Back to School Daze

Here’s a word problem for you in honor of “Back to School”:

Johnny’s Back to School night starts at 5:30 sharp and is 12.6 miles away from Johnny’s home.

Jenny’s Back to School night starts at 5:30 sharp and is 1.6 miles away from Jenny’s home.

Johnny and Jenny are siblings. They have one parent available to attend both Back to School nights. How does one parent get to both Back to School nights at the same time?

Bonus: Johnny also has a mandatory meeting that starts one hour into Back to School night. There is still just one parent available for another 53 minutes. How does Johnny get to his meeting?

Answer: This is not a math problem. This is an existential problem. Please refer to Kierkegaard for Dummies, page. 72, “Back to School & The Absurd: An Eternal Loop of Despair” for more information.

Surely I jest… and yet, no matter how old I am, there is a certain poignancy to summer’s end. Even as an adult, despite the lack of schedule and thus predictability that kicks my Faux-CD — an obsessive need to create order from chaos (not recognized by the DSM but easy to spot by parents everywhere) — into high gear, I still get knocked on my ass by the first week of school.

Nowadays, there is no ramp up to the frenzied activities of the fall. Maybe it’s the economy, certainly it’s the race to nowhere, but the gerbil wheel starts spinning full-tilt for the whole family on the first day of the new school year.

This year my head just about exploded when I attended a committee meeting for my daughter’s charter school. Slogging through the bureaucratic muck to get everything administrators and teachers need to do their jobs is literally like wading through glue. It gives me a deeper appreciation for the front line educators, not to mention a fuller sense of hopelessness when it comes to seeing a future where, say, every kid has what s/he needs in terms of “modern technology” (those new fangled doo-hickeys called computers) in the classroom. (Please refer to Satre for Stupid People, page 181, “Back to School = Angst-o-rama.”)

The existential problem posed earlier in this post was solved when I opted to attend the Back to School night at my son’s new high school. In California, there’s a big buzz about the upcoming Common Core Standards. The idea is to have teachers cover fewer topics, but more rigorously, so that students get a deeper, more applicable and realistic understanding of core subjects. Of course nobody can exactly explain what that ultimately will look like, when exactly it will be implemented, and how any of this awesome in theory, questionable in practice approach will work.

Perhaps a real world application would look like this: Jenny is a barista at Starbucks at the corner of F and U Streets. Another Starbucks opens across the street, and a third one opens at the corner of F and Yomama. If Jenny makes minimum wage, and her tips bring her weekly take home pay to $113.12, how does she survive?

Bonus: Jenny was counting on the bipartisan student loan bill passed on August 9, 2013, to help her afford to someday go to college. If that bill is basically a bubble, and it’s set to pop in the next few years, sending interest rates on student loans soaring, how will Jenny afford college?

Answer: Jenny turns the burst bubble into a costume of latex panties and a matching bra, rocks the VMAs, returns to relevance, and makes bazillions (#overplayedbuticantstop).

This is the cynic in me, but that sarcastic, somewhat disillusioned public school mom wilts at the first sign of hope. And thanks to Back to School night, I realized that the best way to find those rays is to put aside the gray gloom and doom routine, and open my eyes to take in the light.

First, a student jazz band kicked out the jams as we parental units settled in. For years I’ve been listening to hesitant versions of “Chopsticks” and ear-splitting renditions of unidentifiable “orchestra” melodies, and I’d never imagined that something I might actually pay a cover charge to hear would come together in a school auditorium. And yet, Whoomp! (There it was.)

Next, there was a stirring rendition of, “America the Beautiful,” sung by a senior with knock-out pipes and the live-wire nerve of an American Idol hopeful. In her voice there was soaring aspiration mixed with a touch of sadness at kicking off her last year at the place where she’d clearly come into her own.

And finally, the principal’s welcome speech. At the core was a gentle reminder that our children, and their lives, are very different than our own. Up on the giant screen flashed ancient history: 8-tracks and cassette tapes, clunky “cell” phones, chunky answering machines, and computers the size of an entire desk. These were our modes of communication, the “futuristic” touchstones of our youth.

Now our landfills filled with these crude contraptions are carpeted over by super highways and parks (I hope).

There was a lot of talk at the meeting about how information travels at the speed of light, and even emails are too slow for today’s students. As it is with everything else, what was the way then has been turned upside down and sideways now. I particularly liked the idea of the “flipped classroom,” where teachers pop a video online with to teach a new concept, and the kids watch it the night before. Then in class, they do “homework,” so that the kids can digest the work in small groups and the teacher can help reinforce the lesson.

Brilliant. Not to mention inspiring and very hopeful.

This all made an deep impression on me, but the real takeaway from the meeting? The image that greeted us up on the big screen above the stage: an utterly ecstatic senior boy, getting psyched for his last year of high school against a sea of his equally stoked friends.

The girl who lives across the street from me is one of those seniors. I’ve watched her learn and grow from a cute a little elementary school kid to a beautiful, very intelligent young adult. Blink, and this year is over. Then she is on her way, and the future is hers.

The harsh realities of the world don’t hold a candle to what she can do, thanks to the schools she has attended, the teachers who’ve shaped her, and the parents who have loved and supported her through this early part of a lifetime of education, learning and also teaching moments.

So if you see me putting down the Kierkegaard for Dummies and logging into the Khan Academy, just know that I’m doing my homework and beating the back to school blues with some homework-helpers prep. (Hint: If you don’t remember a damn thing about geometry or ancient civilizations, there’s a video there for you, too!)

If you’d like to do your homework, check out Salman Khan’s TED Talk, “Let’s Use Video to Reinvent Education” —

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