Schooled

My third grade teacher, Miss Shuck, didn’t designate me a bluebird or even a finch. While she listened to others sound out new words in their readers’ circles, I sat alone, wholly absorbed in the high school fiction anthology she had given me. Having provided me with this aloneness that is antithetical to loneliness, Miss Shuck awakened in me a desire to understand human nature and introduced me to the kind of critical thinking that we imagine belongs to adults alone. 

While most of the stories I read in primary school have long been forgotten, a few of those early pieces in Miss Shuck’s class and beyond so seared me that their power is evident decades later. The tale that most influenced me at eight years was “They Grind Exceedingly Small” by Ben Ames Williams. As I remember it, a miser marries a beautiful young woman under suspect circumstances, and they have a misshapen and sickly child that the miserly husband loves. The child, in fact, is the only thing the miser loves, and yet his very miserliness causes the death of the child when he pockets money a peasant had dropped in his office—money the miser’s wife had given the peasant to buy medicine for the child. I was too young to know that the title and theme of the story were based on a quote from Longfellow: “Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceedingly small; though with patience He stands waiting, with exactness He grinds all.” What I did know then is that this story broke my heart.

Some of my later teachers allowed me to continue reading outside the prescribed curriculum. One story I discovered, “The Balek Scales” by Heinrich Böll, is a tale of injustice in a small European town. The population is, for all purposes, at the service and whim of the town’s wealthy Balek family, which owns the only scales in the community—because for anyone else to own a scale is against the law. The narrator’s grandfather discovers that the Baleks are shorting folks by ten percent when weighing and paying for mushrooms, herbs and hayflower. The tale ends sadly, with the people’s revolt easily quelled, while the narrator’s grandparents lose their daughter in the battle against the gendarmes. They are forced to leave the village. That there is no justice in the tale struck me because it was a straightforward violation of the theme I had taken to heart from the miser and his child. Yet both the stories seemed right and true. There is justice and there is none.

By the time I was in the sixth grade, my teacher gave me The Scarlet Letter. Those were more innocent times, and though I didn’t understand sexual intercourse, I did know that the passion that produced a baby was considered, outside of marriage, a sin—or at least something our mothers gossiped about.

Hawthorne was a stretch for me. When he said that some folks weren’t sure about Reverend Dimmsdale’s confession of being the illegitimate Pearl’s father, I, too, became unsure about this obvious fact. But what I understood with absolute clarity is that Hester Prynne’s husband, Roger Chillingworth, had done more damage than anyone else in the book, destroying lives in his desperate bid for revenge. And the life most ruined was his own. Again, there was justice and there was no justice. I couldn’t tell how the scale would balance as my life pressed forward, but even so young, I was wary of that palpable need to get back at others that had made Chillingworth a demon specimen, complete with tufts of hair that stuck up from his head like devil’s horns.

Those early stories surfaced decades later when, as a high school teacher-librarian, I was told to report to the principal’s office. Once there, the assistant superintendent cheerily told me that I wasn’t going to have a job next year, at least not the job I currently had.

First as an English teacher and then as a teacher-librarian, I’d served the district for many years. I’d opened the school library where I was currently working, and had purchased every library book the school owned. Yet now, the district goal was to cut all the teacher-librarians as a cost-saving measure. “Do you want to go home?” the administrator asked.

I couldn’t go home as I had too much work to do. I headed back to the library, a deep sense of shame threatening to overwhelm me. What had I done to be treated like this?

My life as a librarian began with a move that baffled many people who know me. After years of teaching English, I went back to school to earn a second master’s degree and a second teaching credential, both in library science. The choice to become a teacher-librarian is always suspect. Librarians are on the same pay scale as other teachers, so there’s no hope of recouping the financial investment. People who haven’t had the opportunity to work with librarians often mistake them for clerks, so respect doesn’t come easy. However, I’m like many teachers I know. We’re some of the good citizen scouts of the adult world; we’ll work for badges and the opportunity to do a good turn daily. As a life of good deeds goes, I think creating lifelong readers ranks pretty high.

There’s no doubt that the choices of my earliest teachers, which allowed me to tap books for deep meaning, started me on my career path. Despite the financial folly of my decision, I was happy. Daily, I spent time at work in what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow—happily and actively engaged, challenged to the point that time melts away.

That I so enjoyed being in the library might have been a guilty pleasure for me, except that my work was important. Studies on school libraries support their existence—and studies on qualified school librarians show that their presence benefits students. Having a good teacher-librarian on campus translates into a better culture of reading as well as an opportunity for students to become information literate, learn inquiry skills, and be prepared for higher education. Research shows that teacher-librarians will even positively—and significantly—affect standardized tests scores, those lords of the current educational paradigm.

None of this matters when the economy tanks. Library cuts appear to be a smart choice for district administrators in that they can expect little blowback from such a move. Libraries don’t often have booster clubs.

