May 26, 2011
My novel DWEEB, silly as it is, touches on some weighty issues regarding education. Specifically, the role of standardized tests in the lives of the squeaky-voiced, acne-plagued future of our fair land. Look at the cover, for crying out loud. It’s a scantron sheet! I’ve never claimed to have any answers, however. Because I’m far from an expert. I only know that the anxiety surrounding tests can affect administrators, teachers and students alike, and undoubtedly shapes the lives of most of the people who walk through the front doors of our school houses these days.
Last week I walked through the doors of Manhattan Charter School on the Lower East Side of New York City. It was my first experience with a charter school, aside from watching Waiting For Superman and 60 Minutes. What I found there was what an author hopes to find in any school:
Welcoming, bright and hard-working teachers and staff, as well as enthusiastic, curious and friendly young readers. I was especially honored to meet Ms. Bennett’s 4th grade class. They had all read DWEEB but had held off on reading the last chapter until my arrival. I sat down and read it to them, then we talked about it book club style. Their questions were both astute and flattering. Many were curious about the possibility of a movie (Hear that, Hollywood? I personally think the talky, nerdy hi-jinks might be a good fit for Richard Linklater). They were all bummed to hear they’d have to wait until September for The Only Ones. To top it all off, they had drawn life-size pictures of each of the main characters from DWEEB, and those fantastic works of art are displayed in the hall of their school. Some of the pictures might have even have been larger than life-size. I believe the term is heroic-size.
I didn’t come away from the day with the answers to our educational woes, nor did I formulate a rock-hard opinion on the importance of standardized tests. But I did walk out of that building knowing that 9-12 year-old kids who get excited about books–ones they’ve read, ones they want to read–are kids who care deeply about their education, even if they’re not quick to admit it.
The Manhattan Charter School likes to “celebrate curious minds,” and I can’t think of a better thing to celebrate. Don’t listen to the old adage. Curiosity doesn’t kill cats. Cars, old-age and rabid raccoons do. And don’t ever think that success, in the traditional mold of wealth and prestige, means anything without a healthy diet of curiosity. You can’t possibly be happy and you can’t possibly change the lives of others for the better if you aren’t curious. The teachers and kids of Manhattan Charter School reminded me of that.
It’s my job to keep myself curious. I can’t fall into the trap of complacency. My writing will suffer and kids, curious and clever, will toss the books aside and say “well, if this is as good as education gets, then lobotomize me and book me a train to Lazytown, because I’m out.” Well, maybe they won’t say that, but they might put a check-mark in the “reading is lame” column of their brain and their curiosity will dim just a little, and to me, that’s much worse then them dropping a few percentiles on a test. That’s a stand I’m more than willing to take.