Louis C.K. famously said, “The meal isn’t over when I’m full. The meal is over when I hate myself.” I may or may not agree with him (okay fine, I do agree, so what?). But in many circles, this goes a bit further, so that the meal isn’t really over until someone hauls out the Squares in which we live our lives, and everyone hates on them, too.
It’s a ritual, in the same way that we linger over the collection of teas, rose and hibiscus and chai, with honey and almond milk on the side. We pick over the last crumbs of pie and no one wants to be that person, the one who finally finishes it off.
And meanwhile, we will debate those squares, fiercely, circuitously. It may be political parties one day, or it may be people. It may be both political parties and people. Often, it is schools.
First, which school to go to? Which one has the exact balance of hashkafa and college acceptance rates for my preschooler?
Then, once the decision is made, there is the infinite tweaking. This teacher is learned but dry. That teacher is dry but connected. The other is remarkable -the very epitome of what education should be- but no one else will ever match up to her, so now what?
Even after the children are long gone and graduated, I imagine the conversation will continue, with speculating what could have been different for my child-genius, what should have been different.
Possibly in New York, this conversation has a special ring of privilege to it. But no matter where it happens, and no matter whether parents pay private school tuition, or taxes and send to public school, some version of this is in place. And that’s okay. This is one of the things that elevate humans from animals: fire, thumbs, and frenzied debate.
But, let’s be real here: just about every school in this country, while certainly flawed, has potential and opportunity that surpass far too many in the world.
Also, significantly, the key to extraordinary lies outside a simplistic deliberation between different squares.
I’ll admit it; I too have been guilty of this. Even if I sometimes questioned the whole machinery, having taught in traditional settings, mostly it suited me just fine. So when I came across an ad to develop curricula for a family of homeschool children, I was curious but skeptical.
The parents were venture capitalists and well-known innovators, possessing a natural instinct for reinvention and even disruption. “We want them to learn through their passions,” James, the father, said. All the basics would be in the mix too, math and science tutors, standardized testing, and a rich social component of classes with other homeschoolers. “But we want them to take the lead, to create, to find inspiration. And it would be your job to guide them in actualizing that.”
What he was suggesting was a model of no models. And after all the visceral discussion over tea (juxtaposing Square A and Square B, when they were pretty much the same thing), I had to wonder: What could students learn if we dropped the squares altogether?
Something clicked as we spoke. “I feel like I was born for this,” I told him, breathless.
On the first day, I met with one of my students, Paul, a naturally motivated and bright teenager. “Who are you?” I asked him, feeling it out. “What do you love?”
“Food.” He smiled with Manhattan confidence. “And cooking. And food,” he said again.
So I ran with this. I taught him about the history, culture, and geography of different countries and we made recipes from around the world. We read food-focused literature, analyzed it, and the annals of food writing. I had him develop, design, and write a cooking blog, complete with polished restaurant reviews. We studied the science in molecular gastronomy, farms, cheese-making, and coffee production. After we visited a candy shop, I arranged for him to intern there, learn the craft of making candy and the art of business. I hired a chef to come teach him new techniques each week, and plan, budget, and execute a supper club. He also worked as a volunteer at a community garden in Hell’s Kitchen that contributed to food pantries in the city. And along the way, his love of food kept snowballing into something bigger and infinitely curious.
If I had ever questioned whether a mere hobby could really be a platform for expanding the world, that year answered with a resounding yes. Profound student ownership was the key.
Now, obviously this is not going to be the larger umbrella for most kids’ learning. And anyhow, many schools and families already have variations of this in place, to complement a traditional education.
But more significantly, the experience has returned me to those conversations over tea, hating the squares, hating ourselves in some way. And I’ve been left to wonder: what would happen if we moved from debating the same old thing, to just reinventing it?