Back to school: Memoirs of a parent association president

Sam Smith
1975

My worries over being named president of the John Eaton Elementary School parents association in the mid 1970s were aggravated by reminders that I would be the first man to hold the post. I recalled a Howard University professor telling me how he had integrated a bowling league in the 1950s only to find that he subsequently felt obligated to bowl every week whether he wanted to or not. “I realized what I really wanted,” he said, “was the right to be as bad a bowler as everyone else.”

The problem with this recollection was that, as far as I could determine, there had been no bad presidents of the Eaton Home & School Association and there had been some fairly extraordinary ones including – I was also reminded – Joan Mondale, soon to find herself an even harder job.

Fortunately I was surrounded by a fine board, a wonderful principal, and a community that regarded the school as a favored garden, a place to plant children and happily watch them grow.

In between, that is, fund-raisers, meetings, crises, anger, desperate phone calls and so forth. Such as the distressed call I got from a member of the board who had started the school’s first Christmas tree sale. Even before Christmas, a priest had shown up on the lot with a brown paper bag filled with needles he claimed had descended from his tree.

There were periodic fiscal crises and their consequences such as the inability to get any play blocks for the kindergarten. The downtown administration – which swallowed up three of every four dollars spent on our students before it even got to the school – was so bad at paying bills that the only play block company that would deal with it had sent blocks with splinters in them. In the end, the parents association bought the blocks from a neighborhood store.

There was also the highly visible – and similarly irate – journalist whose son’s paper on Egypt had been failed by the teacher because it was 50 pages long instead of the required 15. And the substitute teacher who dozed at her desk, even through the students pasted a “Do No Disturb” sign on her back. And the teacher who sprayed smelly students with Lemon Zest and checked their armpits.

Most embarrassing of all, however, was our entrance into the citywide school safety patrol parade. The children had proudly chosen the slogan for the banner – WATCH OUT FOR CARS OR YOU’LL END UP ON MARS – and students and parents worked hard and long to create a fifteen foot high missile out of chicken wire stuffed with pink Kleenex to be mounted on a pickup truck. But as the Eaton safety patrol marched down Constitution Avenue with their badges, red shirts, and Sam Brown belts, what should have been applause became instead laughter and guffaws and pointing. I took another look at our entry and immediately realized the error. The Eaton contingent consisted of one extremely pregnant faculty advisor marching in front of her young troops and a truck carrying what seemed to many onlookers to be a fifteen foot high phallus. We won no prizes that day.

Because there were not enough parents in Cleveland Park who sent their kids to John Eaton and because the school had a good reputation, its excess desks were filled by children from around the city, most of them black, thus integrating an otherwise nearly all-white neighborhood between rush hours.

There were also a number of latinos and children of diplomats who lived nearby, including the son of a Yugoslavian official who, as far as I could tell, only learned two English phrases the entire year: “WWDC 1260 AM” and “Channel 20.” A parents bulletin around that time reported 20% of the students to be native Spanish speakers. There were children whose families came from 34 countries and Puerto Rico and about 20% of the school was African American. Despite the linguistic and cultural variety, the school scored above national norms in reading and math in all but 6th and 7th grades (where a large number of the immigrant children were concentrated.) Even then, the scores slipped only slightly under the national average.

The ethnic mix was rounded out by a commune of born-again Sikhs who lived nearby. One of the boys would regularly stop at our house to join my son on the final four-block trudge to school. One day I opened the door to find Habajin in his blue turban, blue outfit, and blue running shoes complemented by a fish net on a pole precariously balanced on his headpiece. My immediate reaction at 8 am was that I was all for religious tolerance but this was pushing things too far. Habajin, perhaps sensing my antipathy towards blue Sikhs with precariously balanced fishnets early in the morning, quickly explained that he had found the icon in a trash can along the way.

Pat Greer, the newly appointed principal, would not have been fazed. If all our governmental institutions were run by people as pragmatic, sensitive, intelligent and imaginative as she, we would live in a much happier country. For example, when the potentially difficult issue of religious celebration arose, Pat adopted the principle laid down by the theologian Reinhold Niehbur, who said once that you don’t solve the conflict between church and state by doing away with the church. And so the assembly before the year-end vacation included a traditional American Christian segment, a latino Christian portion, a Jewish presentation and, as a climax, Habajin, decked in full blue uniform but without the fishnet, telling the Legend of the Sword. Everyone had a good time and Pat and I agreed not to let the ACLU know what we were up to.

Similarly, I once got a call from Pat saying that she had caught two 8th graders using pot. (The school at the time, among its other innovations, went from kindergarten through 8th grade). She explained that she had called the 2nd District and asked them to send over an officer but that he was to do nothing but scare the hell out of the kids and then leave. Sounds good to me, I said, but of course those were the 1970s when we still naively thought teachers and principals knew more about teaching kids than cops, judges, and the President.

I gained even more respect for Pat’s ability to maintain order after substituting in a first grade class for an ill teacher, the dimmest moment coming when – after trying every organizational stratagem I could imagine – a girl in a pretty dress walked sternly to the front of the room, put her hands on her hips, looked straight up at me, and announced without equivocation, “I hate you.”

