Nantucket got a brand new high school a while ago. It cost something like thirty-two million dollars. It's packed with every facility you could imagine, from a swimming pool to an auto body shop. It's holding up well -- just got re-painted. It ought to be the pride of the island, but all the parents I know are sending their children away to school, or desperately wishing that they could.
What went wrong? What's missing?
As I wrote those questions, I couldn't help thinking, what would Mrs. Bendetson say about them? Too dramatic, too glib? Was I trying for an easy effect? Is there a better way to get my point across? I can almost see her green markings on the side of the page. Jane Bendetson was my eleventh grade english teacher at the Dalton School in New York City. Teaching was a kind of crusade to her. She made war on all my bad habits, took no prisoners with my laziness, conquered my writing and liberated it with discipline. She showed me that the correct word is better than five apporximate ones. She made me understand that there is no excuse for imprecision, that no thought or feeling should be rounded off to the nearest cliche. Once I described Manhatt6an after blizzard as "A winter wonderland of white". I seem to recall being pleased with the alliteration. She out neat green line through that treacle and wrote in the margin, "Go outside and really look at the snow. Write what you see."
So I did and I saw a city incongruously clean, all its sharp edges rounded off, every garbage cn and mail box wearing dunce caps and bowlers; I saw empty streets with helpless buses slewed sideways across them, and festive New Yorkers cross-country skiing up the avenues, celebrating disorder on their way to work. I tried to see it as Mrs. Bendetson wanted me to, remembering her favorite quotation from Henry James: "A writer is one on whom nothing is lost."
I turned in the new paper. She didn't grade it -- she rarely bothered with grades -- but she gve me a smile and said, "Now, this is more like it." Not finished, not quite good enough, still short a rewrite or two -- but better. It still needed fewer adjectives and more verbs, fewer judgments and more details. It got them, too -- and forty years later I still feel her peering over my shooulder, green pen in hand.
So, what does this all have to do with what's missing from our state-of-the-art thirty-two million dollar high school?
Becaue Jane Bendetson is what's missing. Which isn't to say there are no good teachers here -- of course there are, some good ones and some inspired ones. But they'd be the first to tell you there should be more. The thing is, a great teacher doesn't need any elaborate facilities to do the job. A great teacher could change your life holding class in a tent in a field somewhere.
Other communities have realized this and taken extraordinary measures to recruit teachers: subsidized housing, tax breaks, discounts at locl stores, free transportation -- and even that most revolutionary seduction, good salaries. Couldn't some of the money tht went into the lavish construction budget of the new school been set aside for teachers' pay? Apparently not. Part of the reason for that, and for the lack of recruitment efforts, might be that it's hard to find gifted teachers and hard to know when you've got them, since they chafe at 'teaching to the test' as the No Child Left Behind rules mandate, nd are frequently ad odds with academic bureaucracy. Often the best teachers are shy around parents and colleagues. But if you want to know which teachers are effective, just ask the kids. They know. They know which ones are just going through the motions and even when those teachers make life more comfortable by giving short assignments and easy tests and grading on the curve, kids don't prefer them. They know which teachers bring a subject to life and even when those teachers are tough and stringent and a little scary, kids love them -- and remember them, forty years later.
Finding those teachers should have been our first priority, but it wasn't even on the list. There are reasons, it's understandable: great teaching is intangible and new buildings are not. You can look at all that spanking new construction, and feel that something serious has been accomplished, that problems have been solved. The renovated High School is our monument, the proof of our good intenti0ns.
But without a true passion for education, it's just masonry and timber and glass. It's nothing: a gorgeous concert hall without an orchestra, a beautiful museum with no art on the walls. Or perhaps, more precisely, one of those model houses realtors use to help sell units in a new sub-division: tastefully decorated, luxurious, with two-sink bathrooms and stacking washer-dryers. With everything, in fact, except a real family to live there and soften the decorator's touches and turn it into a home.
To make our handsome school something more than architecture would take more teachers than we could possibly get now. The money that might have been used to lure them was spent long ago. We lost our chance but we got what we wanted. The new High School has n excellent swim team; the whole community enjoys the pool. That's faint consolation, because it has cost us more that we can calculate, more than the millions we spent on it, more than we can afford.