Old School

by Reid Fitzsimons

Back in perhaps 1966 or 1967 the eternally progressive Montgomery County (Maryland) school system introduced “New Math.” Presumably the education elite at the time determined that Old Math was passé and a more hip method of teaching was required. This was just at the time my math education was beginning in elementary school, and I recall three specific New Math tenets: properties imbued with the names associative, distributive, and communicative. I suspect beyond these words I learned math in pretty much the same manner as prior generations, and the New Math and its proponents long ago went the way of King Ozymandias. I wonder how many times since the educational theorists, or perhaps the textbook publishers, have decreed, “We’ve been doing it wrong all this time, and now we finally we have the ultimate and correct teaching methodology!”

In sixth grade, 1969-1970, we were outside playing kickball during recess. Do kids still play kickball, or have recess? For reasons I don’t recall Billy McKinney came over and decked me with a sucker punch, giving me my first fat lip. Billy and I had been friends for years, more of the second tier type, and I don’t recall what I did to provoke him though I don’t think is warranted his knuckle sandwich. Mrs. Brandt, who seemed to be 100 years old but was probably younger than I am now, quickly sized-up the situation, sat us down and offered us her wisdom of many years, told us to shake hands, and that was that. I didn’t shed any tears though Billy cried a little, and within another day or two we were friends again. Somehow I suspect this sequelae of a similar situation would be a bit more ominous these days: would there be an investigation, would the recipient of the fat lip be offered victim counseling, would the aggressor be evaluated by a psychologist and sent to impulse control counseling? I can easily imagine some school administrator, feeling compelled to make a statement, declaring, “We have a Zero Tolerance policy for violence and this matter will be dealt with accordingly!”

A few years later- I’m thinking ninth grade and 1973- Kensington Junior High (KJH to those in the know, though the school was long-ago demolished) was assigned a new principal, Dr. Silas Craft. Dr. Craft was a black man, and I have no idea if the eternally progressive Montgomery County school system was using him to make a statement or if he was simply receiving a promotion following years of dedicated and competent service. As far as we were concerned he was a nice enough guy and our thoughts didn’t really go beyond that: in ninth grade you’re thinking about girls and being cool or at least being less of a dork; for the most part no one cared who the principal was. I add the “for the most part” qualifier because one day we arrived at KJH to find spray painted on an outside wall in impressively large letters, “Silas, you’re wanted back on the plantation, Massa Tom.” Not too long ago I contacted a friend of mine from those years to see if we shared the same recollection, and we did. We believe the person who did this was named (using his initials) BJ. BJ was not an obvious culprit in that he was relatively popular and kind of straddled the jock clique and the hippy crowd. I have no memory of what might have happened to him following this incident, but supposedly, when we were young adults and long gone from KJH, he killed himself. In short order the graffiti was sand blasted away and otherwise things seemed to quickly return to normal without any particular fanfare.

I shudder to think what would have transpired if this happened today, especially given that KJH is (was) located in the relatively affluent suburbs of Washington, DC. Actually we know the script in full by now: the feigned outrage, the barely hidden ecstasy of social justice/hate industry celebrities as they parade about in front of the cameras, the news media reflecting upon “if such hate can be found this close to our nation’s capitol what does it say about us as a people.” There would be demands for a national conversation, introspection, and a vague suggestion that someone or something is to blame. Anyone expressing the possibility that this was sadly but simply a troubled 14 year-old boy with a can of spray paint would be shouted down with righteous fury. The truth, whatever it is, must always be subservient to the narrative.

Ninth grade at KJH gave way to the eager anticipation of High School, and for many of us this meant Walter Johnson HS, or WJ. WJ was fed by several different Junior Highs so, besides starting out at the bottom of the school pecking order there were new fellow students to meet. That summer, for me and many others, the Most Important Thing In The World took place: try-outs for the JV football team. I was in reality pretty awful but one day during practice/try-outs I severely sprained my wrist. The fact that I kept on without complaint apparently impressed the coaches and I’m pretty sure I made the team based upon heart and certainly not ability; the Joy was nevertheless fully experienced even as I was destined to be a third-stringer. A fellow third-stringer was a guy from a different Junior High named Dave Aselin, and he was the first new guy I befriended. Actually most of the people I hung out with were sent to a different High School so with the exception of JV football I didn’t have all that much to do with WJ, but Dave proved to be at least a friendly acquaintance. The following summer, 1974, the next Most Important Thing In The World took place: driver’s ed and getting a driver’s license. Dave Aselin also obtained his license and within a few months he was dead in a car wreck.

40 plus years later I can still picture him and how it felt when news of his death was learned- I think the principal made an announcement on the PA system though I’m not sure. There was a mix of sadness, disbelief, and I admit a small amount of “I’m glad it wasn’t me.” Obviously he hasn’t been forgotten and I imagine his family and close friends were devastated, but I don’t recall the student body in general dwelling on what happened and life moved on. Today in such circumstances I believe there are ubiquitous professional grief counselors made immediately available for anybody even tangentially affected to discuss their feelings. I don’t have anything against professional grief counselors but could never imagine seeking one out. While thinking about this topic a while ago I asked the superintendent of our quite small and rural school district if there was a grief counselor in employ here, and indeed he said there is. I think he said it is actually a primary job position but with some additional areas of responsibility. I wonder if there is any science truly showing the benefit of this institutionalized form of transient therapy, and if a network of local volunteers could fill such as role instead of paid counselors.

Society has changed since the span of time discussed in this essay- mid 1960s to mid 1970s- and I’m disinclined to think for the better. For things both great and small we too often opine, “Someone should do something.” We expect and even yearn for the stamp of officialdom, a systemic or bureaucratic response. We don’t, however, ask ourselves if there is actual benefit from any particular intervention, nor wonder about the costs, financial or otherwise. It’s as if responsibility can be outsourced, that once an authority or professional or expert has been notified our consciences are assuaged. And if something small and local becomes needlessly blown out of reasonable proportion, that’s okay; we might even derive a fleeting feeling of importance for having witnessed whatever transpired. Personally I prefer Old School. Billy McKinney shaking my hand in apology after giving me a fat lip was enough: no hard feelings and move on from there. It seemed to work pretty well.

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