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School Dazed


J. D. Pendry


               My country,' tis of thee,

               sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing;

               land where my fathers died,

               land of the pilgrims' pride,

from every mountainside let freedom ring!

 America, Samuel F. Smith, 1832


After the busses dropped us off, we’d gather in the schoolyard outside the one story, wooden elementary school.  We didn’t go inside early unless forced in by the weather.  When the bell rang, we gathered in front of the building.  There we recited the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag and sang the first verse of the hymn America.  Once inside our classroom and settled, our teachers led us in the Lord’s Prayer.  If during the day, we misbehaved sufficiently to warrant it – which didn’t require much now that I think back on it – we’d earn a paddling.  If from a lady teacher, it’d be a ping pong sized paddle.  If we really messed up, we’d see the principal and get the benefit of the full board of education.  This is not an ACLU or Ted Kennedy nightmare.  This is elementary school Wyoming, West Virginia, circa 1960.


Now, if we ask children to pledge their allegiance to our flag and country, especially if it is one nation under God, they’ll haul us in to the Supreme Court to answer for it - the same court that, in 1962, tossed prayer out of the schoolhouse window.  Corporal punishment in schools is illegal in 26 states and the District of Columbia and rarely used in other states where it is legal.  Although the seat of my britches remembers it well, I’m not an advocate of corporal punishment in schools.  I’m only offering you some history.  Disciplining children is a parental function.


I don’t know if those things made a difference in our conduct later on.  I do know that after elementary school, we didn’t do them anymore and discipline wasn’t a big issue.  Many schools nowadays have character education programs that deal with behavior and how one should act.  Most approaches to improving student behavior center on conflict resolution.  Across the country, we are treating a symptom of a disease and not addressing the causes of it.  This is what happens when we place the responsibility on teachers in schools for teaching our kids how to act – that’s not their job.  I spent one year in public schools following my time in the Army.  It was a learning experience.  Others who read this column have much more time in the schools than I do and some of them are still there.  What I can tell you from my short experience is that basic education – math, science, history, government, English - often comes in second to monitoring and trying to control student behavior.


We send our daughters off to school dressed like prostitutes.  Our sons look like gang-bangers.  Both have heads filled with MTV, Gangsta Rap lyrics, violent video games, Internet chat room wisdom and sitcom solutions to life’s problems.  School is more a social event than a learning one.  Kids show up to school prepared for everything but school.  Their first stop is the vending machines.  There they pump up with noxious levels of caffeine and sugar because at a home they didn’t get enough sleep or any breakfast.  Many parents do the right things, but many don’t.  When we don’t do the right things at home, we expect teachers to solve problems for which they’re ill equipped to and shouldn’t have to face.  If you want an example of what I’m talking about and you want to get spit flying hair on fire angry.  Read this.


So, how do we fix it?  Do we continue throwing money at failed public school systems?  Do we offer families who do the right things the opportunity to get their tax dollars back and spend them on a school system that’s working?  We’ve tried the first approach for years and we’ve argued about the second for years.  I’d say everything is the same since the argument began, but it may actually be worse.


One thing is for certain, we don’t pay teachers enough. 

According to the American Federation of Teachers, beginning teachers with a bachelor’s degree earned an average of $30,719 in the 2001–02 school year.  The estimated average salary of all public elementary and secondary school teachers in the 2001–02 school year was $44,367.  Private school teachers generally earn less than public school teachers.  (Source)

The minimum salary for an NBA rookie, who likely didn’t complete college or maybe didn’t even go, is $385,277.00.  He, with his tattoos, earrings, bad attitude and ball cap on backwards, influences your child more so than does his math teacher.


We complain about liberal attitudes that pervade the schools, yet those of us with a more conservative – read disciplined – outlook are too busy chasing high income jobs to focus our attention on schools and children.  We’ll find the solution to our public schools problem in the mirror – I include myself in that challenge.



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J.D. Pendry is author of The Three Meter Zone, Random House/Ballantine.


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