NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Commentary: Leave All Bureaucrats Behind

By Tom Dodge, KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX –

Our youngest grandchild, A.J. Dodge, is seven, and since we are very interested in his life we work hard to help him achieve in school. Though he's bright, he is having trouble.

He knows the nomenclature and classification of all dinosaurs, for example, and his knowledge of the cast of the movie "Stand By Me" extends even to the junkyard dog whose name occasionally slips the mind of ordinary film experts. It's "Chopper," he reminds them. He knows by sight the names of all thirteen authors in the deck of the "Authors" card game. He surprised his art teacher recently by identifying the print on her wall as "Starry Night" by Vincent Van Gogh.

Why is this child being left behind?

His apparent inability to listen to instructions and remain focused prevents him from finishing his class work. His teacher says he's immature, meaning his July birthday puts him behind children born earlier. She apparently believes he should be demoted to the first grade where he would be on a maturation level with his classmates.

His assistant principal last year hinted that many inattentive children have improved with behavior modification drugs, and that up to twenty percent of the children at his school take them. His father is adamantly opposed to drugs as a remedy. Instead, he drastically reduced sugar from A.J.'s diet and lengthened their discussions of his school day and time spent on homework. And no more television, except shows he approves.

Time will tell if A.J. ever harmonizes with the school regimen.

Meantime, for inspiration, I took him with me to my old neighborhood where I lived when I was his age, to the house and footbridge over the little creek that ran along beside my school. Fifty years before, I crossed this bridge from babyhood into a world of books and learning, proudly presenting myself as a public school kid, carrying my sandwich in a paper bag and wearing the khaki overalls and shirt my grandmother made.

I saw him in almost perfect scale to what I had been to the bridge, to the creek, to the scrub oak trees growing alongside, and to the steps going into the building that seemed so enormous then. I hoped as I watched him climb them that I could suddenly ascertain why he is struggling and I, with less brainpower, knowledge, and worldly sophistication than he has, was that school's star pupil. What is going on?

Like A.J., I had an active imagination, was curious about the world, and was especially interested in eccentric knowledge. Instead of the giants of the Jurassic Period I was interested in the New York Giants of the Durocher Period. I had virtually memorized the baseball book of statistics.

It's not the teachers' fault. In my day, bureaucracy had not yet taken control of education. There was no standardized testing and teachers felt no pressure to use the Snow-Crop Peas assembly-line method designed to teach every kid the same things. My teachers at Santa Fe Elementary in Cleburne encouraged my eccentric interests. As today, all kids were unique. Some were rowdy and not always focused on their lessons. Some of these learned a rudiment of math, language, history, and science. Others succeeded by developing their special interests.

I still believe in the old way. Education should expose children to knowledge and the world's wonders and encourage children like A.J. to pursue their interests. No amount of bureaucracy and medication can improve on this.

Tom Dodge is a writer from Midlothian. If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.