Sunday, October 02, 2005

Beaten down on the educational beat

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The past few weeks' news from the Fall River educational beat has been, with little exception, wretched. Fall River now has two chronically underperforming middle schools out of four, and the percentage of kids flunking or in danger of flunking the MCAS looks like a golf score. It turns out most eighth-graders can't do simple math without the help of a calculator and a physics professor.

It's surprising to everyone in charge. Not me. Not my wife, either.

We're both products of the Fall River public school system. She went to Morton, and I went to Talbot -- coincidentally, the two schools not deemed lazier than dirt.

We both went to very good colleges and did well there. We both have great jobs. We had friends from Fall River who went to places like Harvard and MIT. I even got into Mensa, the group for people with high IQs.

And I still won't let my future children anywhere near a Fall River school, unless it's housing a bomb shelter during a nuclear attack. Even then, I'd tell Junior not to touch anything.

It's not just this latest crop of bad news that's soured me on our schools. Take that and combine it with our own Fall River public school educations.

Like the math teacher I once had who used to barge into my homeroom class before first period to borrow a kid's Game Boy.

And the sixth-grade social studies teacher who told my wife and all of her class that girls were, by nature, dumber than boys. If you took the smartest woman and put her up against the smartest man, he said, the woman would always fail. Always.

And the biology teacher who brought in geese for us to dissect -- geese that were peppered with buckshot, killed for sport by a friend of his over the weekend. Before we did the dissecting, we had to butcher them and hand over the breast meat. Later, when he realized we didn't have any room to store the geese, he had us cut off just the heads and keep those in the storage fridge. Actually, that episode was sort of funny, if barely educational.

And the bathrooms so revolting, in such deplorable, Third-World condition, I held it all day from kindergarten to college.

And the cooking teacher who had us cook about two or three meals the entire year, including a batch of cookies that she promptly took away.

And that same chauvinistic pig social studies teacher, who threw a chair at a girl.

That same teacher, by the way, also publicly humiliated a friend of mine because he saw that friend mutter to himself one day. "Guess who I saw talking to himself?" the teacher snickered, and then pointed at my friend.

And the fleas in the carpets, and the gang fights, and the decrepit history textbooks that ended at the start of the Vietnam War.

There's also the science teacher who had students watch wrestling. WWF wrestling.

A different science teacher also threw a chair at a girl. As I recall, it was because she was mildly irritating.

Wait, that's not accurate. It was a stool.

An old, broken stool.

That same science teacher, one day, handed out a copy of the mathematical formula to convert Fahrenheit degrees to Celsius degrees. Then he handed out sheets of paper marked in columns and rows, with dozens of figures in Fahrenheit degrees and blank boxes near them. We were supposed to do the conversion by hand. We did this, and only this, for several weeks while he sat reading in the corner. Then, we did the same thing, except converting Celsius degrees to Fahrenheit degrees. Weeks later, we'd convert Fahrenheit to Celsius again, or Celsius to Fahrenheit to Kelvin. We did this for months. Not one of these sheets was ever graded, either. We handed the sheets in, he glanced at them and then threw them in a box. They eventually became scrap paper. So after all that, what are the mathematical formulas for temperature conversions? Here’s the kicker: I don't even remember.

This was at the "good" schools, too. We got the quality education. And I'm not that old -- some of those people are probably still working.

I'm not knocking everything, mind you. I had some great teachers. I'll name them now: Mr. Vieira. Mr. Tremblay. Madame Rose, the French teacher. The late Ms. Pytel. Mr. Dube. Many others whose names escape me now. I appreciate them still.

But those saints could only do so much. This school system has more wrong with it than can be solved with some state money and a few firings.

Like I said, my wife and I turned out all right. But I always feel like we succeeded in spite of Fall River schools, not because of them.

When I look at the MCAS scores, it's not the 87 percent of kids who can't do math that worries me. As long as Fall River has plenty of working poverty, drugs and domestic abuse, the stupid we will always have with us.

I'm ticked off about the 1 percent of eighth-graders who are advanced in science, the 4 percent of fourth-graders who are advanced in math, and the 1 percent of seventh-graders who are advanced in English. I know that if they stick with public
school in Fall River, they're most likely going to have to put up with a lot of bullshit -- until they go away somewhere to college.

And then they probably won't come back.

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