Lately, public education’s a lot like Rodney Dangerfield – now that he’s dead, he really gets no respect.

Two single parents of my acquaintance send their children to enormously costly private schools to avoid “cookie-cutter treatment,” and for what? To learn, nevertheless, their kids don’t “fit in”?

One mother was told by a teacher in a recent conference, “Why don’t you homeschool your child if you’re not pleased with the quality of attention he’s getting in class?”

These days, we hear a lot of blather, uh, critical rhetoric about the “failure of government schools,” how bad they are, how they don’t educate, yadda-yadda-yadda. Well, I suspect private schools, adhering to obscure elitist standards, may not be much “better.” Some may be nothing more than institutionalized cliques with smothering dawn-to-dusk activities.

Moreover, I’m not convinced homeschooling’s the answer, no matter how compelling John Holt’s theories are. Sure, it might be wonderful to mold the minds of American youth right there in your living room, but this really becomes yet another staggering responsibility falling squarely on, in most cases, Mama’s shoulders. And don’t tell me the lack of socialization with others doesn’t take its toll on these kids’ psychological development.

Several years ago, a seemingly pleasant family of homeschoolers rented the house next door to me. The mother and grandmother came up north from Texas with two teenagers; the father stayed behind at his Very Important Job. The older daughter, a lovely, talented cellist, was enrolled in a prestigious music school here. The younger son, a friendless prima donna with a penchant for playing the electric piano at full blast day and night, was still at home. Suddenly, after the son tried to strangle his mother and ran away one Easter, the family packed up and left. I’m not making this up.

Recently I reconnected with “Arlette,” an actress I originally met several years ago in a playwriting master class. Married to a composer, “Arlie” – who could pass for movie star Sandra Bullock’s twin sister – is focused right now on homeschooling her smart but sensitive 7-year-old daughter, let’s call her “Rita,” using the Montessori Method.

Interestingly, “Arlie” describes local homeschoolers as generally falling into two categories, neither of which she especially identifies with: either Christian families removing their children from “the contamination of government schools;” or UnSchoolers, post-modern anti-regimentation types vehemently opposed to imposing any structures or schedules whatsoever upon their children.

As a child, I took education for granted. My New Yorker parents, though exceptionally intelligent, were both high-school dropouts – forced by economic necessity to quit school and go to work. Growing up at the Jersey Shore, I went to public schools. I did well in grammar school, before becoming a shy, awkward teenager. I was 8th grade valedictorian and also won the oxymoronic Readers Digest English Award. My worst memory was Advanced Biology – a stinky dead cat in a plastic bag of formaldehyde, which we were supposed to dissect – I let my lab partner Bruce F. do most of the knife-work. Thank you, Bruce, wherever you are. Telegram to PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals): I repent.

My teachers were nearly always encouraging. Miss Primavera in fourth grade taught us enchanting snippets of French and guided me making paper Pilgrims from oak-tag for Thanksgiving as I became the class artist. With my father, I built a crystal radio for Mr. Kolibas’ 9th-grade general science class. Mr. Smith, one of my high-school English teachers, cheered my juvenile attempts at crafting poetry, but warned this literary “gift” could depart at any time. My high-school French teacher, whose name escapes me now, confided the tragedy of her life: like me, she had wanted to become a journalist but, in her case, she was far too shy.

Proudly, I was the first person in my family who went to college. There, I occasionally met rich kids from snooty private schools. Only when I became an adult did I encounter folks whose middle-class or working-class parents had sacrificed “everything” to send them to non-public schools rather than risk “ruining them” in city schools. Grown-up, I dated a preppie – his preppie friends dissed my ethnicity and I decided I was thankful for my public education which had exposed me to every kind of person, even those I’d rather not meet.

Awful as they may be, I believe public schools actually represent the Law of the Jungle: If you can survive there, you can survive anywhere! Somehow, we must make them better!

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