Testing The Possible
January 13th, 2011
In a very different time not so very long ago, Memphis was two cities – my bright, white one, and the one where things were decidedly darker. Separate. Far from equal. While people in both seemed to know everyone in their Memphis, they knew virtually no one in the other. The county was a distant place, another world out there in the country, where kids got out of school in the fall to help harvest crops.
Now the whole county is urban and urbane, cosmopolitan and inclusive, cities instead of towns, a greater metropolitan area ready to become greater.
While we're about to find out if we've really changed much in the last 50 years, one thing will never change. What we're to become and our chances to overcome will be largely determined in our schools.
As published in The Daily News, January 14, 2011, and in The Memphis News, January 15-16, 2011.
SHARPEN YOUR PENCILS. THIS IS A TEST.
My first day each year in elementary school. Another year older, another grade, another teacher. The lined paper was blank, waiting. The big pencils and the bright, colorful books were new, waiting to be introduced, like that little girl over there and that skinny kid behind you. The school was the same but everything was different, even new, and everything was possible –in my Memphis, 50 years ago.
What if that first day was just another day like so many others, something to get through, to survive? The lined paper was blank, taunting. The big pencils couldn't write and the tired, old books couldn't be read. They would wait, like the minds in that room, unopened and unchallenged. The school was the same, nothing different, another year older and left behind, another year of knowing just exactly what was possible – in the other Memphis, 50 years ago.
When the two separate and disparate school systems became one, we took a huge step forward. We stepped back when busing drove more churches to start private schools than Bible study groups. We stepped back when suburban flight took more people out of town than Delta. We stepped back when bloated bureaucracy, incompetent leadership, and unchecked patronage starting beating up our children's chances worse than a schoolyard full of bullies.
And we're one test away from failing and being sent all the way back if we allow special district legislation to pass and officially codify two disparate school systems again – one with unlimited possibilities and one where even hope is limited – in our Memphis, today.
We have a chance at that first day again, that blank sheet of paper. Like school itself, there's much to learn, and those we can learn from. There's hard work ahead, sacrifice, correct and incorrect answers, and all are necessary if we are to graduate our children to something better. We can throw out the old and write something new. Instead of being made an example of what doesn't work in a racially challenged county, we can become an example of what does work in a diverse and fascinating one.
My school was called Memphis State Training School because that's what it was, a training school for teachers, called Campus School these days. In addition to our teacher, we had two or three student teachers in every classroom. New ideas in education came to our room first. Students taught us by first learning to teach right in front of us. Things others would see later showed up on our blackboards first.
Innovation was in my public school, 50 years ago, but not in everyone's. We can make the new happen in every school in Shelby County today, and make everything possible.
Here's a sample question from our test.
Q: What do Tennessee's other major metropolitan areas – Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga – have in common besides outscoring us in growth and economic development?
A: Consolidated city and county schools.
I'm a Memphian, and I think everything's possible.