Schools out, but far from over
At this time of year, with school years concluding and graduation ceremonies everywhere, it’s hard not to think about the teachers who’ve had a lasting effect on us.
In my case, her name was Dorothy Barker, and aside from my parents she had as much influence on my life as anyone I’ve known.
Mrs. Barker was my fourth-grade teacher at Lake Lucina Elementary School in the Arlington area of Jacksonville. She was kind and caring and carried herself with exceptional dignity and compassion.
In a class of 35, she found ways to teach children individually, at their own levels. She’d engage the bulk of the class in a reading or writing assignment, then pull a smaller group off to the side. One day, a group might get enrichment in math. The next day, a different group might get remedial help in a subject they were struggling with. She always seemed keenly aware of each child. Once, in a small-group session, a student was clearly anxious, struggling with part of the assignment. In a gesture of comfort, she took him aside, put her hand over his for just a moment and whispered a few words. He returned to the group relaxed and more confident.
Her students loved and respected her. Neither domineering nor intimidating, she insisted, firmly, on high standards of behavior. She once disciplined a classmate for using the n-word, then gave the class, all-white, a 10-minute discourse on why that word was hateful and inappropriate. Today, her methods — she washed his mouth out with soap — would likely produce a lawsuit; then, it was a powerful lesson about acceptable behavior and language. It’s no doubt what she would have done with her own children.
Whether because she wanted to teach at a different grade level or because the school system reassigned her, Mrs. Barker left her fourth-grade classroom and ended up teaching my sixth-grade class as well.
The timing was significant. In the 1960s, the growth of Jacksonville outstripped the city’s inclination to provide adequate schools. In 1964, the accrediting agency for public schools, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, dis-accredited all 15 of the city’s high schools — meaning that students in my cohort might have been well into high school before the schools gained re-accreditation. This, Mrs. Barker knew, had potential implications for college applications — how would schools view graduates from an unaccredited or just reaccredited high school?
In that sixth-grade year, Mrs. Barker saw enough promise in me to spend time encouraging my parents to send me to a local private school, Bolles. Ultimately, that’s where I went, from seventh grade until graduation. And I got a high school education that, for its time, was extraordinary, full of challenge, eccentric teachers, creative students and a stodgy administration that made an easy target for our 1960s sensibilities.
The decision had huge implications. For my parents, the financial burden of private school was more than considerable. For me, the high school experience Mrs. Barker set in motion helped me get into a great university. It also shaped a lot of personal values and almost everything I came to believe about education — the educational value of going to school and interacting with people who’ve grown up differently, for example. At my high school were children from a level of wealth and privilege that I as a middle-class kid had not experienced. I found that I could compete. And that wealth and privilege came with their own challenges.
There was the educational value of having to confront more demanding expectations — I’d never been within sniffing distance of a “D” grade in my life until one particular class in ninth grade, taught by a teacher who cared not an iota how smart you were by reputation but judged you only by your performance. I had to raise my standards, and found I could.
I came to believe in the value of choice: Why should parents and children end up trapped in the traditional system when its administrators and local politicians fail to deliver quality schooling? Why shouldn’t parents with children in failing schools be able to take the money the state will spend on their educations and shop for better options for their children?
Fifty years after my own sixth grade, Jacksonville, like all big school systems, still struggles with delivering a quality education to every child — 32 elementary and middle schools got “A” grades in 2013-14, but more than 20 got an “F.” Parents today have more options — three Jacksonville high schools with strong magnet or IB programs recently were listed among the top 15 high schools in the country in rankings published by the Washington Post.
I also came to believe that education ought to provide something more than a credential to get you into a job — something I’ve thought about a lot as I’ve seen the STEM tide sweep over Florida’s universities and colleges and shift the balance of instruction toward career-oriented coursework. Traditional liberal arts instruction, meanwhile, has been diluted. The state has a big problem generating enough grads in science- and technology-related disciplines; talk to employers and you’ll hear we have just as big a problem generating grads who can put two written sentences together or organize a coherent presentation to their colleagues.
Ultimately, what I think Mrs. Barker imparted to me was a sense that real learning was something that nobody could take away, however your material fortunes might rise or fall. She taught for the Duval County school system for 27 years. She died at 86 in 2004, and I regret more than I can say that I did not call her before then to say thank you.