My Debt to Public Education

The latest news cycle brings a media storm about Tuesday’s (January 17) confirmation hearing for President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos: news stories, live-streaming of the event, video clips saved for later, tweets on both sides of the political divide, and of course hot-takes. Consider this one of the latter.

Specifically, I want to respond to one of DeVos’s historic comments, one that has been repeated over and over in various media: that public education is a “dead end.” During her hearing, DeVos gave no solid indication that her views have changed. For a few news outlets that have commented on her past statement and the hearing, check out these search results.

During the confirmation hearing, media figure and journalist Wajahat Ali tweeted the following to remind his audience of DeVos’s past comment:

Soon after, among others responding to Ali’s tweet, writer, director, and actress Justine Bateman retweeted with the following comment:

Between the time when Bateman posted that tweet and my time of writing this post, nearly 9,000 people have retweeted it directly. Additionally, a whole host of people have added comments about their own experiences to reject and resist DeVos’s claim.

I posted my own response to Ali’s tweet last night:

But, as I’ve reflected on my own education, I also realized that this tweet deserves elaboration. So here’s my own story–my own rejection of the claim that public education is a “dead end,” my own resistance to these types of attitudes, which can become all too normal when we encounter these kinds of statements from figureheads in the media.

My family was lower-middle-class, and lived for most of my childhood and adolescent life in rural upstate and northern New York. My father was a minister and full-time dad, my mother (among a variety of jobs) a cosmetologist, secretary, substitute teacher, and a full-time mom. Both of my parents attended public schools. I also have two siblings. Even if they had the money to send us to private schools, in a few places we lived the options weren’t there; I’m not sure they would have chosen that possibility anyway. I attended public schools from preschool through twelfth grade, in three different school districts in three different places–two of them rural, the other (in between) a small city, but all three places economically depressed.

These public school districts and individual schools didn’t have a lot of money, but I never felt like they failed me. I was often in accelerated classes in different disciplines. Much of my personal story–my love of fantasy and the beginnings of my forays into medieval literature–go back to the fourth grade. That year, my teacher, Mrs. Dreyfus, read J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit to the class. I was captivated, and fell in love with Tolkien. We also switched to another class for language arts, and our class read C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe with Mrs. Howe. I also remember a special section of Mrs. Howe’s classroom, where she had dozens of crates stacked with readings, and it was our duty to read a certain number of them. In those crates, I encountered Beowulf. I remember poring over the pages of a comic-book version of the story, entranced by the hero, his nemesis Grendel, the terror of Grendel’s mother, and the magnificence of the fight with the dragon. I knew then that there was something special about Tolkien, Lewis, and Beowulf, and I started to pursue the land of fantasy in which they all lived.

From fifth through twelfth grade, I participated in band and choir; in high school, I joined the show choir and jazz band; I acted in a few plays over the years; and I sometimes was part of different clubs.

I spent a lot of time at the local Wead Library, which is overseen by the public school district. I would get lost in the stacks–both the children’s and the adult sections. I learned to read voraciously. I learned that books change lives. I learned that books contain magic. I learned that books are my passion. I also built relationships with the library staff, especially the children’s librarian, Mrs. Wool (now the director), and Mrs. Trickey. In some ways, I owe my life to the Wead Library. In my senior year of high school I giddily took a job there, and it’s still the true love of my job life.

I fondly remember programs like Scholastic book club and the Book-It program for literacy; going to area all-state for band and choir; field trips to libraries, museums, the courthouse, a biodome, and other fun, educational places (at least, I see that they were in retrospect, even if the courthouse seemed boring at the time); weekend trips to compete in band and choir competitions (and sight-seeing and fun) in Toronto, Canada and New York City. Some of these a few or several hours away and meant parents helping financially, or students doing fundraisers.

It was on one of my field trips (to the biodome) that I first actually engaged with one of my middle-school history teachers, Greg Littell. While he seemed strict and had high expectations in the classroom, on that trip, getting to know him a bit better outside of the classroom, I realized that Mr. Littell wasn’t just a difficult teacher, but was fun, cared about students, and pushed us because he knew we could rise to his expectations. Hanging out with Mr. Littell was a pivotal moment for me.

I developed another important relationship in my senior year of high school, when I had the opportunity to take not only AP English but also another elective English course. Because I had room in my schedule, and was thinking about going to college for English, I took both classes. In the elective course, I met Brian Doe, who introduced me to Old English literature and rekindled my love of Beowulf, as well as Norse and world mythology, Arthurian legends, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and a host of other medieval subjects. That was where I found my love for Old English and Old Norse literature. I would often stop by Mr. Doe’s classroom in free periods or after school just to talk to him about our mutual interests. Over the course of the year, he gave me a few dozen books, including Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf with the Old English and translation on facing pages; The Sagas of Icelanders; the Poetic Edda and Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda; and The Saga of the Volsungs. In many ways, Mr. Doe put me on the path that led me to graduate school and my career as a professor of medieval literature. These were the core start  of a library of medieval texts that I still own as it’s grown over the years. I not only still own these books but also remember who gave them to me. They came from a public school teacher who cared.

After high school, to save money and take a bit more time to decide where I wanted to complete my four-year BA, I spent a year living with my parents and attending community college–a local branch of the not-much-larger main campus about an hour away, part of the public college system of NY State. I also continued to work at the Wead Library, which gave me experiences that I carried with me into college. Through that year, and when I would return home on breaks, I substitute taught in the local public schools. This only fueled my desire to be an educator.

I decided to attend a private college for the remaining three years of my undergraduate education, but afterward I chose to attend the University of Connecticut, a public state school. There I completed my MA in Medieval Studies; then I applied to the PhD program, was accepted, and decided to stay. I had another offer, from a private university, but for a number of reasons, including a better funding package, I chose to continue at UConn. It was the best fit, and I don’t regret it. It was the best PhD program for me, personally, and I wonder if part of that was the fact that it is a public university.

Since I enrolled in my MA program at UConn, and for the past ten years, I have taught only in public education. For the first few years that I was in graduate school, at the end of each academic year, I substitute taught in local public schools in Connecticut. I loved working with the students, and the experiences helped me to understand learning much better, in a more general way. After UConn, I taught for a year at another public state school, the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

Since fall of 2015, I have taught at Rhode Island College, a public liberal arts college. Most of my students have grown up in public education. And many of them amaze me. Like me, they did not face a dead end. They continue to seek and strive for success.

I know that not all public education stories are like mine. My parents played a huge role in my education and success. I also have certain privileges as a white male.There are many other factors (systemic, social, cultural), and I acknowledge those, too. But my story also isn’t an aberration. I owe many thanks to the experiences and especially the teachers I had in public schools.

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