Ethos of the American public schools
April 18, 2007
I am an American. Of the Iranian variety. I became an American largely because I wanted to be able to travel easier without having to apply for visas for everywhere (even little Jamaica wants a visa from Iranian tourists!) with my Islamic Republic of Iran passport. But having been educated by American’s in Iran and having lived most of my life in the U.S I have come to feel American. It is a hard time to feel proud of being an American but I still get the goose bumps when I read the Declaration of Independence or hear the Pledge of Allegiance even with the “Under God” part included. Even though I teach my students that by ‘Man’ the founding fathers meant just that (That women and slaves were not included as part of humanity deserving Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness.) I still find much common ground with the philosophical backbone of this Republic.
Of all American institutions I find the University the most redeeming. The University with its silent meritocracy and its embrace of minds regardless of the bodies they come in is a Utopian place -- what America could have been if it were not for her crippling racism and anti-intellectualism. The greatest people I have ever met, the people I most admire, are professors in these institutions.
When I had to leave Iran for the second time in my life two years ago I decided against moving back to the States. I knew that America would be the best place for me as a struggling writer whose language of expression is English. But I did not move back because of my children who were at the time in Junior High School. Even though my children are American and feel more so than I ever did, even though they had been educated in American-style schools where ever we lived, I knew that putting them in an American public school would be bad for the development of their character. When I read about the poor Korean student who went on a rampage in Virginia Tech I was sure that I had made the right decision two years ago. I have attended American schools and Universities and taught in them. The best years of my life were spent at Boston University. Where I learned to think, argue, teach and write. Where I learned that most important of skills so well taught at American institutions: analytical thinking.
But I have also attended and taught at the American Public High Schools. One of the most horrible places for a young individual to grow. I remember attending Palo-Alto high school in 78-79. Now, anyone familiar with California schools system knows that Palo-Alto is one of the best high schools in the system. But for a foreign student, at the time, it was a vast, cold and unwelcoming place. Immediately you were branded. You were categorized for life as a jock or a druggie or nerd. And one category excluded the other more harshly and decisively than the Hindu caste system. There was no way to be all three. Or even a combination of two. No way to move from one caste to another. There were other categories which were more fluid but divisive none-the-less. There were the punks (at the time they were kind of like Goths are now) there where the rich “it” people who drove the fancier cars and partied with each other in their parents Jacuzzis, there were the rockers who listened to Black Sabbath and those hippies who listened to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. The two groups never mixed. There were also those who were into disco who were in turn shunned by the two rocker groups and the punks. Then there were the foreign nerds who were treated as non-existent or as anomalous presences no one really understood. What was lacking, compared to schools in other places or even private schools I had attended in America, was kindness and acceptance of the new and the different: those who did not easily fit the cliques that give these schools their social make-up. The American High School is too big, too cold too ostracizing for any kid with a modicum of sensitivity to bloom. In the American High School you are labeled quickly and for life.
That is why I did not want my children to attend a public school in the U.S. I did not want them to be labeled so early in their lives. I did not want them to be exposed to the cut-throat and cold judgment of peers who seem to have seen little love and who define themselves in terms conjured up by Procter& Gamble product placement experts.
My children spent two years in a Maryland public elementary school. There, they learned that their beautiful names could be perverted into little belittling jokes. There, in the first grade my daughter first noticed her skin color when a little blond boy called her dirty and brown. I did some substitute teaching in that school system to busy myself and be near my kids. In the schools nearer bigger towns we had to have policemen patrolling.
As a teacher you felt constantly threatened, in a physical way, by the students. This happened to me twice in an eight grade History class. I may have felt it more as a substitute teacher but believe me the teachers in these schools looked like badly armed soldiers in the trenches of a war that is bound to be lost. One can not want her kids to grow up in these institutions that are devoid of any philosophy where fear reigns and were kids will get A’s as long as they don’t offend the teacher on a daily basis. Out of these schools came the abusers of Abu Ghuraib. The murderers of Columbine. Out of these schools came this angry Korean at Virginia Tech.
I do still believe in the American University and hope my kids will be able to benefit from it as I did. But what amazed me and made me rather sick to my stomach was the incredibly a-political nature of the ceremony at Virgina Tech. No one at that convocation they had, which looked more like a football rally than a memorial service for the tragically murdered, mentioned anything about gun laws! This kid wrote essays describing gruesome murders, this kid had a history of scary, anti-social behavior and instead of being watched, advised and helped he was simply ignored, drugged, marginalized and given two guns. Why is it that American’s don’t know how to mourn? Why do all these events regardless of the degree of seriousness that caused them look like football rallies!
No one at that rally asked the question why such a disturbed boy with a history of depression, indeed on anti-depressants, was sold two guns in Virginia easier than an 18 year old can buy a beer in California! No one booed Bush who is responsible for more deaths of innocents in Baghdad every single day and supports the NRA. No instead of showing anger or remorse they had a pep talk about being the ‘future.’ Chanting like you would at a football match. Sometimes one can’t help thinking that if American’s were a little less ‘positive’, confident and gung-ho and more introspective and humble the world, especially America herself would be a better place to raise kids. If these poor kids and what happened to them on a spring day on the campus of a great university represent the future I am not so sure I want to be here to see it! Comment