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Friday, March 30, 2012

The Giving Tree and Public Schools

One of my favorite authors, the late Shel Silverstein wrote several short but profound books. Among the most well known of his works is The Giving Tree. The thin volumes with the cartoon-like drawings are easily and often mistaken for books intended for children. However, the messages embedded within the stories are powerful, especially my personal favorite, The Missing Piece Meets the Big O, and should be welcomed by adults and people of all ages.

As I sat in my office this afternoon, during a rare pause in an otherwise hectic day made more vexing by the looming budget crisis that seems to envelope all public school districts in the state of New York, my eye caught The Giving Tree peeking out from a lengthy shelf of books.

That's when I made the connection. The tree in The Giving Tree that grew weary and forlorn as the little boy matured from a young child to an old man reminded me of the relationship our country has had with its public school system. Free public schools started in the mid 1800's with Horace Mann as a vocal proponent and leader of the cause. By the end of the 19th century public schools outnumbered private schools in the nation. The public schools were heralded as a purveyor of democracy, offering children the opportunity for social mobility and the prospect of Horatio Alger's "rags to riches" path to advancement. Public schools were considered central to the mythical "melting pot" so often ascribed to the assimilation of mass waves of immigrants pouring upon the shores in search of a better future. Public schools have provided a steady stream of distinguishing individuals who have stimulated progress, earned countless Nobel prizes, birthed incredible innovations, and become difference makers on the world stage.

Yet, the current state of public schools sadly resembles Silverstein's tale of the transformation of the tall and robust tree to a small stump. The many uses of the tree have been exploited and slowly ravaged over the years by the boy as he grew to a man. Reduced to a mere stump, the "tree" remains a proud servant and nonetheless valiantly offers comfort to the now elderly boy who sits down and rests on the stump.

As you watch the brief, original video (see link below) narrated by Silverstein, please think of our public schools condemned to a fate like that of the tree - its leaves collected by ardent critics, its apples picked by alternative schools, its branches stripped by regulators and policy-makers, its trunk cut by sustained and deep budget cuts.... Please watch - and tell me what you think.

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