Recent local school funding battles have made me a bit nostalgic, and I find myself reflecting on my own high-school years. It’s hard to compare my experiences to the horror stories I’m hearing from around the country. Our school was, I suppose, rather well-off.
At first look, Riverside HS wasn’t by any river we could see, least not within walking distance. It also wasn’t the corn-fed, rural, football-crazy, country high-school many local people wanted it to be. Though it was nuzzled at the edge of a few small patches of farmland, it was in reality, part of a thriving suburban community supplying workers to cities as small as it’s native Painesville, all the way to Cleveland, Ohio. It had a fair share of pick-up trucks in the parking lot, but these were a tiny minority to the sedans common to suburban kids that comprised most of the population.
Painesville also had a second ‘inner-city’ school named “Harvey” (Though, Painesville’s ‘inner-city’ wasn’t nearly as bad as the name implies). Painesville was barely large enough to even have an ‘inner’ part, anyway. To any outsider, the two schools would seem just slightly different shades of grey. Typical of any of the schools throughout the county, their differences in standards and funding would be considered trivial to the situation in the rest of the nation. But, to many in our classes, Harvey and Riverside were, in a very real sense, as different as black and white. Though racist rhetoric was common in both schools, there was never any true animosity. There were enough of us with friends in both schools to smother any true ballooning of rivalry. It was a safe environment to grow-up in.
The recent talk of refurbishing the teacher certification and tenure system in America always reminds me a geometry instructor I had in my sophomore year. I’d been a good student in mathematics, up to that point. That time, unfortunately, I was saddled with an old woman who, though not having an understanding of the subject herself, had found a method of teaching it that suited her just fine. Endless repetition of the same nonsensical instructions and occasional bouts of yelling had passed for teaching for over 2 decades here. Though she had the lowest passing rate of any teacher in both the high-school and the local junior-high, her tenure kept her from being fired. I dropped the class after the first month. Oddly, I met her male equivalent just a few years later teaching calculus in major Ohio university. I suppose teaching mathematics may be as difficult as learning it.
A chance to travel to Europe in my junior year was a singular experience that stays with me to this day. Though I drained my meager college fund pay for the trip, I gained more from it than any semester of college (or half-semester, for that amount of cash) could have done. I learned the term ‘those people’ extended to no one, in reality. The world was made of just “us”. Suddenly, the small-town perspective I’d learned so well, simply fell away. Now, nowhere on the planet was “too-far” from here.
It was early 1991, and I was taking a Russian history class while watching The Soviet Union implode. It was exciting, and frightening, to see what you discuss and theorize about in class happening for real. This class was a rare gem in American scholastic system.
In my junior year, I was more than ready to leave. By my senior year, I’d already done it. I had virtually no classes left (Russian History was one) and stopped all my extracurricular activities. I’d begun taking classes at my local community college at the start of my senior school year- mostly electives at first or whatever I could test into. I was a fixture at the collage and had become a ghost in my HS. By the time our graduation came, High school was like a distant memory. I didn’t even attend the graduation ceremony, so as not to miss my college classes. Now, looking back, I see what a rare and valuable experience it was.
Teachers and schools are all different. I know there is a need for basic standards, obviously. But having some discretionary funds to meet the dreams of a particular school’s teachers and principals is what made my HS experience more than just memorable. It was life-changing. There will never be enough money to offer all possible educational opportunities to all children. But with just a little extra, a tiny specialty in each school will cast a broad enough net across this nation’s educational system to hold the interest many kids, and possibly change their lives as well. I hope when our educational system is overhauled, these kinds of opportunities will not be lost.