When at age thirteen I read Jesse Stuart’s The Thread That Runs So True, I thought this could be my story, a boy raised in a remote rural area, attending a one-room country school, a small high school, and becoming a teacher. You see, I graduated from the Wheat Hollow one-room school in rural southwestern Wisconsin, and even as a little boy, I wanted to teach. I received my diploma at little Ithaca High School, and still wanted to be a teacher. And after I earned my degree from UW-Platteville, I was, teaching English at tiny rural consolidated Weston High School.
I believe in public education.
My family descended from generations of small dairy farmers. We were not people who sent children to private prep schools and used legacies to leverage matriculation into Ivy League colleges.
Thomas Jefferson wrote,” We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” Public education is the affirmation of those words. Public classrooms are rainbows of skin colors, of backgrounds, of hopes. My father and his parents never attended school beyond the eighth grade, but public education allowed me to earn a doctorate.
In Wisconsin, Black, Native American, Hispanic and Mung have the same opportunities that I enjoyed through public education. Physically and developmentally handicapped do as well. I speak from experience, as these boys and girls have numbered among my students.
And as I teach them, I remember Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:”
Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire,
Hands that the rod of empire might have swayed,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.
Public education allows even students whose parents lack money and connections and status, to realize their “celestial fire.”
In a school the blue birds and the red birds are sometime separated for the ease of instruction. But in a democratic society, we believe in a melting pot, not a seven layer salad. In a heterogeneously grouped classroom, we all learn from each other.
And I believe that every student in an English class has the right to read “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome.
While teaching at Gibraltar High School in Fish Creek I attended workshops for teachers who prepare students to take Advanced Placement exams. I found the techniques I learned equally suitable for those kids who might not take AP classes.
When I arranged for a visiting author to come to my school, every student had the opportunity to attend the reading. Public Radio’s Emily Auerbach presented her lecture from “The Courage to Write” series on Jane Austen, at my school, to everyone.
I believe every student has the right to read good literature, to prepare for AP exams, and to compete with children from privileged families.
And I believe my work as a public school teacher is the most important that I could have chosen.