It all began with a missing sheet of homework. "Contractions," my son had written very clearly in his assignment log. "What's this?" I asked when he announced he'd finished everything else, noting that there was no book or worksheet to which the reference logically applied. "Don't know," replied my son.
I was off to the races, astride my high horse, afroth with my mission of dutiful motherhood, my son sniveling that he had No Idea what it meant.
"The teacher made you write it down, n'est-ce pas?"
"No buts--I am calling for reinforcements." So we called his best friend. No Idea. Aha, I thought, the two of them must be in league. We called his next best friend. No Idea. Three in league? Better try the girls, girls are sober, reliable, always bright as buttons. But girls were not home, out sick, at gymnastics, No Idea.
I called my mother: How will he ever get to college at this rate, I moaned. "Is this a joke or are you working out for the high blood pressure Olympics?" she asked quietly.
By 6 o'clock, I gave up, took two aspirin and went off to a school board meeting. Most unfortunate for my throbbing temples, gifted and talented programs were the topic of the evening, and the room was packed with parents, 100 percent of whom were banking on the hope that their children were in the ninety-ninth percentile. An expensive array of options was on the table, products and "packages," computer programs and reading lists. It was a veritable Tupperware party of the education industry, but what most people seemed to want most was A Separate Class.
One of the things I get to do in my profession is travel around to schools and talk about the benefits of equal access in all its forms. I find myself increasingly concerned that a kind of triage mentality has settled over schools, a vise of constraint that has led to a bottom-dollar hunt for top students. Triage is a theory that makes a certain sense in extremely dire settings where such a cruel cost-benefit analysis has the remote moral justification of salvage-under-fire. That educational opportunity should at all resemble such a configuration in this, the wealthiest and most technologically developed country on the planet, speaks of a deep and troubling class divide.
I cannot help thinking of this as I read headlines about libraries being shut, public universities shrinking, school music programs disappearing everywhere. I cannot help thinking about this as I sit in yet another roomful of parents desperately touting their children's special attributes, waving credentials about as though clawing their way up from the steerage deck of the Titanic.
The guest expert at this particular meeting defined "gifted" as the top 3 or 4 percent of the population, although that particular cutoff reflected a monetary limit, rather than any rational relation to the potential of a child "only" in the ninety-fifth percentile. In a different district there might be enough money to provide services for only the top 1 percent; in yet another, for the top tenth.
But I can't help believing that in a world of universally well-funded education, schools could provide for almost all their students much of the enrichment that is now reserved only for the most endowed. We seem to have forgotten that there are many successful models in which all levels are accommodated, in which neither gifted nor special education students are segregated but are given materials that both educate and engage; programs where individual differences in ability can be negotiated in small classes, by teachers who are well-educated and well-supported.
As I glanced around the room, I did the math that a lot of people seem to be ignoring: A Separate Class for the top 3 or 4 percent would mean that no more than one or two students in a given grade would have access to the truly wonderful materials being discussed--materials from which any child could profit. There will be a heap of hurt feelings if this plan comes to pass. But more important to the state of our union, it is wasteful of precious human resources. It is inconceivable to me why we Americans can't cough up enough money so that the "bottom" 95 percent are exposed to Shakespeare and calculus and music theory from as young an age as possible. If they can't all write a concerto by the time they're 7, at least a whole lot more of them will be able to enjoy one.
While I think programs and materials for the gifted are fine and good, I worry about meetings like this in which the dominant sentiment is that the only way to educate the gifted is to remove them from the company of mere mortal riff-raff. In a world where public schools are shuddering beneath hatcheted budget cuts, gifted programs have become a kind of status symbol, the equivalent of those new "designer" medical practices where doctors charge exorbitant fees to make themselves available to only a few patients for round-the-clock cell-phone access and midnight consultations.
The board meeting ended with a description of how a special class for the gifted had helped maximize the strengths of one particular child described as "brilliant but unmotivated"--a child of such genius that he was too preoccupied to get to school before the day was half over. His tardiness was so great that the teacher would actually go to his house in the morning and drag him to school herself. Hmm, I thought. What a wonderful world it would be if we put together the resources to push all children with such unyielding solicitude.
When I got home, I checked my e-mail to find a note from my son's teacher explaining that she had simply forgotten to give the children the worksheet on contractions. All the tension drained from me. Education has become such an awfully anxious rat race. I kissed my son--who in the meantime had come up with the inventive theory that contractions are the physical product of any given page of long division--on the tip of his nose. How lucky our worries. How perfect the children.