The zone of no return

In my first year of teaching, we received word that our school building was “underutilized” and a new high school would be moving in. Rumors started to fly that we were going to be phased out. We began showing up at Community Education Council meetings and signing up for two-minute slots, to make it known that we wanted the building to ourselves. Suppose a school did move in; what would happen when it added a new grade every year? Where would we find room?

I spoke at several of these meetings. At the second one, I pleaded for my students. If our school were phased out, these children would have no place to return to after graduating, no way of greeting their former teachers and revisiting the building that held many memories for them. How could we take this away from them? I asked, looking the superintendent in the eye.

Later I realized how naive that must have sounded. The school leadership was concerned with square footage per capita—what were memories and visits to them? Sure, it would be nice for students to be able to visit to their former schools, but that was a luxury beyond the concerns of the moment. We had to protect jobs; we had to accommodate existing students; we had to maximize utilization of precious space.

I do not regret what I said. We easily forget what a school building can mean. To revisit a school is to say: I took something with me from here. To greet one’s former teachers is to say: You helped me learn and understand.

Between kindergarten and twelfth grade I went to many schools, public and private, in the U.S. and abroad. As a teacher I think back on them all, especially the school in Boston, which I attended for four years and loved. In English class, the literature was at the center of my teachers’ lessons. We needed no bulletin boards with tasks and rubrics, no fancy activities, nothing but an excellent book and a teacher who could help us see it in new ways. Our teachers taught us how to write clearly, how to read closely, how to hear what we read. I still remember how Farmer Oak smiled in Far from the Madding Crowd, and how Jewel strode in As I Lay Dying.

It was really that simple: all you need is the subject, a teacher who knows and loves it, and an inquisitive and attentive class. Why have we made things so elaborate, with all our frilly pedagogies? I have rested on the simplicity I knew in high school. I think of my teachers when I teach. And I have longed to go back and see my school again.

This spring I learned that two of my former high school English teachers were hosting a book discussion (of Toni Morrison’s A Mercy) at my old school. It happened to fall during my spring break, so I went. I got lost on the way, so I arrived late; then I blundered, with a custodian’s help, through the remodeled building until I found the room.

I sat down and was instantly at home. I remembered my teachers’ voices, their way of reading passages aloud, asking questions about them, drawing attention to details and rhythms. I remembered the way those discussions lingered in the mind.

I would wish this for all my students. Many will not be able to return to their schools; the consequences are not trivial. In our zeal for novelty, we have been ridding our schools of their history. When we open and close schools with a flick of the wrist, when we whisk teachers in and out the door, the students glean that their old school had no long-term meaning; it was just a makeshift shack, and no one knows where it went.

Comments

  1. I think there is something to that history. My building has been there for over 100 years. Our 40-year vets (yes, really) have long been teaching the children of former students. I have had students open one of those indestructable vinaclad novels and find the name of an aunt or parent (not as bad a thing as Sherman Alexie thinks). Not long ago a woman about 60-ish walked by me in the main hall and commented how the place hadn’t changed at all since she’d graduated as she snapped photos. We enjoy extraordinary community support, and the history attached to the building — as outdated and impossible as it is in many ways — is much a part of that. I can’t imagine a Thanksgiving week without the non-stop visits from my alumni.

  2. Ponderosa says:

    I love your account of the no-frills English classes where you read Far from the Madding Crowd. I’ll bet those were in private school. Or a tracked, honors-level class in a public school. I’d be interested to know if they weren’t. I’ll pose this question to all the readers of this post: is it realistic to hope that a non-tracked middle school or high school English class can achieve the sort of sensitive treatment of great literature that Diana describes? I ask this as I end a year having striven to teach medieval history as a high level to non-tracked seventh graders. It’s been a battle. I’ve grabbed the nerdy kids. And I’ve had some successes with genial, less-skilled kids. But many kids have put up stiff resistance and it’s wearing me down. I’m not sure I can keep it up. And I know most of the administration and half the parents don’t really give a rat’s a** if the kids get a meaningful treatment of Mayan civilization; they just want happy kids.

  3. Sadly, it’s probably not realistic. This after all, is an era rabidly heralded for discrediting dead, white guys (or anything perceived as related to them) and everything – noble or not – which they stand for.

  4. Redkudu says:

    Exactly. Thank you.

  5. greifer says:

    Anyone who isn’t a teacher think this way?

    I have never gone back to visit any school I attended, from preschool up through two grad schools.

