Some things about Maine are timeless and eternal: the harsh winters, the rocky coastline and Paul LePage talking smack about the public schools.

While the ex-guv and I don’t have much in common, we both attended private schools throughout our childhoods.

Just as he wants to restrict and regulate abortion despite no experience of being pregnant, LePage wants to restrict and regulate public schools despite having no personal experience of them. If I were a gambling woman, I would bet a not-small amount of money that LePage (or any average politician) would not be able to last a full day as a teacher.

My dad worked for years as an ed tech in public schools; my boyfriend, Rory, is also a public school ed tech. (I’m aware of the Oedipal implications here, that’s a whole separate column – or 12.) I have been lucky enough to get a glimpse into Maine’s public school system. And what I see is teachers and support staff busting their buns every day for Maine’s kiddos, despite being overworked, underpaid, underappreciated and constantly exposed to every single germ circulating in the community. Guess what Rory brought home from school this week? Rhinovirus.

And that was before this weird new moral panic brought on by conservative politicians. Now teachers have to deal with being called “groomers” and “pedophiles” for acknowledging the existence of gay and transgender people, or being called radical reverse racists for teaching a lesson about how slavery was bad. And now the former general manager of Marden’s thinks he can tell them how to do their jobs?

I could never do what Rory does. While working with children with various disorders, disabilities and behavioral issues, he’s had students punch, scratch, bite and kick him. He’s had a laptop slammed shut on his fingers. He’s had rocks and other objects thrown at him. Through it all, he remains calm and nurturing.

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It’s not all bad, of course. Most of the students are wonderful, sweet kids. It’s the third week of school and Rory’s already brought home a drawing that a student made for him. (I put it on the fridge, of course.) When kids aren’t so sweet, we know it’s not their fault. They’ve been dealt a rough hand in life and are responding to their environments in the only way they know how.

Public schools are the sink strainers of our country; they catch all the junk. Every problem that exists out in the wider world exists in smaller concentrated forms in schools. The idea of “getting back to basics” and just focusing on teaching the traditional readin’, ritin’ and ‘rithmetic sounds good in theory. Worrying about students’ mental and emotional health is pretty squishy and woo-woo and “woke.”

But how do you expect a student to concentrate on learning a math lesson if he is hungry because there’s no food in his house? Or if he didn’t sleep last night because he’s living in a shelter? How do you get a kid to focus on a standardized test when she’s in pain because she was beaten at home, or she is grieving because she lost a parent or a caregiver? Like it or not, a child is not going to be able to sit down, shut up and focus on learning until they feel secure.

If they can’t get that caring and support at home, then they’re going to have to get it at school. And unlike private schools (into which LePage would like to funnel taxpayer money), public schools can’t pick and choose their students. They have to take every kid as they are and do their best to teach them something useful. Sometimes the useful thing is geometry. Other times, it’s emotional regulation.

According to LePage, parents are also worried and upset that some of their kids might be using a different name or pronouns at school than they do at home, without their parents’ knowledge and approval. I hate to break it to you, but if your child doesn’t feel comfortable letting you in on their identity exploration, that’s not a problem with the public schools – that’s a problem with your parenting. If your kid naturally wants to explore their gender identity and the home environment isn’t a supportive place to do that, they will find a safe space where they can. And where do kids spend most of their time? School.

My dad was one of only a few male teachers at his elementary school. For a while, it was pretty much him, the principal and the gym teacher. He was one of the only decent male role models in the lives of many of his students. Dad took that responsibility as seriously as he took his responsibility to make sure the students were passing grade-level math exams.

America’s public schools weren’t designed to produce generations of worker bees. They were designed to produce generations of well-rounded citizens. For a lot of children, school is one of the only stable, reliable places in their lives. Don’t discount the importance of that function just because you can’t measure it on a test.

Victoria Hugo-Vidal is a Maine millennial. She can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @mainemillennial


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