It has been said that “those who cannot do…teach.,” but I reject that sentiment wholeheartedly. Some of the most influential adults in my life were teachers from my early days in our public-school system. They not only fed me knowledge; but they heavily influenced the person that I became. In my sixth year of school (my first year back in America after living abroad for a few years), Mrs. Turner from South Hills Elementary taught me everything from math to metaphors, civics to science, and always with a happy heart. Later, at Southwest High, Mrs. Chadwick introduced me to the worlds of Shakespear and Beowulf, and that led to a life-long love of literature and the arts. In my World History Class, Mr. Copeland fanned the embers for a love and fascination with the past that burns to this day.
One administrator changed the direction of my life, and unfortunately, I do not remember her name. If not for a guidance counselor at Southwest, I may never have lived a career amongst the clouds. She knew of my desire to become a teacher (preferably of History), but she was also aware that I possessed a Private Pilot’s License. She offered the following question to this clueless 17-year-old: “Have you ever considered being a pilot as your vocation, and keeping your love of history and teaching as an avocation?” She flipped a switch in my young brain, and the rest is (wait for it…) history. I will offer that displaying a chart highlighting the large disparity in salaries (at many airlines, pilots earned several times that of a teacher), MAY have influenced my decision. Yes, educators and school administrators can be a wonderful force in a child’s life…sadly, they can also be the opposite.
So why this rant about the state of our education system? I’m guessing that most of us agree that public schooling in America is a huge mess. It seems that in far too many cases we have diverged from learning useful things that our daily lives require (reading, math, science, history, civics skills, even yes, physical education), and have somehow grasped the mantel of teaching our children to become experts in the art of “feeling” their way through their time spent as a human. We slant our teachings to school them in the nebulous fields of “equity”, “inclusion”, “racism”, “sexism”, “gender bias” etc., the list is almost endless.
A few years ago, the University of Southern California conducted a study that should shock every parent in America. They found that the United States far outspends the 11 countries also cited in the study ($7743.00 annually per child), but ranks near the bottom in both Science and Math (9th and 10th respectively). America spends almost 1/3 more than the leader of most of the categories (Finland), but falls dismally short of being “average”, much less “excellent”. Our education system seems to have lost its “educational compass,” and, truth be told, it did not happen overnight…it has been creeping this direction for years.
I give you the following example from my personal experience.
A few days ago, while organizing for an pending garage sale, my wife happened across a bin containing many photographs and assorted items from the early days of our three amazing children. This treasure trove of memories fostered the end of the “organizing” part of the day, and began an hours-long journey down that wonderful path we know as “reminiscing.” The smiles, the “awwws” and the utterances of “I remember that day…” were many, and left us with a warmth that only those cherished memories can bring. It was wonderful. (Side note: Those feelings strengthen in both number and intensity as your total trips around the sun increase…just a fact.)
But she found something else. Something that brought back a slew of rather ugly thoughts and memories. Something that was the seed that spawned this rant. She found two letters from almost a decade past; one from our youngest daughter’s high school “Dean of Students” and my reply to that letter. His was a rather strong reproach of our parenting skills in regards to our daughter’s education, and mine our response to this (in my opinion) mis-guided administrator.
Some background is needed.
In the Fall of 2014, an amazing opportunity for travel presented itself. Our two older children where now firmly in the post-college world of adulthood, but our youngest daughter was beginning her final year of high school. Through circumstances related to her mother’s gift of a love of “all things horse related” (our youngest is now her in mid-20’s and works as a professional equestrian trainer), we had the opportunity to attend the 2014 FEI World Equestrian Games in the city of Caen, France. This would certainly fall into the “chance of a lifetime” category, and when I heard the word “Normandy,” I perked up and began plotting a tour for us through that history-infused region of Europe. Having spent a few of my formative years as a youngster in Nuremburg and Munich (where my fascination with the conflagration known as World War II was given birth), the list of historically significant sights began to whirl in my head.