    Nostalgia can be a drug. Perhaps teachers use those memories to motivate themselves; perhaps they use future projection of what students will remember of their past to motivate their teaching. But I doubt there are many adults outside of teaching who care at all about the place where they were schooled.

  6. Cardinal Fang says:

    K-12 schools were prisons where I was incarcerated for thirteen horrible years. My desire to go back and visit is about equal to my desire to contract malaria.

  7. I am not a teacher, but I still wish I’d gone back to see some of my high-school teachers and told them what I’d done with what they’d given me.

    K through 9, not so much (with one memorable exception).  Most of it felt like incarceration to me, too.  The things I drew might have gotten me suspended, had I been born in 1995 or later.

  8. Diana Senechal says:

    At the middle school where I used to teach, I often saw students come back to say hello to teachers. Whenever they had a day off in high school, they would come back. To be allowed in, they had to be invited in by a teacher, so the security guards would often call me to see if I wanted to invite them in.

    Sometimes a teacher they came to see would be gone, and they would be disappointed and saddened. Imagine the disappointment and sadness if the school were gone.

  9. Tracy W says:

    It must be very sadeenIt may be very saddening to not have your old school to go back to. But sadness and disappointment are an inevitable part of life as long as you live long enough. I’ve lost both my grandmothers, which I found more saddening. I’ve lost out on job interviews for jobs I’ve really wanted, I’ve failed to win contracts, my friends and relatives have had similar losses, the moment I left home my brother moved into my old bedroom, the hill near my parents’ house where we romped and roamed as kids caught fire, destroying all our old places, etc. Life always moves on, resources are limited, as any economist or environmentalist will tell you, and we cannot have everything from our childhoods waiting unchanged for us.

    And what’s more, to hold the world static, so ex-students can always come back to their own school, means imposing costs on others. My old high school was an inner-city school (which in NZ does not have the same connotations as in the USA, it was the first girls’ high school to open in my hometown and thus built in a suburb that is now part of the central business district). By the time I attended it had been in operation for over 100 years and, unable to grow out, had been growing up, which mostly meant knocking down old buildings and replacing them with new, higher ones. If it had not undertaken that process, it is quite possible that I would not have been able to go there, or if I had, would have been much more restricted in the courses I could take. As it was, my high school let me take any combination of electives in my senior years, as opposed to my Mum’s much smaller high school where if you wanted to go to university you had to either take the sciences/mathematics courses or the arts courses, there just wasn’t the size to allow the schedule flexibility that I had.

    On a more general level, spending money keeping school buildings open when they are not needed, means having less money to spend on something else, be that medical care for the poor and elderly, or pension payments, or perhaps raising taxes that reduce people’s flexibility to travel. Is avoiding the sense of disappontment and saddness in an ex-student wanting to return to their own school really worth not treating glue-ear in a 6 year old child? Or worth more than hearing aids for an elderly woman? Or worth more than the ability to travel to a foreign culture and come home seeing your world through different eyes? Yes, there are other areas of government spending that can be cut, but if our objective is to avoid any sense of disappointment and saddening, then we’re not going to be cutting many areas at all.

  10. Diana Senechal says:

    Tracy,

    The purpose is not to “avoid any sense of disappointment and saddening.” Of course those are part of life.

    Yes, under some circumstances a school building has to be renovated or closed. But that does not mean we should close and open schools recklessly.

    Nor does preserving a school mean “holding the world static.” When there is constant turnover of schools and teachers, a worse stasis takes over: the stasis where no one knows what came before.

  11. Our building is very much at the center of community life in our little city. At several points there has been talk of tearing it down and re-building — it is a fin de siecle Georgian structure — but always the sacrifice of the history, tradition, and community glue has not seemed worth it and the building has gained annexes and rehabs and what-not. I actually really enjoy my original slate chalkboard, next to which hangs my SmartBoard.

    The community support is what makes our district so strong. And in return, our top school district and strong community have been a large part of what has kept property values steady even as they drop like a stone everywhere else. Tracy is quite cavalier about these “soft” benefits to preserving old schools, but perhaps Australia has an even weaker sense of history than we do in the U.S.

    So, no, it isn’t just a “teacher thing” — the alum that come back to visit me are lawyers, accountants, doctors, nurses, stunt doubles — you name it.

