Editor’s Pick
SEPTEMBER 7, 2008 8:03AM

Mrs. Bendetson and the 32 Million Dollar Tent

Rate: 12 Flag

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.

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I have seen the high school many times from the outside and noted the indoor pool through the windows. I had no idea the price tag was so high and I know that was a few years ago, so adjusted for inflation it would be even more in today's dollars. With its weathered cedar shingles it's among the more attractive high schools I have seen. It's unfortunate to read that while the structure is attractive, there are problems with the overall quality of the teaching staff. Just as a start, as you have mentioned, I would think that subsidized housing would be a necessity there as I know how astronomical the home prices are and that would keep away a lot of talent unless the pay scale is more like that of a hedge fund manager.
Wise and a pleasure to read. I particularly liked the metaphor of the concert hall without an orchestra

My favorite teachers were indeed those that seemed ferocious at the time, but who stretched and challenged me to be better, and are the voices I hear in my head to this day.

Thanks for this post :-)
The new Los Angeles Art High School went from $32 million to somewhere around $230 MILLION!!! For a damn high school!!! This on top of the Belmont Learning Center that just opened after 5 or so years of environmental problems it now costs something like $440,000 yearly just to clean the air. The cost of that school, I think, was over $300 million! And they still want more money and with tens of thousands fewer students than 10 years ago!
Outstanding essay. Brings to mind the teachers that made me work hard to call it good - Mrs. Tonne (writing), Mr. Hart (history), Dr. Merritt (composition and debate). I'm still in touch with 2 of these 3 which is not remarkable given who they are.
Not to be a killjoy but there is a flaw in this article that Ms. Bendetson might have caught. It is a factual flaw, and one that needs to be discussed. Education money comes in different pots. Building construction money does not compete with teacher salary money. It isn't that the district in question in the article had to make a decision about whether to pay teachers more or build a new building and chose the latter. That isn't how it works. Buildings are constructed with bond money and bond money cannot be used for teacher salaries. It can only be used for construction. Teacher salaries in most states are set by a formula approved by the legislature. The myth that all education money comes from the same pool is a dangerous one and is circulated around as a negative to prove that schools have their priorities screwed up. So even though Ms. Bendetson didn't believe in grading I do. I give you a solid B+ for your prose and an F on the overall content. The article was based on a faulty premise and not factual. The people in charge of getting a new adequate school built succeeded. Cheer them! The people in charge of improving the lot of teachers are still working on their mission.
Good point, and I stand duly chastised. But it does seem that some basic priority has gone askew here. The building is the manifestation of a set of values and it's a funadmentally destructive one that favors the concrete over the abstract, the obvious over the nuanced, monument over metaphor. To say that the State Legislture is at fault for poor school salaries is to make my point exactly. They're our elected representatives and they tragically undervalue the most crucial element of our educational system.
idahospud's comment is well-written and accurate but essentially a red herring. Yes, the money comes from different pots - except it doesn't. the ultimate pot is the local taxes that are raised both to pay off the bond issue. The teachers' salaries are part of the local school (or school district, depending on where you live) budget, and that budget is paid by - TADA - local taxes, often property taxes.

So Mr Axelrod is basically correct. There is a serious values skewing going on. I have been at many town meetings (I lived in NE for 30 years) when exactly that building v teacher issue came up. I have been a teacher for almost as long as I lived there, and it was always difficult to get people to focus on education issues. Buildings, on the other hand, just as Mr Axelrod says, are tangible. You can see them and people understand why they're expensive and what goes into them because most of them own houses, in the newer areas many may have built their house.

Teacher assessment is something else again. It's intangible, confusing, there are too many variables, too much of it strikes people as subjective. You hear stuff like "The good teacher is the one you like" and "I'm not an expert." What it boils down to is that no one has the time to spend in a classroom evaluating their kids' teachers any more and the issdues have grown so complex they feel overwhelmed.

Buildings are objective. Easier. Here's a test: put yourself on a fund-raising committee and go talk to the rich people who make donations. Approach them talking about donating for a building which might have their name on it and then about donating to that building's operating expenses for 20 years. I promise you the experience will be an education in itself.
Hey, maybe we could tattoo the donor's name on the teadher's forehead! The perfect solution ...
What *is* it with this number? That's what the school district in my little town is asking for, as well.

I'm going to alienate LOTS of other parents, who are gung ho obedient little cheerleaders, by demanding INstruction, not CONstruction.

Yesterday night the school district summoned a "town meeting", which was the sleaziest kind of push-poll "we're soliciting your opinions so as to get you on our side" thing I've seen in a decade.

Teachers - and librarians, counselors, custodians - rate higher than buildings in my world. Thanks for your post.