Saturday, September 13, 2008

High School, Preparing for the Future

My grandson just started second grade. Walking up the hall to his classroom brings back memories of chats with teachers, parent-teacher conferences and rising blood pressure. I honestly don’t miss one minute of it.
But because getting welfare in Texas requires at least one child, I’m afraid I can’t escape some involvement with the public school system. Now, don’t get me wrong, some of the most dedicated people I know are teachers and administrators for the children of this state. In fact, several almost saints from my church love teaching, just for the sake of making sure that no child is left behind. It’s the politicians and bureaucrats that tend to muck things up. The “No Child Left Behind Act” has actually left hundreds of thousands of kids not just left behind, but dropped out too. I’ve watched the statistics march upward every year. In some areas of my community, over 51% of the kids who enter 9th grade don’t make it to graduation.
Don’t think the big boys in private industry aren’t getting a bit worried about the labor market of the future. The smarter ones are scared as hell. With low-test scores and shameful drop out rates, they have every right to be frightened. So, they demand that the government do something about it. They pay a good deal of money in campaign contributions and they want some action.
The politicians know which side butters the bread, so they make noise about getting the schools more in line with the job demands of the 21st century. Again, sounds good in theory. If it ended there, with the teachers and parents making the decisions about how to make it happen, we’d probably make some progress. Unfortunately, many teachers have little time for such planning, as they are on the front lines of combat, and, like me, most parents are too busy to get involved to that degree. So, many school districts turn to the one group willing to invest the time, the very business world who needs the future workforce.
I had a CEO of a major construction firm debate me on the need to teach Shakespeare. How would that help a student be a better engineer? About five minutes into the discussion, I realized it didn’t matter. The man needs engineers. A manager of a semiconductor company needs skilled employees to work in his clean room. The Human Resources manager of the local hospital needs phlebotomists and nurse practitioners. None of these people care if that employee knows what led to McBeth’s downfall or if that same employee can lovingly recite the preamble of the Constitution. They just need someone to do the job.
Now, take those same people and ask them about their own kids. Ask them if they want their own children to study the Revolutionary War or how to play a musical instrument or be the lead in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. You know the answers as well as I do.


The end of my junior year was in plain sight. April had only 30 days and then it would be May. May would be only four short weeks away from summer. I figured I could coast my way through the rest of the year. I’d aced my grades (with a little help from my friends) and I knew I would be exempt from all my finals. Good times were within reach. Then the world spun off its axis and my life would be forever altered; all because of an incredibly handsome man. (Some things never change.)
Eddie Love had been hired at the last minute. The high school drama teacher went away, I never knew where or why. Mr. Love happened to be between jobs at the time. (He would later tell me that was an actor’s way of saying he was unemployed.) I had stayed away from the drama department because the old biddy who taught the class condemned me to hell more than once. My dresses were too short, my music was straight from the devil and I delighted in tempting young men. Hey, what can I say, she was right.
Eddie Love stood on the gym floor during our spring assembly. He was tall and thin and just looked like an artist, had that James Dean swagger too. He announced tryouts for the spring play. I never even considered refusing. I showed up at his door dressed in my leather mini-skirt, ready to knock his socks off. I got a fine supporting role even though I’d never even considered doing serious theatre, movies maybe, but not theatre. I figured I’d simply charmed him with my dazzling good looks.
It happened after rehearsal one evening just a few nights before the performance was to open. He asked me to stick around and I was flattered. I was completely wrong. He jumped my case something fierce. He railed at me for taking my talent so lightly. I remember thinking “what talent?” He asked me what I wanted to do with my life, what I really wanted to know. I told him the truth, I had no idea.
He smiled then and sat down, threw back his gorgeous head and howled with laughter. Then he said, “That’s the first time you’ve been truthful since I’ve met you. And that’s the best damn answer you could have given me. Of course you don’t know what you want to do, you just turned 17.”
I had no idea how to respond. So, I asked him the only question I could dream up. “So, what should I do?”
He stood up and began to pace the room. It seemed at the time that the office shrank as he breathed in all that oxygen. “You learn, Debby. You try a little of everything. You can lie like you believe it, so try some acting. You can argue until the other person runs screaming from the room, so try debate. You love to tell stories, so try to write.”
Then he stopped and looked right at me. I remember holding my breath, afraid to exhale. I didn’t know if these things were praise or reprimands. It’s the oddest thing, but I don’t remember what he looked like for the rest of that conversation, but I can remember what he said almost word for word. “If you really want to find contentment and fulfillment in life, you have to do what you love. If you only try a few things, how will you know what you’re missing? How can you know what you love, if you’ve never experienced it? How can you know if you like chocolate ice cream if you’ve only tasted vanilla?”
Ten years later, I had the same conversation with the captain of the football team at the school where I taught debate and drama. I wanted him to play Puck, King of the Fairies. You’d have thought I’d ask him to run naked through the girls’ dressing room. But I kept at him, used a little blackmail, something about this being his final grade in my class and graduating so he could accept that college football scholarship.
He was the showstopper on opening night. His delivery was flawless and he got three curtain calls. I’ll never forget that look on his face. What a smile!
That was 30 years ago. In a shoebox in my closet is a letter that has turned a little brown with age. It’s worn from being folded and unfolded so many times over the years. I won’t bore you with the whole letter, but I will share my favorite lines:
I always thought of myself as a jock. I told myself that was good enough. But now I figure if I can dress up in tights and still do a good job, there isn’t anything I can’t do.
That one is for you, Mr. Love.

1 comment:

Debby said...

"bee-oth slap" will be my new saying of the day! I have so many places where I can use that phrase! Thanks, Jael, for writing such a great post...deb