  12. Ponderosa: Yes, but it is exhausting. I do it even to some degree with my remedial class, in which nearly all the students have an LD or are ED. We sit in a circle and read The Piano Lesson together, stopping to talk about themes, history, etc. every few pages or so. What has started to help is that I have a strong reputation (“Oh, you have Mrs. -? She’s really hard!) and that they are a bit awed by the fact I’m the AP teacher, as well. They know they haven’t been assigned to just any teacher in the building. Now, in reality, I’m the AP teacher because I’m the only one who really wants to do it, but I use the cachet for what I can get out of it.

    I also do a lot of experimenting with teaching methods with my APES (because all hell won’t break loose if I screw it up) that I eventually fold into my regular and remedial classes. My AP program is growing so fast that I’m afraid in a few years I’ll have an all-AP schedule, which is really too much — I’m hoping somebody else in the department steps up or we hire somebody who is dying to do it.

  13. Margo/Mom says:

    Hanging in the new gym at one of the camps that I experienced as a teen–and have since sent my children to, is a sign that says something like “from the altar of the past, take the flame, and not the ashes.” I think that this is important. I live in a neighborhood in which many houses are past the century mark (including mine). It is charming–but despite the prevalence of carriage houses behind many homes, driveways are almost totally absent and parking on the street is a problem–particularly for many of the wonderful institutions integrated int the residential areas: churches, a firehouse that is now a performance space, one of the first automobile dealerships–now loft apartments. Every time there is a need for parking (or sometimes other changes) there is a fight. Sometimes the preservationists win, sometimes other parties prevail–occasionally a compromise solution can be reached (moving a house, combined parking between agencies, etc). Point is–nothing can be maintained as a museum and also remain current.

    I am not about to defend a point of view that only looks at square footage–but neither am I please when any other single view blocks out all others. In one of my sons’ schools the office–for unaccountable reasons–was on the second floor. Not sure why–maybe it was moved there to get more space. A small “attendance office” was maintained on the first floor by the original main entrance. Parents asked if upcoming renovations might move the office closer to the entrance–making administrators more accessible, and perhaps the entry more welcoming. The answer was–probably not. The reason–there was a strong alumni association that didn’t want anything to change. Who know if this was the case. It seems typical of many school decisions to keep them under wraps and then pit one group against another.
    Consider for instance the situation Diana describes. Somewhere there were kids who needed a school. Not welcome in her building–might take over.

    I just read this morning about an elementary in another district in my state that is being closed. The district had to choose between two, for financial reasons–one would be renovated and one would be closed. The chose to close the one that would be more expensive to renovate. The school population will be scattered to other buildings, as well as the staff. What I find troubling about this is that the group of people in that building had demonstrated a high level of student achievement that was stable over a number of years. The architecture of the building (from the 60s) was an “open architecture.” Classrooms were divided by bookshelves (half height) rather than walls. Not everyone can work with that kind of educational philosophy–but it happened that these folks were. They were a cohesive unit–a rare occurance, but are regarded only as individual building blocks who will do as well apart as together and just be plugged in elsewhere.

    My own district did the same thing recently. Faced with a necessity of closing buildings, the one criteria that they did not consider was how well a school was doing. As a result, they closed down a very promising year round model–which was on a consistent upward trend–and split the teaching staff and students between other buildings. Half the students were plugged into a brand new building housing a “school” with a long history of floundering. Others went to other places–and the year round concept disappeared.

    Closing buildings appears to be an inevitability for my district–student numbers are declining for a number of reasons–not the least of which is the quality of education available in the district. Some is the result of denial–the district administration really believed that the charter schools were all going to be failures and go away. A new building plan did not even consider whether there should be any adjustments to attendance areas. So–as a result they had to make a dozen last minute closure decisions based on what was easiest in terms of transportation, using new buildings to their fullest–and no consideration for what teams of people in those buildings were doing as far as the education of children.

    So–I guess I don’t have a lot of patience for keeping things as they are “for the memories.” There are many ways to honor former students and welcome them back, if we think of education as something other than a building. I would prefer to honor the maintenance of communities of educators who are able to deliver on educating students. These are the kinds of things that we should be planning to maintain. Put a priority on closing buildings where this has not come together. Rebuild from the ground up, or place students and teachers in already educationally stable environments at all possible. Making the building into a nostalgia site–not so much.

  14. Tracy W says:

    Diana:
    I’m terribly sorry for misunderstanding your argument. I thought that when you wrote:

    At the second one, I pleaded for my students. If our school were phased out, these children would have no place to return to after graduating, no way of greeting their former teachers and revisiting the building that held many memories for them. How could we take this away from them? I asked, looking the superintendent in the eye.

