My oldest grandchick left the nest today.
Because both his parents are schoolteachers, I was given the honor of escorting Jonas to his first day of Kindergarten today. He’s a wonderful boy—of course—and I’m being overly dramatic; this was not as big a step as it might have been. He’s been in day care most of his young life, and my son and daughter-in-law have invested themselves in him fully. The combination of his native fearlessness, his anticipation, and his sense of wonder were contagious, almost narcotic; they pushed me into a splendid reflection.
All I remember about my first school adventure now is visceral. I’m the fifth of eight kids, so sheer repetition had probably taken the edge off my parents by then. My closest older brother is five years older than I, so I couldn’t have shared directly in the older ones’ epiphanies. My own anticipation was fed more by their “just you wait and see” teasings. Nonetheless, being out of the house, supervised but on your own, can’t be oversold to a five-year-old.
I don’t remember how I got there. Washington School was less than a mile off, so we could have walked or driven, depending on the day’s other logistics. What I remember is old brick; high, single-glazed windows; steam radiators; all the musty furniture and bric-a-brac that define a sub-teen classroom; and color—a riot of construction paper, paste; pencils; crayons; finger paint; and blunt-nosed scissors. Then, the sight and smell of other kids, vibrating like molecules, presided over by a beneficent teacher whose name I cannot now dredge up. It was magical.
My journey from there—to St. Joseph’s School, through to Georgetown Law Center—was all positive. My job was to learn; theirs was to provide the incubator, tools, and guidance—not to forbid, but to supervise and correct, in partnership with my parents. It went like this: Sisters of the Holy Cross, eight years; North Junior and Boise Senior High Schools, four years; the Jesuits, seven years. My parents were Roman Catholic, so their initial choice for us occurred somewhere toward the upper end of a scale between blind tradition, on my mother’s side, and the reality that parochial education provides a beneficial moral context in which intellectual beginners can reason and grow. We would all attend Catholic elementary and secondary school, which lasted through the first three of us. A conspiracy of factors—a confused old nun accusing my oldest sister of dishonesty; my brother’s poor judgment in being better at basketball as a freshman than some established varsity stars; and, likely, the sheer weight of finances—broke the bond with St. Teresa’s Academy. From then on, after doing our time at St. Joe’s it was public school for the last five of us.
We made similar choices for our two boys. After we married and settled in northern Virginia, we enrolled them in parochial school, where they went for four years until we moved to Sacramento in 1987. (Our younger guy spent a semester back in Boise with his mother and attended St. Mary’s School. For the record, both spouses were also Catholic; the former still practices and the latter, after six years of convent school, shipped out to Texas to live with her father and stepmother. She consorted for a time with Methodists and is now happily unattached. Me? It’s complicated; a whole other story.) Here, we had every intention of sending them to public school, but were dissuaded by the parents of the young man who became and remains Number Two’s best friend. Their arguments—underfunding; overcrowding; disciplinary problems; administrative and political interference—resonated with us. Why? They both worked in our school district. So—Sacred Heart and Christian Brothers it was. Both completed their degrees at public universities—Cal State-Chico and U.C.-Berkeley. Happy endings, all around; we are intensely proud of our secular humanists, who will make their own choices with their children. We’ll be pleased to advise—if asked.
Fact: God was present in all our classrooms, a good bit of the time, for two generations. (Historical note: 50 years ago, Roman Catholicism was anything but nuanced at the grade-school level. I am a proud survivor of the Baltimore Catechism and the Knights of the Altar . (And, no, I wasn’t molested in any way. Monsignor Kenneth V. Rowe was simultaneously a moral authority and a hoot to be around.) Suffering the Fires of Hell for everything from murder to masturbation was a manageable abstraction in the moment—not that I ever killed anyone—especially since we had those two escape pods, confession and imperfect contrition. As long as you avoided the rich imagery of the likes of James Joyce, you could get through your average day with only a modicum of guilt.
Also true: at no time was our faith used as a bludgeon to beat accepted facts into the ground. The mysteries of faith and hard science co-existed, peacefully. We studied the Scopes Trial; I was instantly intrigued by the idea that we might be descended from Tarzan’s Cheetah’s ancestors. For one thing, it went a long way toward explaining male adolescent behavior, both generally and as to the activities of my brothers and me. I think we were even treated to watching Spencer Tracy, thundering in the 1960 cinematic version of 1955’s play, Inherit the Wind. This was my introduction as a 12-year-old to McCarthyism and the American Civil Liberties Union, thanks to a long conversation with my Dad thereafter. Later, I discovered that the phrase “One Nation Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, meaning that we’d gotten on without it for 165 years. To our detriment, what my Dad intended as lesson and epilogue has worked its way from prologue to déjà vu over the last three decades.
