Mary, Semi-Retired Librarian and Educator, CA
Take a moment to think about a child that you care about and when you’re ready tell me about that child.
I am thinking about Julia, Paul’s oldest child. I’m the part time employer to her father. I don’t know her well. I just see a situation where I don’t think she’s going to reach what I consider her full potential. Her mother’s back is damaged from the birth of their 6th child and Julia is the first born, so she’s doing a lot of child care and taking care of the family. Julia is home schooled. It’s tough on the mom to do the home schooling, the baby is still nursing, and she’s pretty much bed ridden because of her back injury.
Do you know what Julia likes to do?
She’s got some technical ability. I know because when I hired her and her brother to come help me clean the garage she borrowed my phone to take some pictures because she loves the view. When I got my phone back she had completely changed around my home screen. It was sort of annoying... but it also felt like it was a call for help, a signal that she’s got a lot of intelligence and a lot of potential.
Her family are fundamentalist Christians and they are also quite serious sort of people. I just wonder… her childhood is not very lighthearted. She’s 10 I think, 10 or 11. So I know she has this ability for tech, and I know she likes to read because when they helped clean the garage they both found books and they are just book worms. So, in that way their childhood is very low tech and I think that’s positive.
I don’t know what other skills she’s getting a chance to develop. For example, it struck me that she can’t swim yet because she is 10 or 11 so I tried to give her a few lessons, and she was pretty good at it. The second time she came she knew enough to put her hair away. The first time was on her little sisters birthday when we had a pool party for the family. I don’t think she’s allowed to cut her hair, it’s kind of like a tradition for women to let their hair grow until they are married. It’s really really long and not very convenient for swimming so when she came the second time she had put it up a bit.
If you imagine that Julia is in her 30s now, so she’s done with school, she’s entering into her adult life. When you picture that what do you hope for her?
I guess I really only know what to hope it’s not. I think due to the social pressure she’s under she will never get beyond being a mom. By the time she’s 30 I bet she will have 4 kids, maybe more because they don’t believe in intervention. The other thing is she does have an interest in technology but, I feel like she’s getting a real image of a mother, or of females, as being physically impaired and that it’s very common to see a woman that is unable. For example, when I said we were taking them home after they helped with the garage she begged to go do errands she said, “we never get to go because of our mom, we never get to go to any stores”. She’s very isolated.
So, in my terms? For me a successful life includes things like graduate school, professional work, a reasonably paying job that has potential to make a contribution to society and create a lifestyle that is at the level to which I’ve become accustomed. If she had that I think she would have to be estranged from her birth family because they couldn’t accept her that way, but those are the kinds of things that I would wish for my own children and they have achieved those things and that’s really great.
We touched on this a bit already but can you think about some of the things that would maybe get in the way of Julia achieving that good life?
The values of her birth family, the geographical givens of where she lives, the fact that her family is living paycheck to paycheck. They live in a rental house that is on a main road. When the kids were at my house she commented on how quiet it is and I asked her if is it quiet at her house. She said no, because they just a little ways from pretty heavy traffic with constant traffic noise. The fact that they’re isolating her by homeschooling. Until she can drive she won’t be able to really have contact with other people. Where she lives is almost like an enclave of Christians, there’s more than one house. I don’t know exactly what the relationship is but I think she has to share everything, I think all the kids do. When I went there to drop off a check to her dad last time I saw Julia's little sister. She followed me out, she was 5 turning 6 and I gave her a box of those classic pencils and a little pencil sharpener and then I put a self addressed stamp envelope in the package. The idea being to be kind of a pen pal with her, to have her sharpen the pencil and write to me. And I said to her “you’re turning 6, you need to read Winnie the poo!” and she laughed in a way that made me realize she had already read it and so that’s good, that they are getting the classics.
You brought up Christianity in this conversation about schooling, I wonder, do you consider yourself to be a Christian?
