This month about 35 million children will arrive at 98,000 public elementary schools nationwide, and James A. Garfield Elementary is one of them. Parents want Garfield to be a happy place, and by and large it is. The principal calls it the Chipmunk Family. Chipmunks are the school mascot.
But what walks into Garfield is often less than joyful. The undertow of outlaw culture is never far away. Garfield Elementary tries to respond to dysfunction. How well it can is an open question. Teachers at Garfield are under great pressure to accept every child and lifestyle uncritically. The goal is to keep all students feeling good and protect their self-esteem.
Sunshine’s dad is incarcerated, and Mom is doing meth, so Garfield bears a burden. Billy’s father decided to channel his inner ingénue and leave his family. Billy has since become “angry.” Are we surprised? Vape’s parents call themselves tattoo artists, and on weekends, they take little Vape to street fairs where they ply their trade. No judgments. Let’s not talk about Tanisha. Black Lives Matter!
When almost one out of two newborns in the U.S. is born out of wedlock, and divorce and abandonment are everywhere, normative family ideals are politically impossible. To make unfamilied children feel good, officialdom minimizes the intact Mom and Pop family, suppresses it with a dull reference to Ozzie and Harriet’s world being long gone.
Many parents think of Garfield as a day-care center. Some must, and for family-values conservatives to condemn their plight categorically is morally obtuse. Extended school days and we-don’t-call-it day-care programs offer before and after school supervision, extra-curricular add-ons, and enrichment programs. No one wants latchkey children home alone, gaming until dark.
At an Open House, the new principal was asked how Garfield got its name. She had done her homework. “He was a president a long time ago, after the Civil War,” she answered as solemnly as she could. “He got shot.” James A. Garfield looks like the guy on the Smith’s Cough Drops box to the principal, who just can’t relate. Her degree is in educational psychology.
To dress up the school image, the principal thought of branding Garfield the Cat but that had gone nowhere. So this year Garfield will start the day on the right, happy note, thanks to the tech consultant with the principal’s input on a summer grant. Every morning, break-dancing pink and brown chipmunks will sing a catchy jingle, Diversity is our greatest strength. The chipmunks ask the kids to sing the chorus like an old-time hymn. We’ll fight racism at any length.
That’s more like it, the principal says to herself. A diversifying, global society demands new loyalties, she believes. The Chipmunk Family needs to learn about open borders, climate change, and the rainbow of heroes who suffered in legacy America.
Garfield has many “special days.” Halloween is the big one, and the lead-up goes on for days, and what a happy time it is. Much happier than Christmas, which the principal calls the December Dilemma because of you know what. Thanksgiving is a problem too, because of the Invasion and Genocide. Every birthday is a time for cupcakes and snacks, gluten-free or not, take your pick.
Garfield can afford big-board software packages, power-point lessons, and activity learning modules — all the latest. Computer-based learning on classroom tablets emulates video games. In reading and arithmetic skills instruction, little dwarves pop up to congratulate kids on getting the answers right. Think of the positive re-enforcement and self-esteem bonus. Video gaming — Minecraft is the latest super-hit — exerts a hypnotic pull on youngsters, as it does for many parents and teachers. Some credulous educators contend there’s an educational upside. There’s none. Thus mesmerized by kinetics, many ten-year-olds find it impossible — I mean impossible — to concentrate, write, or even read.
Corporate logos, hot toys, and action heroes turn into icons. Disney’s Mulan and Elsa, the Ninja Turtles and Pokémon characters are grade-school icons, adored and emulated, as might have been saints in earlier times. One distressed parent calls it “misplaced worship.”
At Garfield, vexing exercises such as long division, grammar, geographic place-names, and cursive writing are the losers. Many Garfield teachers call these kinds of activities “drill and kill.” They believe in discovery learning. Multimedia and movies make their work easier with a flip of a switch. Some teachers show up at Garfield unkempt and ill-dressed, indifferent to the modeling going on. A few have tattoos. But according to a recent Harris Poll, a sweeping majority of parents and teachers themselves don’t think tattoos on teachers are coarse or inappropriate. About indecorous faculty, it’s none of your business, says the local National Education Association affiliate.
Is it any wonder that private schools and a few high performing “neighborhood schools” thrive? Few parents want their children to grow up rough. Tiger parents are super-attentive, competitive, and organized when it comes to their own. They are called helicopters for a reason. Fearing limited opportunities in the future, they are eager their children punch tickets of admission to the haves, not the have-nots. They might genuflect to diversity but filter the dreck, doing so through tuitions and mortgages.
The most admirable, challenged parents are those of modest circumstances who tough it out. If they are lucky and persistent, a charter or magnet school, special program, scholarship, capable teacher, or coach might appear on the scene. It’s a steep uphill climb, and getting steeper.
The principal tries, doing what she’s been told at the state university, and according to government rules, to maximize happiness and minimize failure. Saddled with impossible burdens, she responds as one might guess. Garfield flips the switch and sings along with the chipmunks. Aren’t they cute? More cupcakes, please! Knowledge and character are the losers.
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