EVEN after we arrived at my destination, Friends School, the cab driver wanted to continue our discussion. We were talking about Albania's problems, the dissolution of Yugoslavia and perhaps Czechoslovakia, and the driver's immense joy at the end of Russian hegemony over his native Ukraine, which he had left five years ago to settle in Baltimore.
But mainly he spoke of freedom and opportunity in the United States, of his son attending Johns Hopkins and of his confidence in the future.
"America cleanses itself every 25 or 30 years," he said. "In the late '30s and early '40s from its awful economic problems. In the 1960s with the great civil rights movement. Now we will cleanse ourselves again, before the new century."
"Of what do you think we will be cleansed?" I asked.
He paused to get the words just right. "Of our confusion. Our confusion about values and the mixed messages we send our children, the contradiction between what we say and what we do. We will again become a nation with a purpose and with morality."
"How will we do that?" I ventured.
"We parents, you teachers, all of us, must know what we really want, then communicate it to the children. And we must listen to the children so we know what they are asking of us."
The cabbie's words still resound as the new school year begins, especially his last question: What do our children want of us?
For at least two generations, we have not asked that question because we thought we already knew the answer. Our children wanted more possessions, more leisure, less order and structure in their lives, an endless line of credit to buy and consume things without thinking about what it all meant. But maybe that is not what our children have been asking for.
In the past few years, we educators have been intent on what our children "need": to be the "best," to prove with high test scores that they are better than their Korean or Hungarian counterparts. Only then, with the schools producing out-of-sight percentiles of achievement, will we have endless bottom-line profit and trade competitiveness so that our cities will be able to claim "world-class" status. Occasionally, the children have asked they may be part of the dialogue. They have wondered if we have the slightest desire to translate anything into human terms. If our actions are any indication, it is doubtful that we have heard them.
What are the children saying, those of affluence and the one-fifth of all American children who today live in poverty? Those from strong, supportive families and the children who have never even met their fathers?
I think they are saying, "Please stop faking it. Be real, be sincere. Be what you want me to be, and be here when I need you." I think they are saying that they want to love and respect us; they want us to be their role models.
Theirs is more than a plea; it is also a challenge: "If you don't want to live what you believe and to be consistent, then get off my case. I can't understand you if you are not honest, first of all with yourself."
Where does this lead us? It means that we can no longer fall back on the canard that was foisted on us: "Do as I say, not as I do." That admonition doesn't work anymore, if it ever did. We must create a new pact of values, understanding and action with our children, with equal parts of responsibility for everyone.
If we want our children to be physically fit, we need to abandon our own lethargy.
If we hope our children will be creative, enthralled with the fine and performing arts, we must end the desolation of their lives and our own regarding support for and involvement in the arts.
If we want our children to develop the habit of reading and study, we have to eliminate our own vacuous television-viewing, the transfixed stare which has replaced reading for much of adult America. If so many children seem to lack imagination when they enter school, it must be in part because fewer parents read to their children. So many children come to school never having heard of Curious George and Madeline, of Sendak's wild things or Dr. Seuss' green eggs and ham.
If we seriously contemplate community service as a graduation requirement for all students, the best example is the adult committed to school and to neighborhood; if we exhibit concern for Baltimore as a community, so will our children. And the reverse is also true: Our children's lack of faith in their community will be commensurate with the loss of private and public support for people in need.
I trust the insights of my cab driver. America periodically rejuvenates itself. When we do, the rebirth will include a new compact between adults and children. There is no better time than the beginning of a new school year to begin creating this relationship with our children.
Peter D. Relic is president of the National Association of Independent Schools.