The weight of my humiliation at the impending loss of my job might have overpowered me. But like all readers, I clung to my earliest memories of story and the actions of characters that had been inscribed in my being.

My adult career crisis invigorated the questions addressed in these stories, through these characters. Would those with power over me be ground exceedingly small? Was there justice for me—and by extension, for my students, whose connections to reading and whose basic understanding of academic research was my life’s undertaking? Or would the scale of justice be falsely weighted as those in the “Balek Scales,” devaluing the library’s mission? And how could I fight back without becoming some revenge-crazed Chillingworth?

I could fight because I knew that my position mattered. If the district administration thought this was the best way to make a budget cut, I knew there were options much further from the academic program. Yet I’m naturally cooperative, not competitive. I think the need to win my case would have unstrung me except that I had many defenders. At school board meeting after school board meeting, I watched fellow teachers, parents, and students rise up. The battle landed in the local newspaper as did several letters to the editor in support of teacher-librarians.  I had a short op-ed piece published.

Spent, I awaited the outcome of negotiations.

The teacher-librarians were split down the middle—half of us lost their jobs.

I became responsible for two schools, for what was, in the first 100 years of the school district, two full-time positions.

Crises, by definition, should be as short as they are intense. But life doles them out without proper measure, and in the conversion to this new role, there were many changes.  The fight to keep the librarian position had been a second full-time job, and when it was over, I found I simply didn’t have the energy to attempt to re-ingratiate myself with the powerful of the district. Administrators and I were philosophically divided. So I turned inward—a position much more to my liking than taking a seat at a board meeting—and asked myself: Why is the library mission so little valued and what does this mean for kids?

Though there is no basis in reality for the common stereotype of a librarian, I began to understand that administrators often rely on media images—outdated and warped—of what a librarian is and of what she does. What could be worse than ending up a librarian? Think of the picture that Frank Capra has given us in It’s a Wonderful Life: we see the stunning beauty Mary, who, if fate had twisted and George had not lived, would have been relegated to librarian status—she alone, wearing glasses, huddled against a book in the dark night. A closely related deceit is that the job of a librarian appears passé to anyone who doesn’t understand it. While teacher-librarians are often in the forefront of valid uses of educational technology, they are pictured sitting quietly in a corner, bent only on shushing students.

How then could getting rid of these (almost exclusively) women actually harm students? District administrators are busy with a Gordian knot of problems, and it’s unlikely that they read studies proving that employing a teacher-librarian has a positive correlation to higher standardized test scores. This is unfortunate as those scores are every school’s bottom line.

So important are gains in standardized testing that in 2010, the LA Times decided it was helping the cause of educating kids by publishing the names of 6,000 Los Angeles Unified School District elementary teachers along with the scores their students had received, deeming the teachers ‘effective’ or ‘ineffective’ on this single criterion. (Of course, this was controversial. Nevertheless, since that time, value-added judgments have gained momentum and the question now is not whether to include them in teacher evaluations, but how value-added judgments should be applied to teacher evaluation to avoid their many known flaws.) During the uproar surrounding the Times’ decision—teachers were asked to cancel their subscriptions and letters on the topic appeared daily—my new ‘second’ principal commented that what I was teaching in the library, including giving book talks on newly purchased fiction, met standards that were not ‘essential measurement standards’—that is, the district had not included the ability and desire to read deeply in the standards to hit hard before the students took their standardized tests.

When I suggested that without help with reading literacy, our largely low-income, Latino population would be left without skills necessary to succeed in college, the principal dropped the discussion.

I didn’t cancel my subscription to the LA Times but rather continued to follow the drama. Ironically, it seemed that for each article it published on the value of standardized testing, the Times added a feel-good op-ed piece by someone whose life had been transformed by a teacher. Each writer had his equivalent of my Miss Shuck—that is, a teacher who moved far from the prescribed curriculum to engage students.

Yet the article that made me respond to the Times was an editorial on a new version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, another book that altered the course of my young life. The piece argued that modifying the text by removing the ‘n word’ and replacing it with ‘slave’ as well as changing ‘Injun’ to ‘Indian,’ while well meaning, was a mistake. The Times argued for “intelligent and sensitive discussion” of the novel in classrooms. I knew my letter was too long to print, but I hoped that a few editors would read it and find a new purpose in it:

Re: Leave ‘Huck’ Alone

I know I am in the good company of most literature teachers when I agree with you that bowdlerizing ‘Huck’ is a mistake. After all, a careful reading of the book shows that those ‘n’ word users are hardly portrayed as models to emulate—they scam innocent girls out of their inheritance, light dogs on fire for entertainment, and are the worst sort of religious hypocrites. Huck’s father, who is the most vocal racist in the book, is a raging alcoholic who tries to kill his son when he, in a blind drunk, mistakes Huck for the angel of death.

