place, the dread set in. Anything, almost anything, but those three hours in a row again for two whole days. Please, thank you, no thanks.

If the children’s evaluations can be trusted (they can’t) they liked me enough. And there wasn’t one kid I knew well enough to dislike. I’m well credentialed as a classroom pro. Decades ago I was certified to teach in the public schools, but I went on to spend 39 years teaching in college classrooms instead. I never dreaded my college work.

But after spending three hours in a row in a classroom full of young children I always felt an enormous mix of fatigue and relief. I tried consoling myself by saying I wouldn’t have to do it again for another year. I could return to discussing rhetorical strategies in my writing classes and the structural features of The Epic of Gilgamesh in an honors mythology class. Easy stuff.

I really don’t know how they do it day after day–teachers at the elementary and middle school level. What did I find so hard about the kids? They are squirrels, as naturally they should be, primed to hop up and around whenever anything just slightly nuts pops up. The youngest ones are full of good life–fresh-faced eager-beaver squirrels hungry to see what a full-bodied out-of-school experience can offer them that ordinary school does not. They have the energy of dervishes and attention span of fireflies. And hardest of all on me was that they expect to be entertained.

In the last decade of my college teaching career I routinely asked my students if they would not have learned the alphabet if it were not for Sesame Street. Almost all hands always went up.

They were delusional about that, of course, so I never taught classes in a Big Bird suit to improve test scores. I was concerned about boring them, for their response to my Big Bird question was revealing: They were convinced they learned a lot from TV. For them TV, a technology now deemed quasi-primitive, was “educational” in a way classrooms are not.

How could I, no Big Bird, compete?

Entering schools as teachers now are the children suckled on TV. And there’s a lot of noise in the air waves accusing these teachers and their schools of failing our kids, our economy, our moral values, and all those standardized tests. It’s like saying the schools are going to pot because Big Bird is no longer around to turn our kids, our economy, our moral values, and those terrible test scores around.

Something, we all agree, needs to be done, and rather immediately. The Asians are beating us in science and math, and our companies are hiring not only their hungry hands but their sly engineers. Talking heads remind us daily that our schools are causing a new dark ages that is dooming us to the decline and fall of the American dream. The attacks are so intense that armies of critics seem poised to declare a War on Schools.

Until recently, when Scott Walker became Governor of Wisconsin, the war on public schools was waged by snide. We know the mantra: Get rid of tenure.

Get rid of vacation time and benefits. Get rid of collective bargaining. Get rid of unions. Get rid of student bad behavior, bad teachers, bad test scores. Get rid of buildings in neighborhoods. Get everyone in line and put a lot more on-line. And a few say it out loud: Privatize them all. Get rid of public schools. All but the very worst of them.

I prefer to point the finger of blame at Big Bird. Though most kids would have learned their alphabet in good time in a good kindergarten class, Big Bird no doubt hustled them along. But he also confused millions of little tykes about the difference between the exhilaration that comes from the mind’s discoveries and the fun entertainment provides. Put rather simply: Learning spikes the pleasure that comes from knowing the world with our minds; entertainment makes it fun to lose our minds.

For decades Americans prided themselves on making cars, but eventually we must have gotten bored with it. Now it seems that what we mainly make is armaments (though we’re offshoring a lot of that work too) and entertainment products–movies, sitcoms, video games, reality, sports, and quiz shows, and ads. We’re especially skilled at producing commercials, and our kids don’t seem too fed up with them. Judging by how heads perk up when the ads come on, they’re the main show on the menu now. If some of the kids sitting in classrooms seem like fatheads, maybe it’s because we become what we eat. It doesn’t seem to bother many of us that this diet lacks fiber and nutrients–that it’s made up of distortion, disconnection, and illusion in the service of the distraction necessary to sell products. How many ads make honest and relevant claims, even those which have disclaimers in print so small and ghostly they can’t be read? Who cares about how dishonest they are, as long as they’re magical, eye-catching and fun?

It’s hard not to take a dim view of all the glitter and glitz generated mainly by two powerful poles, Madison Avenue and Hollywood, with the wheelers and dealers in the shark infested casinos of Wall Street and Las Vegas rolling the dice to see which of them will become our cultural capital. By the time kids walk into their elementary schools they already have been defined–and already are defining themselves–as consumers. The relentless flickers of the commercials they see fill them with fantasy, stereotypes, and the soft lies (like soft porn) that are too attractive to ignore. All the ads tell us that something is missing from our lives and we therefore are unfulfilled. What we lack is alluring, funny and fun, and we need to be more like what we lack. We’ll find what we need to fulfill ourselves not in a school but in a shopping mall.

How many kids are not hooked on this mainstream American culture by the age of twelve? In my day we learned a jingle that still applies:

Made you look,

Made you look,

Made you buy a penny book.

But billions are at stake today, and how many can reject this powerful influence because there is a better mainstream alternative?

I see two troubling bottom lines: Cynicism and demoralization. At bottom, most people, even very young kids, know when they’re pawns in the only game in town. There’s a lot of noisy good cheer that enters schoolhouse doors every day, and a lot of cynicism and demoralization kicks in when the first hour bell rings. The kids have two favorite words for whatever vague thing is eating them: It sucks.

It sucks the curiosity, creativity, and respect for honest clear thinking out of them. School, its tests and science and math and worksheets and reading and writing are a hard sell. And what’s the reward? A job after they put in their time? A job they don’t really want to do because they don’t know what they really, passionately, want to do. Is this what schools are for–work? Not if the ever-playful Big Bird in them has a say. If the classroom’s a bore why not join the army instead and figure out how to get out of fighting a war nobody believes in anyway? At least they can pretend to be in a video game.

I suspect that more than a few parents are enormously relieved when their kids are safely off to school. Let the teachers figure out what to do with them.

I used to wonder about the faces in front of me in my college classrooms–thirty normally, forty or even sixty at times. I tried linking their faces with names on a seating chart, and I’d remember a few when I saw them on the sidewalk. I wondered too: How many came from dysfunctional families–drugs, alcohol, verbal or sexual abuse? How many had been to war and back, or had a friend or uncle shot dead street gang brawl? How many had guns in their cars? How many came from a home where the TV is always on, where not one thoughtful book is on a shelf? How many were fatherless, friendless, angry, raging inside, embarrassed by their looks, afraid of something they couldn’t explain, feeling deeply inadequate? How many were depressed? In my last semester of teaching I knew of seven in my classes who were clinically diagnosed as depressed. How many of the others were on drugs, prescribed or proscribed?

Who are they? Except for a few, I didn’t have a clue about their inner lives and histories, but in general I saw confusion and need. I also saw a lot of them plugged into devices that take them somewhere else, and I suspect they’re also plugged in when at home or in a car. Apparently where they actually are moment by moment isn’t good enough. They want to be someplace else.

So all you teachers out there–would you hurry up and save the world for a change. Our workforce is suffering and the commie Chinese are beating us at our game and our economy’s feeling down and we need to sell more stuff. And nobody in the world loves us the way they once did, so what’s the matter with them? And it’s the teachers’ fault because even with tenure, benefits, summer vacations, and unions our kids aren’t passing their standardized tests. And if teachers don’t change the world we’ll put more Smartboards in charge.

Meanwhile, teachers, don’t get cynical and demoralized.

I’m not cynical and demoralized, but I’m convinced I can’t handle three hours in a row with kids in grades 4-8. It’s too hard. I don’t know how anybody can, five days a week for nine whole months. But they do.