I want to share with you a visit I took to a remarkable school that, through respect and high expectations, raises children up from broken public schools.
Regular readers know that I am not a fan of public schools. I’m a product of public schools as are my children. All of us were fortunate enough to come from literate homes so that we thrived academically despite, not because of, most of our teachers.
As it is, math and chemistry passed me by entirely. My last math teacher was a foul, mentally disturbed man, while my chemistry teacher was counting the days until retirement. Given that those were not strong subjects for me under the best circumstances, these teachers’ academic ministrations did not serve me well. My children, raised in a more affluent community than I was, have fared better in the STEM classes (better schools) but have been ill-served in the liberal arts, which tend to dish up ideology more than knowledge and skills.
People unfortunate enough to be around me when one of my kids’ teachers does something of which I disapprove (a common occurrence) will be treated to one of my tirades about the fact that these people are, for the most, part lazy, uninformed, and overpaid. I especially hate the “uninformed” part. In our fancy school district, we have English teachers who don’t understand subject-verb agreement; history teachers who only know what they recite from their teacher’s copy of the textbook; and science teachers who accept unquestioningly the whole anthropogenic global warming shtick even though all of the predictions have proven wrong. People like this irritate me.
Today, though, I attended a different kind of school, a school so good in its own way that I forgive it even if it does unquestioningly accept anthropogenic climate change or mess up subject-verb agreement. For twelve years, a libertarian friend of mine has been passionately involved with Northern Lights School (“NLS”) a private school in Oakland.
The school started in 1989 when four educators came together to create an alternative to the disastrous Oakland public school district. They looked at the poor children trapped in those schools and thought (rightly) that these children deserved better. Incidentally, when I used the word “poor” in connection with the children, I was not referring to their economic status, even though NLS is an educational haven for students who come from economically disadvantaged homes. Instead, I use “poor” in the sense of “tragic,” meaning helpless beings caught in an untenable education system that grossly under-serves them.
The school operated on a shoestring for some time, but now has some stability thanks to a solid core of donors who give both time and money to NLS. Having seen the school, I understand why the donors (including my friend) are so committed. This is education the way it should be, with a strong sense of community flowing from teachers to students, and from one student to another, and with an intelligent fusion of Montessori, Waldorf, and traditional educational concepts serving children from preschool through 8th grade.
Separate from the pedagogy and community, though, I was mostly struck by the fact that the school is based upon respect and high expectations. In the public schools with which I am familiar, faculty and administrators demand respect from the students, although too often they do little to deserve it and, also too often, they do not return the favor of treating their students with respect.
It’s certainly true that, in the worst schools, the children’s behaviors may be such that their conduct does not deserve respect. However, I strongly feel that the children themselves, separate from their behavior, deserve respect. They will not act well until they feel that, just by being living human beings, they are worthy.
This is an extension of the philosophy I’ve used for my children and all the other children they bring into my life: I am opinionated, but not judgmental. I will freely speak my mind about their behaviors (“I hate marijuana use and let me explain the problems I have with it”), but I will never be less than respectful of them (I will never say, “Because you use marijuana, you’re stupid or bad.” Instead, I’ll say, “You are too precious to ruin your mind and body that way.”).
At NLS, the mutual respect between everyone is palpable. I don’t know if NLS does this because of Maria Montessori’s insistence that respect is a two-way street in a school, even with children as young as two, or if the wise heads behind the school figured it out on their own. All I know is that I saw it, felt it, and liked it.
The other thing NLS does is expect that its children work hard. This has nothing to do with meeting curriculum metrics and deadlines or passing standardized tests (although I’m sure the children do well in those areas). Instead, this expectation is a subset of respect because part of respecting someone is believing them to be capable of high standards.
