See Average

No child left behind—or scooted ahead

Greetings, Parents! I’m delighted to welcome you to my annual Back-to-School Address here at—well, I’ll discuss the new signage outside in a moment. For those who don’t yet know me, I’m Dr. Francine Quotidian, Principal, and I couldn’t be more impressed by the turnout this evening. In years past I have given my remarks to a rather sparsely peopled gymnasium, but tonight, all I can say is “Wow!” What a tribute to parental involvement in education. We’ve even had to open up overflow seating in the cafeteria, where folks can watch via Webcam (thanks to Mr. Middling, our new history teacher, for setting that up). Mr. Parr, our chief custodian, assures me that we have enough chairs for everyone, so no jostling, please. Also, be reminded that the school prohibits firearms on its premises. The same goes for bladed weapons and objects that might be used as injurious projectiles.

Now then. The name of the school: why has it been changed? What was wrong with “The Dwight David Eisenhower/William Jefferson Clinton Center for Preeminence in High School Learning”? Is it not noble and aspirational, touched with the gravitas of historic leaders and infused with an admirable sense of pedagogical purpose? Why would anyone take a noble name like that and change it to something as admittedly awkward as “Ordinariness Academy”?

Beg pardon, sir? Yes, you in the front row. Do I understand that no one wants “their kid” to attend a school with such a “stupid-ass” name? Actually, I do. For as long as I can remember, people have referred to our school not by its full name, not even by a shortened version such as “Eisenhower/Clinton,” but by the putatively humorous sobriquet “Ike ’n’ Bubba Prep.” I’ll put “Ordinariness Academy” up against that any day.

Yes, ma’am, I am serious. Your shouting won’t change my mind.

This brings me, rather earlier than I had intended, to the philosophical underpinnings of our school’s new name. After many long discussions and much soul-searching, those of us on the Naming Committee—which did include four parents, whom I would point out to you now if I weren’t beginning to fear for their safety—had agreed that life, for the vast majority of people, is not a cavalcade of triumphs or an unbroken ascent to earthly glory. Life, for most of us, is intrinsically ordinary. Indeed, we spend our lives in a thick quilt of ordinariness. Now and then the quilt slips, exposing us to a cold blast of tragedy, say, or a hot electric surge of success. Soon enough, though, the quilt is back in place; soon the ordinariness reasserts its primacy. The point is this: Only by embracing ordinariness can we begin to appreciate that which is out of the ordinary.

Ladies and gentlemen, please. You will all have time to speak. I implore you to take your seats. And yes, I believe I do know what the “frick” I am talking about.

What does this have to do with education? Well, I would submit, everything. If a child goes to a school that promises preeminence in its very name, and then he or she goes on to a life steeped in the very essence of ordinariness, then that child has been done a grave disservice. I could stand here and tell you, as I have done in previous years, that this school is committed to excellence, that no more talented and dedicated faculty exists in this state, that you parents are wonderful partners in the grand and gratifying project of preparing young minds to forge a sublime future, and even though all of that might in some sense be true, it is in a larger sense entirely false.

Parents, please. I believe with all my heart, with every fiber of my being, that this is a pretty good school. If that statement sounds odd—if the fervor-to-content ratio seems askew—so be it. For a variety of reasons, some fiscal, some political, some familial, some historical, it has become unquestionably the case that a pretty-good school is the best school one can hope for. If the people of this state or this nation truly wanted educational greatness, they would surely have done something about it by now. Look around you, at your friends and neighbors and fellow parents, and look into your own heart, and tell me honestly if you don’t agree. Tell me, moreover, if a pretty-good school isn’t just fine by you.

Mr. Parr, I believe we will need the phalanx after all.

Mr. Parr has graciously agreed to lead the members of his custodial staff in forming a human shield between myself and the more physically demonstrative parents. To those few of you who have been sitting politely, I apologize.

You might ask how this change in nomenclature will affect the operations of our school. The answer is “very little.” Academic departments will function as they always have. Many of us on the staff will work as hard as we can to teach your children as much as we can in the few brief years we have with them. Many of the children will do everything in their power not to learn any of what we try to teach. In other words, business as usual.

There are two notable changes, both necessitated by budget cuts. First, we are eliminating all sports teams, as well as all physical education classes. For fitness, the students and staff of Ordinariness Academy will walk. One hour per day, in the neighborhoods around the school, tramping and traipsing and trundling ourselves through the very same streets, day in, day out, until we learn to genuinely see them, until we learn to see what is out-of-the-ordinary about them.

Well, Mr. Parr? Did you imagine you’d hear so much silence in this room tonight? Ah, wait—the muttering begins anew, and with a fresh note of menace.

Second, we are eliminating all programs for so-called gifted and talented students. I must ask you to quell your gasping for a moment. Perhaps you are not aware of a recent university study in which parents were connected to sophisticated brain-imaging machines, then told that their children had been found to be “highly gifted.” Vastly increased neural activity was observed in the following areas of these parents’ brains: pleasure centers, pride lobes, and smugness cortices. This research confirms what many had long suspected—that G&T programs do far more to gratify parents’ egos than to enrich children’s learning. With that in mind, oh my goodness, Mr. Parr, I’ve been hit. It was a brown wingtip, or perhaps a Dansko clog. Mr. Middling, if you can still hear me, the Webcam has been shattered and the gymnasium air is dark with missiles. Mr. Parr and company—raise your big cloth mops on high and try to screen me if you can. Parents! People! My remarks are nearly at an end, and then the floor will be entirely yours! Oh, Mr. Parr—one of your men just took a BlackBerry to the throat. Run for it, Mr. Parr! Save yourself. I release you from your pledge. I will be fine, I feel sure of it. There is a light before me now, the most beautiful, nurturing, beckoning light I’ve ever seen. And as I move toward it, faster, ever faster, I can only describe it as extraordinary.

Contributing editor Jeff Johnson thinks his son’s school is extremely pretty good.