First-day school trauma is a subject that affects all

September 03, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The smartest (and klutziest) kid in my 10th-grade English class marched himself to the front of a second-floor classroom at City College 36 years ago to drop a crumpled piece of paper into a wastebasket. What could be easier?

He wore milky eyeglasses and a bow tie that made him look more like a middle-age accountant at tax season than a high school sophomore. He stood directly over the wastebasket, dropped the paper, and missed the basket. Bending over to pick up the paper, he cracked his knee on the side of a desk, tumbled crazily to the floor, and sent his glasses flying one way and the wastebasket clattering across the floor.

As the room filled with laughter, the English teacher, named Levin, glanced down at the damage and dryly declared:

"Reminds one of Tinker Bell."

Thus, as the counties' public schools opened their doors last week and city schools open tomorrow, we're reminded of the various kinds of educating that occur in classrooms: not only reading and long division, but a sense of perspective for those who pay attention. Nobody's perfect. Sometimes the smart kids are klutzy, and sometimes the most graceful can't put a noun next to a verb. Everybody's got weakness along with strength. Everybody's nervous; some people just hide it better than others.

Such things are worth remembering this time of year. The kids go to sleep the night before school opens with the worst kind of dread. Will they show up in the wrong classroom? Will there be a pop quiz on the very first morning, and anyone failing it has to repeat the entire previous year? Will the teacher mispronounce your last name, and the other kids latch onto it? (And didn't I hear: "Oletsky? Olseker? Orlinsky?" one opening day after another?) Will some kid named Moose demand playground protection money, or is it true he was last seen disappearing over the horizon, dribbling a guidance counselor? And -- worst of all, the kids wonder -- will the brand-new clothing their mom bought them at the back-to-school sale immediately brand them a geek to be shunned until spring fashions arrive?

Teachers have their own concerns. It used to be, their worst fears involved kids who wouldn't stop chattering. So they separated the chatterers, maybe kept them after school to write "I won't talk in class" a hundred times across a blackboard, and dropped a few leaden hints when the parents showed up for the first PTA meeting.

Times have changed. Today's elementary schoolteachers are looking at the first generation of that bio-underclass known as crack babies, kids who arrive with their attention spans shot, their intellects dulled, their slim chance to make it dimmed before they even entered the world by mothers who had ceased caring about their own lives and, for what it's worth, unlikely to show up at any PTO meetings.

The crack babies haven't reached high school yet, but the dealers have. The presidential contenders have made much of blaming each other's political party for the increase in drug abuse among kids. But they share the blame for this one. The 30-year alleged war on drugs has long since been lost. So we now deposit its victims into the laps of teachers, and blame them when the kids don't seem to pay attention to the intricacies of irregular French verbs.

Meanwhile, parents' anxieties about their kids have become reflections of worries about themselves. In a world of downsizing, of government cutbacks, of entire technologies that blaze across the commercial landscape and then disappear, we worry where our kids will fit in. Are they learning all the skills they'll need? And the kids are just entering kindergarten!

Also, we now have entire school systems lying awake with nightmares.

The city of Baltimore, attempting to stop a three-decade academic skid, opens its doors with the mayor, the governor and the state superintendent of schools fighting over control, with money scarce, with lawyers flying lazy buzzard circles around impending courtroom confrontations, with teachers historically overworked and underpaid, and with a frightening percentage of its children coming from homes where the parents are paying less attention than they should and the kids traditionally cutting school, or dropping out, faster than any other students in the state.

Over the line in Baltimore County, they watch such troubles and cringe. They wonder, could it happen to them? The county's had a proud school system for a couple of generations now, but has begun to wonder if it's losing some of its luster. Such nervousness resulted in last year's misguided expulsion of an honor student who did nothing more than wish to defend herself by carrying pepper spray. It was a metaphor for a system feeling increasingly on edge.

It's also a reflection of the things Dutch Ruppersberger's been talking about: aging neighborhoods, loss of pride, the challenges of a cosmopolitan mix. But the last should be a strength, if the politicians and the educators have learned anything at all in the past 30 years.

Pub Date: 9/03/96

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