It’s birthday time for me!

My approximately half-birthday, December 7: My mother was bathing me in the kitchen sink preparing for my 6-month birthday party, when the radio news announced Pearl Harbor. This is a borrowed reminiscence since I personally don’t remember that day, or anything much about the war except getting into the recycling cans and making a mess. Repeatedly.

But I do remember, when I was already four — August, 1945, V-J Day. I remember the screaming and the noise, even in our little neighborhood. The best present I got was an Army dress uniform from my uncle Bill, along with his 2nd lieutenant’s bars, which he gave me upon his promotion. I wore that uniform until I grew out of it.

And then I was five, when I considered myself all grown up. To celebrate, I ran away to school with my three-year-old brother. The school was down the street, around the corner, down the next street and across a numbered state highway, and it had a playground with swings and a slide.

Swings! Slide! Yes!

Being all grown up now, I was totally responsible and careful crossing the street. Look both ways, hold hands tightly, run like heck. We had at least five seconds of unholy pleasure in that playground until guess what here’s a police car and oh no one hysterical mother barreling toward us.

Why was she crying? We were fine! I was in charge!

I won’t share with you the details of my punishment but it did involve being tied by a long tether to the apple tree in the back yard at playtime for at least a week. I never could figure out those knots.

However, it is possibly significant that given my subsequent life’s trajectory, I ran off to a school. (Or maybe it was just the swing set.)

Fast forward considerably more than half a century, and I’ll bet if you went to my old house in Swampscott, Mass., and followed those directions and crossed that highway, you would still find that same school and that same playground right there. And I also bet that if you went inside it would look familiar, it would smell familiar, and you would know just how to act in there too.

You would look around eagerly for your beloved second-grade teacher or you would want to throw up and run right out of there. Maybe both.

And yet, except for school, the world I was remembering is an utterly vanished world. Nations, foreign policy, war, peace, friends, enemies, defense, space exploration, business, politics, organized religion, transportation, highways, air travel, supermarkets, shopping centers, communication…everything is different, except for school. Almost no cultural institution in our country, not even organized religion, has undergone less apparent change than school.

In some ways, you know (brace yourself, dear reader), this is a very good thing.

The pace and scope of change in America has been pretty amazing, and you could make a case, in fact I am making a case, that school as we have always known it has been the cultural glue that has built and then held together much of our country.

We all went. School made generations of immigrants into Americans. It provided a common basis of reading, literature, mathematics, science, arts and music, geography and history. School sports built communities and gave youngsters skills and self-esteem. Integration of American society was acted out on the schoolyard steps and beyond. And through all the changes that have happened from the mid-20th century to today, school has been a constant, doing a huge part in making America what it is today. We need to keep this.

Of course, it was not all good. The culture and structure of school was also a natural environment for bullying, enforced conformity and persecution of the different

Many parts of urban and rural communities were left out of school, and those who could not succeed in the accepted framework for learning had nowhere else to go. Expense, measures of success, and return on investment have become central topics of public debate.

But change is finally coming to school. It may look the same and even smell familiar, but what goes on in those buildings is changing rapidly. Teachers, principals, education colleges, all have reshaped accepted practice and goals for students.

Maine is a happening place for mass customized learning, community-based learning and the enhanced use of technology. A good birthday present for America!

 

Theodora J. Kalikow is president of the University of Southern Maine. She can be reached at [email protected]

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