On Campus
Jun 12, 2023, 06:29AM

Don’t Know Nothing About Nothing At All

School days through the years. What year is it (#292)?

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Last Thursday morning I spent 30 minutes with a nurse at GBMC—a fine hospital in Baltimore County, where you’re not treated like a slab of meat as in Johns Hopkins Hospital downtown—and she was her usual gabby self, a plus since the fairly simple blood procedure I undergo every eight weeks (a manageable condition) can be tedious. I asked about the latest in her family, and as she pricked my finger, and then my arm, she was off on a 20-minute tear, no let-up, about her disgust for the middle school her youngest daughter just finished up with. It was illuminating for me, since the public schools my brothers and I attended on Long Island, though crowded, were for the most part, first-rate, although I assume that proficiency now belongs to the era when stamps were a dime and the Daily News cost seven cents.

My friend’s child, “a good, if sometimes distracted student,” ran into a raft of teacher incompetence in the last two months of the school year. Never mind that most of her classes were rudimentary at best, a glorified daycare center at worst, and though she enjoys reading, a self-starter (I believe the nurse, for in the past she’s never held anything back about the ugly side of her kids and relatives) who doesn’t mind studying for whatever tests are still administered, she crossed a wet-behind-the-ears teacher who was offended when the teenager had the audacity to look at her phone to check the time. (An aside: like the 10-cent stamp, wearing a watch today is uncommon, which shouldn’t baffle me, but does, mostly because I can’t remember ever having my left wrist unadorned with a timepiece, from the cheapest in town to a fancy number my wife gave me for my 40th birthday.)

Anyway, the teacher, in a self-created puddle, summoned her charge out in the hallway, patted her down, and discovered she was carrying Tylenol tablets, which is apparently against the rules. She was suspended for a week. Once back from the mandated intermission, the girl was singled out for reprimands, not allowed to use the rest room, and when she was at her locker the teacher took videos of her to report to the vice-principal. During a lull, I was able to get a question in, and asked about the eighth-grade curriculum at the school, and was treated to a double-snort, with the response, “Honey, I won’t even go there; let’s just say I doubt the bitch teacher has ever heard of Charles Dickens, even A Christmas Carol!” In my experience, this suburban woman isn’t given to cultural or political hysterics—she has intricate tats and keeps her fake Christmas tree up all year, the exact kind of voter both parties are courting—but when I asked about the “wokeness” of sex education at the school, she simply threw up her hands and said, “Not much I can do there.”

Thankfully, I’m long past the parent-teacher conferences at my sons’ schools—usually a waste of time—and this is the closest I’ve recently come to any glint of the state of public school education today (and I’d imagine that the pricey private schools aren’t much better) and though my nurse’s rant was anecdotal, it’s probably not unusual.

Take a look at the photo above, my mother’s first-grade class at a parochial school in the Bronx. (She’s fifth from the left in the back row.) Crowded as well, and though corporal punishment wasn’t yet banned—one of my uncles regularly got his hand rapped with a ruler for cutting up during class—my mom’s problem was with the nasty and imperious nuns, not the schoolwork. As she wended her way through the system, she received a “classical” education, which meant Latin, rigorous history, penmanship mathematics and English classes. When I was a kid she’d recall her school days (after graduating 12th grade, she defied my grandfather, an Irish immigrant who didn’t believe women needed college, and took classes at Hunter on the sly) and, as I said, though she loathed the religious tone, she was a lifelong reader and fine writer, which she grudgingly admitted was due, at least in part, to several particularly challenging teachers.

Take a look at these clues to figure out the year: The Irish Civil War ends (sort of); after his third stroke, Vladimir Lenin retires from Soviet government; Pancho Villa is assassinated; the occupation of Constantinople ends; the first issue of Time is published; The Walt Disney Company is founded; Hank Williams is born and Wee Willie Keeler dies; “Down Hearted Blues” by Bessie Smith is the fifth most popular song; and P.J. Wodehouse’s The Inimitable Jeeves is published.

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023


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