Full of nostalgia, Lewis Buzbee’s ‘Blackboard’ calls for education reform

08/09/2014 7:00 AM

08/11/2014 10:36 AM

The years from kindergarten to senior year of high school seem interminable when we’re living them and a blink of an eye when our children are living them.

Lewis Buzbee walks us through those days gone by in his new book, “Blackboard: A Personal History of the Classroom.”

“I went to school in paradise,” Buzbee writes. “I was blessed, from kindergarten through grad school, with teachers who were kind to me at the very least, and inspiring at their very best.” He went to school in California’s Santa Clara Valley between 1962 and 1975.

It’s charming to stroll from grade to grade with Buzbee, musing over the origins of blackboards, classroom formations, PTA fundraisers and so on. As he reminisces about his hours behind a desk, the emotional recall of those days bubbles on the surface.

Buzbee spins a tale of fourth-grade blackboard terror. He is called to the board to do long division and botches the problem, to the delight of his classmates. “But that terror is mitigated, to a degree, by the security and order of the classroom. School can, in its best forms, allow us to move beyond our terror.”

Once the chalk dust clears, he tells us, “The blackboard is a wonderful place to make a mistake. It’s not permanent, and a mistake here can be righted immediately … On a blackboard, redemption is possible.”

Buzbee admits that his rosy memories may have created some naivete in his narrative. And the rosiness is almost too much in places — but that’s by design because he’s not simply painting a pretty picture in art class.

“Waiting for ‘Superman,’” a fairly controversial documentary about public education’s ills, was released in 2010. The filmmaker, Davis Guggenheim, followed the progress of several modern-day children in school districts from coast to coast.

Guggenheim’s portrait of public schools is anything but the cheerful 1960s retrospective we see in “Blackboard,” so Guggenheim tempered his take by interspersing clips from “Leave It to Beaver,” “Happy Days” and “School of Rock.”

Buzbee’s tactic is almost the exact opposite. Meandering through his sunny book feels fairly hypnotic — then he hits you with the epilogue in which he gets down to the business of saying, Look, you and I had it good back in the day. Don’t our kids deserve what we had?

It’s impossible to disagree with the epilogue’s rhetoric: “A good school is a place where the child, vulnerable because he or she is a child, should be made to feel secure, comforted, and, from within that security, learn to be adventurous rather than fearful. Better schools create better citizens.”

Buzbee cites a letter that Nathan Bootz, superintendent of public schools in Ithaca, Mich., wrote to Gov. Rick Snyder in 2011: “The State of Michigan spends annually somewhere between $30,000 and $40,000 per prisoner, yet we are struggling to provide schools with $7,000 per student.”

Both Buzbee and Guggenheim regretfully report that they do not send their own children to public schools.

If the book’s epilogue had been a prologue instead, “Blackboard” would have read as a treatise on education, perhaps a distant cousin to Rousseau’s “Emile.” But Buzbee’s call for reform is presented as separate from the main body of the text.

Perhaps he’s allowing that some readers will want to stop at the warm reminiscences, so he refrains from raking his fingernails down the blackboard until he is “Out of School” — the title of the epilogue.

If I’d understood from the time the bell rang that this work was not simply a “personal history of the classroom,” it would have initially come off as less sentimental and more a rallying cry to do something for the next generation of learners.

As our teachers and children head back into their classrooms in the next couple of weeks, I hope more voices will join in the conversation about the state of public schools. “Blackboard” gives us a place to start — by recalling our own experiences in school.

Anne Kniggendorf can be reached at akknigg@gmail.com.

Blackboard: A Personal History of the Classroom, by Lewis Buzbee (Graywolf; 216 pages; $23)

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