Montana Voices: The true value of a public education

Mary Sheehy Moe

Twenty-two years ago, I took my daughter to see “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” the story of a music teacher in a public high school. He teaches kids of every description in times of trial and triumph, but the big scene is the last one.

Mr. Holland has lost his job to budget cuts. He’s leaving the school where he’s spent pretty much all of his adult life when he hears a noise coming from the auditorium. His classroom. He just has to see what’s going on. And there they are: his colleagues … students spanning four decades … the community — all gathered to salute him for the impact his career has had on their lives.

I still remember what Ellen, then a junior in high school, asked me when we left: “Is it really like that, Mom? Is that how teaching is?”

And I responded: “Everything but the auditorium, Ellen.”

Last weekend I got what every teacher should get: the auditorium. MEA-MFT inducted me into the Montana Teachers Hall of Fame. It wasn’t so much because I was a good teacher. I know plenty who were better. But like all teachers, I learned more than I taught in public schools, and one lesson in particular struck me so profoundly that I continued to teach it long after I left the classroom. I talked about it at last week’s ceremony and have adapted my remarks for Last Best News.

The lesson is best illustrated in a scene from a novel I used to teach, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” A lynch mob has gathered outside the local jail, intent on grabbing the black man incarcerated there and stringing him up. There are many angry men in the mob, and only one man, Atticus Finch, stands between them and the evil deed. They approach Atticus en masse in the dark of night. The flash point rises.

But then Atticus’s children emerge from the darkness. One of them, Scout, doesn’t understand what’s about to occur, but she does recognize one of the men in the mob. It’s the father of her classmate, Walter Cunningham. At the beginning of the school year, Scout made fun of Walter because he had cooties. Her teacher, her father and her black housekeeper, Calpurnia, made her understand that Walter’s circumstances were a little different from hers, but he was still deserving of decent treatment, still worthy of respect. And now she and Walter were friends.

“Hey, Mr. Cunningham,” Scout says to the man in the mob. And that angry man looks at this little girl … and sees the classmate of his son. He realizes that Atticus Finch may have the temerity to defend a black man accused of rape, but Atticus is the father of a young child, just as he is, and this little girl is someone his Walter likes. Mr. Cunningham wouldn’t want her to see or Walter to know what he’s about to do to his friend’s father. Or, maybe, to that black man. So he convinces his buddies to get back in their cars and go home.

To me, that’s the big lesson, the lesson Neal Postman cites as the core value of our public schools. They don’t just educate a public. They create one. The years in public school are the only time individuals in this incredibly diverse country spend significant, formative time with others who think differently, worship differently, celebrate their traditions differently, and live very, very differently. So much depends on the understandings they develop in those 13 years. The bonds they form there become the social glue of their communities, this state and our nation.

So for the past 30 years and more, yes, I’ve fought for intellectual and academic freedom. I’ve advocated for funding our university system appropriately and honoring local control of public schools. But mostly, as the push for privatization of our public schools has come to shove, I’ve fought for public education. Because the fight to privatize isn’t really about choice or quality or competition or any of the other things you can already achieve by working to improve your public schools, rather than diminish them.

It isn’t about your right to provide your kids with religious education, which I benefited from myself and have always respected. The public has always honored parents’ rights to choose to educate their children privately, but we do not and cannot fund those choices. It’s not in the public interest.

Because whether as cause or as effect, privatization ends up being about keeping my little Scout away from your Walter Cunningham … and people like him. It’s the same classism and bias and Balkanization that, at its worst, kept our schools segregated for most of our history, robbed this land’s first natives of their culture, and paralyzes our country today. If we are to survive as a nation, if we are to overcome, finally, this original sin, we must preserve public education. In fact, I believe our public schools will be the reason we do survive.

Because the problems of our society — whether poverty or inequality or gun violence — always manifest themselves most glaringly in our public schools. And the people who will solve them, as the students at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas are teaching us right now, are the people who have witnessed or experienced them firsthand. They’re the people who will never forget the lessons that they learned, not in a textbook or a church pew, but over 13 years of sharing lunches and projects and life itself with Scout and Walter and Denise Juneau and Emma Gonzales. That lesson teaches us that we are more alike than different. That our differences enrich us. And that we can do more together than apart.

Last week’s — my night in the auditorium — told  me that lots of other people think that lesson is worth fighting for too. But “Mr. Holland’s Opus” is not the way my story is going to end. You always picture Mr. Holland walking out of that auditorium and leaving education behind.

I’m not going anywhere. In fact, 21 years from now and every session in between, I can pretty much guarantee you that some legislative committee is going to be rolling their eyes as (by then, former) MEA-MFT President Eric Feaver and I line up for public comment, he wearing a tie and I wearing earrings that perfectly match the neon green tennis balls on our walkers. Eric will be giving his fire-and-brimstone sermon on all of God’s children in America’s schools, and I will be saying this to Troy Downing, or whoever the new political candidate is who thinks the best way to dismiss an opponent is to point out he is “just” an elementary music teacher who plays the trumpet:

“Respectfully, Sir, we are all music teachers. Some of us teach English; some,  chemistry; some auto mechanics. Some of us teach first-graders; others graduate students. But we all teach all our students to listen, to read, to make connections, to face and understand all the foibles and marvels of our histories and our humanity, to create harmony out of chaos — and, yes, to master whatever instrument is in their hands. Including and especially a trumpet, because even a music teacher needs to toot his own horn sometimes.  And if he can’t or won’t, the rest of us will be the horns, the strings, the drums and the choir that drown out ignorant slurs with the beautiful music of our enterprise. And I will be at the head of that parade, twirling my baton.”

No, the movie this award made me think of is “Jersey Boys.” Remember Frankie Valli’s last line, as he leaves the Hall of Fame ceremony for the Four Seasons? Someone asks him what the best time was. For him, he says, it was “four guys under a street lamp, the first time we made that sound, our sound. When everything dropped away and all there was — was the music.”

For me, that perfect moment, against all odds, is on a school bus with the speech team, heading home from a meet. I’m seven months pregnant — and if you haven’t ever been seven months pregnant on a long school bus ride, you really haven’t lived. I’ve just about hit the point where if the kids sing B-I-N-G-O one more time, I’m going to hurl myself to my death out the window, my corpse to be devoured by coyotes in the borrow pit.

But the kids settle down to that hum they get in the middle of a long trip. I look across the aisle at the head coach, who to me and to 4,000 kids spanning 40 years, remains the best teacher I ever met, the kind who never gets an award like this because he’s just quietly changing lives every day, every year — for 40 years! — in his classroom. He’s going over his notes with the other speech coach, a guidance counselor who has the brains to teach kids how to do a flow chart and the heart to hit the Goodwill at the beginning of every season to buy a few sports coats and ties so that every kid on the team looks like a polished debater.

I sit back and look out the window at this lovely land of ours and listen to the murmur of the kids in back of me. In the golden twilight, with fields of every color stretching out as far as they can see, they’re sharing their stories, their laughter, their hopes, their struggles, and their dreams.  They are Walter Cunningham and Jean Louise Finch and Calpurnia’s children and the great-great-grandchildren of Heavy Runner, and the memories they’re creating will bear fruit tomorrow, and the tomorrow after that, and all tomorrows in ways that I can only dream of in the twilight on a school bus, wending our way back home.

I close my eyes and smile. I’m no Walt Whitman, but I think I hear America singing.

Mary Sheehy Moe has served Great Falls as a school board trustee and state senator. She is now a city commissioner.