Life is Like a Box of Chocolates

Lionel and I, along with some other parents that we had coralled and who had the same concerns as we did, sat in a room full of people, trying to get them to acknowledge the big elephant in the room.

But that elephant is pretty big, and powerful, and apparently doesn’t leave alot of space in the room for anything else.  So instead of revealing itself, it said things like:

“I used to be really scared about it too.  But now we’re there, and it’s actually okay.”

“Our store got a Gold Seal last year!”

“We had students competing in DECA this year… alongside Pinkerton Academy!”

“We had 12 students inducted into the National Honor Society!”

It tried to berate us, too.

“If you came to our school board meetings, you’d know more about what we are trying to do.”

“You really should come and visit the school, and talk to the principal and myself before embarking on this.”

“Actually, I did a study like this all by myself three years ago.  And I concluded that it was impossible.”

“Those NECAP scores don’t mean anything.  We have 12 students in the National Honor Society!”

The big elephant, of course, was none other than the  Hillsboro-Deering Cooperative School District.

Listen, those of us who have grown up around here and have lived here all our lives call Hillsborough, NH, in sometimes not so affectionate tones, “Hooterville”.  So it’s not surprising to me at all, really, that throughout my tenure in the area the schools in Hillsborough have struggled in and out of probationary status, had high dropout rates, a long running drug problem, high turnover in teachers and staff, a disinterested and downtrodden student body.  Not surprisingly, the town itself has no sustainable industry.  It’s always been a sort of self-defeating death-spiral.

So we sat there, all of us, each and every one of us having rushed home early from our distant gainful employment, every single one of us from a different direction, to go to a School Board Meeting which begins promptly at 6pm on a Tuesday (or might we also say, at “dinner time on a school night”) and formally asked the school board of the Washington School District to undertake a formal study of other school districts in the area in terms of relative merit, distance from people’s places of employment, potential cost to the town for sending our kids there, etc.  We really weren’t asking them to do anything other than really examine that big elephant in the room, to finally, at least, fully acknowledge it.  Because Hillsboro-Deering Cooperative School District might be really turning itself around, and it might be inducting kids into the National Honor Society, and it might occasionally send kids to DECA or spit out a Teacher of The Year, but so do other area schools, schools with more consistent, challenging and varied curricula, schools with sports programs and language clubs, schools in communities that actively support and fund their educational systems rather than randomly slashing the budget or castigating the school board for daring to spend “surplus” money on new computer equipment or roof repairs.  Hillsboro-Deering Cooperative might finally be turning out some half-way educated kids that might even go on to college, and that’s great for Hillsborough.  But we don’t live in Hillsborough.  We live in Washington.  Hillsborough’s not even that close to us. We don’t have any say in Hillsborough’s government, we have no clout with their governing bodies, we can’t force them to see the really big elephant; the total lack of gainful employment within a 30 mile radius.    We don’t even have any say at their school board meetings since we’re not residents.  But for some reason, we’re okay with sending our kids there, putting blinders on, and hoping that it “will all be okay.”

And those blinders sure are working, boy, because you know what, at face value, inducting 12 kids into the National Honor Society from a school whose NECAP scores routinely place it at the bottom of the pack of schools in NH is pretty great!  It’s the National Honor Society, right? It might really mean something… except the Hillsboro Deering NHS GPA requirements, which each local chapter gets to set, is 3.15.  That’s barely above a B average.

Meanwhile, neighboring schools have set the bar at 3.4 just to be considered.   And since we all know that GPA is not necessarily a reflection of how prepared you are or how challenged you are in a school setting, it is merely a reflection of the grades that you got in the classes you took, which can easily be dumbed-down or inflated depending on the teacher and the student population, the fact that Hillsboro-Deering School District managed to induct 12 kids into their NHS chapter actually means nothing at all outside of Hillsboro-Deering.  Scratch that shiny surface a little bit, and it turns out that Hillsboro-Deering was able to induct 12 kids into their NHS chapter because they set a low bar for being inducted in the first place.  And a lot of those kids wouldn’t even  have maintained such a grade point average at another school with a more challenging curricula, let alone be inducted into anything.