    ,
    you were arguing for not closing schools because of the sense of disappointment and saddening ex-students might feel. I have re-read this and I am clearly being totally foolish, because I can’t see any other argument you made for not closing schools. Can you please point out what I missed in your post?

    But that does not mean we should close and open schools recklessly.

    Strawman. I dare you to find one person who claims that we should close and open schools recklessly. You won’t, that’s because the word “reckless” presumes it’s an overly-fast decision. Now some plans to open or close schools may be reckless, but those arguments have to be tackled specifically and that made out. How about you try addressing some of those arguments, rather than attacking strawmen?

    Nor does preserving a school mean “holding the world static.”

    Nope, but if you try to avoid all disappointment and saddness, which was the reason I thought you were giving for not closing schools, you’re going to have to hold the world static. Of course evidently I misread your post badly, but I still stand by my statement that trying to avoid all disappointment and saddness means trying to hold the world static.

    When there is constant turnover of schools and teachers, a worse stasis takes over: the stasis where no one knows what came before.

    Perhaps, although you offer no support for this statement. But this has nothing to do with your argument that we shouldn’t close schools because of the sense of disappointment and saddening ex-students might feel when they come back. Sorry, my mistake, that’s what I thought was your argument. Whatever your argument was.

    Lightly Seasoned: The community support is what makes our district so strong. And in return, our top school district and strong community have been a large part of what has kept property values steady even as they drop like a stone everywhere else.

    What an interesting claim. How did you determine that your school district and strong community is what kept property values so steady? What other variables did you consider in your analysis? Was it a cross-sectional or time-series analysis? What error range can you put around your estimate?

    Tracy is quite cavalier about these “soft” benefits to preserving old schools, but perhaps Australia has an even weaker sense of history than we do in the U.S.

    Quite possibly Australia does, but irrelevant to me. I’m a Kiwi. Furthermore, I have heard enough arguments for more government spending from New Zealand to know that my fellow citizens are as willing to be soft-hearted as Diana here, and as unwilling to consider trade-offs.

  15. Tracy: I could point you to the research, which is quite easy to find in local and national media, etc. if I cared to. It is an interesting claim, isn’t it, that people prefer to move to strong traditional communities with good schools.

  16. Diana Senechal says:

    Tracy, I did not once argue for preventing all disappointment and sadness. Sadness is not the only thing at stake here. When we close a school, we lose history, continuity, experience, and more.

    I do not mean we should preserve schools like museums or try to prevent all disappointment and sadness. I am not the one setting up a strawman here.

  17. Diana Senechal says:

    Margo/Mom, memory and nostalgia are not the same. We often revisit a place because it has meaning for us and we want to see it again. This helps us understand not only the past, but the changes since then–our own, those of the place, those of our society.

  18. Tracy W says:

    Diana,
    We don’t lose history, unless you destroy the school’s records while you’re closing the school. We do lose continuity and experience. However your original post did not mention those words. The post did however mention sadness and disappointment.
    I know that you did not argue directly for preventing all disappointment and sadness. I was however under the distinct impression that you were arguing that schools shouldn’t be closed because of the disappointment and sadness ex-students would feel in not being able to go back to them. You therefore struck me as introducing a principle that we should seek to avoid sadness and disappointment. I responded to that principle. I agree that you probably did not mean that we should preserve schools like museums or try to prevent all disappointment and sadness, what I am arguing is that that’s what your original argument, or at least what I thought was your original argument, implies.

    I note that you have not quoted anyone who openly advocates closing schools recklessly. That’s why I called it a strawman.

    Lightly Seasoned, well how about you point me to the research then? As for people preferring to move to traditional communities with good schools, this is entirely plasuible, I don’t however see what this has to do with keeping old schools open if they are losing students.

  19. Diana Senechal says:

    Tracy,

    In NYC, our leaders have opened and closed schools at a rate that I would call reckless. At least 333 new schools have been opened since 2002. Old schools have been closed and new schools started up in the same buildings–often several small schools replacing a large school.

    This practice is not limited to NYC. Duncan wants states to close down 5,000 schools in the next five years and replace them with new teachers and principals.

    In the last paragraph of the post I wrote, “In our zeal for novelty, we have been ridding our schools of their history. When we open and close schools with a flick of the wrist, when we whisk teachers in and out the door, the students glean that their old school had no long-term meaning; it was just a makeshift shack, and no one knows where it went.” I think my point was clear.