One of the things I hate most about modern Leftism is its casual, grotesquely racist assumption that minority children are incapable of hard work, moral standards, excellent performance, and personal dignity. I believe everyone is capable of those things. This doesn’t mean I expect equal outcomes. Different children have different skills, personalities, and interests. Nevertheless, they can all aspire to be their best self, rather than be abandoned to be their worst.
Incidentally, my strong beliefs on this point are why I always say I’m not a racist. I do not define people by something over which they have no control (i.e., their color or sex). Instead, I define them by the core thing over which they do have control: their values.
Part of imparting values to children is giving them an idea of what a life lived according to good values looks like. And yes, I’m being judgmental here. A bad life value is being an MS-13 gangbanger. A good value is working hard, being honest, having a mission in life, never giving up, learning from mistakes, etc.
To help the NLS children see a range of good life value choices, the school has eight speakers a year come and talk to the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. Past well-known speakers have been MC Hammer and Dana Carvey. The school also brings in people connected to historic events, such as the Secret Service agent who courageously, but unavailingly, threw himself on JFK’s car in Dallas.
Today the school hosted someone else connected to a historic event: Mickey Ganitch. The name may not be familiar to you, but I bet you remember him singing to President Trump during last year’s Pearl Harbor commemoration:
Mickey served on the USS Pennsylvania, not only at Pearl Harbor, but throughout the war. In August 1945, he was ready to be part of the attack on mainland Japan when the atomic bomb brought the war to a swift end. (D.M. Giangreco’s Hell to Pay: Operation DOWNFALL and the Invasion of Japan, 1945-1947 discusses the decisions behind the bombing. You can hear him interviewed here.) In other words, Mickey, 98 years young, was living history for everyone in the room.
I just want to say upfront that we should all age with Mickey’s grace. The video of him singing gives you a very good sense of his mental acuity, his vitality, and his charm. Although his talk might have gone over the children’s heads on occasions, they understood when he talked about a bomb missing him by 45 feet and they felt the grief he still experiences when he thinks about the 20 fellow quartermasters on the Pennsylvania who died next to him when his ship was torpedoed the day before the war ended.
The assembled children (about 30 – 40 of them), were an exemplary audience. They gave Mickey their complete attention and asked intelligent questions when he was finished speaking.
After the talk, the 6th and 7th graders returned to their classrooms. The 8th graders remained for a pizza lunch with Mickey and with those adults invited to attend the lunch (as I was). We adults were asked to eat, not with each other, but with the children. That’s how I ended up dining with three 13-year-old boys.
I cannot say enough nice things about those young men. They had excellent manners, match perfectly the way in which I define good manners: putting another person at ease and making that person feel welcome and valued. The boys had no shyness and willingly answered my questions about their plans when they graduate. They also listened to me politely when I got all excited about history, as I so often do.
Eventually, one of them very diffidently asked me what I thought of Donald Trump. I replied that it would probably shock them, but that I think very well of him.
I made no effort whatsoever to explain to the boys why I don’t think Trump is a racist. That’s an argument with no mileage in it even if you have (as I think I do) the facts on your side. Instead, I told them about something much more important to me: Freedom.
Trump, I said, cannot be as bad as everyone claims he is because he is doing the one thing no tyrant ever does — he is giving up power. I then explained to the boys my theory that there are only two types of government, no matter the name: those that give citizens greater liberty and those that give them less. Trump is doing the former and that’s what I value. I explained, too, that I think the Constitution is a perfect political document, even though it was drafted by imperfect men. The fact that some of them were weak and could not make themselves give up the benefits they got from slavery did not mean that they did not understand the idea of freedom and how best to achieve it.
The boys (again showing good manners) thanked me for presenting an entirely new viewpoint to them.
I’m going to nudge my friend to find out if I can go back to the school. It is spiritually revitalizing to see something done right — especially to see something done right for children who are so often the victims of adults’ worst behaviors and ideologues’ worst instincts.
If you’re feeling a little flush with cash, you might think about donating a few dollars to the school. This is the kind of school that should be encouraged.