My great grandmother, Ada (Burgess) McConnell taught in a one room school house in Summer Hill, N.Y. Her son (My grandfather Halsey McConnell) served in the army during W.W.II. My grandmother (Lucille) was a woman of faith and family. Her neighbors, her church, all of them and all of us were among her primary concerns.
I remember them all well.
Ada lived to be 96 years old and was always a gracious and clever woman. When I was a young boy, she was adept at keeping me busy looking for four leaf clovers, swatting flies for a penny a piece, or going through photos from long ago-telling me about the people and places in them. She never stopped being a teacher. My grandmother was determined to get us to church. I can recall a few different head pastors in the church, many of the “regulars”and while it wasn’t the most favorite place for a boy to be on a beautiful Sunday morning, that country church was part of my childhood. Sunday church in Sempronius often came with an after church stop at the general store for a candy bar-possibly a slight detour to the rod and gun club for their chicken barbecue. Grandma was good at getting us to church on time, no matter how we attempted to thwart her. She had a comb at the ready. Tissues and grandma-spit were the wet wipes “back in the day”. I remember thinking one time that getting my church clothes dirty would be my ticket to unsupervised outdoor country trouble instead of church.
I had underestimated my grandmother.
From the depths of the house, fashion from the 50’s showed up. Probably having once belonged to my own father or Uncle Denny (his younger brother), the clothes were close enough to my size to get me redressed, far enough away from current trends and my size to get me beat up if I had been going to school instead.
My grandfather was practical and wise about the world, while still being inappropriate in the most awesome ways. If you could have combined W.C. fields, Groucho Marx and Archie Bunker, you would end up with someone like my grandfather. He lived to a respectable age, but it’s likely that lifestyle changes might have added another decade to that life. If I close my eyes and imagine him, it’s with a beer in his hand. A cheap beer. In his other hand is a cigar that was smoked down about halfway, but gone out long ago and more of a placeholder in his mouth to be possibly re-lit at some point, but maybe not as well. Chewed down, black and soggy on the end, I sometimes catch myself wondering why he didn’t just chew tobacco, but then I remember that he simply chewed his cigars.Sometimes there were car rides after the kids came back from church with Grandma, where my grandfather and my father would take the front seat, me and my younger brother would be in the backseat. The trip would often be a long and winding circuit to Moravia to pick up a 12 pack, maybe a watermelon and a Sunday paper, sometimes other things. Often the trip back would stick to the back roads: taking us up behind Fillmore Glenn State Park on an indirect course home.
Dad and Gramp handing back empty cans, us boys handing up the refills.
My grandfather would drive casually, left elbow out the rolled-down window concealing the beer held just out of sight in his left hand. Right hand on the steering wheel somewhere between 12 and 1 o’clock and that cigar/pacifier in between his index and middle finger when it wasn’t in his mouth. Sometimes we’d go by the birthplace of Millard Fillmore. Sometimes we’d stop and see Charlie Peak, who sold discount shoes. Sometimes we’d go by the Summer Hill nudist camp, and my grandfather would say “Keep your eyes open boys-you might see something!” He was the best kind of wise-ass you could ever want to know. He really was laughing with you, not at you.
Gramp used to tell stories about his time in Europe while he was in the army. The German soldiers captured, he said, were decent guys-just doing what they had to do. The officers now, they were the Nazi’s, the arrogant bastards. You could tell they thought they were smarter than you. Not that smart I guess now, were you? The soldiers would try to run to be on the work detail Gramp was guarding. They liked him so much that Gramp could grab a nap and they would work and wake him if an officer was approaching, and he had to tell those prisoners to not be so enthusiastic about running to be on his detail or the jig would be up. They were, Gramp said, happy to have been captured. Their treatment and conditions as prisoners of the Americans were far better than the conditions they had been in.
Dad tells stories about Gramp. About how when Gramp was a boy the local law was a constable. An honest to goodness man on a horse who would patrol the area, staying the night at one family’s house or another as he made his rounds. Gramp dumped wood-stove ashes in the constable’s boots one time while the constable slept. Another time, skipping school to go pheasant hunting, Gramp encountered the constable. They made an agreement that if Gramp laid low and didn’t get caught, the constable wouldn’t tell. When Gramp returned from the war, that same constable picked Gramp up at the train station. He had moved up from the horse and now had a car. The constable took Gramp out for a drink before delivering him home.
This was a time when it wasn’t who you know, or how high you could climb above them and/or others-it was about how you treat the people you know.
My experiences as a child were interesting, most of the places I spent time at, the things I saw/did, the people I hung around…they are the things you hear about kids today (kids who struggle with the responsibilities of the school day) and shake your head in disapproval. I cannot ever remember a time when my parents were together, but I never once remember seeing them argue, or even have unkind words. I lived with my mother, had bookshelves full of books, family gatherings, lots of cousins to play with…I had a variety of questionable experiences and more within the context of a family of people who were all there for each other, any time, all the time, no matter what. My models were those of responsibilities first, informed by a wide array of people who had little in terms of material wealth but a vast amount of character and integrity, and usually a very colorful vocabulary. Somehow, I seem to have turned out okay.
What has happened in our country that makes it so difficult for people to succeed and why are public schools suddenly being held responsible for citizens’ failure to thrive?
The version of reform being forced upon our system of public education is only advancing the lack of integrity we have seen advancing upon our society. Reality TV portrays a path to success that includes the lowest of low behaviors: the promotion of self-indulgence, greed and dishonesty as the path to success.
I should not even know who Honey- Boo-Boo is.
Or the Kardashians.
Nor should the name Carlos Danger mean a thing.
Lloyd Blankfein and Goldie Hawn get top billing at an Education Nation event, Diane Ravitch is invited to watch the spectacle from the audience.
Is it really schools that need to be reformed?
Is our problem really an achievement gap, or an integrity gap?