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Autumn, education and chilling out

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image The leaves don’t change much on a palm tree in autumn in Florida, but the color of the sunsets more than make up for that. Mitch Traphagen photo

Can you feel it? Little by little, the oppressive, seemingly relentless sweaty grip of summer is giving way to autumn.

By Mitch Traphagen

Can you feel it? Little by little, the oppressive, seemingly relentless sweaty grip of summer is giving way to autumn. Oh sure, it still gets hot during the day, but the air is starting to feel different. It feels better, much better. I know there are people in Florida who love the summers here, just as there are people in my former home state of Minnesota who love the long, horrific winters. I’m not among them — in either camp.

When I was young and working in a skyscraper in downtown Minneapolis, I would make jokes about people who had retirement goals of moving south for the winter and north for the summer. I simply could not understand why people would spend the best years of their life working towards something they might not even live long enough to see. I’ve admitted this before in this column but I was an idiot when I was younger. Now, after a few more decades of life, I’m seeing the appeal of doing just that.

Starting in May, I begin to look forward to one thing: September. After a long, hot and humid summer, the first overnight low in the 60s usually happens sometime in September — usually, but not always. It didn’t happen last year; it was early October before the mercury dipped below the 70-degree mark. And now with the 10-day forecast taking us to the end of the month, there are, as of press time, no 60s in sight. But at least the air somehow feels better. I know that summer is losing its grip, and I remain hopeful, ever optimistic that the crisp air and blue skies of winter are indeed just ‘round the bend.

When I was in my 20s, I apparently thought I had all of the answers I needed and the future would take care of itself. Well, now it’s the future and answers seem to be in short supply. I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with coasting on the unknown. I want a plan, I want to know that next week, next month and even next year will work out OK. However, more and more, there are no guarantees in life.

Well, it turns out there are some guarantees, but most aren’t the good kind. With the arrival of autumn (there’s one good guarantee!), kids across America return to school and suddenly the problems of our educational system are making headlines. Now that I’m an old guy, I’m going to sound like one. When I was a kid things were different. Both the students and the communities generally respected their teachers. For a kid back then, disrespecting a teacher carried a guaranteed price: being sent to the principal’s office, detention, or being smacked across the face — perhaps all three. The community was not motivated to disrespect teachers so that wasn’t much of a problem.

I’m not advocating a return to corporal punishment, but I can think of a few places where it could be selectively applied — primarily to parents who consider teachers to be daytime babysitters and have zero involvement in their child’s education and to legislators who make their marks by demonizing teachers. OK, violence is never the answer, but maybe just a few selective whacks wouldn’t hurt all that much.

I have no doubt there are some bad teachers out there, but I know that no one in their right mind goes into education for the money, especially in Florida where teacher salaries are among the lowest in the nation (Yay! We’re 47th!). There are so many better ways to earn a living and to make use of an increasingly expensive college degree than having to deal with unruly children and that is just the administrators and elected officials with ever-new and changing plans for gutting saving education. The students can be a challenge, too.

It is hard to make an argument that the US is still a world leader in education. Yes, just like everything in adult life, teachers need to be held accountable for their performance, but that needs to be applied appropriately. A school is not a business or a corporation that can set benchmarks on a particular product because there are so many variables in play — human children are not widgets. Besides, I’d love to see some of those legislators in Tallahassee have a few hard benchmarks applied to their performance. After all what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, right? Education for a child is not limited to a classroom, sometimes the TV and computer must be shut off in favor of a book. Yeah, I know, I’m just a complaining old guy. Next thing you know, I’ll be screaming at the neighborhood children to get off my lawn.

As a nation, we seem to be perfecting the unattractive tendency towards picking on the easy target over the real culprit. It’s easy to point the finger of blame at an underwater homeowner facing foreclosure, but it’s hard to figure out exactly what person is “the big bank” that remains highly profitable after knowingly making bad loans. In that same vein, it is easy to blame teachers for our own failures as a society. I’m not fond of the warm and fuzzy “it takes a village” phrase, but I do know that it takes more than a beleaguered teacher to educate a child. Most parents know they have a lot of responsibility, too. Legislators need to bring forward realistic solutions for the common good without driving their own personal agendas. And, in my opinion, it can’t hurt to afford a little respect to the people who have to deal with our precious little Johnnies and Suzies day in and day out. I think within the classroom and as a society we could support more and vilify less. And, oh yes, the mentality that every kid “deserves” a trophy was probably not the idea of a teacher.

Perhaps, with cooler temperatures on the way, I just need to chill out. I’m not in my 20s anymore and I’m not so willing to let the future just take care of itself. But autumn is on the horizon, the kids are back in school, and Florida weather changes from oppressive to glorious. I wish I still had all of the answers, but many of the answers in my life turned out to be wrong, leaving me with more questions than ever. Lacking answers, all I can do is to try to be a decent human being and get involved in finding solutions rather than setting straw men aflame. In other words, ignore all that I wrote about thwacking a few people. I’m older now than I was a few paragraphs ago, I’m still learning from my mistakes.

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