Many years ago when my son was about three I was chatting about plans for his schooling. I planned to send my son to public school. The man I was speaking with said, "You sound so positive. You must have had a good school experience."
Those simple words rocked my world. I hadn't had a good school experience. I had loathed school from almost the day I entered it till I finally slunk out of high school demoralized, nearly defeated and despondent. The funny part of this is that I was a wise child in a way. While I was in school and hating it, it occurred to me that I might not have enough experience to know if I really did hate it. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe school was OK. It was only after I grew up and had more experience, I realized my feelings were accurate. I had hated school.
What on earth was I thinking when I said I would send my son to public school?
Truth be told, I wasn't thinking at all. I was unconscious. I was methodically proceeding step by step down a path without thinking at all. I doubt the man I spoke with remembers me or his casual remark, but I am forever grateful to him. He woke me from my slumber and (I believe) saved my son from years of boredom, depression, Ritalin and a 12-year sentence to an institution that is designed by bureaucrats.
I was reminded of this story today when I spoke with a friend whose daughter is expected to not express her lively, sparkling intelligence because her classroom is a place of equality and her expression of her unique qualities, her special smarts, and her incisive insights are not contributing to everyone feeling equal. All of which caused me to tell my friend, "Damn straight. Tell her to go get 'em. She's not crazy. They are."
I look back now at how I barely held on through on those years of schooling--so unsure of myself that I couldn't even say for sure if I did hate school. Why wouldn't I hate it? It was beyond tedious. By the time I went to school, my dad had spent untold evenings reading stories to us while we clustered around him in the red rocking chair. I remember the story about Pete of the Steel Mills that ended with Pete dying in blast furnace accident. That story always made my dad choke up. I remember another one about a man traveling in the desert who met a bushman in the Kalahari who saved his life. I knew a good story when I heard one.
Then I went to school and we were supposed to read Spot and Jane "stories." Stories so stupid, so pointless, so insipid they would make a nun swear. This was school. Hate it? Hate was a weak word. I loathed it. I lived for recess and the really good yeast rolls at lunch. Those things were small compensation, but I took comfort where I found it.
Forty years ago, it was boring. It was boring to be in school with students who could barely read a sentence in 8th grade. It was boring to read things that had nothing at all to do with my life or the life of anyone I knew or had any prospect of knowing. I don't disbelieve the things I heard in history class, I just can't remember them. They seemed irrelevant then. Now I think they were. My father told us the story of his own grandfather running from the Southern conscriptors during the Civil War and losing an axe while he made his escape. I still remember that story. I remember practicing my multiplication tables with my mother while we tied tobacco hands in the barn, but I can't remember a single thing I learned in school between 1st and 12th grade. I am racking my brain and nothing comes up.
I can't even conceive of how horrible it must be to be in school today. Think about it. There's a whole system devoted to telling you that you do not have unique talents and capabilities. It tells you that you are just the same as everyone else. It doesn't tell you that your task is to discover how you can contribute your gifts to the world. Instead, it recites false platitudes, that anyone can become anything they want. Everyone is equal. Others that you may perceive as not trying very hard, others who are not kind, others who cannot read the things that fascinate and enthrall you--all of these people are your equal.
That is a lie. The last thing on earth that is true of people is that they are equal. They are not equal in gifts. They are not equal in spirit. They are not equal in intelligence. In short, they are not equal.To prove my point, I'll tell you another story.
Many years ago, before I went to law school, I worked in an inpatient psychiatric hospital. A few of our patients were chronic schizophrenics who were admitted from time to time to restabilize on their medications. When they were out of the hospital, they were on the verge of being homeless. People stole their medications and their tiny disability funds. They lived a very hard and tenuous existence. Even in the hospital when medicated they ranted and raved about things I didn't understand. One day, one of the men, who I will call Dan (not his real name), was yelling and threatening people in the ward. I really wanted to ignore him. I couldn't understand his rants and I was a little scared of him. I also knew that nothing I would do or say would change the fundamentals of his life. Still, I had a job, so I said, "hey, Dan. What gives?"
In a very confused stream of consciousness with lots of interjections, he told me of his very bad, horrible day: how his doctor had told him he would be discharged, how the apartment manager had stood him up while he was looking for a place to live, how he had missed the last bus and had to walk for miles to return to the hospital, how he had lost his tiny bit of money and now he didn't know what to do next. He had had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day and when he finally made it back to the hospital, no one had even asked him how his day had gone until he began to cuss and throw things in the day room. I am still moved by our conversation 38 years later.
After he was discharged and robbed, he came to the hospital to ask for help. I lent him some change for a phone call. Later, he took a bus--which cost at least .75 cents--to come to the hospital and repay me the .50 cents I had given him for the phone call.
Why is this relevant to bad schools and equality? I will tell you why it is relevant. It is relevant because through everything Dan went through, through his poverty, though his incredibly debilitating mental illness, through his entire life which I cannot even imagine bearing up under, Dan was unique. He was kind. He strove to be responsible and to do the right thing. No one was his equal and he was not equal to anyone. He was an extraordinary human being, conducting his life with all the dignity and honor that he could muster.
I met a lot of severely mentally ill people in the 3 years I worked at the hospital. Some were manipulative. Some had resigned themselves to lives of dependency. A few were even dangerous. But one thing I learned was that mental illness has little or nothing to do with a person's character. In some ways, even this particular illness, which seems to affect so much of the person suffering, is separate from the person that suffers. The character, the uniqueness of the human being, the essential quality of the person exists in the face of all that the illness entails. That is why I remember, acknowledge and respect Dan.
To hell with equality. Let's respect people for the extraordinary, unique beings they are and the qualities they manifest.