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Swan Song

This will be my last commentary on this program.  As I pondered what to say in parting, I landed on what I what I should have said to you at the start:  why I think ongoing commentary on the subject of public education is important.

I started my teaching career in a private all-boys school run by monks in Louisiana.  It was a wonderful introduction to what schools can do when parents are literally invested in them, and when the kids are all bright and shiny and eager to learn.  But it wasn’t real somehow.  And it wasn’t home.  I missed Montana terribly, and I wanted to teach “regular” kids.  So after three years in Louisiana, I came back home and for the next 15 years I taught Montana kids in Montana high schools.

Over that span of time I figure I taught or coached over 2,000 kids.  I taught the little town flirts, the class clowns, the jocks, the stoners, the nerds … the full range of students you encounter in a public school.

I got pretty good at it – or so I thought.  Graduates would come back years later and tell me I was the one who taught them to write, or I got them interested in drama, or they could never read a short story now without thinking of things like foreshadowing.  That made me feel good.

But in 1990, I got a new job in Helena at what was then called the vo-tech, and there I met the students I hadn’t taught. I learned that some of them had had to leave high school to raise their own children.  Some had come from home environments so abysmal it’s a wonder they could focus on anything at all.  Some just got tired of year after year of feeling dumb or ignored or uncool and, whether they left school or not, they tossed in the towel on their own potential somewhere along the way.  A half-dozen students like these were probably sitting in every high school class I taught.  They weren’t learning what I thought I was teaching, so I had written them off as unmotivated, irresponsible, lazy.  I had overcrowded classrooms, I told myself, and there wasn’t enough time in the day.  I had to focus on the kids who wanted to learn.

But now, at the vo-tech, those other students were back.  Maybe an injury had made their construction job impossible to continue.  Maybe they couldn’t make a living wage in the jobs they could get without some college education.  Whatever the reason, they were back in school again, terrified, with their hopes and their hearts on their sleeves.  And they were adults now.  They wanted to succeed, needed to succeed, and they weren’t going to let me shrug off their challenges or write off their potential.

Working with these students in an environment where every student mattered, I had to come to terms with the subtle ways schools can be inhumane.  I had to confront the fact that all the little labels I used and excuses I trotted out for not teaching every student in my classroom had contributed to that inhumanity.   It wasn’t all my fault, of course.  Some of my students had been incredibly rude – insolent – lazy.  But they were just kids.  I was the adult.  I should have done better.  For the next 18 years, I think I did.

Montana’s constitution stipulates that it is the goal of public education in Montana to develop the full educational potential of every individual.   Thirty-five years in public education, working with individuals from 12 years of age to 82, and from 5th grade to graduate school, I got to see that potential in all its thousands of forms.  I got to see what happens when you don’t develop it, and I got to see what happens when you do.  And because of that, I left those years even more idealistic and optimistic about public education than I was when I entered them. 

Our public schools prepare students for college, for careers, for life.  They give students the tools they need to make complex decisions in a complex world.  They give them the background and understanding they need to make this democratic republic something they can help shape.  They create healthier citizens who contribute more to the economic, social and cultural welfare of our communities. 

Public schools don’t just educate the public.  They create it.   Public education is the only experience in American life where people of vastly different backgrounds, circumstances, and belief systems are forced to sit side by side year after year, learning about the world they share and, in the process, about one another.  As countless friendships throughout the state illustrate, that shared experience is a glue that binds exceptionally well in Montana.

But above all, public education, whether in kindergarten, high school, community college or graduate school, develops the full potential of all the marvelous individuals we call Montanans. 

When we turn our backs on our public schools, when we find excuses not to support them, when we write them off as antiquated, expensive, union-driven, ineffective, yada yada, we are thwarting the potential of countless human beings who really can be contenders.  Equally unforgivable, we are jeopardizing our own potential as a state and as a country.

Do our schools have problems?  Absolutely.  Could they be improved?  Always.  But the answer for our society is the same answer I learned at that old vo-tech.  We have to care more.  We have to do more.  We have to understand the problems better and we have to find better ways to solve them.  That was always the intent of my commentaries.

Ever the English teacher, I’ll close with a story.  I had the pleasure last month of watching a G.E.D. graduation at Great Falls College.  As always, the graduating class ran the gamut from very young women with very young children to a 72-year-old valedictorian.  As always, the graduates were giddy with the joy of finally having a high school credential.  Most of them had arrived on that stage through a long and tortuous journey with failure and disappointment as milestones, but because of their own persistence and the caring environment that GED program provides, they made it to the finish line.

When the ceremony ended, the group posed for a picture.  One of the graduates shied away and headed for the door. The program director hurried after him, urging, “Don’t you want to get your picture taken?”  He turned around, smiled, and said,  “I don’t need a picture.  I’ve got it all here in my heart.”

Once a month for the past year on this program, I’ve tried to paint a good picture of some aspect of public education.  But that graduate was right.  Ultimately, you don’t need a good picture.  You just need a good heart.  Take care of yourselves, listeners.  And please, please take care of our public schools, colleges, and universities.

This is Mary Sheehy Moe, retired but still advocating for free, quality public education in Montana.

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