I've had many opportunities to stop by Bagby Elementary, but, preferring instead drive-by washes of memory, it's been decades since I've set foot here. Today, however, after lunch at her grandmother's, my daughter, Maddy, calls out from the backseat that she wants to take a closer look at my old school. Why not? she says.
It's a deep Indian summer Saturday, warm under a thin plane of rooster tail clouds sliding in from the west. The light of the shortening afternoon is golden and purple at once, and scarlet liquidambar leaves blanket the neighborhood's orderly grid of lawns and sidewalks. This is ideal back-to-school weather, at least to me. Here in the Santa Clara Valley, fifty miles south of San Francisco, the first rains have not yet returned after the bone-dry summer, and the scented air—a sharp, nearly acrid decay—tells me that school is back in session.
As a child I was at best an average student, never an overachiever, and most Septembers the loss of summer's broad freedoms seemed an incomprehensible punishment, but even so, the lure of school's return never failed to send a thrill through me. Whether I was drawn by the crush of the schoolyard and all the other kids who would be there, or unknowingly craved the structure of classes and relief from seemingly infinite summer, or simply recognized the fitness of the world's turning through time and space, no matter how loud I grumbled, the return to school was momentous.
The first day of school was a simple but ritual occasion in my childhood home. After a special breakfast of Eggs à la Goldenrod, my mother and father would stand at the front door—thrilled that summer was over for them too, I'm sure, but also because they respected and promoted the value of school for their children—and I would march off into the rich Indian Summer morning. I smell that promise again today; my skin crackles with a deep and familiar charge.
Maddy, her mom, and I park at the intersection of two broad streets and slip through a break in the cyclone fencing, where we make our way across the vast, grassy playing fields. Bagby's single-story buildings, two wings in an L shape, seem distant, a mirage. This is a typical 1950s public school, one of thousands built during California's Cold War prosperity. It is not in any way an imposing structure but seems, in fact, rather casual.
Today, young parents guide their toddler up and down a jungle gym in one of the play areas; a father and son take pitching practice at one of the backstops, the ball snapping the air when it smacks into a glove; under a drooping pine a teenage couple, deep in mid-snog, imagines themselves inviolable. And under the classroom's wide eaves, dozens of parents and students shuttle about, adding final touches to makeshift booths that are swathed in black and orange. By chance we've shown up on the day of Bagby's Fall Carnival, a necessary fund-raising event. I'll learn that parents aren't allowed to call this a "Halloween" carnival, for obscurely nuanced and somewhat religious reasons, but will also learn, more dispiritingly, that this is only one of several fund-raisers Bagby parents will hold this year.
Maddy and Julie have raced ahead and taken over a second play yard. Maddy instantly sheds her thirteen-year-old cool and is suddenly much younger, sliding down slides, balancing along a low rail, dangling from monkey bars, swinging on swings, unable to resist. Julie, too, has regressed, it seems, into a more cautious parent; while she's clearly enjoying Maddy's exuberance, she stands close by, vigilant, ready to offer comfort or first aid.
Me, I'm stuck in the middle of the playing fields, attendant to the swath of the past that's revealed itself. Along with the simple and nostalgic memories Bagby holds for me—I did this here, that there—I find that many other and larger concerns gather around the school.
I attended school during California's golden age of education. Funded in large part by the prosperity of the state's military-industrial Cold War economy, our public schools were newly built, and fully staffed and funded, a great source of pride to the Union's most populous state. Between 1962 and 1975, when I was a public school student in grades K–12, California schools were invariably ranked number one in the nation by all measures. Today, the state's public schools are regularly ranked forty-eighth or forty-ninth.
I've long been dismayed by the prevailing conditions: overcrowded classrooms; drastic cuts to all but the most basic curricula; the deteriorating conditions of buildings and grounds; an emphasis on standardized test scores; the long exodus of excellent teachers, and the imminent threat to teachers' seniority and their unions; bloated and costly administrations; fractious public debates about educational content and pedagogical methods. The portrait is a most depressing one.
From this cloud of issues a single idea coalesces, one that has much been on my mind recently: the lack of the public's will to fund schools adequately. This trend began, in California at least, in 1978 with the passage of Proposition 13, which greatly reduced property taxes; public education took the brunt of the cuts. The voters' insistence on lower taxes, and our legislators' eagerness to comply, continued with the Reagan "tax revolt" of the 1980s and was not limited to California's schools. Today's fund-raiser at Bagby is too common a sight around the country; while touring schools as a kids' book author for the past several years, I've seen such fund-raisers not only across California but also in Vermont, Wisconsin, Washington, Oregon. Every time you see one car wash or bake sale, multiply that number by a thousand.
