viva las incultas

I have a post in the pipeline about what it’s like to grow up in Las Vegas. I have been distracted by a more pressing topic: what it’s like to grow up in a public education system recently deemed the worst in the nation, so bad that parents are considering moving out of state to avoid the horrors of watching their child be instructed in algebra by a homicidal maniac. (In Mr. Matthias’s defense, he didn’t become a homicidal maniac until well after he left his position at LVA. That said, I did once witness him throw a roll of toilet paper at a student.)

I’m pretty forthright about the fact that the Clark County School District is a facsimile of a sham and that I learned next to nothing during the thirteen years I spent in school there. (Except how to build a bridge out of toothpicks, but I think I’ve mentioned the bridge-building song before.) I graduated first in my class at the second-best public high school in the district at the time and I couldn’t tell you the first thing about any of the scientific disciplines… also, I drew pictures of the word problems on the A.P. Calculus exam instead of solving them because I lost hope after integrals came on the scene. I shouldn’t be the valedictorian of ANYTHING except the Class of Crossword Puzzle Solving and Making Up Legitimate-Sounding Words. Yet there I was, at the graduation of the class of 2007, speechifying like I had learned how to balance chemical equations or read Julius Caesar in its entirety. I guess I got an early start in learning how to bullshit.

I think it’s most effective for me to enumerate a few hard facts about what it’s like to grow up in the state with the worst public education in the country. And keep in mind while you read this that I went to schools in affluent areas from kindergarten through eighth grade and attended a selective performing arts magnet high school with a GPA requirement (not to mention an audition). I was a LOT better off than most kids in Las Vegas. Nevertheless…

I’ve never done a chemistry experiment. When I started my freshman year at Vassar, I had never written a “paper” or anything of note that was longer than a five-paragraph essay. I didn’t know what a direct object was until my French teacher taught me during sophomore year. We didn’t learn that in freshman French because our teacher couldn’t control the class long enough to teach us anything beyond “bonjour” and “je m’appelle.” There were 34 students in my A.P. English class senior year. We were allotted a single year to learn all of world history. It never occurred to me that people my age might study philosophy or economics or computer science; those were subjects reserved for Ph.D. candidates who had, in my mind, magicked their way into the upper echelons of academia. Meanwhile, I was taught every year until the eighth grade what the parts of speech were because invariably, half the class didn’t know what a noun was.

I remember, distinctly, reading A Separate Peace during summer vacation and wondering what it would be like to go to an elite high school in the same way that I wondered what it was like to ride in a rocketship.

To write this down makes me angry. It makes me furious! I have a sharp and agile mind and I feel like, despite my parents’ best efforts and their success in turning me into at least an avid reader and critical thinker, what could have been the cognitive equivalent of a cheese grater is instead the cognitive equivalent of… cottage cheese. No Child Left Behind, my ass. Nevada is too poor to pay for chemistry experiments and instead we’re left with hapless chemistry teachers trying desperately to ignite some spark of interest in their students by mass-printing black and white diagrams that explain Avogadro’s number through a convoluted geographic metaphor. And as a result, I’m 23 and last month I did a puzzle hunt with my coworkers at the software company where I work and I couldn’t contribute anything useful to the puzzle about gamma decay because guess what? I don’t fucking know anything about gamma decay. NOTHING.

Often, it’s a matter of funding. Many of my teachers were brilliant, kind, and interesting, but you can only do so much with 30 to 40 children or teenagers in a classroom and outdated textbooks and no money for science experiments and broken air conditioning in May and so few classrooms that every five weeks, you have to spend the day herding your 30 fifth-graders across the school instead of teaching. My high school library looked like a sad, picked-over used bookstore.

Just as often, it’s a matter of heinously poor teachers. Every student in Clark County, at least, has a war chest of horror stories about their terrible teachers. How about my junior year English teacher, who taught us a grammatically incorrect, bastardized form of MLA citation?* For that matter, how about my eighth grade English teacher, who taught us Animal Farm without mentioning that it was allegorical? I am dead serious. If I hadn’t been such a raging geek, I might still wonder why George Orwell wrote that bizarre little story about murderous pigs. How about my friends’ history teacher, who taught her students that dinosaurs roamed the earth until a few hundred years ago? (Actually, this might have been the anatomy teacher. Either way… rough. Rough times in public education.)

I had a handful of absolutely stellar teachers during my childhood and I would be remiss to leave them out of this diatribe. The venerable Jill Hampton, whose A.P. English classes were the stuff of legend at LVA, taught a writing philosophy that has become the backbone of my career. The passionate and slightly mad Shea Dokken, who brought to life the connections between history and the current age. (Also, his motto was “Normal People Suck.” It’s valuable when you’re sixteen.) Together with Bob Zambon and the late, great Jim Akins, they kindled in me a deep interest in history, literature, and culture and a passion for social justice. There were others, but those four stand out because I continue to consider their lessons on a regular basis.

But seriously, guys, I’m 23 and I’ve never done a chemistry experiment. SOMETHING IS NOT RIGHT.

I have no concrete suggestions to improve the state of education in Nevada. Read more. Make your kids read more. Discover money growing on trees. Fire all the teachers who aren’t the ones I mentioned in the previous paragraph (by which I mean “fire all the teachers who aren’t Mr. Dokken,” since the other three are retired, retired, and dead, respectively). Hire more teachers who don’t suck. Pay them decent wages. Enact a state income tax to fund our new, competent teachers. Reinvent the wheel. Discover an alternate universe. Prove Fermat’s last theorem. Cry. Do something, because I have so much faith in my beloved hometown and it will not succeed if we let all of our children’s brains turn to cottage cheese. Not everyone can be a stripper! Someone’s gotta be a software engineer!

*She told us that quotations ending with a non-period punctuation mark should be cited as follows:

“My English teacher was an idiot” (Cass 36)!

instead of the accurate:

“My English teacher was an idiot!” (Cass 36).

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