  20. Diana Senechal says:

    I wanted to respond to something Ponderosa said earlier. Yes, the high school I described was a private school. I have had some wonderful classes and teachers in public school as well; I was in the Netherlands for sixth grade and attended a little rural school there. The teacher was strict, funny, experienced, and wise. I still remember some of the math he taught us; it was there that I learned mental arithmetic. I also had a great Shakespeare teacher for a short time in a public school in Maine, but that was an honors class. In the Soviet Union, where I spent tenth grade, I had a mix of teachers, some great, some awful, some in between, and they had to contend with discipline problems every day, not to mention dogma-ridden textbooks (especially for history and literature) and the watchful eye of the party.

    But I would qualify my earlier point about simplicity. Yes, in a sense it was very simple in high school: we focused on the subject, without any fancy activities. But our teachers worked as hard as any teachers in a struggling school. They didn’t have to deal with classroom disruption, but they hours every day preparing lessons and courses and commenting on our work. Simplicity in one area allowed for complexity in another.

  21. Ponderosa says:

    “Simplicity in one area allowed for complexity in another” –aha, this is the formulation that I’ve been looking for. And the reverse is true: “Complexity in one area forces simplicity in another.” The complexity of differentiated instruction, managing varied behaviors, frequent testing, mandatory test re-dos, multiple courses etc. FORCES instruction to get simplified, denatured. Administrators should streamline teacher’s administrative burdens, should strive to simplify teachers’ lives, so that teachers can enrich, complicate, make subtle their instruction. This reminds me of lines by Wallace Stevens to the effect that too much order leads to disorder. Infinite fussing about weekly reading tests etc. leads to confusion regarding the subject at hand.

    Thanks for the response, Diana.

  22. Tracy W says:

    I think my point was clear.

    Diana, in case you want to write more clearly in the future, I have a suggestion. Devote more time to what you intended to be your main point. Devote less time to painting vivid pictures of you looking the superintendent in the eye while making a subsidary point, or of you sitting down in a room in your own high school and being vividly reminded of your past teaching. After all that, I read your final line as talking as much about ex-students as currently-attending students. I don’t think you wrote clearly.

    I also note that in the section you quoted, you didn’t talk about losing experience and continuity in the sense of disrupting the learning process. Instead you talked only about the emotional impact on students: “…the students glean that their old school had no long-term meaning; it was just a makeshift shack, and no one knows where it went.” I have some disagreements with this assertion too. Firstly, you provide no evidence to support this assertion, all your anecdotes were about ex-students wanting to come back to their old schools (including you), you had no anecdotes from ex-students whose old schools had been closed. Secondly, people derive all sort of different meanings from the world, for example my firm disagreement with you over what you meant by your post. Even if some students felt that way, that’s no reason to believe that all students would feel this way. For example, some students might pay far more attention in their memories to their teachers than to the school or the school building. At my high school I had a variety of lessons in a variety of buildings, including makeshift shacks (pre-fabricated 40-year-old “temporary” classrooms). What I remember about school is far more about my teachers and fellow students than the rooms.
    It also seems a bit odd that most students would glean that “no one knows where it went.” I don’t think that most people expect mass-amnesia on the behalf of their ex-teachers, principal, etc. I don’t know this for certain, and I have no proof, but I’ve never heard someone say “oh, everyone will have forgotten about that school by now”.
    Nor do you make any argument as to why this feeling should take importance over other concerns, such as improving existing students’ grasp of mathematics, history, literature, etc.

  23. Diana Senechal says:

    Tracy,

    It is a short blog post. There is much more I could have said and explained that I did not.

    Blog posts of this sort are meant to put forth some ideas and start up discussion. They are by necessity incomplete.

    You are welcome to disagree with my assertions; I appreciate and consider the challenges. But condescension (e.g., “Diana, in case you want to write more clearly in the future….”) is uncalled for.

  24. “Remove not the ancient landmarks which the fathers have set.”
    It’s somewhere in the Old Testament, a copy of which I don’t have on me at present.

  25. Tracy W says:

    Diana, what a coincidence! I thought your claim that “I think my point was clear” in response to my obvious mis-reading of it was rather condescending. To me it carried overtones of: “Oh, if you’ve misread what I’ve written it’s your fault entirely, and I have no need to even consider the possibility that I could have written it better.”

    I agree that blog posts are short and therefore often necessarily incomplete. This to me is yet another reason to devote more space to supporting your intended main point, rather than so much space to vivid anecdotes that support a subsidary point.

  26. Soon-to-be-recovering Teacher says:

    Ponderosa,

    Would that it were so…