My concern for California's public schools, while at root civic minded, arises from my own history there, a concern that is about more than test scores and global "workplace" competition. I was the first person from my working-class family to go to college, an opportunity made possible by the largesse and excellence of California's public schools, and that opportunity shaped my life in profound and enduring ways, offering me a future that was intellectually, imaginatively, democratically, and, yes, economically richer than I would have found otherwise.
More importantly, while I was benefiting from this public bounty, schools practically saved my life in a very personal way. I'm sure this claim sounds overdramatic, but it's hard for me to see it in any other terms. After the sudden death of my father when I was in junior high school, my life, both in school and out of it, took decidedly troubling turns, and there were several years when I was on the verge of "slipping through the cracks," of not "living up to my potential." I can only imagine how thin my life would have been, how limited my choices, if I had continued on that path. My schools—their teachers, administrators, and the very structures those schools offered—steered me to a course that made it possible for me to rescue myself. Yes, school saved my life.
I'm also a teacher, so my attention is always drawn to the classroom. Although I came to teaching late, and work mostly with adults, it is an art that has given me much joy and fulfillment, and I know I am a teacher only because of the long line of those who taught me. My teachers devoted immeasurable time and energy to their tasks—the creation of daily lesson plans; evenings and weekends swamped by checking students' homework; intense relationships with parents and students; continuing professional development—and they did so with only meager monetary or social benefits. Teachers, especially those in K–12, work as hard as they do to make a difference in the life of one student. Today, looking into the classrooms at Bagby and reliving my time there, I am appropriately moved by the realization that a teacher's work, too often ill regarded these days, begins and ends here, one teacher and one student entering a long conversation about the world.
I'm fortunate, I know, as a kids' book author, to be invited into schools, both public and private, rich and poor. I wish that every parent—maybe every adult—could spend a day at school now and then, an entire and regular day, to see the excitement that happens in the most basic classroom, the hunger of children to learn. We often speak of the "natural curiosity" of children, but to see it in action, twenty or thirty hands eagerly waving, can serve as an immediate reminder of what school actually does. Each of us has different memories of school, but no matter how we look back on those years—with joy or disdain—there was a time, during our K–12 years usually, when the classroom was an adventure for most of us, a form of luxury the world provided. From the middle of Bagby's playing fields, I can see hundreds of student-made decorations and projects and posters in classroom windows, clear signals of busy minds at work.
Of course, I'm a parent of a schoolchild, too. Maddy has just begun her high school applications, and many questions about her schooling occupy our time. She has been a fortunate student, attending, through the virtue of our modest income and attendant financial aid, two excellent "independent" (read: private) schools in San Francisco. As we go forward with her high school search, Maddy leading the charge, we have reentered a debate we've had since kindergarten: public or private? This year the decision may not be entirely ours, given our financial situation. As a family, we're excited about Maddy's high school; as a parent, I'm anxious. So much depends on ...
I jog up to join Julie and Maddy at the carnival. We wander past the rickety booths. Cheesy games of chance—one twenty-five-cent ticket gets you three beanbags and a plastic spider ring if you sink the bags in a bucket. Homemade crafts: candles and corn wreaths and broomstick witches. The requisite sweets: coffee cakes and cookies and candied apples. Maddy's got her eye on a Bagby Barracudas T-shirt, a cartoon of a needle-nosed fish arching over the school's name. Why not? A small portion of these proceeds will benefit the school.
The money that's raised today, one mom tells me, will buy essential items for Bagby's classrooms—paper, pencils, books, art supplies. It's sad, she tells us, but it's what we have to do. I recall a bumper sticker that's been around for decades: It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.
Bagby's interior courtyards and classrooms are locked against vandals and other mischief, and the carnival huddles on a fringe of broken asphalt. It's quite feudal, this meager market on the edge of something that was once grand. It makes us all seem like paupers.
On our way to the car, near the far edge of the field, I turn back to the school and the crowd offering up their pocket change. In an instant all my larger concerns and grand ideas dissipate, and I'm swept away again, but more deeply this time, into my seven years at Bagby. I'm assaulted by the past; the world sparks and forges my memories.
I'm drawn into a vivid memory from second grade, one that's surfaced in my consciousness over the years and so is familiar. I don't so much remember that day and what it was like to be seven years old again; I become that child again.