And you know what?  That’s okay.  I myself obtained an excellent education without ever being inducted or honored with any kind of scholarly award.  I believe I got a C in Honors Chemistry one year, and I routinely struggled in my math courses.  But I went to a very excellent private high school.  And when I got out of High School and got into Bryn Mawr, the first thing this struggling math student did was try to fulfill her math requirement by taking Multi-variable Calculus, instead of the more popular “Statistics for Poets”.  I just barely passed that course, which was totally outside my field of study (Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology, with a minor in Ancient Greek) and ultimately ruined any chances I had of graduating anything other than Cum Laude.  And I didn’t care, because even then I knew it was more about the quality of the class and what I got out of it rather than the grade I got.  Whenever I received 4.0’s in any of my classes I was immediately suspicious of it, because 4.0 means perfect, and who is perfect in anything they just learned?

I digress.   Sure, I can solve this educational problem on my own.  I could, for instance, choose to tuition my kids into another school district, possibly the one in which I work.  I could send my kids to private school (halfway across the state, for an exorbitant amount of money but hey!  Live Free or Die!)  Or, I could pack up my whole family and move to a community that values education more.  But because I’m a bleeding-heart progressive liberal who is a glutton for punishment, and I like knocking my head against walls, instead, I petition the school board to look at alternatives not just for my kids, but all the kids in Washington, because for some reason, I’m still loyal to the place and I’d like to see the backward trend of no industry, no community, no working families, empty houses and no future reversed.

I work for Keene State College these days, which is a nominally public institution.  I say “nominally” because NH’s Tea Party Extraordinaire Legislature slashed 50% of the state’s funding for public higher education three years ago.  That was bad enough, but even before this indiscriminate slash-and-burn took place, New Hampshire was 50th in the nation in terms of its support for public higher education.  Can I say that again?  We were Dead Last.  And now we’re even more Dead Laster.   Meanwhile, 15 years ago, another faultering town with a another constantly failing school district tried to be proactive and sued the state over its reliance on local property tax to fund education.  There has been lots of talk over how to rectify the situation, and we’ve pretty much bent over backwards trying to avoid the I and S tax words, introducing neat, novel ideas like casinos or getting rid of the whole problem altogether by amending the constitution, and effectively the state has just kind of skipped over the part where its entire tax structure was found unconstitutional by its own high court because, well, it’s Live Free or Die.  Right?   So the whole Hillsboro-Deering High School problem?  The whole we have no industry here issue?  Yeah, that’s your NH Tax Advantage, staring you right in the face.

No wonder families like ours are leaving.

I could shout “Wait!  Come back!! If we all work together, we could find a way to work this out!”  Remember how the Apollo 13 astronauts managed to fit a square peg into a round hole?  They did this impossible task in micro-gravity with nothing but the items on a very small, fragile spaceship while battling the effects of carbon dioxide poisoning.  And that was 44 years ago.  I have no reason to believe that a bunch of educated adults with a common goal can’t find a solution to the no-industry, poor-education dilemma we find ourselves in, Live Free or no Live Free.   I’ve glimpsed evidence of hard-working dedicated committees coming up with all sorts of brilliant, working solutions for all sorts of seemingly insurmountable impossible problems.

I just haven’t actually seen it here.  In this place where I actually am.  With the people who are–supposedly–charged with ensuring that the school-age children of the Town of Washington are provided with an education.  Instead, I get glass-eyed looks or actively hostile glares, from people who probably realize they’ve been caught not doing their job and therefore feel an overwhelming need to become patronizing.

“There’s no convincing these people,” the chair of the board piped in at the end, “they’ll have to find out for themselves.”

Later that night, Lionel mentioned that he’d found three ticks on Bundle II.  “I’ve heard some really bad stories about ticks, recently,” he said.

“I used to be really worried about ticks,” I retorted, “but you know, now I’ve had some, and guess what?  It’s actually okay. Now I really think they’re awesome.  You really should come to their meetings, sometime, talk to their leader.  You’ll see.”

We both laughed until tears ran down our faces.   But we’re not sure if it was actually funny.

It’s a shiny elephant, to be sure, but I’ve scratched the surface, and it’s still the same god-damn elephant.  If we could just get it out of here, maybe we could finally poke our heads up out of the box.

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