Thursday, June 21, 2007

A Penny for Your Thoughts. Really?
Our Town downtown
June 25, 2007

You shake your head at the headline in the Times, ‘Schools Plan to Pay Cash for Marks’. You can’t resist the impulse to get angry about it and you get mad at Klein and Bloomberg, and Gates and Jobs, and everybody involved in TV while you’re at it, that they’ve let it (hell, hurried it, actually) come to this; that we have to pay kids now to open a book and read it long enough to answer some simple questions on a test. How lame is that! You couldn’t be lamer, if you ask me. Bloomberg and Klein and every person in town who cares about kids, or claims to, should all get in a big room and have that headline projected up on a huge screen at the front of the room. The rest of the day or week or year (or years) should be taken up with how it’s come to that and what can be done about it that week to make a dignified correction to our way of schooling so we don’t have to stoop to paying kids. No one could leave until the ‘what can be done’ part is decided upon and set in motion by the end of that week.

In this city, with the richest history of transforming lives through opportunity and education in the world, it’s come to this: We’re going to pay kids to study?

It’s not unprecedented though, this paying kids to do well in school, even in my life. In the small rural Western New York State town I grew up in, four brothers lived two doors away. Their father was a doctor. He was kind of a moody guy who wouldn’t wave to you even if he was driving by slowly and must have seen you waving to him like you waved to just about everyone in a town that size when they were driving by looking for someone who might be waving at them. You’d eventually learn to line yourself up with trees next to the sidewalk as cars passed, to avoid all that waving, But none of this eagerness or hiding mattered to the doctor; he would stare straight ahead and just keep driving.

The doctor was a smart guy and played chess at lunch time when any of the four boys were around to play with him. He liked the Yankees and would always watch their games with the boys. I envied all that and used to hang out over there. They always had big cases of pop in the garage and your large glass was always filled with ice and exotic brands from the cases, like Cream Soda. The doctor smoked and had a wooden dispenser-like thing on the knotty-pine wall in the TV room where one pack of Camels would be replaced by another when he took one. Like a Pez dispenser on the wall. There was a stuffed fish on a plaque right next to it.

Their mother was smart too. She was on school boards and library boards and if women had been allowed to take up the collection at mass at the Catholic church she’d have been extending the long-handeled basket among the pews with the best of them. So, the four boys were smart and mostly a cut above the other kids in the small parochial school just up the street from them—and me. I wasn’t in class with any of them. Three of them were older, one was decidedly younger. I amend that: one year I was in class with the boy two years older. So small was the town and the Catholic grade school we went to, that when I was in third grade, the third and fifth grades were combined in one classroom. I remember him being real smart. I also remember him having a bottle of prescription red cough medicine in the back pocket of his heavy corduroy pants. He’d take a slug out of that whenever he wanted. The brothers were a confident bunch, and the nuns loved them.

But they didn’t get good grades just because the nuns loved them. They were smart and would have gotten good grades in the rural setting our growing-up took place in if they’d never even bought their school books. At home, they had stacks of comic books and sports magazines and the whole set of the Hardy Boys. That they’d get ‘all A’s’ was a given. But that didn’t stop their ol’ man, the doctor, from giving them a dollar for every A they got. We couldn’t believe that! A dollar!

Looking back on it, it was having all those books and magazines and comics that made them know stuff in school. The dollar for every A was after the fact. Yo, presidential-hopeful-despite-your-denial Mike Bloomberg, you must know that. Come on.

Bill Gunlocke

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