When Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., was rocked by violence on an otherwise ordinary Friday in December, my mind, like that of millions of other parents, flew to my kids’ school. I pictured the shooter in their hallways, threatening their classrooms. And though this was impossibly painful, what was not impossible was imagining their teachers, administrators, even bus drivers, hearing shots and running not away to safety, but toward the shooter to protect the kids — my kids.
That part was easy to imagine, because I see those educators every day.
My kids, 13 and 11, are literate and numerate. They are accomplished musicians. They have plenty of friends. They are resilient, tough and unafraid of difference. Since kindergarten they have shared classrooms, recess, field trips, concerts and gym class with kids who have a wide spectrum of diverse abilities and opportunities.
While my husband and I supplement their education where we can, our children owe their accomplishments to public school.
Maybe you are not in touch with public schools at the moment. Maybe you are at a place in life where you only hear about skyrocketing costs, stubborn unions and plummeting test scores. Maybe you have missed the street-level successes: students who excel in classes, sports and the arts, thanks to devoted teachers who volunteer their weekends to coach the math team or conduct the honors chorus, who keep track of birthdays and food allergies, who pour their heart and soul into educating other people’s children.
They don’t do it for the money.
I went to private school myself. And while I got a world-class education, I don’t read a note of music. I never met someone with any sort of learning difference until I was an adult.
My kids ride a bus to school that stops in front of trailer parks and lakefront estates. Some of their friends take a Caribbean vacation every winter. Some have never been on an airplane. And while this registers with my kids, it registers without judgement.
I believe passionately in this grandiose undertaking that is so wildly American: the U.S. public school system. We were the first country to say, “Yes! We will educate everybody.” Implementation is imperfect, of course, and there is always work to do, but don’t you love the optimism of this giant, generous experiment? Americans have a history of aiming for impossibly high goals. Do we always reach them? Of course not. But isn’t it wonderful that we try?
I write today to testify that it is still worth it, that our schools are something every American should be proud of, even while we fight to make them better.
It’s budget season, and though my kids are thriving, their school is in trouble. Financial turmoil ignited by the recession and federal sequester is rippling through the state of Maine, tearing into programs and services, settling on small towns whose property taxpayers carry the heaviest burden for essential services: the fire department, police department and our little school. Music, art, enrichment and wellness programs are threatened, and I can’t stand by. I am working to find a solution that will preserve the fragile magic in those brick walls. Cut nothing, and the taxpayers reject school funding. Cut too much, and the life-force drains out.
The fight to protect our schools is mostly pretty dull — a war of spreadsheets. In this writing I am looking up from columns of numbers to keep my eyes on the prize.
Because when I think about challenges facing our world — war, violence, poverty, the destruction of the planet — I see only one possible path out, and that path is education. And while I am grateful for my own private education at a school where the elite will always be able to pay to play, the solution does not lie there. It lies in the vast, messy, work-in-progress that is the American public school system.
I can’t fix the whole system. But here is what I can do: I can put my treasure there. I entrust my children to public school. Where they go, so do my time, energy and resources. I fight to fund their programs. I volunteer. I bring chocolate to their teachers. I donate books. I know their friends.
You can’t fix the whole system either, but here is what you can do: When faced with voting choices, remember that in each of a hundred-thousand public schools across this country sit the treasures of a nation, and that our future is in their hands. Public schools aren’t perfect, but they are our best hope. We need to trust them, fix them, fund them, so they can tackle the monumental job before them.
Educating children is not for the faint of heart. Setting out to educate them all is an act of breathtaking courage.
Jenny Mayher is co-president of the parent-teacher organization at Great Salt Bay School in Damariscotta. She works as a children’s librarian at Skidompha Library and reviews books at www.jennysbookreview.com.