Education, and choice

Seven New Smyrna Beach Senior High School graduates: James R. Davis, Jr. ’71; Dr. William M. Davis, ’73; Kate (Davis) Cumiskey, ’80; Richard V. Davis, ’76; Front Row-John D. Davis, ’79; Carol Ann Davis ’88; USN Commander Philip D. Davis, ’84

As a child, I was educated in the public school system in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Coronado Elementary, Chisholm Seventh Grade Center, New Smyrna Beach Junior High, and New Smyrna Beach Senior High–that’s the list of schools I attended before college. I was also dual-enrolled at Daytona Beach Community College my senior year of high school at the local campus started by my friend Michele Diesen’s mother, Jeannie.

I grew up in a large household, with five brothers and one sister. Both of my parents attended college in Georgia; my father at Georgia Tech, my mother at Georgia State. My mother worked in the guidance office at NSB Senior High; my father was a lead designer at Kennedy Space Center for NASA. Neither of my parents ever expressed the expectation that I would go to college. If I asked them what they wanted for me, the answer was always, “to be happy.”

Although my test scores were high–particularly in reading–and I was identified as a National Merit  Commended Scholar my junior year of high school, I was not a very good student. I worked full-time from the age of 14 on, and was a year ahead in school, a year younger than most of my classmates. I was an interested student, if the classes were challenging; a poor student in classes which taught me nothing new. My goal was to graduate, marry, and leave the state; which I did as rapidly as possible after high school. But, in the end, my home environment and education served me very well. I eventually earned a Bachelor’s in Education from the University of Florida–an excellent school at that time, and one of the top ten schools for exceptional student education in the nation–then a Master of Fine Arts from the University of North Carolina. All six of my siblings have higher degrees; three of us terminal degrees in our chosen fields of study. Every single one of us chose public service. Several are pioneers in their fields–my brother Bill Davis invented a non-intrusive mobile mass-spec lab for environmental field work; my brother John, environmentalist for the Attorney General of New York, successfully brought the largest environmental settlement, ever (N.Y. vs. G.E.) about. My brother Rick was a private first responder after the Haiti earthquake, and stayed three years. My oldest brother, Rusty, left his private psychology practice to respond after Katrina to Biloxi, and never came home. He helped redesign mental health disaster response and is now with FEMA. Yet, we weren’t pushed to college.

I think a lot about how our parents influenced the seven of us to not only pursue higher education, but to choose public service and to be life-long learners.  A large part of it had to do with example. Our parents were always reading.  Newspapers, news magazines, novels, anything they could get their hands on. They read to us, constantly, and we all discussed what we were reading around the table at dinner. Grades were important, and discussed–if one of us did poorly in class, our parents worked to find out what the problem was. They knew each of our teachers personally and volunteered at our schools. Our parents helped us with long-term projects and with our homework. They kept a set of encyclopedia at home, and encouraged us to bike to the library frequently. They took the time to discuss world events and conflicts, and to listen to our ideas. If we made an argument,  we were required to support it with evidence. We were required to listen to each other and speak civilly. We were never allowed to fight–not even to wrestle–or to own weapons. We were taught that the greatest weapon is the human mind, and to sharpen ours.

Our parents often took other children in who needed a place to stay, and our household was busy and messy. Nobody got their own room. We watched the news together at night and sometimes a little T.V., but we rarely had time for that. If we wanted spending money, we were required to work outside the home for it–there was no money for allowances. My parents, together, did the majority of chores and we weren’t required to help, but we wanted to. One of the biggest privileges at home was to be allowed to be the one to wash dishes after dinner. So, we loved to wash dishes. My point in all of this is, it’s all about perspective. Our parents wanted us to be happy, and they were happy, and they were educated and served others for a living. They didn’t make us the center of their world (with seven, that just wasn’t possible), and through their service to us taught us to look outward rather than in.

When it came to school, we were taught to make the best out of bad and good situations. That teachers are people, and get tired and irritable, and we were to be kind to ours. If we had a bad teacher–which a few of us did from time to time–we were taught to shut up, hunker down, and do our best. School was a microcosm of society; and, life is not fair. We were taught that if we wanted a good education, we had to work for it. It wasn’t up to the educators to make sure we got the most out of school, it was up to us, the students. The teachers’ job was to guide us, present the material at the appropriate time in our educational development, and it was our job to push ourselves, to question. To quest.

The reason all of this has been on my mind is I have noticed that some students are developing into helpless, lackluster learners. They don’t reach for more knowledge within the context of school, particularly in nonpreferred subjects or topics, and have little stamina for the struggle forward which makes those synapses jump and promotes mental growth. Although as a parent I have always been a “yes Mom” myself, and given my sons as much as I possibly could, I am alarmed when I see how much is handed to children. How rapid the access they have to information is. How little their parents emphasize the skills of research, working for knowledge, and sticktoitiveness. Children need to learn how to push through difficult tasks. Sure, assistance is what the adults around them, including teachers, are there for; but they have to learn how to independently work, and how to reach forward for learning. The learning, itself, needs to become the reward for the work.

When I see the complaining parents are doing all over facebook and out in public about public education, I am not at all surprised at the lackluster behavior of their children. Because parents are role models for their children. If your children see you complaining about following the rules, or the ineptitude of the rule makers (and that includes the Superintendent and the Board) you can’t expect them to be respectful, or to not whine. When you complain about these things, you are being a terrific role model of how to be a whiner. When you don’t teach your children that they have to follow the rules, like wearing school uniforms, you are teaching them to be anarchists. Try, instead, showing your children how to right wrongs; how to change things. Show them the great American systems which are in place like free, appropriate education, and the power of the vote! Teach them to make logical, respectful arguments based in facts they can show and support. Let them see you sit down and write a letter to the editor, to their teacher, to a state representative. Teach them to write a letter! Let them see you invest the time it takes to implement proactive change; not rant, rave, and give up.

School is not there to spoon-feed your children their educations. School is there to guide them in accessing those educations. They, and you, have to do the work to get them there. Choose to show your children how to be life-long learners, and how to look outward to the world, rather than be the center of it.

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