My public elementary school in Lakewood, Colorado was a red brick building. Here is something amazing: for a while, there was a glorious fort in the library with two levels (an upstairs?! Imagine the joy) and piles of pillows. There were poster board stars hanging from the ceiling of that library, covered in aluminum foil to make them look shiny and important. Each noted the names of students who had passed spelling tests because spelling was a Big Deal. The Dukane projectors provided private showings of The Solar System or Great Plains Indians one slide at a time with cassette tape soundtracks. Our principal, Dr Doll, was a firm and fierce tiny-boned woman who insisted “I want every eye on me” and holy lord, if that administrator wasn’t a great role model for being a badass woman in charge.
School was wonderful and it was life. My classroom’s incubating chicken eggs did not hatch at all one year. Total bust. But still, year in and year out I was the type of child who reveled in my workbooks and rejoiced in my Trapper Keepers and closely guarded my favorite Hello Kitty mechanical pencil.
Not everyone was the same. Every year my class was a motley crew. I was a Green Frog one year. Not everyone was a Green Frog. Some were Yellow Ducks and Brown Bears. But there we all were, the kids with peeled-crust sandwiches and the kids with free lunch tickets, the kids who guarded Hello Kitty pencils like I did, kids with every sort of last name. Bear Creek Elementary had a place for everyone.
I had the same teacher for my final two years at that school. Mr. Pyle was only five feet tall, about my height then, but he looked like he could bench press a few. He was balding with a gray mustache and was a stickler for discipline, following directions, and penmanship. My friend and I memorized “The Spider and the Fly” and performed it in class, and we built a robot using a shower head and other odds and ends we found in my dad’s basement workroom. Our class completed an entire weeks-long unit on baboons, of all things. Mr. Pyle was a fiend for complete sentences and his book reports went on for pages. He challenged a sixth grader to a pumpkin pie making contest and attributed his popular-vote victory to his precision in following the recipe. He admitted he had never traveled anywhere but Kansas and Colorado, but he had a reverence for books and information that was contagious.
When I graduated from high school six years later, Mr. Pyle showed up at my doorstep. Although I was nearly 18 years old, I found this embarrassing, the reality that teachers are humans who continue to exist off campus still seeming debatable. He congratulated me on my achievements and gave me a gift: a book of Bible verses. Thinking about Mr Pyle, this gift wasn’t a shock – that love of discipline and decorum probably did dovetail pretty well into adherence to religion. But I have to give the man credit – he never betrayed his Christian faith in his classroom. We were at a public school, and his job was teaching us to multiply negative numbers and keep a clean desk and give oral reports on the Siberian Tiger. It was not to teach us those Bible verses.
Again: not everyone was the same. There was a place for everyone at Bear Creek Elementary. There was a boy in my classrooms through the years who pulled out his own hair. There were kids with various special needs, some of whom were in separate classrooms and some, like the hair-puller, who weren’t. There were jokers and math whizzes and the Latina trio that performed Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That” at the school talent show with matching shirts that read “No Can Do” on the back. There were kids who moved away before they could settle in and the kids from the “Luxury Apartments” near the school.
Those were not luxury apartments. I’ve always been proud to be a product of public schools, beautiful and diverse and complex and successful public schools. The Green Frogs and the Yellow Ducks and the Brown Bears are now teachers and accountants and bankers and veterans. They are making decisions, building, repairing, doing research and leading. They are parents and taxpayers and neighbors.
There needs to be a place for everyone, regardless of circumstances and resources, regardless of belief systems or ability. And here’s another thing that’s as amazing as that library fort: we are better together. We learn from each other. I’m better for having been in class with the boy who pulled out his hair.
So to those who would undermine our proud public school system and its principles: no can do. Let’s lavish our public schools, and every Green Frog, Yellow Duck, and Brown Bear within them with our patriotic pride. I grew up in a country in which boys and girls, learners of every pace and style, six-minute milers and 18-minute milers, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and None of the Aboves were all deemed worthy of my nation’s time and effort. In this era, we cannot each flee to our own distant outposts and figure everybody else is not our problem. There is not a problem. Together, we are abundant in riches.