Harper Lee’s Educational Lesson

I’d like to reiterate that it’s not the school employees that are the bad guys. They’re just people who have bought in to the idea that the system is redeemable.

I think of the nodding, smiling, sonsy moms who volunteer their time at the charter school — full of good cheer that most of the teachers are “good Christians.” I think of the principal who has come back out of retirement to volunteer his time to guide this school. You can tell they’re full of rosy ideals of days gone by and June Cleaver households. This symbolic brick-red schoolhouse holds all these hopes that their school will be different. Their school will be what it’s supposed to be.  

In some ways, they will succeed. I’m sure of that. But I question even those Beaver Cleaver days — the problem was present then. Heck. I think the problem began with Horace Mann.

Unfortunately, well-meaning people doing their very best can be dangerous. John Gatto calls them true believers.

An illustration of a school system gone to seed exists in one of our best pieces of literature. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those books foisted upon poor highschoolers that don’t even know how to read. Then, they’re made to write all kinds of horrid essays on Southern life and coming of age when their lives consist of watching reality shows and making out in the hallway.

Don’t get me wrong. I think it is a must-read. It’s probably one of the most magnificent pieces of literature I’ve ever read. It makes my heart pound. I just feel sorry for kids getting it in its sliced and diced version. Over-analyzed and pieced out to them so slowly that they intellectually starve.

Kids should be reading about 30 books a year, not five. But, I’ll stop here. Harper describes it so much better.

Miss Caroline began the day by reading us a story about cats. The cats had long conversations with one another, they wore cunning little clothes and lived in a warm house beneath a kitchen stove. By the time Mrs. Cat called the drugstore for an order of chocolate malted mice the class was wriggling like a bucketful of catawba worms. Miss Caroline seemed unaware that the ragged, denim-shirted and floursack-skirted first grade, most of whom had chopped cotton and fed hogs from the time they were able to walk, were immune to imaginative literature. Miss Caroline came to the end of the story and said, “Oh, my, wasn’t that nice?”

Here, she’s talking about what Charlotte Mason calls twaddle. Books written by some curriculum “expert” that has no sense of the enormous aptitude of children. Those inane books that tread so softly, so carefully, so as to not introduce anything not already explained ad nauseum. Those ridiculous books written by authors that could never make it in the real world — who carefully, softly insure to not include anything not already carefully spoonfed.

Twaddle is still in vogue — my first grader reads them now. Rather than reading about fascinating subjects like pirates, King Tut or the Titanic, they’re reading about cats having long conversations. And instead of enjoying the delicious irony of Sal and Little Bear mixing up their mothers on Blueberry Hill (Blueberries for Sal), they’re reading silly things like, “The rat is on the cat. Does the cat like it? No, the cat does not like it. The cat is mad!”

Why? My personal opinion is because of money. Curriculum providers make an obscene amount of dough providing packaged curriculum to public schools. John Gatto would say the motive is more sinister. John Gatto would say that the powers-that-be don’t want our kids to be educated. They want them to learn at a slow and liesurely pace. You don’t believe him? Read on.

Then she went to the blackboard and printed the alphabet in enormous square capitals, turned to the class and asked, “Does anybody know what these are?”

Everybody did; most of the first grade had failed it last year.

I suppose she chose me because she knew my name; as I read the alphabet a faint line appeared between her eyebrows, and after making me read most of My First Reader and the stock-market quotations from The Mobile Register aloud, she discovered that I was literate and looked at me with more than faint distaste. Miss Caroline told me to tell my father not to teach me any more, it would interfere with my reading.

“Teach me?” I said in surprise. “He hasn’t taught me anything, Miss Caroline. Atticus ain’t got time to teach me anything,” I added, when Miss Caroline smiled and shook her head. “Why, he’s so tired at night he just sits in the livingroom and reads.”

“If he didn’t teach you, who did?” Miss Caroline asked good-naturedly. “Somebody did. You weren’t born reading The Mobile Register.”

I remember having the same discussion with another teacher. She wondered how I had taught my children to read when I was only certified as a secondary teacher. I had never participated in any program that taught teachers to teach reading.

I shrugged my shoulders. I said, “I taught Elsa the sounds of the letters. Then, I asked her to pick a book. She picked Robinson Crusoe. Then, we started reading. We started with just reading a paragraph. Soon, she was on her way.

The teacher stared at me, eyes slightly squinted in confusion, unwilling to let go of her hard-held beliefs that she had something we didn’t. Her unwillingness is understandable. She had probably paid $40,000 for the pleasure of such knowledge. But I digress.

“Now tell your father not to teach you any more. It’s best to begin reading with a fresh mind. You tell him I’ll take over from here and try to undo the damage —”


“Your father does not know how to teach. You can have a seat now.”

I mumbled that I was sorry and retired meditating upon my crime. I never deliberately learned to read, but somehow I had been wallowing illicitly in the daily papers. In the long hours of church — was it then that I learned? I could not remember not being able to read hymns. Now that I was compelled to think about it, reading was something that just came to me, as learning to fasten the seat of my union suit without looking around, or achieving two bows from a snarl of shoelaces. I could not remember when the lines above Atticus’s moving finger separated into words, but I had stared at them all the evenings in my memory, listening to the news of the day, Bills to Be Enacted into Laws, the diaries of Lorenzo Dow — anything Atticus happened to be reading when I crawled into his lap every night. Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

Here are several things to ponder. This is why illiteracy is rising. Do parents even read at night anymore? I know I don’t. I’m too busy racing to sports events, packing lunches, making dinners, folding laundry, and racing to the next activity. I love to read — probably because I don’t get to do it very often. Like Scout says, you don’t know you love it ’til you’re afraid you’re going to lose it.

