There are lots of stories I could tell about my dad. Some are heroic and wonderful, others not so much.
My dad died young, at 58, of brain cancer, and one of the greatest blessings in my life was that, by the time I was 28, we had reconciled all our old grudges and battles.
Here’s one story: A few years before my dad got sick, my very young marriage had failed, and I was moving downstate to start my first teaching job. Of course, I had zero money and no car. But I did have the promise of a job in September, so Dad took a day off work, drove me three hours up to where I’d been living, then three hours back downstate to help me move my few possessions (think card table, mattress, stereo) into a teeny tiny upstairs flat in Howell.
One of those possessions–probably the most expensive thing I owned at the time– was a refrigerator.The apartment had a rickety outside staircase. After everything else had been moved up those stairs, all that was left was the fridge. We didn’t have a dolly or strong young backs available.
So my dad, using the trailer strapping, strapped the fridge to his back and carried it up those stairs, and plugged it in. It still worked. We drove home (another two-hour trip, to the west), where he sold me his car (a brown Buick LeSabre) over the kitchen table, with excellent, low-interest terms. He happily got himself a new Buick the next day.
I paid that Buick off, $50/month. And later sold the fridge, to pay my phone bill, watching the newlywed who bought it strap it to his back.
Down is better than up, when it comes to moving refrigerators. And dads are what you need, when you’re down.
But it ain’t like it used to be, all popsicles and playground lanyard-making, a break from routine.
This year, ed reformers are using the Buckminster Fuller principle in a post-pandemic attempt to make traditional schooling—180 days, face to face, the existing reality—die, once and for all. Drown it, in a bathtub full of unvaccinated kids, dispirited teachers and mandated-but-meaningless test data.
If I were excited about the new model, it would be different. But I think we—and by we, I mean veteran public school educators and public education supporters—have missed the opportunity boat, that crisis-opportunity thing the pandemic put in motion.
Not surprising, given what teachers, school leaders and public districts have been dealing with for the past 15 months. Folks are exhausted. Whipped. They desperately need a re-charge (and some are seeking a new job). Even the most articulate and positive thinkers (shout-out to the new MI Teacher of the Year, Leah Porter) admit that this year was a whole new level of challenging.
The more imaginative disruptive initiatives they can come up with, the better—each one chips away at good old outmoded public education. The pandemic conveniently paved their way, too, seeding parent mistrust and frustration, and further dividing communities, politically.
Public school teachers are left hoping that vaccines will be approved for second graders, sometime soon, and parents will maybe take their kids to the library this summer.
Education historian Jack Schneider recently posted a can’t-miss Twitter thread, articulately pointing out that we really do have lots of solid information about teaching and learning, as well as school leadership and climate. We know how to build a good school, in context. But we’ve been pretending that schools with high test scores are the One True Way.
We know how to tweak existing reality, in Bucky’s words, and don’t necessarily have to dump the apple cart, make neighborhood schools obsolete and move on to some Big Sexy reform idea rooted in private profit.
Schneider says: Our measures of “good” schools are so impoverished. Our current measures fall short in three ways: they lack the necessary validity, they are woefully undemocratic, and they fail to advance equity. The result is that we have valorized schools with high test scores and engaged in dangerously wishful thinking about “replication” and “scale.” Meanwhile we have blown one opportunity after another to actually invest in strengthening our schools (which, by the way, are better than we give them credit for).
We can’t look to the Biden administration, stuck in Obama-era thinking, to bail out public education. The federal money will help, but lots of it has gone to charters and other anti-public ed measures. If fully public, community-based education can be saved, it’s up to the people who love it best and see its long-term value to the nation.
When it comes to public education, I have been a glass half-full kind of advocate for a long, long time.
I am old—old enough to remember when Memorial Day was called Decoration Day, and always came on the 30th of May. For many years, I went to the cemetery with my grandmother–also named Nancy–on Decoration Day, with a pot of geraniums for her husband, my grandfather, who died in the 1930s. Her parents, and some of her siblings, were buried in the same cemetery. We went to visit them all, with flowers, taking care not to step on the green beds where they lay.
There were always little flags on veterans’ graves, but so many men (and a few women) were veterans that it seemed like half the people resting in that cemetery had a flag. A graveyard full of citizens who served their country, sometimes dying for that very cause, surrounded by their loving families.
In 1969, May 30 was a Friday. It was an unusually hot day. My high school band played in the local parade, and band parents met us in the park, after the parade, with galvanized tubs full of ice and glass bottles of Coke. I was a senior, playing my last parade on the first day of a long weekend, wearing the stifling gray wool uniform with its little satin-lined red cape, and the flat-topped hat.
It may have been a dare. Or it may have just been the oppressive humidity, and the fact that I’d never have to march in a parade again (or so I thought—ha). But after opening the Coke, I pulled out the braided neckline of my uniform jacket, and poured the icy cold soda right down the front of my body. There was a moment of delicious coolness and some hilarity among the group where I was sitting.
And then the Band Booster president, an officious mom who was in charge of fitting and maintaining 100+ plus band uniforms (and whose two perfect daughters would never dream of despoiling one) came storming over and read me the riot act.
Did I know that I, personally, would be taking my uniform to the dry cleaners? Did I understand HOW MUCH THOSE UNIFORMS COST? And that they had to last for 20 more years? And (this was the real indictment, an uptick in the charges)—did I not respect those who died for our country, those whom we remembered on this sacred day? For shame.
Actually, on that score, she was wrong. I remembered, all right.
I grew up hearing stories about my Uncle Don, who died at 19, in the first wave of Marines on Iwo Jima. My dad’s favorite brother, the handsome one, the rebel. Buried on Iwo Jima, then moved to Rock Island National Military Cemetery, after the war. My dad, after learning his brother had been killed, went AWOL from his own unit in the Army Air Corps, and was busted from Sergeant to Private for the offense. Although he never talked about his own wartime experiences, he never let any of us forget.
In 2021, those who died on the battlefield are a relatively small handful. Thank God, or whomever can be credited with the policies and foresight to keep us out of war.
But in the past year, as more people died from coming in contact with a deadly virus than were killed in combat in WW II, it’s been easier to understand what it feels like to see daily, mounting death tolls in the news. To personally know folks who were sick but survived, to see friends with longer-term disability from COVID, to know families forever riven by death.
Many of them, to use a worn-out phrase, served their country, as well—as stock clerks and bus drivers, teachers and nurses. They died before the vaccine was available, gasping for air, often without family, victims of a different kind of war—an ugly political war, partly created by our own elected leaders.
As an adult, I have experienced Memorial Day in dozens of ways—leading my own school bands in local parades and cemetery services, playing in or directing community bands, and—just two days ago—playing Taps with the Leelanau Flute Ensemble on a friend’s balcony.
Every year, the day reads a little differently. I don’t think it’s disrespectful, or not-sacred, to reflect on all the other things, besides our always-honored war dead, that need remembering. You’ve probably read snippy memes about the difference between Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day. Both spring from the same source: Let us pause to remember what we’ve done—the noble and the despicable acts, the proud and the shameful. It’s who we are, as a nation.