Thankful For A GREAT Public Education

This morning as I woke up for the Day of  Thankfulness (Thanksgiving) I ended up listening to The  National Day of Listening – Story Corps – Thank you to teachers…….   on NPR. This is not the first time I have heard the program, rather it is the first time I thought to write a thank you for how fortunate I was to have a GREAT public education, at a time when everyone seems to dislike teachers, public education and essentially anything they don’t remember or seem to remember or understand anymore.

Elementary school was at Cortez,   2226 E. Rio Verde Dr., West Covina, CA 91791.  For my generation, I was blessed with a school which had multiple ethnicities, religions and socio-economic profiles.  I later learned my favorite teacher, Ms. Higgins, was a lesbian so I now know my school was much more progressive than I even realized at the time.  Middle school was at Hollencrest,  2101 E. Merced Avenue, West Covina, CA 91791  was a little less heterogeneous, however, in no way would anyone consider it all white.   My High School was West Covina High School 1609 East Cameron Avenue  West Covina, CA 91791.  High school approximated more closely my elementary school experience in being all over the board with students.

I remember kindergarten quite well and Mrs. Stevens.  She was ‘older’ by time I started school, in a wonderful grandmotherly sort of way and I loved everything about going to school.  I remember making tiny clay pumpkins around Halloween. I think my mother still has them somewhere in a box.  We also stitched up a bunny out of large pieces of wallpaper scraps (think two pieces of a sewing card that could be stuffed and decorated) which was my first experience that I now understand was seeing 2-D become 3-D. I miss that bunny but am sure it was not constructed well enough to survive the years.

First Grade was all about math – I already knew how to read.  My reading group (me) was fun. I could plow through as many books as I desired.   Math was great as we got to play with things – all these toys which had to do with math. My classroom was the middle of a row of three and had the transom windows at the top. I remember pulling the curtains to watch movies.

Second Grade was even more fun as I could read tons. That year my teacher was a Mrs. Baker who later went on to become the special education teacher at my school.  We had tons of centers throughout the year and this helped us learn independence and responsibility and honesty.   My science book had great illustrations by Charley Harper which I did not find out until the great age of 40. The realization of why I loved science was somewhat explained by Todd Oldham in his dedication to the Charley Harper Art Book.  Between my dad thinking everything could be learned by nature and experiments in science and wonderful illustrations, I was on my way to throughly loving the biological sciences.

In Third Grade, I met a teacher I did not exactly enjoy – Mrs. Bordeux, however I learned a great deal from being in a class where I had to get along with the teacher.   There were two major ‘flaws’ in my life at this time.  I was reading at least at the Fifth Grade level which meant I left class for reading and went to another classroom, apparently a scheduling nightmare.  I was not what one might consider particularly artistic/creative.   We made a gingerbread men out of clay (using a cookie cutter) and needed to have the gingerbread man in action. Mine ended up on a rocking chair of clay.   After they dried and we glazed them, the full extent of my lack of ability became evident. The gingerbread man rocking looked odd, in a not so good way – in fact no one could really tell what it was.  This was a predicament as we had to name our work of art for Back to School Night.  Ultimately my dad convinced me (in spite of all my crying) to call it Design #1 in the same manner of many famous modern artists. I did name my piece except did it quickly and wrote Dezign #1.  Mrs. Bordeaux did not manage to notice the problem until the middle of  Back to School Night, when the room was filled.  Needless to say, Third Grade was not my best year of memories.

Grade 4 was awesome! I was now in the upper school.  My teacher was Mrs. Dodd who was replaced by Mrs. Moore when Mrs. Dodd went out on maternity leave.  I was now reading at the middle school level and it was difficult to find books to read at my reading level which were not at a different maturity level.   I remember making a great paper mache’ cat that year out of a sand filled glass soda bottle so the result could be a door stop!.   It was great in that my parents had no intention of letting me have a pet cat.

Fifth Grade was okay but what stands out most was remembering elements of The Vietnam War in the news and all the ‘peaceful’ activities we participated in. My teacher’s husband would come in and play the guitar with us during music time and teach us great songs. I think he was a grad student at the time.  My  sister was born at the end of that year and that perhaps is my strongest memory. I learned about pregnancy that year – both through biology and medical books at home (my dad was a pharmacist) as well as really obtaining a grasp on the general concepts of living organisms – from the plant and animal kingdom. There is nothing like having cells developing right there in your household to inspire you.  This was also the year my dad was contacted because I was reading ‘Papillion’ by Henri Charriere and the teacher was concerned about the subject matter. My dad was able to assuage her fears as we talked about it each night at dinner.

Grade 6 was by far the best. My teacher was Ms. Higgins. She was extremely no-nonsense, had incredibly high expectations/standards and expected everyone to do their best. I was scared to death of her but found her to be my favorite, most inspiring teacher. Ms. Higgins was very outgoing, outdoorsy, creative and high energy.  We had to keep up with her and it was fun.  I learned the extent of the mess you created was the depth of your learning when we made sand candles and accidentally poured melted wax down the sink and when we did tye die pillowcases and made our own books about Japan (where I was born!).  While I was never going to become a pro athlete, I found out I could run and be good at some aspects of athletics due to Ms. Higgins.  Ms. Higgins made me realize I was a great student, had the capacity to learn and do anything and most of all knew deep down that she would always be there for me.