Twenty years later, in a speech to a global cultural diversity conference in Australia, Pat Greer, who is black, explained her approach:

“While the 1970s can be characterized as a decade where shared decision-making was not evident in schools, John Eaton school was different . . . Parent involvement and shared decision-making is alive and thriving at John Eaton School. And our students are thriving, too. Why? Because together with our staff, parents, community and students we have created a community of learners where students and staff alike are secure enough to take risks and dare to do things they never imagined they could . . .

“John Eaton School is child-centered. That means that we value and build on the strengths that each and every child brings to our school and to our classrooms. That is especially important to us in our multicultural environment. Our learning environment builds on the heritage and background of all of our children. The result is that our students are eager, curious students, students who are focused on learning and are responsible for their own learning. Long before children put pencil to paper, or fingers to computer keys, they are encouraged to think about what they are learning. Our emphasis is learning by doing, not rote memorization. We also stress relevancy; what students learn is relevant to their daily lives.

“Our parents, teachers and staff are caring, talented, resourceful and positive role models for our students. And I am a highly visible school principal. I know each student by name and I greet them each morning when they arrive at school, and again when they go home at the end of the day. I talk to my students; I visit their classrooms; and I sometimes work with them in their classrooms. And I welcome them into my office when they want to talk to me. . .

“If John Eaton were displayed as a jigsaw puzzle and you removed all the pieces that represented our parents, called the Home & School Association, there would be a large empty space in the centre of the puzzle.”

The curriculum at the school was colored by two impressive biases. One was a prejudice towards writing. The kids were always writing something: diaries, plays, stories, speeches, advertisements. The school clearly understood the shortest route to good writing: do it. The other emphasis was the arts, particularly drama and music. With excellent teachers and adequate time, the kids threw themselves into their projects as though Broadway rather than high school was the next step. The encouragement came right from the top – not only from the principal but from Mr. Urqhart, her administrative assistant, who – dressed in his most colorful suit – would sing a single applause-stirring number in his mellow bass voice in each of the big shows – the only adult permitted to thus intrude.

I became conscious of how serious the dramatic side of Eaton was one day as I was taking a group of 4th graders home from an event. One kid stepped carelessly into the street and a companion called her back, saying, “Be careful, you could ruin your whole life that way.’ Another added, “yeah, or even your career.” Once safely in the car, there commenced the sort of surreal debate that only the young can withstand. The topic (clearly involving the stage rather than the lesser trades) was: what is more important – your life or your career?

By that time I was ready from anything from the kids. One boy had appeared on the McNeil Lehrer Show with his father to discuss child finances. I asked him afterwards how it went. He said, “Well, they seemed kind of nervous. I don’t think they ever had a kid on the show before.” The same young man once left us the following note concerning our hamster, Charmin II, whom I had thus named to discourage the young from squeezing him:

Charmin II died. I came in and found him dead in the cage. He is in the sandwich bag by cage so you can give him a proper burial. We went biking.

My greatest triumph came as the executive committee of the parent’s association sat in the office of the regional superintendent of schools, a post we all thought had been created for the sole purpose of making our lives more difficult. The superintendent began the meeting by bragging about her office’s new paint job, accomplished, she explained, with the aid of the whole staff volunteering over a weekend.

I listened respectfully and then asked one of the most important questions of my life:

“That’s wonderful. Where did you get the paint?”

I could tell from her face that I had hit home. Indeed, the regional superintendent had raided the paint supply at the school warehouse and once having admitted done so, she could not refuse us similar access.

Which is how, one weekend, all of John Eaton was repainted by faculty, parents, and students without a hitch save for a gallon of white being up-dumped in the girl’s bathroom.

One of the things you learn as a president of a parent’s association is how differently the young see the world. This was reflected in a memo I wrote a few years later while serving on a committee planning a major capital expansion of the school. I wrote the committee chair about my interview with a focus group of two – an eight year old and a six year old. The results were humbling:

ME – They’re going to fix up John Eaton. What would you like to see changed?

8 YEAR OLD – Nothing.

ME – What about replacing the play equipment with something new?

8 YEAR OLD – What’s the matter with it?

ME – How about bright colored play equipment?

8 YEAR OLD – It wouldn’t match the school.

I pressed the six year old in hope of getting amore favorable response to progress. His goals: “I wish they would chip off the paint and put the colors red, white and blue . . . I would like the sinks in the boys room unplugged ’cause it goes too slow . . . And could there be more soap? . . . Would like the water to stay on so you don’t have to hold it . . . I want bigger cubbyholes. They’re just about this small.”

 8 YEAR OLD – Bigger coat rooms

ME – How about the auditorium?

6 YEAR OLD – I want the floor painted brown again

8 YEAR OLD – They need a better gate. There’s a hole in it and the ball goes through it and into the street all the time.

6 YEAR OLD – Can the kickball places be painted over so you can see where the bases are?

I wrote our committee chair: “The rather terrifying thought occurred to me that we might be embarking on a multimillion dollar project that the kids would do for a few thousand. Tough. They’ll just have to suffer. I mean, where would the economy be if we grownups were as easy to please?”

At another DC public school a teacher asked the question, “What do people need to get along?” A student had written, “cooperation” and the teacher had crossed it out and written, “rules.” In a few decades, the whole nation would try to run education that way, with lots of tests to make sure the instructions were being obeyed.

But it didn’t work because it lacked the combination that on most days had made John Eaton work: competence, to be sure, but – just as important – cooperation, enthusiasm, and love.

 

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