Knowing that she would essentially be absent the first few weeks of her senior year, we began the process of informing those in the school system of our intentions, and of course, digesting their responses. Her schedule for that Fall semester was a scant three classes (two “AP college” classes as prep for a trip into the university system, and one to include something called “Clay II”). My wife spent an afternoon discussing the trip (and the resultant absences) with her principal, with the result being an official “thumbs up” for the journey.
We now began to craft an itinerary for the few weeks that we would be overseas. Our list of destinations would not only include the FEI Games, but also those that would come under the heading of “furthering our educations.” We offered Debora’s mother a chance to accompany us on what was shaping up to be an epic adventure, and she readily accepted.
We arrived in Paris under beautiful Fall skies, and began our journey. We eschewed the rail system, surmising that to really experience the trip, we should travel the highways and byways of France and Belgium by automobile (a worthy story unto itself).
The following is a brief list of our destinations to include many of the wonders we experienced (in order of travel):
– Paris. A scant list of sights we visited: the Eiffel Tower, the Louve, Cathedral Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, the Sacred Heart Basilica of Montmartre, the famous avenue Champs-Elysees, the river Seine, and the many of the literally thousands of restaurants, cafés, etc. that make up the “City of Lights.” (Paris alone beckons for MONTHS of exploration.)
– Bastogne, Belgium. The site of the famous stand against the Wehrmacht during the horrific fighting that became known as “The Battle of the Bulge.” Our visit to the 101st Airborne’s Museum was one of the high points of the trip for the WWII historians in us. Fascinating and haunting at the same time. I promise to do a blog piece on that visit alone…you will not be disappointed.
– The city of Honfleur, France. An artist rich town on the Seine estuary across from le Havre. Shops and art galleries galore.
– Our “Air B &B” in the Normandy region.
A few miles south of the town of Percy is the location of a small farmhouse that would serve as our “base of operations” for most of our stay. It was owned and operated by a couple from the U.K., and their insight into this section of France was invaluable (they lived on the property in an out-building they were renovating). This small dwelling in the Calvados region of Normandy came with a very rich history, for among other things, it was occupied by a Wehrmacht officer during the German occupation of WWII.
The towns within an hour drive of Percy read like a “who’s who” of battles from D-Day and the bloody weeks that followed: the Omaha/Utah/Sword/Juno/Gold beaches, the towns of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, Carentan, Falaise, and Villers-Bocage, the cities of Bayeaux (home of the incredible Bayeaux Cathedral), the city of St. Lo (beautiful now, but completely destroyed by the fighting following D-Day), and the wonderful city of Caen (another city devastated by the brutal fighting of the war, but now beautifully rebuilt).
We logged many miles within this area, and almost without exception, every city, town, and small hamlet had a museum dedicated to the liberation of France by the Allies. Seemingly everywhere one would see signs extolling “Thank you!” to America, the U.K., and Canada for the sacrifices they made to drive out the Germans and secure their freedoms. Virtually every small farm along the spiderweb of small highways had several flagpoles proudly flying the tri-color of France AND the “Stars and Stripes” of the United States. It was very moving indeed.
– The cathedral at Mont-St.-Michel. The awe-inspiring 6th century island monastery on the northwest coast of France. Home of the breath-taking 230’ long “Bayeux Tapestry” which depicts the Norman conquest of England in 1066.
– And finally, Paris once again for a few days as our incredible journey neared its finish.
To suggest that the two weeks we spent in France was a whirlwind of awe and amazement would be a massive understatement. We stood at locations that left us breathless with incredible beauty and at spots that sickened us with the horror and inhumanity of war. The time spent at the invasion beaches elicited emotions that will follow me to the grave (more on that in a moment). We met folks that ignored our language barriers, warmly welcomed us, and opened their cultural doors to us. They will not soon be forgotten. It was the definition of a “bucket list” journey, and I would guess that each of us would make it again in a nano-second.
