Not very long ago in a county not very far away, I stopped at one of those strip malls, the kind lined with ugly, squat storefronts that were punched out in assembly-line quantities during the late 70s and early 80s. The kind of strip mall where one month said storefront might be a restaurant, the next month a chain video store, the next a tattoo parlor and, finally, just the next in a line of boarded-up windows.
This particular strip at this particular time was enjoying a bout of prosperity and featured a pretty good pizza place and a decent Chinese restaurant, separated by, if I remember correctly, an accounting firm.
The wife had requested I pick up some something on the way home, so I’d phoned into the Chinese place.
I’d parked and was walking toward it when I saw a gentleman lurking around the front of the place, cupping his hands and trying to peer inside. (For whatever reason, a lot of restaurants seem to have a limited budget for lighting. That, combined with the aged, thick plate glass, made it almost impossible to discern what was on the other side of the glass at this particular establishment).
Back to the story: This guy was acting hinky as all get-out, furtively trying to peek in, shuffling around, trying again. After years spent working in downtown Asheville, I’d developed a pretty good eye for panhandlers and folks with, shall we say, behavioral disorders. This was different. The man was about my age, was wearing clean if a bit-dated clothes. And something was clearly making him jumpy. I was reaching for the door when he turned to me. Bracing for a tale about his car being broken down and needing money for a bus ticket, this instead is what I got: “Is this the pizza place?’’ A pause as he lowered his head a bit before looking up again. “I can’t read.’’
If you ever start feeling sorry for yourself, remember that story. I sure do. I don’t know how this particular gentleman fell through the cracks, how he came to find himself in the most prosperous nation in the history of the planet without a survival skill most of us take for granted. I didn’t ask. I steered him to the pizza place, got the eggrolls and went home. I did feel like I’d been gut-punched. Do every time I think of it. I guess, in a way, that tale is a bit reassuring. There was a time in this state when education was slipshod.
In the earlier part of the 1800s, North Carolina, where huge swaths of the populace couldn’t read, was considered the most poorly educated state in the South. Forward-looking leaders recognized this, took steps to boost public education, and by the outbreak of the Civil War the Tar Heel state was considered one of the best-educated. Education efforts ran in fits and starts after the war and during reconstruction, but boomed at the turn of the century, when the state embarked on a massive school-construction program that churned out the average of about one new school house a day between 1900 and 1910. Longer school years, free textbooks, school lunches and the like were bricks added to the education foundation as time went along. So now we take it for granted. But with a new school year set to begin, we shouldn’t. We should realize it took a lot of effort, foresight and political courage to get to where we are today, enjoying an enviable public education system. And it’s dangerous to assume it will always be there. It took work to build. In a very real sense, much of that work is under assault. All it takes is neglect – ho-humming when funding gets cut or shifted, when civics or art gets dropped to save a dime, for example – to let that work be chipped away.
That chipping away has begun. Some of it, seeking alternatives to public schools that are truly broken, is acceptable. Some of it, the folks wanting to switch the pot of public money that represents about two-thirds of the state budget into unaccountable private hands, is largely not. There’s a cottage industry out there that spends its days vilifying teachers and administrators, tarring honorable people, for little reason but a desire to get their mitts on that pot of gold.
As school starts back, keep that in mind. We’re fortunate in Western North Carolina to have communities that wholeheartedly back their public schools. Remember to say so to a teacher. Public education is something we can’t afford to lose. The results would be bad. The outcome, at least as I experienced that day not so long ago, looks pretty damned uncomfortable.
Jim Buchanan is projects editor for The Sylva Herald.
Published with permission from The Sylva Herald.