Well I do, I do. I think the way I read I read Christ’s message is less than the literal interpretation that Julia's family has. For me, if you really believe that god is sovereign then you see that the achievements that we make in technology or medicine can have their heart in god because the intelligence we have been given by god. So it’s a very loose interpretation. I also tend to be an inclusive person and so I can remember when I first thought- can I be a Christian? I said to a Christian friend of mine, ‘well I can’t really be a Christian because I believe in a woman’s right to choose’ and she said, ‘you can still be a Christian.’ There’s a lot of personal choice I think when you say you’re a Christian and there’s probably a lot of Christians that would hear my views and say, ‘well you’re not’. There’s just a whole lot of different ways to be a Christian and what Christ said that weighs the heaviest with me is that to be a Christian you have to want to do gods will and that’s enough.
Going back to Julia now, what do you ideally think the role of schooling should be in her achieving that good life you were talking about earlier?
First of all, I think she should have the opportunity to come up against the school environment, and she won’t because she’s home schooled. She never will have an opportunity to be exposed to people who have different values than her family, she’s going to be very sheltered. I think the diversity you get exposed to is one of the great advantages of public school. If she uses any kind of school it would only to be a hand picked class that her parents somehow knew about, something very very limited. She will only have contact with people who think the way her family thinks.
Will you talk a little more about access to diversity of opinion and diversity of experience as an important part of schooling?
I subbed in this English drama class. The teacher is really making a big impact in the kids’ lives because he is making use of the auditorium to the max. Every weekend the students in the town are invited to movies and plays. He writes plays on engaging topics that students want to do. It was just the cutest thing, this warm up thing in the drama class. They have these chants that they say and then they say “be sad” and then as a whole group they do it or “show joy!” and they have all these movements and emotions.
To me that’s pushing the developmental envelope, something really different that Julia will never get to do. If she got that it might be in a church setting, like being a part of nativity scene- but she wouldn’t be around these students, one had purple hair one had red hair, it’s just really dynamic. She will just be really limited but at the same time she’s going to have a very thorough grounding in their version of following the bible. The fact that her mother can’t have surgery for this pain that she’s in, she’s in pain every day with no medication. It’s a bulging disc in her back, really serious and painful. She will be grounded in the idea that when we want to do gods will we can’t necessarily take initiative. In my family we believed that ‘god helps those who help themselves’ but this is a different philosophy, it’s more passive. I think that she’s got a lot of gumption and it will be interesting to know her over time and see what does happen. I hope it’s not the same as I’m thinking. I could be misinterpreting.
Thinking a little more broadly about the roles that you think schools should be playing for kids, do you think they are playing that role for all children in this country?
I’m not sure because my own experience is getting to be so long ago, I’m not absolutely sure if I went to that small town that it would still be that way. The town I’ve been subbing in, there is just such a divide.
The first English class I subbed in was AP English, I told the students about my job doing UCSC admissions and asked how many would be filling out an application. Almost every kid in the class raised their hand. The next period I had the farm kids, but I didn’t know that and I asked the same question. They are all going to work for their parents, stay in their home town, not travel. So even within this pretty homogenous area there’s a big divide. That was true in the small town where I grew up as well, only about 10% of us went on to higher education in my senior year.
Given the resources they’ve got though I think that the high school is providing that exposure pretty well. I guess the thing I would have concerns about in general across the nation is the kind of crime and prejudice that happens in schools. I think a high school environment can be really brutal socially, especially in a big city or when the setting is big. For example Menlo Atherton High School had such a lot of kids. I think in the big cities it’s like that too, there’s an awful lot of kids. The diversity is there that you want, but it goes as far as becoming criminal or dangerous and then it’s pretty hard to get through those 4 years. it’s a broad question because you’re got the elementary years, the junior high years, the high school years, and then access to higher education.
Do I think that the US schools are providing the ideal environment that I would like to see? Boy, I don’t, no, I don’t really think so. In general I would say that the culture, just the way that people move around and the way they are clustering in these big big cities I think makes it really hard for the public school system to be effective, in terms of keeping kids safe first of all, and then doing the exposure that involves a lot of education. When I think of my experience as a substitute and aide in classrooms a lot of it is just classroom management. You might have a great teacher who is really well intentioned but it ends up just being sort of crowed control because of the diversity of behavior and expectations. It’s so complicated, it’s just really complicated.
