There is a new initiative in Oklahoma called “My School Rules” meant to highlight the positive qualities of the public education system that have recently been omitted from the narratives of what public schools are like, in order to raise support for political schemes to replace the current education system with exclusive, private, charter schools. For this reason, I feel that it is my responsibility to share my experience in the Moore public school system.
For the sake of time (and sanity) I begin my story in Junior High and only briefly describe a few notable teachers, despite the many others who positively impacted my life as well; if I were to mention them all, this could easily be a twenty page thesis. So, without further ado, let’s begin ––
Junior High kids are a lot of things; however, in my experience, likeable isn’t always one of them. Looking back on my thirteen-year-old self, I remember a few key things: I was obsessed with the Twilight Saga, I desperately wanted to be “popular,” and I had decided that I was far too cool for school.
Another thing that I distinctly remember about Junior High is not having a cell phone. This might sound insignificant but trust me, when you are trying to survive in a school with hundreds of petty pre-teens, an I-phone can serve as one of your greatest weapons. Even in 2010, when I was in the 7th grade, I felt like I was the only kid in the world who was deprived of what I then considered a basic right.
My philosophy changed completely when my Geography teacher, Mr. Langan, explained to my class how privileged we were to have access to clean water and electricity, let alone cell phones. Mr. Langan asked us a series of seemingly ridiculous questions, and all I could think was “obviously, I have a refrigerator,” And “everyone has a car, how else would we all get around?” At the end of class, he claimed that, based on our answers, each and every one of us was in the “top 1%” of people in the world. Needless to say, I was shocked; how on earth could I be more privileged that 99% of people on Earth if I didn’t even have a cell phone?
Throughout the school year, we talked a lot about the world – a place that, I soon realized, I knew almost nothing about. Up until that point, I had lived my life in a bubble; all that I really cared about was what table I sat at during lunch, and when I was going to get my next pair of Miss Me jeans. However, when I started thinking about the girls my age living in under-developed countries who weren’t allowed to attend school, who had to walk miles to retrieve clean water for their families, all of my previous concerns seemed rather silly in comparison. Mr. Langan taught me to care, not just about myself and the people around me, but about the world.
Flash forward to the 8th grade, and I had another phenomenal teacher; Ms. Clay, who taught US History. While I still struggled with the never-ending need to be one of the “cool kids,” I had rid myself of the notion that paying attention in class was nerdy. In fact, I was quite possibly the most outrageous over-achiever in my grade. This was, in large part, because Ms. Clay’s class was like nothing that I had ever experienced in school before – it was actually fun. Instead of writing notes and reading textbooks, we played History-Jeopardy, drew political cartoons, and held in-class debates.
The most notable aspect of Ms. Clay’s class was, undoubtedly, our chapter on the American Civil War. During the chapter, my class was split into two teams: the Union and the Confederacy (go figure, right?), and we then proceeded to reenact the civil war over the final month of class. During the chapter, each assignment and extra credit opportunity was a way for us to earn points and thus “win the war.” I remember going home and making Hardtack (a disgusting cracker that was a staple for soldiers during the war) to bring to class for extra credit, spending hours reciting Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (which still runs through my mind every now and then), and writing page after page of notes for our in-class debates, all so that my team would win.
It could be argued that I was simply a teacher’s pet who had nothing better to do than devote herself to US History, and, to some extent, that would be correct. Not every student in the class took it as seriously as me. However, by the end of the year, there was not a single student who neglected to turn in assignments. Why? Because we each had a responsibility to each other – a responsibility to pull our own weight and not let our team down. Ms. Clay made learning worthwhile, she made it matter, she made it fun.
As a sophomore in high school, I encountered another extraordinary teacher – Ms. Parks – who taught World History. Ms. Parks’ class was nothing like Ms. Clay’s had been. It was difficult; the readings were challenging, the workload was heavy, and by the end of the year I was convinced that my hand would fall off if I wrote another vocab definition. I worked harder in that class than I did in any other class throughout the duration of my public education, and I simultaneously loved and hated it.
I soon realized that overcoming challenges while learning was one of the most empowering feelings that I had ever experienced. Because, even though I often times wanted to scream that I did not care a single bit about the Byzantines or the Ottomans, the feeling of making a good grade on an exam after spending hours studying was totally unmatched – it made all of the hard work worth it. Ms. Parks didn’t dumb anything down; no student got a free pass, we all had to work hard to succeed. And, as difficult and stressful as the class was, it taught me a valuable lesson: that I was capable; that, if I was willing to put in the work, I could achieve whatever I set my mind to.
During my senior year, I decided to take Human Geography (mainly because I had heard that it was relatively easy, and I was hoping to have the sought after “senior blow-off year”). In retrospect, I should have known better than to trust the rumors, because the class was anything but easy. However, while it was not the blow-off class that I had initially hoped for, it was by far the most interesting class I took during my public education. As a senior, I had grown very interested in the world around me, but I still had relatively no idea how it worked.
I was well aware of the problems with our society, but I had no idea how to fix them. I still struggle with this and, unless I miraculously transform into some all-knowing being, I assume that I will struggle with it for the rest of my life. However, Ms. Lewis (my Human Geography teacher) taught me that we had a much better chance of changing the world for the better if everyone’s perspective was valued equally – if everyone’s voice was allowed to be heard.
I learned a lot of things during my public education: the Pythagorean Theorem, the function of the mitochondria, and (most importantly) every word to “The Fifty Nifty United States” song, to name a few. But, my public education was much more than that.
I learned that the world was much bigger that Moore, Oklahoma, and that there were people struggling all around the world that are too often overlooked. I learned how to work in a team of diverse people, some of whom I had almost nothing in common with. I learned that school could be fun, that learning could be rewarding. I learned that I was strong, and intelligent, and capable of success. And I learned that if we want to change the world, we have to do it together.
Public education has come under a lot of scrutiny lately and many people have denounced it entirely, claiming that the public school system just “doesn’t work anymore.” However, public school worked for me, and it works for millions of American students every year despite significant differences in students’ gender, race, socioeconomic status, and language. Public education also allows students with mental and physical disabilities the opportunity to succeed.
The charter schools that many people point to as a better alternative to public schools, on the other hand, are not required to accept all students. In fact, they can choose students based on ability, wealth, gender, and even race. If all children are not allowed equal education, how can we ever hope for all people to have true equality?
Nelson Mandela once said that “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Every child is an unlit match – infinite potential – and many could change the world for the better if given the chance. Public education empowers every student to succeed, while private charter schools bar certain children from ever having the opportunity to begin. I choose Public Education; I choose equality for all children. What do you choose?