Lessons unlearned by public educators
September 8, 1988
In the 1980s, my daily walks to and from my office downtown Springfield took me past the grounds of Lincoln School, an elementary school on the near east side. It was an education into how public education was done in Springfield in those days.
I have walked by Lincoln School maybe five thousand times in the last six years. Outwardly it is a typical four- story brick schoolhouse of early twentieth-century design, which stands like a piece of layer cake in the middle of a block-sized plate. The grounds are partly grass turf and partly paved and graveled play areas, the whole surrounded by a waist-high cyclone fence.
The lessons to be learned from outside the school, I have discovered, are nearly as useful as those taught inside it. The main building has been well-tended; it stands in one of Springfield's poorer and blacker neighborhoods, and has been favored by administrators eager to refute the imputation of bias in the school district's allocation of facilities. Next to it, however, are two temporary classroom and storage buildings, already shabby after only a few years of use. The classroom is entered via a portable wooden step, unpainted and uneven, which speaks volumes about the difference between 1912 and 1988 in the wealth made available to house the city's young.
Lincoln was built to be a neighborhood school. It no longer is, since most of the kids are bused in. Neither is it a particularly neighborly presence in my part of town. Come winter, for example, the snow-clogged city sidewalks which border the school on three sides are left uncleared for two, even three days after paths are cleared for students and staff, leaving those of us who walk to seek the open street.
Silly, I know, to expect neighborliness from an institution, especially one run (as I am certain School District 186 is run) by people who do not have to walk anywhere. But the school is a presence in my neighborhood, even in my body. Most days when school is in session one sees smoke sneaking out of its incinerator stack. Sometimes it's gray, sometimes it's black, but it nearly always stinks. The smoke has an acrid tang which grabs at your throat. On windy days I have smelled it as far away as five blocks.
Smelled it, hell, I can see it; on occasion bits of glowing papery ash can be seen settling like black snow. That snow no doubt includes the remains of trash can liners, carbon paper, and plasticized milk containers, all of which when combusted at low temperatures generate poisonous fumes. The school thus reduces its hauling costs by sending its garbage out of the smokestack and into my lungs. And not just mine; on some days, downdrafts push that smoke straight down the stack onto the school's own play area below. An informed bureaucracy would not permit such careless conduct, nor would a well-managed one. I am obliged to conclude that 186 is neither.
Indeed, the schoolyard these days seems an unfriendly place in most ways. The early school grounds were intended as miniparks, but this one looks more like a prison exercise yard. Last year someone planted a few marigolds in a comer of a playground; it was a brave gesture and apparently an unappreciated one, because that once-bright corner is again home only to weeds. There is but one mature tree on the block. None grows where it might shade either playing children or the building itself, the latter an especially lamentable lack now that the school year begins, inexplicably, in mid-August. (There are three immature trees on the grounds; one has been banged up by vandals, although it should survive, and the other two frame an entrance to a parking lot—decorative in the most trivial sense.)
Priorities, I know. It's true that the open play spaces on the grounds don't seem to be played on much, before or after school. (The basketball court gets use, as do the swing sets. That's all.) Why then not plant banks of shrubs which might break the winter wind, offer spring color, and provide shelter and food to birds which children might observe? Why not plant vegetable gardens to be tended by the children themselves as class projects? Gardens are the text for a hundred lessons in science and math, even history. (How many four- ounce tomatoes make a pound? What did the pioneers eat?)
As I stroll past their barren vistas I can hear the objections to such schemes. Parents complaining about soiled clothes. Teachers making weed-pulling a collective bargaining issue. Administrators warning that such plots would be targets for vandals, never appreciating that one of the reasons kids are so eager to destroy their schools is because the schools are not theirs, and contain no part of them. Such things have been done, and in tougher places than Springfield. They can't be done anywhere, however, unless someone knows enough to try.
Of the human life which dwells on that block from eight to four during the school year the passerby sees little beyond the bustle which attends the unloading and loading of buses each day. ("Purple bus!" announces a voice over the school's outdoor PA system, in the barely modulated screech of the small-town Midwestern female which can peel the paint from walls.) Occasionally these voices materialize on the grounds, standing around at recess looking bored. I have never seen a Lincoln teacher organize games among the children, much less join in; they seem to speak to them only to scold them for acting like—or perhaps merely for being—kids.
Sometimes you can see PE teachers parade a class around one of the playgrounds. These are miserable shows—kids who at only six, seven, or eight years of age are already fat, or lack the energy to jog more than a few dozen feet at a time or pull themselves up to a bar. Most just seem resentful of the demand that they rouse their bodies of their accustomed indolence. While they wheeze and complain, you may see a truck pull up to the back door to deliver cartons of flavored whole milk or potato chips, components of the type of school lunches so laden with fats, sugars, and salt that they violate even the federal government’s lax nutrition recommendations.
The lessons which are learned, in short, are only occasionally the lessons which are taught. Fifteen months ago I saw a bunch of kids on their hands and knees outside one of the school doors. They were decorating the pavements with chalk drawings, presumably as part of an art class assignment.
I recalled the spray-painted graffiti which had appeared on a wall of the school not long before, and wondered whether kids were able to appreciate the difference between the drawings scribbled on public sidewalks which grown-ups called art, and the drawings scribbled on public walls, which those same grownups called vandalism.
Vandals are as vandals do, I guess. A sign on the east wall of the building reads, "Do not drive on school ground." You can’t miss it; it’s right above the parked cars. There are as many as twenty-five cars parked on the grounds of Lincoln School on a typical day in fact. (This morning the drivers of three of them had installed foldable cardboard sun screens in windows which faced north, away from the sun—science teachers, I assume.) A chunk of playground was graded and graveled for staff parking over the summer. This was an improvement of sorts, since teachers previously simply parked right on the grass. More than once on rainy days I watched while a driver impatient with the need to f maneuver out of a tight spot simply pulled his car out across the soaked turf to the exit, leaving the turf gashed and bleeding.
That parking lot is a puzzle. There are dozens of free street parking spaces within a two-minute walk of the school door. Laziness would explain the desire to park closer than that; so would the hysterical fear of muggers which afflicts most people when they venture east of Eleventh Street even in broad daylight. The fact that both impulses are real does not make them justified, however. The schoolyard was devised in large part to provide children with a refuge from the clamor and dirt of the street. Yet here the people in charge have brought the street right into the schoolyard. A few years ago, watching a play area being converted to parking would have made me ask for whom the schools are really being run these days. By now I already knew. ●