Do you think that people agree with you about what you just talked about? For example, we talked about what makes a good or successful life. Do you think people agree with you about what you shared?
That’s a broad question, I think people in my socioeconomic level probably do. I look at our neighbors who have children in school and they are doing something really similar to what we did for our kids. They have bought a house near to the private school where they want their kids to go because they don’t want to use the public schools because they are too rough and too difficult socially. So they are sheltering their kids from the reality of the location, which we did too right? We sheltered our kids, or tried to shelter them from the bad aspects of the location we were in. And those neighbors have financial resources like we did, more even than we did, so I think they do agree. I imagine there are a lot of people, I see it where I sub, where the parents are so at odds with the school. They think their child isn’t being treated fairly. You get irate parents, really difficult input, the kids are struggling and the parents struggle back.
It’s kind of hard to answer in general... certainly diversity of exposure to different subjects of study, I would think that would be generally desired by most parents. I remember when my other son got some kind of indication that he should be a teacher and he said ‘Oh my god I don’t want to be a teacher.’
I think in our culture there is real concern for the standard of living that a career choice will provide. I’m at the grandparent age but when we are looking at people who are parent aged I think there would just be a lot of concern about how their kids can maintain the standard of living they have become accustomed to. They might see school as just a method of getting ahead, the competitive aspect to it, which I suppose in a way we had too, but it feels like our motives were more pure. For example, we chose Bing preschool not because it was going to make for a great resume but because we thought it was a great school.
When you think about your own educational experiences what were some of the most powerful and empowering ones?
I do remember one science class that I had as an undergrad that was just so great because the teacher was great, he tried to help us recreate the situation where Galileo figured out that the earth wasn’t the center of the universe. He just took us so step by step, we had a planetary model, and he was just so enthusiastic and so keen for it and before that time I had not really realized that science could even be interesting and at that point I would have been 18 or something, so that I remember as a powerful experience.
I think for me the way that I excelled personally within school was an ability to organize people. I was like that in my neighborhood too, in terms of getting kids to all play together and that kind of thing. That went on into school and I had the opportunity to run for political office and be sort of a leader within my class, that was an empowering sort of feeling. When I actually went to college, that was really difficult for me partly because of the intense relationship I had with my mom. All my confidence and everything kind of had to be rebuilt and it was a really big process for me to actually function as an adult.
If you had to choose one thing to intervene on to make schools more like your ideal, what would you intervene on?
I would increase salary for teachers because I think that’s part of the trouble. There’s just not enough funding to have enough people around, I mean some of these classes I sub in, there’s 28 students. That’s an awful lot so people to manage so if you could just throw money at it that would be one way. Then you could limit class size and just give great resources, great equipment for the classrooms, don’t let the parents wherewithal play too much of a part. This one class I subbed for they were going to the pumpkin patch and the teacher asked the parents to provide $5 for the bus. One the parents slipped me a 20 and said ‘I don’t want anybody to be unable to go on the field trip’, and geez wouldn’t it be great if they didn’t have to ask for the $5 for field trips or school supplies? It seems promising that the bond measure passed here in Santa Cruz and also where I have been subbing so people are in the mood and see that the educational infrastructure needs work and they are willing to pay for it and that’s really good because it’s really expensive and really important too.
Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you want to touch on? Or anything you have been thinking about recently in relation to schooling that you want to share?
I have been puzzling if there is some path that would be appropriate for me to follow. This design thinking book that you put me in touch with has made me consider. I have this interest that is just sort of natural in that young adult transition from high school to college. That was a really hard time for me personally, to actually learn to stand on my own two feet. I’ve thought about going on and studying for a certificate in admissions or something like that. Rather than do anything really formal I’ve just been helping this one teacher who seems to have just inherited that type of role for the high school- to expose kids to their options as seniors. Being 64 I’m not sure, the book is saying don’t get stuck with the notion that it’s too late to start something new, but it crossed my mind. Do I really want to be busy like that? Or should I really just be quilting? I have wondered lately how to get involved or where to get involved.