In the Wall Street Journal today:
I would never have to go to the middle school office to find out why my child was doing so poorly in math. I would never have to ask the high-school principal why the French teacher didn’t seem to speak much French. I would never have to ask the grade-school principal why he rewrote my daughter’s sixth-grade graduation speech to include more references to his own prodigious sense of humor and caring disposition, and fewer jokes of her own.
I would never have to complain that the school had discontinued the WordMasters competition, the one activity at which my son truly excelled. I would never have to find out if my son was in any way responsible for a classmate damaging his wrist during recess. I would never again have to listen to my child, or anyone else’s, play the cello.
I would never have to attend a parent-teacher meeting to find out why my daughter’s history instructor was teaching the class that England’s King Edward II didn’t have a son. A son named Edward III. A son who took special pains to publicly hang the man who allegedly killed his dad—and let the body rot for a couple of days, just to show how ticked off he was about his father’s mistreatment. All of which my kids knew because their mother grew up 5 miles from the castle where Edward II was heinously butchered. Leaving behind Edward III. His son.
“The timeline gets confusing back then,” the teacher explained when we visited him. No, it doesn’t. In history, this thing happened and that thing didn’t. If you didn’t know that, your students got crummy AP scores. And then they didn’t get into the best college. My wife and I weren’t going out of our way to embarrass the teacher. It was just…well…first you’re wrong about Edward III, and then you’re wrong about Henry III, and before you know it, you’re wrong about Richard III. Who knows where it all could lead?
But now it no longer mattered. The ordeal had ended; the 18-year plague had run its course; the bitter cup had passed from my lips. I would never quaff from its putrid contents again. Good riddance.
From nursery school on, everything involving my children’s education was payback for an earlier mistake in parental judgment. A teacher told us that our little daughter wasn’t socially mature. Or emotionally mature. Or something. Giving her “the gift of time,” the teacher assured us, would mean that she would always be the oldest, and therefore the most confident, kid in class.
So we had her repeat the last year of nursery school. As it turned out, it also meant that she would be the smartest kid in class. And because of this, she would spend her entire school experience without a proper peer group, mostly bored out of her mind.
The fallout from this decision never stopped reverberating. My daughter disliked her first kindergarten teacher so much that we had to get her transferred to another class. She thought some of her middle school and high-school teachers were incompetent clowns. Some were. We had to arrange for her to jump from ninth-grade classes to 10th-grade ones, because the work was so dull. It was not a happy school experience.
On a more positive note, she ended up going to Harvard. Some might argue that holding her back a year and giving her the gift of time was what helped her get into Harvard. I disagree. We took bad advice because we didn’t know what we were doing at the time, and neither did the teacher. We were amateurs, which is a synonym for “parents.” If we had not held our daughter back a year, she would have gone to Harvard 12 months earlier.
It is famously said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to be Parent of the Day forever. And so it was with us.
Not content with the one foolish decision to hold our daughter back, we did the exact same thing with my son, making him repeat kindergarten, at the behest of the professionals. This was a humiliating experience that enraged him, because it permanently separated him from his peer group. For the next 13 years, his best friends were always one year ahead of him.
He never forgave us, and I can’t think of any reason why he should. Yes, we thought we were making the right decision at the time, but so did George Armstrong Custer. The results were similar.
My wife and I never regretted sending our kids to public school. A lot of parents pulled their children out of the public schools when they got to sixth grade, with the rationale that they wouldn’t get a proper education otherwise. My daughter went to Harvard, and my son got a free ride to law school, in part because they had several truly outstanding teachers, so the argument that public school holds students back didn’t exactly hold form for them.
Still, public school was no picnic for our kids. Public schools are designed to handle the vast majority of students, but they aren’t so good with those at the top or those at the bottom. [editor's note: wrong] A lot of my daughter’s teachers got fed up with her bellyaching about the insipid materials and the languid pace of learning, and would have preferred that we yank her out and send her to some precious private school.
