An Unsentimental Education

A week on the inside with the students and teachers of Wayzata High and St. Paul Central.

Mary Mackbee, Central's principal, knows the score all too well. In her book, and according to nationwide studies, the "learning gap" between academic levels is widening. "We've only got these kids for six hours a day," Mackbee told me during one of the few free slots in her schedule. "We can't fix in high school what's unjust in the whole system, what we've inherited from some perhaps misguided educational plans in the past. But we do try. Every problem in the country--racism, economics, the whole gamut--gets played out here, as it does with a different, maybe less visible, twist out in the suburbs."

And as it inevitably does even in Central's front yard. School breaks at 2:00, and, like a scene from a summer's-here flick, kids mob down the steps and onto the pavement. Four girls set up a gyre of double jump rope by the south wall. Others siphon off to the row of buses at the curb, to the parking lot out back, down Lexington toward the shopping district--all in strict skin-color cliques.

"Hey, wanna play?" one of the girls with a rope in her hand calls over. Sure. It's been a long time. In a second, my feet tangle in the rhythm and she laughs. "Do like this." In, skip, jump, skip, out. Easy. After a while, the game wears down and we kick back in the grass. The courtyard's cleared out by now, with just the sound of traffic and the occasional chance bell echoing from inside the building.

"That damn thing. Goes off all the time like a freak. I don't even hear those bells anymore," Teresa tells me. "Ever since I came to school here, those bells've been going like crazy." They're supposed to teach you discipline, I say, that's what they're for: learning a schedule, getting there on time, all that.

"Yeah, well, I got no place to get to now," she says. "But then, I'm not one of the students who's got much place to get to later. Sure, I got a home, got a family, I'll get some kind of job. But I'm not, as they say, excellent."

What's that mean? "You know, bound for glory." And that? "Well, not like the white kids here, most of whose names I don't even know. They don't know us and we don't know them. Earth to Mars, come in?"

I ask Teresa what she thinks public education is meant for, a question that draws a long blank, and then: "I think it's supposed to teach you how to remember facts--the wars, science terms, that stuff. Also, maybe to show kids how to be Americans in the right way."

Like in a democracy? "Yeah, like in a democracy."

And how does that work? "I guess if I was taught that in school, really, I could answer. For now, I'll just have to say everyone's supposed to get life and happiness. You can vote if you want to. It's better to have lots of money, and know how to speak right--that gets things done for you. Also, it's like, you go to school to get a job--it sets you up for whatever job you're suited to. If you're really smart, then you can go work for the government."

Grace McGarvie teaches American government and politics at Wayzata Senior, courses no longer offered at Central. Today her student teacher's in charge, a young, clean-cut man fresh out of the education department. He puts a transparency on the overhead and turns to the rows of kids arranged with their desks facing a common middle aisle.

"We're on Day 20. Let's take a look at these figures." All eyes study the projection, which rates Republicans and Democrats on a 1 to 100 scale, conservative to liberal. Bob Packwood and Dave Durenberger--both recently pried out of their seats by the Senate ethics committee--still rank on the list. Rod Grams, it appears, received a 100-point approval rating from the right; Paul Wellstone, a 100-point approval rating from the left. What's up with this split in Minnesota? the teacher asks, scanning the classroom. A blond boy in the front row shifts up in his seat and offers, "It's kinda weird."

Day 20. Turn to the questions in your packet. Number 72: "What happens to representatives who don't vote with their parties?" Beth reads from the answer she copied down last night from the assigned material. "There are risks of retaliation." Correct.

Number 47: "Why has the two-party system survived?" Julie in the corner raises her hand and waves it. "Well," she reads off, "it's always been a tradition. We're scared to change it." Correct. Anyone else? The kids look around, one starts doodling, another sleeps with his chin in his palms. On the wall, Ronald Reagan, Hubert Humphrey, and Jimmy Carter smile at each other from their bright posters.

"Remember that there's also a feeling that we share common beliefs and values," the student teacher adds. "And these two parties take care of those things. Anything else? OK, we've got the two reasons."

The call-and-response continues for several minutes, running the gauntlet from gridlock to gubernatorial races. Together the class agrees that the reason Republicans, although the minority in the whole population, control the House and Senate is, well, because most Democrats don't vote, or as the teacher puts it, "they don't get off their butts and go to the polls." They agree that independents tend to be secret Democrats, or was that Republicans? One boy in a Star Wars T-shirt wakes from his snooze and blurts out the answer to number 72 again. "Oh, sorry," he says.

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