Where’s Allison Benedikt Leading Us?

Today in Slate, pour épater la bourgeoisie, Allison Benedikt tells her readers: “You are a bad person if you send your children to private school.” Bad American is what Benedikt really means. As far as she’s concerned, our nation’s public school system will have a chance of improvement only given upper-middle class investment.

“In many underresourced schools,” she writes, “it’s the aggressive PTAs that raise the money for enrichment programs and willful parents who get in the administration’s face when a teacher is falling down on the job.” In other words, even more than the legendary Joe Clark and his ball bat, it’s client bitchery — the kind only a parent from a six-figure-per-annum household can deal out credibly — that will provide crap schools with a saving elixir.

Benedikt has walked the walk. Her upper-middle-class parents sent her to public school, where, she writes, getting drunk before basketball games with trailer-park kids did as much as reading Whitman to teach her the perks of diversity. I’ve worked both sides of the street. Though I finished my childhood at a public high school — where I served what I consider a postulant year as a black man — I began it at a private kindergarten. There, I got an intimate and rather alarming look at what happens when well-heeled parents attack.

The school was a K-8 in an affluent Newark suburb, a college town in its own right. If you’ve ever seen The Sopranos, imagine the sort of place Dr. Melfi would have sent her kid, and you should be able to picture it: the elegant old building, Volvos and Saabs clogging the parking lot, high-mindedness hanging in the air like incense.

A great deal of it, from the curriculum to the composition of the faculty to the ambience itself, was the creation of the parents, who met regularly in plenary sessions and determined these things by vote. You should be able to picture them, too: the bearded fathers, the mothers who wrote allegorical novels about butterflies. Both stern and ahead of its time, their program — their vision — included bans on sugar, white flour, cops and robbers, and cowboys and Indians. At recess, kids played at paramedics. To celebrate birthdays, we gnawed on loaves of whole wheat bread, home-baked especially for the occasion into the shapes of animals.

One of my first clear memories of the place is of losing my first tooth — not on a piece of whole wheat birthday bread, but on the pea-jacketed arm of a student teacher named Kathy. That’s the kind of kid I was: the type who hurled an enemy to the ground in a scuffle over pride of place at the playground slide, the type who showed off his precocious skill at block lettering by writing, “YOU’VE BREATHED YOUR LAST” on a piece of construction paper and slipping it into a classmate’s cubby.

Pulling any of that in post-9/11 America would probably have earned me extraordinary rendition to one of the countries about which we’ve all been reading these past few months with our hearts in our throats. If I’d pulled it in a public school of my own day, I’d probably have been tracked into the shop classes, whence I’d have grown up to race funny cars at Englishtown and marry Snooki. Here, in the Country of the Kind, the parents met, and denunciations were handed down. One morning, my teacher whisked me off to a corner of the classroom and informed me, “This is your spot. You have to stay in your spot. You mustn’t leave your spot.” And then she was off to entertain my classmates with Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.

How long my sentence lasted I really can’t say. It could have been a few days or a few weeks. What I can remember with perfect clarity is the shame and frustration of it all. The other kids seemed to recognize the reason for my confinement. To be fair, they didn’t ogle or jeer with anything like the abandon of the Tyburn mobs, but at least once, while I was struggling to put together a passable collage, some little fink waltzed right into my spot, snatched a bottle of Elmer’s glue out of my hands, and sprinted back into genpop. I stood up to give chase, but, having thoroughly internalized the restrictions attendant on my new status, sank back onto my stool.

It might have worked — that is, my spell of internal exile might have succeeded in socializing me — had its expiration not coincided with my introduction to Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline books. In Madeline and the Bad Hat, probably the most popular of the series, Bemelmans’ heroine finds herself an admirer in Pepito, “the little boy who lived next door,/the son of the Spanish ambassador.” To impress her, the little macho dresses up like a matador, in a miniature trajo de luces. When that fails, he builds a guillotine.

It could simply have been my identification with Pepito, who, but for diplomatic immunity, would sooner or later have ended up confined to a spot of his own. Or maybe the lingering spell of my disgrace had awakened in me a fascination for all instruments of punishment. Either way, I decided I simply had to have have a guillotine. One morning, using only the materials available in my classroom, I built myself a pretty fair model. The empty frame of a full-length mirror served as the uprights; a pair of blocks, each shaped like a miniature bridge, as the lunette. We had toy saws — toothless, but made from real metal — and one filled in nicely as the blade. Laying a cookie bowl at the base of my creation, I was open for business.

The school was, you’ll have gathered, a progressive school. The guillotine was nothing if not progressive. But that fact did nothing to save me. The parents called another meeting, more denunciations were handed down, and I was expelled — driven off, like another Max before me, in my own tumbril.

Though a peer of the judges in financial and educational terms, my mother, thanks to a proper formation by the nuns of St. Anthony’s Grammar and Notre Dame High, had none of their swagger or self-righteousness. Rather than try to force their hand by intriguing, or with the bluster of her personality, she accepted what she considered a just sentence and slunk away.

It was the honorable thing to do. But when it comes to allocating resources, forcing agendas — to getting things done — England’s far and honor a name. There, as Benedikt says herself, it’s sheer aggressiveness and willfulness that count. If Benedikt’s right that parents who normally send these children to private school possess their qualities in particular abundance, won’t that tend to disadvantage everyone whose interests conflict with theirs, including, at times, the poor kids she wants to help? Should we really not fear for the inner-city kids — or even the lower-middling kids — who hold back the aspirations of surburb-dwellers?

Benedikt seems to think that the wealth, so to speak, is spreadable; that the moxie of the privileged can work to the common good. But if the privileged were really so public-spirited, would she even have needed to write that article? She’s thinking in revolutionary terms, but forgetting that all revolutions devour their children.

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