My friend Buck McElroy was talking. Buck is a history teacher and, like history, he repeats himself a lot. Especially when he’s been drinking.
The four of us were sitting around the kitchen table after the Michigan State game. It was Buck and me and Buck’s third wife, Lisa, and my wife, Sherri.
Buck’s team had lost and he was seeking solace in the 12-pack of Blue Light. He kept them coming until eventually, we got on the subject of school. Teaching was never Buck’s first choice; he’d wanted to be a professional basketball player. He’d been an all star at Cavalry High where we played together. At a mere 5’10, Buck’s prospects were limited, but he did get a lot of playing time at SUNY Potsdam. Those were the best days of his life, he’d tell us.
Anyway, once his last season was over and NBA hadn’t called, Buck set his sights on coaching. Teaching was the best venue to get there. His wife, a pretty round faced blonde this time, was also a teacher; she taught fourth grade with my wife, Sherri. Working together had formed a friendship and it was this friendship that brought me — a manager at the Kraft Cheese plant — into this conversation with three public school teachers.
Lisa was talking about how the State Ed Department was trying to kill her. “It’s like getting beat up every day,” she was saying. “Like beating my head up against the wall trying to teach this new curriculum.”
She was pretty in an elementary school teacher kind of way. Her blonde hair was full of waves and she was wearing a STOP THE COMMON CORE sweatshirt, embellished with a skull and crossbones. In her ears hung red apples embossed with a gold ABC. They jingled when she shook her head.
Buck growled as he split open another can. “That’s not teaching and you know it. I don’t know what you’d call it, but it’s not teaching.”
“Say what you want to, but this is what they call it now. With this Common Core.”
At the words, Buck turned and spit on the kitchen floor. I looked at my wife to gauge her reaction but she was shaking her head sadly.
“This new math…” she began.
“Math? That’s not math! I don’t know what you’d call it but its not math. I know math! I got over a 90% on all my Math Regents in high school. What they’re asking kids to do now? Ridiculous! I tried to help Jimmy on his homework last night. Didn’t even know what the hell the question was asking! And I know math!”
Buck had actually filed for bankruptcy last year, so I questioned that. But when you’re in a room of teachers talking Common Core, you choose your words carefully. It’s a volatile situation.
I drank another beer while I listened to them talk about this new math. After a few minutes, I saw a way into the conversation.
“Oh, I’ve heard of that. One of my co-workers was telling me that’s the way they teach math in Korea.”
“HA!” Buck exploded. “Korea? What happened to good old American math?”
I considered offering my observations on the kids we’d had interning with us last summer, but thought better of it. Instead, I offered another observation.
“Well, I just think maybe because Korea has had such success with math in their schools, maybe they’re thinking of trying their methods…”
“Oh sure! Why don’t we try communism next? Is that what you want in our schools? Is it?
I made the mistake of allowing a slight smile before I said “I don’t think it’s as bad as all that…”
“It’s worse!” Buck’s voice was getting louder and louder.
“But I thought the Common Core was just a set of standards so all the states were on the same page…”
“Oh,” Buck’s eyes shone with passion. “That’s what they want you to think! Don’t be fooled, my friend. This is nothing less than the overthrow of the American Education system by the Federal Government!”
“Well, it just seems like…”
“You don’t know! “ Lisa’s head shook the apples. “You don’t have to sit and watch these children talking a two hour test. Two hours! Some didn’t finish! I tell you watching those children struggle like that… and all for what? To find out they are a 2? A 2?”
“What’s a 2?” I asked, turning to my wife.
“It’s a score on the test that doesn’t show proficiency.”
“Yeah!” Lisa said. “How’d you like to find out your kid was a 2?”
“Why? What happens if you’re a 2?”
“Well,” Lisa said as she cracked open another beer. “ First of all, you have to face the shame and personal humiliation of knowing you aren’t a 3 or a 4. And sometimes- sometimes… they put you in AIS.”
A pregnant hush fell over the table. I waited for an explanation and when one didn’t come, I took the bait.
“What happens in AIS?”
Lisa took a healthy swig before she answered. Then she looked me directly in the eyes as she delivered her answer. “Academic Intervention Services. They give you extra help.”
“Those bastards,” It was Buck who spoke the words. Then, he was so overcome with emotion, he had to look away for a moment.
Lisa reached out and caressed his hand. Then she turned back to me to offer further explanation.
“Buck’s just upset because last year Jimmy got a 2 on the ELA test and was recommended for remediation.”
Sympathies seemed in order.
“Gosh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know…”
“Yeah well, that’s because no kid of mine is gonna be in AIS!” Buck had come alive again. “Not my kid! He got 90’s all year! He don’t need no AIS because some beaurocrat in Albany is trying to take over the education of America. Like Hell!”I glanced at the clock and then back at my wife. But she was in her own private misery. She sat folding a napkin in to tiny, tiny creases. Finally she met my eyes and I was moved by her distress.
“It’s just not like it used to be,” she spoke quietly. “We used to have time for fun. I did that 8 week indian unit, remember? The kids spent three to four weeks constructing indian villages out of popsicle sticks and clay and then we had the festival of the Cherokee with handmade costumes and choreographed our own war dance and then staged a tribal takeover of the cafeteria…” she had to stop to dab her eyes and recover her self control. “And now… all that is gone.”
Silence descended on the table as we soberly reflected on the sudden extinction of the American Indian and my wife’s creativity.
I could empathize. Recently, Kraft was bought out by Heinz. Talk about changes. I had all kinds of new jobs I didn’t have before. So I knew what it was like when a game changer like that came into your life. I considered sharing my experience with her, but I’d been married long enough to know my wife. No, this was the time for unadulterated sympathy.
“My God,” I said, holding her hand. “Such a loss for those kids…”
She returned a tender squeeze and I congratulated myself on making the right marital choice. I glanced at the clock again and tried to make her meet my eyes.
“Anyway,” Buck said. “They’re going to get what they got coming to ‘em.”
“Who?” I asked.
“Albany! The State Ed Department! Thinking they’ve got the right to tell us what to teach! Who the hell do these people think they are?”
Buck had a dangerous look in his eye. I knew that look. I’d seen it back in high school when he flushed the Simmons kid’s head down the toilet.
“For if History has taught us anything, it has taught us that oppression can only go on for so long until its victims rise up and take back what is theirs. The numbers are growing, I tell you. We won’t be ignored! We will demand our rights, just like they did in 1832 when the French rebels rose up against the aristocracy and took over! They want a war? We’ll give them a war!”
And with his final words, he crushed his can of Blue Light. Once again, the room was bathed in silence until he spoke once more.
“After all, think of the kids. That’s why we’re here.”
The women nodded and I sat quietly, afraid to move, afraid to say the wrong thing. The beer was gone, but we remained, no one moving even as the darkness crept in around us.