The Sky is Full of Airplanes

I used to be a teacher. Well, I have two kids, so I guess I still am, but I’m really talking more about the gig with the paychecks. I taught middle school band. I did so briefly, but well. The school at which I taught was an inner city school, or at least as inner city as Southwest Virginia can offer. I worked with talented, motivated teachers who knew and loved their fields of study, who were passionate about filling kids’ minds with wisdom and their hearts with fire, and who enjoyed the full support of a principal committed to running a school whose kids would grow up to be Men and Women. And because of all of that, Jen and I will be homeschooling our kids.

Ok, really, I was just going for some shock value. It’s despite all that. See, the educators I worked with (and for) were truly terrific. But the system in which they worked — mandated by elected officials who couldn’t teach ice to melt — confined, constrained, restricted, reduced their teaching to scripted, rote memorization of the answers to whatever tests would happen next. There was no time for dialogue, and students coming into my band room in the days before standardized testing began looked older than their years. They might not comprehend the stakes for their school or their school district, nor how their responses to more than a week of testing could cost people jobs and affect the distribution of funding within the state’s schools. But they understood that their grades and even their matriculation depended on their performance. And as they came into my band room, they looked older than their 12 to 14 years, visibly aged by the stress.

Scientists can study the affects of stress on the human body forever and still not capture a full picture of it. It affects everything. Right down to my students’ tuning sharp on every note. See, with almost all middle school band students — musicians who’ve been playing, at most, two or three years — the tendency is to go flat. Their young bodies lack breath support and haven’t fully developed the cardiovascular stamina to sustain tones in pitch. And once those diaphragms start to quiver, as the lactic acid builds up in there, the air flows less forcefully and the pitch bends down. This is so common and so predictable that many band directors of these groups will intentionally tune their ensembles a bit sharp to begin a piece or concert, in the expectation that the pitch will drift down to where it ought to be by the time they get to the end. And yet. And yet. And yet, my pre-teen musicians, bearing preternatural stress, defied human physiology and grew sharper as their rehearsals went on. This just doesn’t happen. It just shouldn’t happen.

My oldest son will turn five this weekend, meaning Jen and I now have to decide, for realsies, whether he’ll go into public school or whether we’ll teach him at home. We can’t afford private school, so that’s out, especially when it comes time for our youngest to go into school as well. We toured the elementary school that Joshua would go into next year, hoping for, well, hope. We knew the numbers. They were accredited with warning for two years running, and all their scores were going in the wrong direction. Even that wouldn’t bother me if I knew that the faculty and staff had a plan. Unfortunately, their plan doubles down on remediation and reading, to the near-exclusion of everything else. Look, our kid can read already, a lack of confidence aside. He’s got the leg up now. We asked about enrichment, gifted, etc. at the school. The principal herself — and she’s a devoted worker, spending her weekends driving through the neighborhoods lending out books from the school’s library and her own collection — told us that there is nothing in place for advanced students. There is no mechanism to skip grades, no gifted program, no enrichment activities. The only thing is that, in her words, “the teachers are aware” of which kids are ahead of the curve. We saw the teachers, and we’ve seen the numbers. The teachers are fighting for the survival of their school. They don’t have time to carve out new programs for their advanced students because their other students are so far behind, it takes heroic efforts to get them to grade level in time for the next grade level.

It sickens us for a number of reasons. We moved here at least in part because the schools in our last town were awful. And, in fairness, they’re still worse than this. But we moved into the zone of the worst schools in a county with fantastic schools. A mile to the south, and we wouldn’t even question whether our kids would go into public school. That school is wonderful. But by a fluke of zip codes, here we are.

We didn’t realize how much we wanted our kids to go into public school until we realized that it would be the worst thing for them. I’m a defender and product of public schools. I believe in my bones that school is, or ought to be, the silver bullet for All The Problems. But the ability of parents, and even teachers, to effect change in schools has been reduced to the most nominal of efforts. The legislators have made us irrelevant and have effectively disenfranchised us from the operation and administration of our schools. We could put our kids into that school, bound and determined to be a force for change. Hell, we could even run for and get elected to the school board, but it would change nothing. So long as decisions are made somewhere else, Jen and I would be quixotic in trying to do anything more than run a bake sale.*

It’s a daunting prospect, assuming for yourself the complete education of another human being. The first five years are mostly grooming, hygiene, and manners. But when you start to think about the quadratic formula, diagramming sentences, the ATP-ADP Cycle, scoring in tennis, secondary and tertiary colors, the conjugation of regular Spanish verbs, Newton’s laws of motion… it all adds up to this huge, unassailable mountain of the accumulated knowledge of humanity. You feel inadequate, unprepared, and suddenly keenly aware of every grade you got in school, good and bad. You also still have no idea why zero is called “love” in tennis, even though you’ve looked it up, like, five times now.

There are packaged curricula for sale, some very highly regarded. There are homeschooling co-ops and support groups. There are online classes, thousands of books and magazines, conferences, and the vaguely-remembered notion that public education, as a concept, was basically non-existent as recently as the Civil War in some places in this country. In other words, while you might feel like you’re flying solo, the sky is full of airplanes.

Obviously, the decision to homeschool is situational. For some, it’s a religious imperative, but that’s not the case for us. Ours is purely wanting the best for our kids and realizing, sadly, that public school is no longer the best option.

*I make awesome baked goods, so I’m not totally discounting the efficacy of this.

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One thought on “The Sky is Full of Airplanes

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