And I remember those long hours on the pew, drawing and wiggling and trying to make it through a service. But this inclusion into adult life, did it help to pave the way for literacy?  Now, my children are whisked off for an entertaining video outside of church, making crafts, and singing — just for them. Even church seems to be in cahoots with this continued separation of families — the dividing and specializing — this overly contrived children’s corner.

What are we saying here? Our corporate actions seem to provide a foundation to this insidious idea that adults should not be a part of a kids’ world — except to provide entertainment. And kids should be kept out of the adults’ world. They’re too inconvenient. Adults need a break.

I love the way Atticus just incorporates Scout into his world. He probably just read the news aloud and she could tune-in and tune-out as she wished. He didn’t bother with a comprehension test at the end or a stultified explanation at the end. He just washed her in his life.

I knew I had annoyed Miss Caroline, so I let well enough alone and stared out the window until recess when Jem cut me from the covey of first-graders in the schoolyard. He asked how I was getting along. I told him.

“If I didn’t have to stay I’d leave. Jem, that damn lady says Atticus’s been teaching me to read and for him to stop it —”

“Don’t worry, Scout,” Jem confronted me. “Our teacher says Miss Caroline’s introducing a new way of teaching. She learned about it in college. It’ll be in all the grades soon. You don’t have to learn much out of books that way — it’s like if you wanta learn about cows, you go milk one, see?”

“Yeah Jem, but I don’t wanta study cows, I — ”

“Sure you do. You hafta know about cows, they’re a big part of life in Maycomb County.”

I contented myself with asking Jem if he’d lost his mind.

“I’m just trying to tell you the new way they’re teachin’ the first grade, stubborn. It’s the Dewey Decimal System.”

Having never questioned Jem’s pronouncements, I saw no reason to begin now. The Dewey Decimal System consisted, in part, of Miss Caroline waving cards at us on which were printed “the,” “cat,” “rat,” “man,” and “you.” No comment seemed to be expected of us, and the class received these impressionistic revelations in silence. I was bored, so I began a letter to Dill. Miss Caroline caught me writing and told me to tell my father to stop teaching me. “Besides,” she said. “We don’t write in the first grade, we print. You won’t learn to write until you’re in the third grade.”

You might want to assign such behavior to the old days. That it’s outdated. Wrong. I tutored a first grade literacy group and began to teach them cursive. My little ones were elated to learn to write so beautifully. But I was caught by a second-grade teacher and told to stop. I was planning on ignoring her until the little first grader returned on another day and told me that her teacher got mad at her when she tried to write cursive instead of printing.  

Such behavior is idiotic. Reading is easy. Teaching reading is easy. It should be the right of every student. Much of school should be allotted to this activity. If kids won’t read, then we should read aloud to them until their heads are filled with the glories of adventure and the thrill of the written word. Then, they should write about what they hear or read — in cursive. Pages and pages. And if they can’t write it out — they should tell it to their teacher until their spoken word provides the basis for their writing.

But if our kids could do that. They might realize that the educational system doesn’t hold all the cards. That it’s all just a farce. That they don’t need the system at all to start their own businesses, or invent their own products, or learn whatever is at hand. That the goal isn’t to consume. That their lives are their own and their fates are in their hearts.

That would never do. Whatever would all those curriculum writers, superintendents, secretaries, liasons, curriculum directors, tech support, and Miss Carolines in the world do?



  1. Wow, the madder you get, the more you hit the nail on the head…i love how you wove “to kill a mockingbird” into this blog post, which really reads more like an essay, and I think you should get John Gatto to read it. I noted a couple of incedentals…Just learned that Dewey was an athiest, and really wanted to see humanism trump the moral truths of the Bible. We are living, essentially, with the Dewey model of education. I can remember hearing about how wonderful he was in my teacher preparation program. “Progressive” I wonder if progressive is just another way to say “Destructive”? Also, regarding your point on sunday school, why don’t parents start keeping there squirmy little ones in the service and forget about the crafts that may or may not have to do with Jesus? If the Lord is the reason that we go, and the Lord grouped us into nuclear families since the dawn of creation, maybe we should worship as families? Didn’t John Gatto point out that when kids are always grouped into ages or grades that they can lose sight of the future and the past, they are caught in some sort of vortex with out models to learn from, or opportunities to lead. I think you are right, lets not have church follow a school type model for worship and study. Some churches don’t herd them off, I know of two for sure. The Bridge, a Nazarene church in Redmond, and most Catholic churches. But even if the church offers nurseries, and age-level classes for little ones, this isn’t a substitute for a proper service. I guess I’m applying the twaddle idea to the church. Lets let them hear the Word of God, undiluted, unaltered. Some wiggling on their part is expected, and I don’t think the Lord minds one bit. And to come full circle to literacy, didn’t Laura Ingalls Wilder, author and school teacher, learn to read with JUST the Bible?

    So, what do we do? How should schools change? How do you convince a true believer to let go, see things for how they really are and build something new.


  2. Oops, just one more thing, when I said I don’t think the Lord minds one bit, I really have no idea what is in the mind of God…sorry…tryin to stay humble.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s