Blackboard vs Blackout

Reposted from 10/19/14

Recently, I read Blackboard: A Personal History of the Classroom by Lewis Buzbee, and now I’m obligated to write about it—because my teacher told me to. OK, not exactly. But in the book, Lewis asks questions of his readers; he wants to know what experiences they shared, or didn’t share, with him. And since Lewis was one of my instructors when I was in grad school, and since I usually scored well in the “follows directions” category on my elementary school report cards, I reacted to his request like my conscientious kid-self did to homework assignments. I’d do what was asked.

Lewis went through elementary and secondary school during California’s educational golden age. He has glowing memories of schools that were designed to help children learn, absorb what they learned, apply what they learned; memories of teachers who made a difference, who gave infinitely of their time and knowledge and wisdom, who actually saved him when he was a teenager teetering on the edge. The emotion he conveys in the book has a warm tint to it. I envy that.

My memories of school? A tad different. Please take out a piece of construction paper and your crayons.

Scene 1: a suburban private kindergarten (nope, Virginia didn’t think public school needed to start until first grade) with a big garden, one big room with high windows and a black-and-green tile floor and a trough-like sink and clay and Play-Doh and cardboard bricks and a piano. And my first boyfriend, Vince Antonioli, who made it into a Life magazine spread at our white-cap-and-gown graduation by blowing a gigantic bubble at the exact moment a photographer captured him receiving his diploma. (My mother didn’t allow me to chew bubble gum, but we won’t go there.)

Paper and crayons ready? Draw a little house that looks happy. Draw it close to the left edge of the paper. It was a happy place, so put a rainbow over it. There. Kindergarten love.

Scene 2: Near the right edge of the paper (leave some room, please) draw a colonial-looking building. Brick, please, with a wall around it. Decorate it with the masks of the theater. This was college, of which I remember not much that didn’t happen within the walls of the theater department. And what happened there was much joy and heartache and offstage drama, like getting dumped by my boyfriend for a gorgeous blonde (I do believe it was Valentine’s Day) and falling in love with a married man and wearing a white, pearl-strung bikini and a feather headdress and fishnets as a showgirl (aka Cloud) in a musical version of Aristophanes’ play The Clouds. As for my classes, I loved Shakespeare and directing and voice and modern dance, but I got the first D of my life in European history (pure kindness on the professor’s part), barely survived a survey course in art history, and had to drop my Italian class because the prof wouldn’t stop hitting on me. I’d say the good outweighed the bad, but college was a pretty mixed bag. Hold the rainbow.

Now for Scene 3. On the far right edge of the paper, next to the college, draw a big yellow building with a church next to it. Two bell towers on the church, please. No rainbow; we’re too old for that, because this is grad school. Oh, what the hell. Add some smiley faces. Add a red cross too, because I began that program in a pretty damaged state, and along with making me a better writer, it helped me heal.

Now color in the space between the buildings in black crayon, as heavy and shiny as you can make it. Go ahead, lay it on thick. That void is the rest of my education. Yeah, I learned stuff, but I don’t remember that much of it, and most of what I do remember is not good. Like getting glasses in second grade. Like being five-foot-six in fifth grade (taller than any boy in the school) and given the nickname “Jolly Green Giant.” Like being expected to be a brain because I was my brother’s sister. Like being good at things I didn’t care about and not particularly good at the ones I desperately wanted to excel in. Like struggling with math, getting tutored, and then being pushed into an advanced class I wasn’t ready for. Like going to the prom with a boy I knew was gay.

But it’s not all bad. I have fond memories of spending significant amounts of time in the cloakroom (yes, that’s what we called it, which proves I’m old) in elementary school, where the smell of wet wool and muddy rubber boots and baloney sandwiches was overpowering, but I didn’t mind. I was sent there for talking in class (usually to Larry what’s-his-name, as I recall; he was pretty cute), but it didn’t shut me up; I’d keep mouthing words and semaphoring to whoever was within range.

I remember the annual book fair, and the thrill of perusing table after table piled with books. Lucky me—my parents were generous. (The book that sticks in my mind? Misty of Chincoteague, in picture-book format. I read it until the cover fell off, and then some.) I remember the Scholastic book club, cheesy little paperbacks that got handed out to us in class. God, I loved those books. I remember the Fall Festival. I remember Madame Slack, who theoretically was teaching us French via TV.

I remember nothing of junior high except the chemistry lab, the scene of nightmares. Oh, how I envy Lewis and his Physics for Poets class.

In Blackboard Lewis says that each of us carries an image of school with a capital S. For me, it’s that kindergarten where we sat on the green tiles when it was time to sing, and where I ran to the far reaches of the garden every day to a tiny playhouse barely big enough for one child. From the playhouse to the cloakroom to the college-theater stage to the grad school classrooms that fed me so much of what I needed—I guess along the way I got a good education. And some of it was schooling.

Blackboard vs Blackout

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