Lileks: Schools talk and talk to us – we talk back

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS
  • Star Tribune
  • July 24, 2014 - 10:48 PM

Home phone rings: It’s a message from the Minneapolis public schools. Seems some kid in one of the summer programs had whooping cough last month. Well, Daughter had been scheduled to attend one of the programs this month, and canceled, so unless pertussis is transmitted by “getting your deposit back,” I think we’re safe. I listened to the message to the end, because you never know what you might miss if you hang up too soon.

Cellphone rings: same message from the schools. I listen to see if there’s additional developments — did we say whooping cough? We meant plague — but it’s the same.

Computer gives a soft bong! to indicate new mail. It’s from the Minneapolis public schools. There has been a case of cough de whoop. Got it.

Head outside and scan the skies for a carrier pigeon, with a note around his little leg from the Minneapolis public schools. Can’t remember if I signed up to get alerts via bird.

An hour later the phone rings again. It’s a fellow taking a survey for the Minneapolis public schools. Would I care to participate?

I almost said, “Yes, because it seems they’re keeping people in the dark about this whooping cough situation,” but that wouldn’t be constructive. The conversation was rather generic. Does your child take the bus? Well, the bus takes the child, when you think about it, but yeah.

“Do you feel welcome at your child’s school?” Yes and no. The door’s locked, of course, and you have to press a button. Someone comes on and says “Mrphl whrphl blurfzzzchh,” and you might as well say “Heroin microwave puppy missile,” and then the door buzzes open. It’s a piece of theater, but apparently “I’m here to pick up my child” is a magic phrase that washes away all suspicions. You can probably get into CIA headquarters with that phrase.

“Do you feel that the school is supportive?” Inasmuch as it doesn’t collapse under its own weight, sure. If you mean the teachers, it varies. Put me down as “supportive as a sufficiently knotted hammock.”

Last question: “Do I have any suggestions for improvement?”


Yes, I do. The other day at Target I was shopping with Daughter, and forced her to go to the horrid and insanely cruel BACK TO SCHOOL section, which is like dragging a cat on a leash into a lake that’s on fire. I found the list of school supplies, and was stunned by the second entry:


Now. When the contents of Daughter’s locker were brought home at the end of the last school year, included were several pristine glue sticks in their original packaging. It has been my experience that teachers constantly overestimate the amount of gluing required in the educational process. Daughter has never come home with corrected homework that spills from the binder, making me think for heaven’s sake, don’t they glue anything? Never seen “Glues well” on the student evaluation.

“Dad,” Daughter said, “that’s for kindergarten.”

And so it was. We looked for a list of high school supplies. There wasn’t one. There’s no list for high school. For a moment I was glad, but I felt useful getting the school supplies. Felt like a dad. But being a dad means watching the things you have to do — get to do — diminished one by one as they take off and spread out.

High school. Ever see that Atomic Doomsday Clock, Mr. Survey Taker? The one with the hand showing how close we were to midnight? That’s how I feel about high school, with 12 o’clock as COLLEGE. But you caught me at a bad time, because she’s off to camp this week and the house is quiet. Back soon. Plenty of summer left.

Plenty of time to go the lake, where you see all the watchful moms and happy kids, the occasional dad who picks up a kid under one arm and goes into the water in his shorts and T-shirt. The runners, the dog walkers, the classic car that cruises past with the music playing loud, the plane that roars over and fades away, leaving the sound of a cicada to sing a reply. That perfect Minnesota July day, the 4th long forgotten, Labor Day a distant outpost on the other side of the deep forest of August. You want to freeze it all in place. And then, Mr. Survey Man, you realize that you can, if you just sit in the shade and let the puppy wander to the shore and play tag with the waves.

It’s the perfect time in the perfect place. You don’t check the tweets. You don’t Instagram the bandshell. You don’t Facebook your contentment. Mostly because you forgot your phone in the car, but you get the point.

But it never lasts, does it? You, Mr. Survey Taker, called on a July day to remind us of school, just as Target put up the big cardboard pencils like the axle of Time’s Winged Chariot, because soon enough it’s done. The cicadas fall silent, as if scolded by the school bell. If there could be improvement, it would be this: School doesn’t start until the first leaf turns. It lets out the last day of May. This precious ration, it’s what we live for; it’s what we try to remember in the bleak, aching days of January.

Give them two more weeks of childhood. Two more weeks in the great green world.

“More effective metrics for individual teacher performances,” is what I actually told the Survey Man. Don’t know what the school system will do with the survey results, but I’m sure I’ll get a phone call telling me the survey results are now available. I’ll listen to the end. You never know what you might miss if you hang up too soon. • 612-673-7858

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