Also, Also True: In public school, the first lesson you learn is that there are a lot of other parents and kids whose looks, habits, and beliefs are not yours. This is not only your first lesson in tolerance; it’s also your introduction to the genius of our First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Unlike in so many societies before ours and since, there’s no legislated One True Belief, so—like six-shooters in the saloons of the Wild West—you check your own at the door. That way, you can talk and argue about God and every other stray idea that’s ever occurred to us without risking Holy War. Besides being well-schooled in natural philosophy and recent refugees from a monotheistic monarchy, the guys who started all this saw the obvious. We were all from somewhere else and believed different things, a trend likely to continue. Today, it may seem ironic that Baptist preacher John Leland and James Madison were ideological soul mates and political allies, dedicated to seeing to it that no one dogmatic sect obtained legal advantage over another. That’s the signal difference, though. Argue for and organize politically around your beliefs at will, in the public square; just don’t use the Congress, legislatures, or school boards to impose them on others, or to mask inconvenient truths. Beliefs and principles do and should inform public debate; if they’re valid they don’t need a head start. Atheists are citizens and taxpayers, too. Personally, I believe that how far you go in tithing and spending to affect the outcome of elections and still claim a tax exemption is an “establishment” question that deserves renewed scrutiny these days—and I’m not talking about just religious organizations.
Here we are, today—enmired in an endless cycle of threatened budget cuts at all levels and a four-sided civil war among public; parochial; charter; and home schools. Nationally, 250,000 teachers have lost their jobs since 2007. Here in California, K-12 and community college funding declined $20 billion; we’re currently ranked 47 out of 50 states in per-pupil spending in those categories. This year, 19,500 public-school teachers got anticipatory pink slips, including Sacramento’s Teacher of the Year. Most of them will likely be hired back, for two reasons. First, at 325,000 strong the California Teachers’ Association has the political muscle and skill to defend public education in the State Capitol. (The same types of entities that are operating in secret to turn the national election in November have qualified a “paycheck protection”—their words—initiative to try to fix that; while it appears to restrict political giving by “corporations,” as well, they’ve managed to exempt themselves.) Second, they sponsored their own initiative, Proposition 98, two dozen years ago to guarantee that 40% of each General Fund budget be spend on K-12 education, which so far has provided the negotiating leverage necessary to keep the barbarians at the gate. This was in part a response to the passage of Proposition 13 a decade earlier, which hamstrung local governments’ ability to fund education locally and kicked the whole mess up to Sacramento. These and other privately-hatched “expressions of popular will” have reduced our Legislature’s annual budget process to attacking a Gordian knot with butter knives, with less than 20% in discretionary spending in play.
Out of breath yet? Overlaying all this is the fact that our Constitution requires a two-thirds vote to increase taxes—one of only three in the country. Since 2000, a smidge over a third of our elected legislators have been Republicans; in that time, no more than a half-dozen have broken ranks to support a budget increasing revenues. The rest have refused, pledging never, ever to raise taxes to a pinch-faced little troll who lives under a bridge somewhere near the Potomac. His contribution to the public weal? Consorting with oligarchs who have the means to arrange the electoral death of any infidel. Their wrath indeed rained on those conscientious objectors. As a consequence, our Governor made a campaign promise four years ago to take the question of increasing taxes to protect public education to the voters. Since then, a multi-millionaire decided he wasn’t going far enough, so she’d sunk almost $9 million by the end of June into getting her own version passed. (This may come as a shock to you. but here in California, we seem to have no shortage of unelected dilettantes with money to burn who have found the One True Path.)
Fellow grandparents and parents: I’m grateful that my parents had and made the choices they did and that they were available to me, as well. I hope those choices remain available to all parents, although I worry that private academies and home schools shield their pupils from two important exposures: general socialization and diversity. At the same time, I understand that I was privileged to be able to pay for my choices, a path open to a relative few. Most who wish a better life for their kids and grandkids have only one realistic option: public education. I put my son and daughter-in-law into that category because they’re all in. By teaching in public schools, they’ve traded short-term income potential for a reasonably secure retirement—already under attack—and will face the problem of post-secondary education for their own kids.
Our common enemies have always been and remain those symbiotic twins, fear and ignorance. Our sole enduring weapon against them is education, and the next generations are our most precious infrastructure.
As we shout into a gale of growing information our kids and grandkids must have to function as happy and responsible citizens, hypnotized as we are by test scores and other minutiae, somewhere Andrew Carnegie weeps. He watches as we claim we just can’t afford to sustain his commitment to a sound public education for everyone anymore.
How can we not afford it?