That wasn’t going to happen. Public school is the great litmus test of democracy; if you don’t believe in public schools, you don’t believe in America. At least that’s what we believe. [editor's note: What?]
It was easier with my son than with my daughter, but only because he hated the very idea of school. Our daughter didn’t object to school per se; she just wanted it to be more challenging. Our son wanted school to go away, especially after we pulled the repeating-kindergarten stunt. He never complained that school was boring, that he hated his classes or that his teachers were dimwits. He just didn’t like school. Full stop. He’d rather play sports or videogames or stay at home watching movies and reading the books he wanted to read. He didn’t stop hating school until he went to college and got to major in classics.
My kids hated cant and they hated lies. They hated the bloodless, inanimate way history was taught to them. At dinner every night, they would pump me for the real truth about history, not the dreary, politically correct twaddle they were taught in school.
They wanted to hear about the Holy Innocents, about St. Lucy, about the Golden Horde, about the time a young French archer fatally wounded Richard the Lionhearted, and on his deathbed Richard the Lionhearted said, “Don’t do anything nasty to that feisty little kid,” and his generals said “OK.” And then, about five minutes after King Richard died, they flayed the kid alive.
They wanted to hear about Alexander the Great, Lady Godiva, Judas Iscariot, Erwin Rommel and unexpected nuances in Apache torture methods. They didn’t want to hear that the Iroquois lived in longhouses and respected women and had a governmental structure that exerted a profound influence on Thomas Jefferson. They wanted to hear about what the Iroquois did to their French Jesuit captives. [editor's note: yes, well, the reason your kids could hear about what the Iroquois did to their French Jesuit captives at the dinner table is that they had parents who didn't go to public schools & thus knew what a Jesuit was]
There were other problems along the way. Personal problems. When my son was around 14, he suddenly became very morose and angry. I asked him what was wrong, and he told me that a kid at school was giving him a hard time and had attacked him with a particularly nasty turn of phrase.
My son was big; his tormentor was not. I asked him if he was afraid of the boy, and he said no. I told him to go to school the next day, grab the boy by the throat, jam him into an empty locker and say that he would knock all his teeth down his throat if he ever bothered him again.
“But I’ll get suspended if I do that,” he protested.
“Oh. I see. You’ll get suspended, and you’ll have to spend a few days at home watching television. Where’s the downside there?” [editor's note: yup, that was pretty much our attitude]
My son got a funny look on his face. He stopped being morose. He stopped being angry. He never told me what happened the next day at school. But I think that cheap punk got jammed right into a locker.
My wife was mortified when she heard about the advice I’d given my son. It seemed so crude, primeval. But it worked. As I explained to her at the time, we were both just doing the best we could with the resources available to us. We were making this stuff up as we went along.
There is a central paradox about being a parent and trying to get your kids to profit from their school experiences. You go into it hoping that your children will be happy, all the while knowing that your own school experience was mostly miserable. You think you can make things better for your children, because surely things have changed since you were young—no more nuns with thick, fearsome rulers, no more priests who get a kick out of slapping boys’ faces—but in the end you can’t save your kids from the inevitable.
The greatest American novel is “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” It’s about a kid who hates school. “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” is about a kid who hates school. “The Catcher in the Rye” is about a kid who hates school, “A Separate Peace” is about a kid who hates school, and so are scores of other books.
School seems to be an almost universally unpleasant experience. You can try to sugarcoat it, yes, but you know from personal experience that school is horrid. There you are with all that imagination and energy, and yet you’re trapped inside all day reading books you don’t want to be reading and learning things you don’t want to be learning from teachers who often don’t want to be teaching.
Then one day it’s all over, and your children leave—and you and your spouse find yourselves staring at each other from either side of an empty nest. And there’s only one thing you can think to say to each other: Thank God that’s over.
Mr. Queenan writes the weekly Moving Targets column. This essay is adapted from “The Dadly Virtues,” recently published by the Templeton Press.