Sadly, once home (and still riding the “high” of our trip) we received the letter referenced above. Again, it originated from the desk of the “Dean of Students” from our daughter’s school. In no uncertain terms it admonished us for being part and parcel to our daughter’s two-week absence from her three classes.
Two quotes from said letter:
- “A quality high school education can ONLY HAPPEN if a student is an active participant in his or her high school courses.” (Emphasis mine)
- “School policy requires that going forward we need you to call me personally for all absences that XXXX may have for the rest of the school year. My number is XXX-XXX-XXXX. Any absence deemed unexcused will result in a Truancy Ticket with the XXXX Municipal Court System. The hope is that together, we can get XXXX in school more consistently, and get her the education that she needs to be a PRODUCTIVE MEMBER OF OUR SOCIETY.” (Emphasis mine)
Deb and I both saw red after reading this nonsense (again, if you recall, she had previously discussed our plans for the absences with the principal of this educational facility). The keyboard beckoned, and the following examples are but a few quotes from my response:
- “We feel that without dispute, one’s class attendance is important, but we also strongly feel that (under certain circumstances) the “quality” of an education can be vastly increased through travel and study abroad. XXXX’s absences during the opening weeks of this school year were discussed with administrators at the close of the last year, and both parties agreed that there would be no issue with her missing the days in question.’
(This was followed by a lengthy list of the historical sites we visited…much like the list above)
“I submit to you that 1 in 100 of your typical high school students would comprehend the significance of the town of Bastogne, Belgium, and the role it played defeating the Nazi war machine in the closing days of World War II. I promise you sir, if you queried XXXX on the same subject, you might consider pouring yourself a cup of coffee, for you would be in for a lengthy explanation. We were very fortunate last Fall that an opportunity arose to acquaint XXXX with a modicum of the French and Belgian culture (and history) first hand, and we chose not to ignore it.
As you can see, this trip was not simply a “family vacation” to some beach or Disneyland style destination, but also educational in its makeup. The amount of research she undertook before (and during the trip) would rival that of any undergraduate History Major at our universities. I would hazard a guess that this young woman knows more about the relationship between France and America during those troubled years of the Second World War, then the vast majority of American teenagers.”
(Side note not in my response letter, as preparation for the “WWII” part of the trip, she insisted that we re-watch the HBO mini-series “Band of Brothers” …with the caveat that I would refrain from offering my commentary…unless she asked for it of course, lol.)
“If you took the time, you would no doubt notice that she is, in fact, an exemplary student (A average), VERY motivated (she works an after-school job), incredibly talented and articulate (coincidentally, you display her art work on your school’s Twitter page), has a grasp of the written word that few her age have mastered (her writing skills are outstanding…I offer her ACT scores a proof), and comes from a long lineage of “productive members of society.” Her grandfather was a combat-decorated Korean War medic and Vietnam War helicopter pilot, her grandmother and mother were highly successful business woman, her brother is a decorated Army Officer with two combat tours of Afghanistan, and her sister graduated at the top of her Business class at Montana State University.
Debora and I have ALWAYS understood that the gatekeepers to our child’s education lies not with teachers, not with bureaucrats, not with legislators, but with the parents of said child. We have never believed that quantity is the yardstick in which to measure quality.
I must confess a small degree of confusion regarding your letter. Am I to assume that YOUR OFFICE will be making the sole determination as to whether any further absences are “excused” or otherwise? Am I to understand that you are attempting to remove that determination from Debora and I? School policy may dictate such, but rest assured that WE (XXXX’s parents) will be making those judgement calls, and not your office. In the event of any further absence, either Debora or I will contact the appropriate XXX Office to pass along the information, NOT to ask permission.
Again, we are extremely committed to a high quality of education for XXXXX (as we were with her two siblings), and we will make EVERY effort to keep her absences to a minimum, but we will (State Statue 118.15(3) notwithstanding) continue to reserve the parental right to educate her where and when we see appropriate. If this attitude finds us afoul of a state statute, with the resultant financial penalty, then that will surely fall into our category of the “cost of a quality education.”