So, while I know that your stance on the subject is correct, I do find it deeply ironic. You state that rather than sanitize ‘Huck,’ “intelligent and sensitive discussion with students would be a better response.” And intelligent and sensitive discussion is the very thing that is being pushed out of the high school curriculum as teachers hammer away at subjects covered on standardized state tests. In deep fear of being judged by the ‘value added’ standard . . . considered one of [The Times’] most important investigative issues—teachers have all but abandoned serious texts because there is no time to discuss them. Schools are moving toward having students read short articles or excerpts from longer works—pieces that are about as long as those on the tests—and asking multiple choice questions about their content—yes, questions modeled after those on the tests . . ..

You are like a student whose teacher doesn’t have the time for intelligent discussion and is sent home to read ‘Huck’ alone only to come back and say, “Wow, that Mark Twain sure was a racist.”

My great hope for the Times in 2011 was that they would continue to investigate what was good and not so great in our schools by using better assessment tools. To do so would require an open dialogue with teachers and an examination of what the tests addressed and what they left out. The editors did eventually—years later—pull back from judging teachers on test scores alone. But as the 2016–17 school year closed, there was no truly “intelligent and sensitive discussion” of the significance of literature in children’s lives.

I often think back on Miss Shuck and her deep influence on the formation of my character. I couldn’t have answered the type of literature questions the standardized tests asked of our students—I couldn’t have identified literary vocabulary such as metaphor or personification. Yet I culled exactly the life lessons literature means to give.

Though many changes in public education have been implemented in the last decade, the concept of a longer narrative arc in students’ reading has disappeared from the curriculum. In California, the STAR test is out, replaced by testing for the Common Core Standards. These standards are costing billions of dollars in new technology and countless hours of curriculum rewriting as they are administered around the country. Ironically, as though the idea were a modern version of the goddess Athena, wisdom burst from the brains of the Common Core gurus, analysis and research are once again important. Emphasis on these skills is helping to bring teacher-librarians back to libraries. However, those librarians won’t be there in order to encourage the reading of fiction. In high schools, the new design is that at least 70 percent of reading be nonfiction, except in English class where a 50–50 fiction and nonfiction split is allowed. To meet this reading goal, schools are assembling packets of excerpts from articles rather than engaging students in longer works.

On the beauty of reading for enjoyment, the gurus are dismissive. Creator of the Common Core Standards, David Coleman, reminded the New York State Department of Education that “as you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.” But, of course, he is wrong. At the same time that public schools all over the country were cutting off student access to school libraries and fiction, several studies proved what all serious readers have intuited: reading good fiction makes people more empathetic, generally improves social skills, and boosts brain function. Ironically, there is now buzz within the educational community that kids lack empathy, and a school of thought has arisen claiming that it is time to start implementing an empathy curriculum.

As though the new standards and Coleman’s pronouncement weren’t enough to relegate fiction to inconsequence, the Common Core replaces the word nonfiction with ‘informational text,’ which helps us to understand that fiction contains no information. Ten years into this, why should we be surprised that a university recently proposed dropping majors in the humanities and social sciences as a way to address declining enrollment and a multimillion-dollar deficit?

On the literacy-shattering devaluing of fiction, both primary educators and the general public are weirdly silent. Academics and successful authors don’t appear to have connected the dots. And yet, the curriculum gurus continue to lament that reading scores are not on the rise. Michigan’s Attorney General and 2018 GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette is deservedly lambasted in a recent posting at Eclectablog for coming up with the idea of creating unfunded ‘dedicated reading centers’ staffed with ‘reading coaches.’

Mr. Schuette is, apparently, unfamiliar with the concept of the “library” and the staff position of “librarian.” However, his political party—the Republicans—are quite familiar with these concepts. Or at least they should be; they’ve been defunding them for years. It’s little wonder that kids are struggling to read in elementary schools after the Republican evisceration of the money used to run them. There’s little point in maintaining a library and paying a librarian when your building is falling down around you and there is no heat in the classroom in the winter or air conditioning in the summer. 

All adults who care about literature, whose lives have been transformed through books, need to grasp that children are not being given the opportunity to experience the same transformation.

The story “The Balek Scales” ends with the protagonists roaming the countryside, proclaiming the truth: “And those who wanted to listen could hear the tale of the Baleks van Bilgan, whose justice lacked a tenth part. But there were few who listened.”

The story, of course, isn’t an explanation of how things went wrong. But it does explain why they continue to do so several years later.

What will a generation of kids who are starved of story grow up to be?

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Victoria Waddle
Victoria has many years’ experience as both an English teacher and a teacher-librarian. She’s an unapologetic reader of banned books and the mother of three boys. She tweets all too infrequently at @waddleido. You can contact her at VictoriaWaddle.com where she blogs about writers and writing.

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