ValueSpeak - A Weekly Column by Joseph Walker


An era is ending this week for our family.

Jon, the youngest of our five children, is graduating from high school, bringing a tasseled, capped and gowned finish to our family’s 27-year relationship with public education.

Actually, the relationship goes back even further than that.  Anita and I are both products of public education.  So are all four of our parents.  In fact, Jon, who is also the youngest of my Mom and Dad’s 54 grandchildren, happens to be graduating from the same high school my father graduated from 82 years ago.

Same high school, different buildings.

And, I assume, different lunch ladies – although I don’t know that for sure.

So in a way, it sort of feels like we’ve come full circle after nearly a century of public education in our family.  We’re back where it started for the ending.

Which is why it seems like the right time to say “thank you” to the hundreds of dedicated teachers, administrators, staff and support workers who have made our family’s educational experience so uniformly excellent.

Seeing the Walkers though all these years of public education hasn’t been easy.  Like their mother, my children are great kids, with brains, good looks and tons of potential.  But like their father, they have all had periods of time when they could be . . . you know . . . difficult.  For example, our eldest daughter, AmyJo, was the model child until about 9th grade.  Then she discovered boys, and . . . well . . . the rest would be considered “history” if she hadn’t so frequently skipped that class to flirt with a pint-sized Casanova who looked for all the world like Milli.  Or Vanilli.  I can’t for the life of me remember which.

Ninth grade was tough for Joe Jr., too, but he made it through what could have been a life-changing crisis thanks to the hard-nosed support of a basketball coach who believed in him, and who rallied his teammates around him.  That’s the way it was for all of our kids.  They all had teachers who chose to focus on their potential rather than on their occasional side-trips to the Land of Dumb Decisions – you know, like the April Fools Day prank with the disappearing ink that didn’t actually disappear.  Ever.  Or the infamous shaving cream incident.  Or the time someone pulled the fire alarm in the middle of first period, sending the entire school out into a glorious spring day while the fire department looked for a fire that wasn’t there.

OK, that last one was me.  Don’t tell Principal Perkins.  I’m not sure what the statute of limitations is for false fire alarms.

The way I see it, my kids have been a full-time job for someone each of the past 27 years.  So have the other kids in their classes.  That’s the thing that amazes me about good teachers: they don’t teach classes or even subjects.  They teach individual kids – 35 or 40 at a time.

Of course, the men and women we have encountered in the world of public education have all been human.  Just as my children have made their fair share of mistakes, so have their teachers and school administrators.  So, for that matter, have their parents.  But we’ve always been able to work through the problems, even when the only agreement we could reach was that we disagreed.  And that’s OK, especially when my kids have been able to see that adults can disagree on things – even important things – without necessarily being disagreeable.

And now Jon is ready to follow his older brother and sisters on to the next educational level.  It will be interesting to see how he does without the intimate involvement of teachers and administrators who he knows as friends and mentors.  But his siblings all seemed to handle this transition adeptly before him, and there’s no reason to believe he isn’t just as well-prepared to take the next step in his academic journey.

All of which makes me wonder about the news I’ve been hearing lately about the overall weakness of America’s public education system.  People who are a whole lot smarter than me (or should that be I?) complain that we’ve fallen behind the Japanese, the Germans and, for all I know, the Tahitians academically.  I don’t know about any of that.  All I know is what I see at my own house this week: a bright, happy high school graduate who is a lot smarter and a lot better prepared for life than I was when I was his age.  Like his brother and sisters before him, he has been stimulated intellectually by caring teachers who pushed and prodded without being abusive or stifling his creativity.  He’s excited about life.  He’s excited about learning.  But more than anything else, he’s excited about the future.

Which, it seems to me, is absolutely the perfect way to end an era.

— © Joseph Walker

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