Again, thank you for your concern.
Captain William S. Ball
After re-reading these letters (and through the prism of almost a decade removed), I confess that, once again, the feelings of concern regarding the state of our schools rose to the surface…thus the resultant rant.
Again, we both admire and highly respect the teaching profession, and MANY of the teachers themselves. None other than Socrates himself intoned, “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” In my opinion, we desperately need our schools’ employing more teachers that will “kindle the flames.” We feel they need to embrace the basic subjects that every child must have to exist in the modern world. Subjects that are germane to a profession whereby a person can indeed become that “productive member of our society.” As I ponder, not many professions come to mind that require an in depth understanding regarding one’s “feelings.” Let us teach children to “think” their way through life and not “feel” their way.
Of course, there will always be exceptions…a professor waxing poetic in an “Humanities” class is as it should be. But we seem to have gone far off the rails in many of our schools. Almost daily we read stories of teachers spending precious time preaching to students’ topics such as; “the virtues of multi-culturalism”, or actively robbing kindergarteners of their childhoods with events like “Drag Queen Story Hour”. (Just to be clear, the “Libertarian” in me feels compelled to say that I am not opposed to an adult man dressing as a woman and gyrating on stage, but ONLY in an appropriate venue, NOT in front of innocent school children.)
In my opinion, to neglect the gifts of Shakespear, Descartes and Beowulf, and forget the bounties of E=mc2, and “I before E, except after C”, in order to slant a child’s view of our Republic as a “racist, socially unjust, misogynistic” society is black-hearted, ill intentioned, and without value in a young person’s life.
Omaha Beach, where “feelings” matter.
As mentioned, a destination that fell into the “must see” category of our journey, were the invasion beaches along the Normandy coastline. When thinking back to the hours we spent at those hallowed shorelines, the memoirs of a deeply emotional day return. Within minutes of our arrival at Omaha Beach, all in our group began to feel the weight of history tearing at our humanity. As the day wore on, we began to deal with it in our own very private, very personal ways.
At the American Memorial Cemetery (as we began to walk among the gravesites) we separated as if to insulate ourselves within our thoughts and feelings. My wife and mother-in-law sat together on a bench, as our daughter and I began to wander alone among the 9000+ white crosses. I watched as she would pause to read the inscriptions, and snap the occasional photo (she has an amazing gift of an “eye” with the lens…many of her photos of that day are mesmerizing).
At one point, I joined her and we slowly walked together among the graves. We softly read the names, and I can only guess that she (like yours truly) was attempting to picture what the young man lying at our feet may have looked like. Was he tall, short, thin or not so thin? Red hair and freckles, or blond crew cut. So many crosses…so many letters to shattered parents.
A macabre by-product of many years spent reading of that day, was my ability to point to approximately where many of them fell. Upon reading the information etched on the cross (Name, Birth Date, Unit Designation, day of death), I could point to the beach where that young man probably took his last breath. Be it “Easy Red”, “Fox Green” or another stretch of sand within our view, I attempted to make those inscriptions become more than just words on a white cross. As I would point in the direction of their last moments alive, I also remarked that many of them were young…very young… her age in fact…eighteen.
I started to feel the need to be alone, but before I left, I offered her this thought, “I would guess that most of these young men, when pressed, could not find Normandy on a map. Yet by the thousands they readily came. And here, by the thousands they died violent deaths. Why? For one reason…to fight evil and free the world of tyranny. I have to believe that God has a special place in Heaven for them.”
