Virginia Long was the first teacher I really liked. During my years at Lincoln Grade School, in the 1950s, kindergarten and each of six grades were composed of two classes. In 1956 I was assigned to the 4th grade class taught by Mrs. Long.
She was a large woman – not fat but big, tall and broad shouldered, towering over us, usually in loose-fitting print dresses that swished as she moved about the room in great strides, heels pounding the floor. She had long arms that could fix quickly on a target – usually a student – like a sabre. Mrs. Long seemed to be older than my mother but, I thought, not as old as my grandmothers. She saw everything and knew everything, and she had the generous face and radiant smile of a woman who loved youngsters and teaching more than anyone could imagine.
Mrs. Long never lost our attention. She spoke clearly in a deep, resonant baritone with a forgiving lilt, a voice that encouraged us to show her that we could learn, and liked it. She rarely lost our attention. It was a delight to listen, whether she was explaining long division or the meaning of a story we had read.
Make no mistake. With trouble-makers her speech elevated and turned thunderous, and her eyes flashed with menace. A defiant student once talked back. It never happened in her room again.
But when we absorbed her lessons, her thrilling stories and explanations, the compliments flowed with her pride; somehow, she made us want to do well, to learn, and to tell her about it.
Most of us hated to leave 4th grade and Mrs. Long. Two years later we learned that she had been transferred to the 6th grade. We lucky ones drew her once again. The others got Mr. Shannon, who was also the principal.
VIRGINIA LONG was the first of many teachers who showed us the pleasure in “study,” in acquiring knowledge and understanding, and seeking more of it. We were learning to learn. Over the decades, gratitude never left us. Roughly 20 years ago our high school class began to invite these former teachers to our reunions, which are every five years. Several have accepted, and have joined in the ritual reunion photograph. Mrs. Long died before we began to issue the invitations; many others have accepted, for the mutual pleasures of seeing former students, sharing long-held versions of classroom adventures, and hearing from us again how we have appreciated their instruction.
NOW IMAGINE something else. Imagine spitting on them. Imagine showing them your back, heaving a great sneer their way and telling them to get lost.
This is what Kansas teachers now face from government circles. No group among the publicly employed has been treated as roughly and with as much contempt at the Statehouse as our elementary and secondary school teachers. Feral dogs get more respect.
The Kansas Legislature, its herds of rubes and Trump worshipers and know-nothings, has in recent years set out to return local schools to the standards that brought us the 1925 trial of John Stokes, a teacher in Dayton, Tenn., charged with bringing evolution to the classroom. It wasn’t that Stokes had asked his students to think about the science, but that he had asked them to think at all.
This is happening in Topeka. During the 2015 legislative session, one salvo after another was heaved at local public education and the people who comprise its footings. Among them were abolishing the school finance act, slashing state funds for education and the robbery of teacher pensions to fill holes in a $400 million deficit brought on by cuts in income taxes for the wealthy. Other assaults (some of which became law) included measures that would:
– Bring criminal charges on public and private school educators for using curriculum material viewed by others as “harmful” to minors. The legislation, still festering in the House tea bag bin, was vague, largely without definition, leaving such terms as “obscene” and “harmful” to the imagination;
– Issue $1 billion in revenue bonds to shore up teachers’ and state employees’ pensions raided to fill part of the budget hole. The money was trumpeted as aid for schools – a lie. The plan is to sell bonds, invest the proceeds in the stock market, and watch the profits roll in. What will roll in, is a Ponzi scheme, and history’s first margin call on what had been a teacher retirement fund;
– Prohibit job-related paycheck deductions, designed chiefly to forbid payroll contributions for (teacher) union dues. Language being tricky, the measure affected a long list of deductions for other purposes, including charitable and non-profit contributions;
– Require school district employees to be fingerprinted and submit to criminal background checks every five years. It’s not clear who pays the $50 cost for the investigation. The measure affects 35,000 certified educators and 27,000 non licensed employees working in districts statewide. (Total cost: $3 million.) It was not explained why the bill is silent on the legions of volunteers and college students involved with children in local public schools.
A MID-JULY review of the state’s Licensed Personnel Report told the Kansas Board of Education that more than 3,700 teachers had left Kansas, retired or taken jobs outside education after the recent school year – a 73 percent increase (1,500) from two years ago. There is little doubt about the cause of this exodus or its massive increase. “Instead of funding our schools, legislators are vilifying our teachers,” said Mark Farr, president of the Kansas National Education Association and high school science teacher.
The number of teachers who left local schools is roughly 15 percent of the 24,000 statewide faculty. That number is bound to increase. Teachers are threatened and dispirited. Many have said that given the opportunity, they would follow colleagues who have left to teach in another state. Others would leave the profession no matter where it takes them.
This is a far cry from the days of Virginia Long, when teachers were among a community’s treasured resources. The Kansas we once knew has gone away. Here was a place that produced national models in school finance, in rural medical training, in producing Rhodes Scholars, in our universities’ biomedical and agricultural research, among other milestones. We’re becoming a desertscape, venue for the great exodus, led on by a governor and tinhorn legislators proud of their abject ignorance, their loathing for anything learned, their worship of all things crude and unwashed. All this for a governor’s great “experiment,” his hick’s paradise, its Glide Path to Zero – zero income taxes for the rich and zero education for the rest, soon a place of nothing for nobody but us. And Virginia Long nothing but a memory of how things once had been long, long ago.