Each year my school had two major spring events:  track and field day and then a few weeks later a carnival with a real cake walk.   I always remember parents being at the school and helping out in classrooms as well as after school.  Everyone knew each others parents and getting sent to the office was a chilling experience.  My parents were both really involved with PTA and knew all my friends.  In retrospect, I realize how very fortunate I was to have the breadth and depth of experiences.  During elementary school I learned some students did not have money for school lunch, I found out that whether or not you had money had little to do with your character,  teachers were really good people who wanted the best for us – even when we were naughty.   Most of all, I learned to love learning merely for its own sake!

Middle school was a little more rough and tumble as now I was in with the big kids.  Having a locker was okay but learning Spanish from Mrs. Wiese (she was not Latino) was difficult.  My math teachers – Mr. Kinoshita and Mrs. Van Reenan clearly wanted me to suffer for some prior sin but I learned math and got up through Grade 8 Algebra.  My favorite class was science with Mrs. Kaiser. She was an inspiration. Mrs. Kaiser had fire engine red nails, drove a Porsche 914 that her husband gave her as a gift and had copper red/auburn hair. She was considered mean but to me it was just that she expected more of all her students – we were after all allowed to look at blood flowing through a gold-fish tail under the microscope and  dissect frogs in Grade 8.  Mrs. Kaiser was a stickler and by golly when I got to high school and college, I knew how to study, especially for science.  I was also inspired to learn science as Mrs. Kaiser made it tough and something you wanted to struggle at.

High school, with all its warts, was still great. I had some awesome teachers who really made a difference.  Mr. Demke made sure we understood civics and government in a meaningful way.  We played some game where we were in groups, created our own countries and then had to develop government, trade, etc. It led to a war and one country remained. At the height of the cold war, all of this was very real. Mr. Demke had a crazy sense of humor and this was one class everyone wanted to get to on time – so we could play. He definitely got the point across about brinksmanship.  Mr. Koel and Mr. Mandela were my math teachers. Thank goodness they stuck with me because Algebra and Trig were crazy subjects.  Geometry was great as it had to do with hard cold laws and shapes – the rest of math seemed so random until college. I took drivers ed with Mr. Berkenheger. He had to have patience of steel…….just saying.  One summer I took typing with Mr. Seito because my dad believed it would be an important skill for college (this was well before the advent of computers).  It was a difficult summer class but I mastered it.   Science was my favorite and Mr. Eves was by far the best teacher ever. Mr. Eves spoke something like 11 languages fluently but the best language he spoke was science.  He was crazy in the best way possible.  Just imagine being taught qualitative and quantitative by making toast at different settings or learning spdf by following the story of some fishermen who went to an inverted pyramid hotel and how their fish determined the floor they got to stay on each day or making peppermint ice cream from scratch for a term final. Best of all, if you did not do your homework to the best of your ability, you had to sit in the leper column and could not participate in lab.  Back in the day teachers were able to be bad asses and got students to do their work.  The lack of Mr. Eves’ in our school system is why we don’t do so well in science.

At the end of high school I could not decide exactly what I wanted to do – I thought about being a nurse or anthropologist. I ended up going to a public university – CSULB for my bachelors degree and it was a wonderful experience.  The school is now coming more into maturity but at the time due to its location – the borderlands of Los Angeles and Orange County, it was the best of both worlds.   I had outstanding professors all the way through my program and found them to be as professional and easy to access as any in graduate school where I attended a private university – Columbia in NYC.    One of the things I liked most about CSULB was that it presented a level playing field – no one was supremely rich and arrogant because they ended up going to some private school and although we had many poor students,  they were very high achievers as they knew the value of an education.  School was affordable enough that you could be a full-time student with a part-time job or a part-time student with a full-time job and get through it all.  CSULB was both a commuter campus as well as having campus housing and a close-knit community.  I will never regret my time at CSULB and actually believe it was the best and most correct place to attend college.

The last part of my education I wish to address is Peace Corps, one of the most public aspects of furthering oneself. I actually consider this my grad school experience because it was far more rigorous in what is expected of you as an adult even though grad school is an accomplishment unto itself.

All of my public school experiences prepared me to go to a private graduate school – a school I was ready for when I attended and greatly valued.  Getting into Teachers College at Columbia University in NYC was amazing. Who would have guessed – I mean it just did not seem possible that some one who had only attended public schools could go to a private institution.  It was the right fit at the right time, even though I am hopefully in my last year of paying off the student loan.

Obtaining an education is not so much where (oh, I have many stories about teaching algebra in the sand behind a hut in Namibia) but why you want the education and how much effort you are willing to put in. Public or private is not the real issue because education goes on forever in the real world.  A good education is that which makes you think and want to know more about everything in the world.  An education is that which inspires you and helps you obtain self efficacy – it is not a test score because life itself is not about passing.