»  The Straggler, No. 52

March 19th, 2007

  Old School Tie


Winter break, bringing with it the school reports. I do my parently best with these, but rarely to much consequence. There was a semester a year or two ago when my son's grade plummeted dramatically in some area and we suspended his computer privileges for a month. That was the end of all major shifts. Now his grades hold steady, or at most go down or up one tick. Thus "Produces neat and legible work" has advanced from "S" ("satisfactory") to "G" ("good"). Then again, "Social Studies," which is marked on a different, numerical scale, sank from 4 to 3-plus. Words are exchanged between father and son, but neither shift seems to justify reward or punishment.

I find it hard, in any case, to take seriously a school subject named "Social Studies." Is the word "history" too loaded to be suitable for pedagogical purposes — too redolent of evil white people being beastly to soulful colored people in distant places? I suppose so; and I suppose this accounts for the disappearance of "Geography" from the syllabus, too. Heaven forbid our children should think anything good happened in times past, or that one part of the world is more important than another!

I confess to a certain cynical fatalism about our children's public-school education. Having beggared ourselves to buy a house in a decent school district, I feel we have done most of what we can do. The kids will learn, or not, according mainly to their own inclinations and abilities. The teachers, when we meet them, seem like decent types, but a child needs to be well-nigh homicidal before the teacher will say anything negative about him.

At our children's level — intermediate and middle school — education is a caucus race, in which every child is wonderful and all will get prizes. Somewhat later they will take an IQ test (it is called the SAT, but IQ and SAT scores correlate at around the 0.82 level), then be decanted into precisely the appropriate tier of the great American meritocracy as indicated by the result of that test. For the time being, though, everyone is equal and No Child will be Left Behind. Thus are reconciled two cherished, but unfortunately contradictory, American ideals: the first, that ability should be fully employed and fairly rewarded, and the second, that all are metaphysically equal in ability, the observed differences being mere illusions, most likely arising from some malign intent on the part of the observer. I sometimes wonder to myself, quietly, what will be the psychological effect on my kids of this faux-egalitarianism. Cynicism, or double-think?

Musing over these documents and their mysterious graded categories ("Uses manipulatives effectively," for example; and I forgot to ask my daughter the meaning of "HM&CAR SK"), I think of my own school reports, moldering away somewhere in a box in the attic. My son was born 50 years and one month after myself, so that a comparison between his school report and mine will offer a neat glimpse across half a century of pedagogical history (or "Social Studies"). I head for the attic, pull out my own school reports, and turn to the one for spring term 1957.

English: ranked second in my form (that is, out of 34 boys). "He does his best at all times," remarked the teacher. Did I? And who was that teacher, with initials G. K. R.? The "R" was for Roberts, I am pretty sure. I dimly recall him — a young fellow, keen and innovative. A jazz fan — much later in my school career, he organized a trip for interested older boys to see Ella Fitzgerald perform in concert at a nearby city.

Latin: ranked first in the form. Good grief — was I really so good at Latin? Yet now I cannot construe a line without help. The master's name was Hancock, but I recall very little else about him. He was another young fellow, but strict and sarcastic. He did, though, have a stock of what pass for jokes and puns in Latin class: Pompey adsum jam forte, Caesar aderat, that sort of thing.

I blush, in fact, to see what a good scholar I was. My subsequent life of underachievement recalls Cyril Connolly's melancholy reflection on his own schoolfellows: "Early laurels weigh like lead and of many of the boys whom I knew at Eton, I can say that their lives are over. Those who knew them then knew them at their best and fullest; now, in their early thirties, they are haunted ruins."

Not that placing first in Latin and second in English really amounted to laurels. Sport was the thing, and there I was a duffer. Our P.E. master did not give us a ranking; his only comment on my exertions that spring was a curt "S" for "Satisfactory."

That was Frank Sykes, a taciturn Yorkshireman, star winger on our town's rugby team, the Saints. He played for England, too, though I have forgotten the details. Frank was, I think, my first encounter with the relentlessly physical type of human being. I recall seeing him one hot summer's day playing strenuous tennis with himself against an outer wall of the gym. He was doing this, grunting with effort as he reached to return his own shots from the wall, when I passed on my way to some business at the Sea Cadets hut down below the school playing fields. When I returned two hours later, he was still doing it.

By now I am of course sinking into a glum nostalgia. Those last pre-adolescent years are the true Garden of Eden, from which we must all be expelled. For people of my generation in the West, they were also the last years of nationhood, when England was still England, with a Monarch, a Church, an Army, and a Navy. Probably the school gym has since been bulldozed to make way for a mosque, as History has been swept away in favor of Social Studies.

To repine is pointless, not to mention fogeyish, reactionary, and very likely "mean-spirited." As my children are no doubt taught, the past was a place of ugliness, ignorance, and civilizational crime, while the future will be full of radiant promise. We march forward into that bright future, singing the Internationale, taking care that No Child is Left Behind. How I wish I could be!