The lapping waves, the peaceful green grass, and the ocean of white crosses began to be overwhelming. Feelings of their fear, their pain and their sacrifice swept over me. I excused myself and turned toward the channel, crossing the cement path, I slowly walked down the grassed embankment, and just sat in the warm sand. In my mind’s eye I could see the ominous post-dawn leaden clouds, the roiling whitecaps of the waves, and the landing craft filled with wet figures slowly moving toward the beaches. Closer they came, and soon the sand was filled with all those terrified young men, running amongst the blinding flashes and deafening explosions…and dying…dying by the thousands, and the tears began to flow down my face…
I wondered if my daughter felt it, if she connected the dots like my father taught me to do. I thought back to that cold day, those many years ago standing at the coliseum in Nuremburg. He quietly brought me there and patiently explained to me that three decades earlier, an evil man named Hitler stood precisely where we stood, and used his horrible words to plant the seeds of hatred that would consume the planet in world war. I thought about what he was telling me, and I began to feel the burden of that moment in time, when hatred reigned supreme. I would feel it again (within the year) standing in front of the gas chambers and ovens of Dachau. I wondered; did she feel that same “burden of history”? Did she sense the immense weight of it all, and did she comprehend the significance of where she was standing.
Later, as we all walked along the beach, I felt myself becoming agitated. I was not sure what was bothering me, but something just did not SEEM RIGHT. I was acting like the proverbial “cranky old dude” as I was bloviating about the folks happily frolicking along the beaches, eating picnic lunches, and enjoying a beautiful afternoon… and all seemingly oblivious to the hallowed ground in which they frolicked! She cut me short with the following laser-clear statement, “Dad, don’t you get it? Those guys died here EXACTLY so these people could do this!” It hit me…she did understand. She was that proverbial 11-year-old standing where evil stood, only she was eighteen and was standing where courage and goodness ran toward death. She grasped that she was walking on sand that was stained with the blood of free men who gave their lives so that evil would be crushed.
Just to be clear, Debora and I are 100% pro-teacher, and 100% pro-school. But maybe, even more than that, we are firmly “pro-education” …wherever that learning presents itself. We are terribly concerned that many of our institutions of learning are not teaching things that matter to young minds, and it worries us.
We were under no illusions that once our older children left for the university, we would be squarely in the fight to keep them grounded in sanity (and concentrating on their education). But that was YEARS before the letter, and again, we were shocked to receive such correspondence from a High School. It left us to draw one simple conclusion; our “small-town, middle America” high school was staffed with bureaucrats that were attempting to wrest control and “Truancy Ticket threaten” us out of the role of being active participants in our child’s education. We could not let this stand
The choice for today’s parents seems to be crystal clear. Get involved in your children’s education. If you leave it up to others, realize that some folks (yes, even those we call “teachers”) may have a different idea of what your children should be learning. If that leaves you no pause, then don’t be shocked when you find that you may now be parenting a child that does not share your love for our country (and the freedoms that allowed them to become so mis-guided). Also, do not be surprised if they have changed their opinions about the two people that were responsible for their birth.
I am forever haunted by the following quotes:
– “Let me control the textbooks, and I will control the State.” – attributed to Adolph Hitler.
(side note: It is currently illegal to “home school” in today’s Germany, a troubling thing IMHO.)
– “Give me four years to teach the children, and the seed that I have sewn will never be uprooted.” – attributed to Vladimir Lenin.
Addendum; The day after tomorrow we will celebrate another Veteran’s Day here in America. I will proudly display my flag, remember, salute, and honor the men and women who gave their lives for me. I will feel a pride in my country and strength in my soul that only free men and women can feel. The ghosts of Omaha beach (and Saipan, Salerno, Iwo Jima, etc.) should live within the grateful hearts of all Americans…we owe them at least that much. They indeed, sacrificed their futures, so we could have ours.
I must ask…would those young men approve of (or even recognize) the present state of our school systems? What would they think of the topics taught and the “moral compass” of the teachings directed toward the very lives they died for? Can we honestly say that they would approve of how we have used the years they gave us…the years that they never had?
(an example of my youngest daughter’s amazing “eye for the lens”…simple, yet powerful)
It saddens my soul, but I believe that some of the blame for our mis-guided, “confused” education system in America lies at the feet of some of those we call teachers. I stand tall however, knowing that our saviors will come in the form of many heroic teachers… be they in, or out of the classroom.
‘till next time,