no avatar

When America was not reckless with the essentials of democracy

Dr. Bill Smith • Jan 4, 2019 at 8:15 AM

During most of my youth, my father was in the Coast Guard. In October 1960, he received a transfer to a base in Groton, Connecticut, moving our family from the only home my sister, brother, and I had known in Beaufort, North Carolina, to one in Mystic, just a few miles from Groton. Because my parents rented an apartment in downtown Mystic in the fall and bought a house outside of town a few months later, I attended three schools in fifth grade, one in Beaufort and two in Mystic.

I believe that year was when I formed my earliest conception of the country I imagined America to be. I was just old enough in 1960 to be swept up in the national excitement about the presidential election between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Because Kennedy was a New Englander, the election was of even greater interest regionally and was a topic of discussion in my classroom and on the playground. I listened to the presidential debates with my family and understood (as everyone did) that the focus of the election was on which leader could best protect us from the threats posed by the Soviet Union. I vividly remember watching Kennedy’s inauguration on television and hearing his famous challenge that we all ask ourselves what we could do for our country. A few months later, he called on Congress to make America the first nation to land a person on the moon, an ambitious goal that we achieved ahead of schedule.

I studied American history for the first time in 1960-61 and fell in love with our nation’s story. I especially enjoyed learning about the Revolutionary War and recall my teacher praising the heroism of Nathan Hale, who was himself a Connecticut schoolteacher and was hanged by the British for spying, but not before he supposedly declared on the gallows, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

The subdivision where my parents purchased their first house had sprung up like a 1960s Levittown and quickly filled with military families, some from my father’s Coast Guard station, but most from the large naval submarine base in New London. They came from every imaginable background but were connected by common values and beliefs. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, children whose fathers served on nuclear-armed submarines told me on the school bus that they had overheard their parents say that we were in the crosshairs of the Soviet Union’s massive nuclear arsenal because of our proximity to that important submarine base. Looking back, I wonder if they dealt with that frightening threat as I did: by relying not only in our trust in America’s military might, but also on the conviction that a nation as good and blessed as ours would always prevail.

When I’ve told people I attended three schools in fifth grade and five additional schools over the next four years, they’ve almost invariably asked me how I coped with so many changes. I believe my parents were the key. As protective as they were of my sister, brother, and me, they never questioned for a minute whether we were going to be okay in any school. We’d arrive in a new town, my mother would enroll us in school, and then she’d smile and say goodbye. The implicit, unmistakable message was that schools are safe places, and educators are good people who will take care of you.

Our teachers always lived up to that expectation and took steps to make us feel comfortable and capable of success. Even as a child, I knew that the teacher who asked me about my interests and then brought his baseball glove to school to play catch with me the next day was just trying to make me feel welcomed in his class.

The problems teachers encounter today far outweigh those of past generations, and they certainly are more daunting than helping kids adjust to new classrooms. Nonetheless, these professionals continue to meet each new challenge and to improve student performance beyond previous levels — despite what most people hear in political discourse.

In previous columns, I have challenged the movement to privatize public education by trying to contribute evidence to a discussion that’s too often dominated by misinformation. But my primary motivation for defending public education is much more fundamental. The America that I imagined us to be was not a country where leaders would even initiate a conversation about abolishing an essential democratic institution and conducting a reckless experiment with our children’s future.

That America was a place where leaders of both parties vigorously repelled attacks from our enemies; where dictators were condemned, not praised; where citizens who made great sacrifices for their country were revered (even if they were captured); where presidents boldly shared their visions and challenged us to commit ourselves to unified efforts to achieve lofty goals. It was a place where strong leaders worked to bring us together, not divide us. In that America, democratic institutions like education were respected, and public servants had the almost unqualified support of the citizenry.

That America was not a country that would privatize its educational system.

Dr. Bill Smith of Johnson City is a public school advocate and retired educator.

Johnson City Press Videos