Sunday, January 18, 2009

Subterranean Homesick Blues Meets Project Runway

True Confession Time: With my son, now 26, and my daughter, now 21, adults of their own, my interest as a parent, share-holder and all-round busybody in the Norwich Public Schools and our Board of Education has waned considerably. 'Back in the day', I went to Board of Education meetings, was a parent who took vacation days from work to be on the Kelly Middle School Building Instruction Team (BIT) working with teachers to study the results of Connecticut Mastery Tests in the hopes of mapping new directions in instruction while my wife more often not home, but rather helping in classrooms across the school. I'm sure it was with considerable relief that the superintendent and principals watched my children grow into students who attended Norwich Free Academy, saddened to no longer have my wife's patience and graceful skills in a thousand schoolyard situations but happy with the notion I would darken somebody else's hallways (and did).
Son of a school teacher that I am, I have enormous respect and regard for teachers and classroom professional across the public education sector. My own two children arrived here from an alien, distant shore in the early winter of 1991 and learned English and, in large part, all (or nearly all) the skills to be good citizens of their city, state and nation (because they'd experienced their Father's country from the perspective of their Mother's) because of those at the Buckingham School, with Gary Gelmini as principal and at Kelly Middle School, with Don Steadman and Janis Sawicki at the helm.

Public education, I once read, doesn't so much teach a public as it creates a public. I think that means many of the attributes and traits we exhibit as adults are first developed and nurtured while we are young. Third graders may not know how to spell egalitarian, but (at least in theory) they embody that principle. In recent years, as too many aspects of our society have collapsed or failed to function properly, the roles of public schools and other institutions have expanded and enlarged--not always to happy effect.

Too many of our children are eating breakfast in their schools and classrooms--and I'm not concerned about the public funds used to do this (because if we, as a nation, cannot afford to feed hungry young bellies, how can we hope to educate hungry young minds?), though the sums involved are frighteningly large--because the need is so staggering. I am concerned because as a wee slip of a lad, I and my brothers and sisters had breakfast together in our house every morning before getting on the school bus. Mom wasn't a short order cook by any means, but cereal, milk, toast and butter were all there and she got us up early enough to make sure we got dressed and had breakfast.

In addition to being a nutritionist, our Mom was also the fashion coordinator. We were lucky, we went to Catholic school (how bizarre to write that. I never felt lucky about that) with uniforms that included white shirts and blue ties, with SPS (Saint Peter School) on them, and dark trousers while my sisters had jumpers and white blouses with dark knee socks. The Protestant and Jewish kids in the neighborhood, who went to public school, had Moms with the same basic jobs in their houses. And all of us were clad in clean, hole-and-tear-free, as well as neatly pressed, school clothes--maybe not the newest, or the most stylish but they fit, in every sense of that word.

When we came home from school, the first order of business was the play clothes we HAD to put on before sandlot baseball, tree climbing, crayfish hunting in the stream down the street and, I guess, whatever the girls did when they went out to play. Those were very different days than the ones in which my wife (almost exclusively and with nearly no help from her husband) raised our children. She and I could have actually been my kids' show and tell (does that still exist?) since we were the same people who had made them and all of us still lived under the same roof. NOT something a lot of their classmates could claim. Everyday of their Going-to-Norwich-Public-Schools Lives, our kids had to pass their mother's inspection before leaving the house. No one named Kenny, to my knowledge, got on the school bus across the street looking like the dog's breakfast or something left out in the rain.

Mom's rules were just that, rules (and were tacitly enforced by Dad who copped out with a 'go ask your mother' response which our two realized meant 'no' if that's what she had already said. If I had a dime for every time my wife ever told one of our progeny, 'go ask your father', I wouldn't have enough money to buy penny candy. Which I would share with the class at show and tell, if it still existed.) and her rules were NOT suggestions.

In our house, we were all in this 'school thing' together with a clear and defined division of labor: teachers taught, parents parented and the children benefited (at least that was the hope). My children never had a lot growing up (their father's inability to earn wheelbarrows full of money has much to do with my skill set and very little to do with the number of wheelbarrows I bought at the hardware store; still have 'em, make me an offer) but I'd hope they agree their folks did their best and in turn, as they continue as adults today, they're reasonably well-equipped to be sentient and caring humans in this otherwise-too-much-like-an-ant farm society.

Meanwhile, last week in Norwich at their first meeting of 2009 (which still hasn't been properly noted on their website, not that I'm keeping track; okay, maybe a little bit), the Board of Education and its Superintendent announced, at the request of numerous parents, they will consider the idea of school uniforms for children attending Norwich Public Schools. There were, in the course of the next days, news accounts, one each in the local papers (one here but the other one is only active until the end of today and then you have to buy it) both straight-forward and (perhaps) more illuminating when you scrolled down and read the readers' comments.

"First one up is the best one dressed" is an expression (of contempt) used for generations in Irish-American households. From what I see, today's children sleep in and late A LOT. In Norwich, and just about everywhere, teachers are now the Fashion Patrol, instead of (actually, more in addition to) teaching. When did this happen and why? There is already a school dress code here, probably at your school, too. Somewhere in it, there must be a section, maybe 'parent's responsibilities'(?), explaining dress code enforcement is a partnership between parents and the school. Each one has a role and a job and each should pull their own weight while making sure our kids pull up their pants.

I get confused when parents (I assume) allow an eleven year old girl to dress for school like she is a Pop-Tart in an MTV video or a nine year old son whose under garments are visible from space (they're called UNDERwear for a reason, sport). And not oh-so-coincidentally, Tuesday night's Norwich City Council meeting, resolution one, authorizes an application to the CT Department of Social Services to "promote teen pregnancy prevention initiatives." Another parent responsibility. along with food and clothing, that's been abdicated and somehow evaporated. Who'd have thunk it?

Old soul that I am, I'd be thrilled if teachers and other employees of our public schools could devote more of their time and talents (and by extension, MY tax dollars) to core competencies such as 'educating children for the 21st Century' instead of making sure they're members of the Clean Plate for Breakfast or Lunch Club, putting their recreational procreation in the in-school daycare center (Sly was right) or assuring shirts and tops reach all the way to pants or skirts and no one sings the 'I see England, I see France' song, unless they're in a travel club after-school.

All this hullabaloo about school uniforms and clothes doesn't mean it's worthwhile. It means we're distracted from the larger and more critical issues in our schools. Turns out Johnny can't read and Susie can't add, but they're dressed to the nines in A&F or AE or who-knows what no-go logo is this week's flavor, sorry, flava (trying to keep it real, home fry). Meanwhile, FUBU describes the outfits of more and more youngsters whose lives were FUBAR from birth. How about this: Parents, do your jobs so those we've hired to teach can better do theirs. That way, we all can concentrate on improving our education system to enrich and enhance the teaching and learning within, and without, our classrooms to better prepare our children for the world we are leaving them. A world made in our own image and likeness except, the pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handles.
-bill kenny

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