I'm leaving school at the end of the day, standing on the sidewalk outside the low cyclone fence. It is a black and rain-driven day; I've never known a day so dark and rainy. I'm leaning into the wind in my yellow rain jacket, and there is the school, my school, its windows yellow lighted, teachers still in their classrooms.
That is all there is to the memory. The feeling that rises up out of the memory, however, is enormous, the bodily knowledge that it is here, at Bagby, that I was shaped, that the beginning of a long path that continues today started in this place, in this school, in that classroom there.
A Child's Garden
Soon after stopping by Bagby in the fall, a keen hunger to get closer to my school days rises, a desire to be inside those very same classrooms again, to see what has changed and what remains, to remind myself of what happens there. So I call Bagby's principal to arrange a visit while classes are in session. I am an alum, a writer, a teacher, I explain. Of course, she says.
It's been forty-nine years since I was last in this classroom, and I'm surprised to discover how large it is. Anticipating today's visit, I had expected my former kindergarten to appear diminutive, diminished in stature as one's childhood places so often are—the backyard a postage stamp now, the neighborhood streets oddly narrow. But the kindergarten feels vast, capacious, a town of its own, made bigger for all of its busyness. One group of children hammers and saws with plastic tools on a plastic workbench; four others, in plastic smocks, fingerpaint at easels; two are feeding the classroom pets, a fleet of guppies in a tank that is tantalizingly near the tarantula terrarium; seven children are seated on the floor in a circle around Miss Abbe, who is reciting words that begin with the hard c sound: cow, cat, cap; in one corner, hidden behind a low bookcase, a solitary child daydreams her way into a picture book about jungle life.
Bagby Elementary has changed little over the decades, architecturally at least, and what was Mrs. Moody's classroom in 1962 is the same size and shape it has always been, the tiny chairs and tables just as tiny. I have changed, of course. I'm nearly twice as tall now, and it may be that my adult perspective allows me to appreciate the size of the space, the blueprint of its possibilities.
A classroom announces its intentions in a visceral, architectural manner. If the room is dilapidated, unkempt, undersupplied, it tells the student not to get comfortable here, that this is simply a place to endure, a place to be frightened of. When a classroom is healthy, well lighted, spacious, warm in the cold and cool in the heat, and filled with objects that demand exploration, it tells the student, this is your place; this is where you are meant to thrive. Children always feel vulnerable to the world, and in fact often are, either at home or in their neighborhood, but the best classrooms dispel that vulnerability, and can make children secure enough to grow and change. The classroom's message is simple but deeply resonant.
The ceilings of my old kindergarten, precisely as I remember them, vault from low walls into an airy canopy, one that mimics the classroom's wild ambitions. Along the eastern wall, large windows let in the morning light, and on the opposing wall, narrow windows temper the often harsh afternoon sun. The southern wall of the room is what I remember most, however, where ceiling-high windows rise up, cathedral-like, offering an unobstructed view of the sky. The room is a concrete metaphor for what education offers the student: If you focus in this place, you will find larger worlds.
The message is at once more cluttered and complex, too. The classroom walls are covered with maps and charts: California, the United States, the world, the solar system; colors and shapes and letters and animals. The walls are also covered with student artwork, so much so that the drawings overlap the windows: drawings of pigs, houses, flowers, a child's own view of the solar system. This tide of paper announces to students that they are gathered to focus on their work and the world equally, to see what they can make of it all.
This current classroom holds a bounty of tools and toys and supplies. Shelves of books, cubicles filled with games and puzzles and musical instruments, loads of crayons and paints and construction paper and easels and smocks, and yes, even a few computers. Along with the fish and Charlotte, the twenty-year-old tarantula, there are several terrariums of lush riparian plants. Such bounty says to the students—said to me when I was a child and to these students today—get to work, do things, make things.
The center of the classroom is an open area covered with colorful, rubbery, comfy pads made from recycled plastic and hooked together in a giant jigsaw puzzle. This is where the tribe gathers in community, in discussion, in reading, and in song. Around this town square, narrower and more purposeful spaces invite students to explore on their own.
Paired tables and loose chairs form working pods where small groups can huddle over a common task. Shelves and cubbies create narrow, maze-like alleys where students work under their own steam.
The teacher's desk, as it did in 1962, sits in a corner where low bookshelves create a semiprivate cubicle. Here intimate conferences can be held, and the teacher can sometimes be alone for a while.