An Unsentimental Education

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

McGarvie's been teaching at Wayzata since Watergate went down. As a civics instructor, she says, "I try to overcome these students' near-total cynicism in government, which I must add is not entirely unwarranted," and ticks off a laundry list of shady dealings inside the Beltway, from bad verdicts to rotten wars to the Hill-Thomas hearings. Above all, McGarvie figures, "No matter how exciting I try to make the political climate here in the classroom, we're still working against the cultural grade." The kids see the dirt, and while they may not get all the fine-tuned machinery of the "bigger system" on a critical level, it does sink in. "About half the senior class turns out at precinct caucuses," she notes with an edge of pride in her voice. "Of course, we do offer extra credit for that."

By her reckoning, politics is scarcely connected to these kids' world. "Just look around the hallways. Half these kids are dog tired from working ungodly hours, 20 to 40 a week sometimes. They're addicted to the immediate rewards, to the quick freedom a few dollars buy and education doesn't. And it's all extra money--for cars, for spring trips to Mexico, whatever. For no good reason except parents who encourage them to get with the American work ethic. To stay busy. They're heirs to exhaustion. Busy, busy all the time, and going nuts. I'm trying to get them ready to be human beings, but they're too busy turning into exhausted adults."

McGarvie leans over and adjusts the strap on her Birkenstock. The big clock on the wall ticks. A quote on construction paper taped to the wall by the doorway reads: It's no disgrace to be poor, but it's no great honor either.

"Understand, here, that many of these kids know they're going to make it without much effort. They've got big safety nets to fall back on--a system designed to bail them out, a society that gives credit just for being so-and-so's kid." Eager college recruiters. Trust funds. Good odds. "It's their parents' job to brainwash these kids," McGarvie says--to keep their world small and manageable. "And most of the parents around here," she whispers, turning back to the computer on her desk, "do a pretty good job of it."

Meantime, the why-vote-a-straight-ticket question slows down the politics quiz when Carrie and Michelle strike up a brief debate.

"I think you shouldn't vote that way, you know, straight down the line. Why vote for someone you don't like? You should vote with your heart," says Carrie.

"I disagree. That would cause chaos," Michelle argues. "Even if you're not sure what you are, you should stick with one thing."

"But then stuff like racism and prejudice would never be brought up or changed. That's what outside parties and views are for."

"Yeah, but you're not going to get everything you want in life. Anyways, you still get some choice. This is America, I mean."

"Well, I think we should have a multi-party system."

"Get off that," a third kid pipes in. "We'd get a bunch of one-kinded crap then. At least we have variety crap now."

The students, collectively, sink back into their seats and start to zip up their backpacks. Gloria Steinem smiles across the room at the Declaration of Independence. The student teacher collects his notes into a neat stack, another lesson done, another hour gone. The morning newsbreak, put together by seniors and broadcast over TV sets every morning in every room, clicks on.

"Nightly gunshots wake Minneapolis residents often," reads Laura, a girl in a tie-dyed T and ponytail. "But most do nothing to stop it." Somebody reads the score of the football game. The credits roll.

"Who's ready to take the test?" Jill Hedquist yells over the din of talk and CD headsets. "If you want to take the test now, come get a copy. Who needs notes? Who can lend your notes to a neighbor? Who wants to use mine? Come up and copy mine if you didn't take notes on the lectures. You'll need them to pass this test."

Several Central juniors and seniors crowd to the front of the room, grabbing American History tests and notes and textbooks from the stack on the floor. Yesterday, in this class of about 40 (the average for "regular" classes, and double the size of Advanced Placement courses), over half were absent--either in D.C. for the Million Man March or at home watching it on the tube. Today, it's make-up time.

Martin nods off in the corner. John, a recent transfer student, pulls a pencil and a sheaf of notes from his backpack, cribbing for the third question: Who was King Philip and what is he known for? Drawing a blank, he looks over Charlotte's shoulder and copies down her answer. When Hedquist wanders down the aisle, checking on progress, John asks if his guess on number 5 is close enough. No. She points out the right response on his page of scribbled notes.

Across the room, Martin and his buddy start banging on their desks, cracking one-liners and bugging another kid to pass that disc over. A girl who's painting her nails between hiccups glances at her test and laughs. "Glorious Revolution? What the hell was that? I don't remember no Glorious Revolution."

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