Better late than never

Posted on October 2, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

It was heartwarming—but also bittersweet—to read in the news last week that Kirby School District had successfully demonstrated its qualifications for a waiver from the state education requirement that any school with an enrollment of less than 350 be consolidated.

It took a full school generation for the Arkansas Legislature to finally stifle the stupidity contained within Act 60 of 2003, which effectively elevated student head count above every other education quality measure.

During that 12-year period, small schools with above-average test scores and graduation rates, and below-average costs-per-pupil, were shamefully closed and merged into larger (and sometimes poorer-performing) districts. Some of the lost high schools have familiar names linked forever with the cause of preserving quality rural education: Paron, Weiner, Delight.

The wheels of progress can grind even more slowly than those of justice. To its collective credit, however, when the Arkansas 90th General Assembly acted in 2015 on the proposed legislation to allow waivers for high-performing schools with fewer than 350 students, the results reflected a concordant return to common sense: It was approved unanimously by votes of 91-0 in the House and 33-0 in the Senate.

A dozen years had not only demonstrated the false promises and fallacious pretensions behind Act 60, but also revealed the ridiculous folly of closing schools where students were not only often setting the curve for academics and college readiness, but also operating more economically than megadistricts with miserable proficiency percentiles.

Kirby’s high school earned a School of Innovation designation in 2016, and its average ACT score is 16 percent higher than the state composite mark. Along with Kirby, the Strong-Huttig school district also was granted a waiver. Both schools possess an all-important indicator of quality education, which is powerful community support and parental involvement.

All schools that receive waivers from Act 60’s consolidation requirement must demonstrate that they are not in fiscal, academic or facilities distress and that they have no violations of accreditation standards.

Many people, small school patrons, rural education advocates and other volunteer organizations worked long and hard to right the wrongs perpetrated by Act 60. The unanimous approval of waiver legislation was essentially a standing ovation to their efforts, and good schools that would otherwise be shutting their doors are instead still successfully serving rural communities and children.

Universal acclaim

Hillary Clinton’s new book has caused commotion around a number of subjects, but at least one unifying excerpt surfaced in the news recently.

In her memoir, Clinton quoted a couplet from John Greenleaf Whittier:

For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: “It might have been!”

Whittier was one of America’s renowned “fireside poets,” which also included the venerable voices of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., James Russell Lowell, William Cullen Bryant and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

These 19th century writers were the first class of Americans whose poetry proved more popular than British authors, and their influence was enhanced by their long lives and highly visible careers.

Clinton’s selection is from “Maud Muller,” a poem published in 1856 about a chance encounter of two people from different worlds (a barefoot rustic maiden and a polished judge passing by who asks her for a drink from a spring) who each imagine life married to the other. That moment of imagination is fleeting, and both go on to predictable lives: The judge weds a wealthy woman; Maud marries an unlearned farmer.

The snippet in Clinton’s book is a mere tease. I’m adding a few more verses here to serve up a better sampling of Whittier’s sumptuous mastery of word, rhyme and meter.

After the judge sips from Maud’s tin cup, the pair share small talk of haying and weather and flowers and trees. As they parted unspoken dreams arose in both, yet the world drew each back into their respective station, and life goes on.

But the lawyers smiled that afternoon,
When he hummed in court an old love-tune;
And the young girl mused beside the well,
Till the rain on the unraked clover fell.

In older age, both occasionally still fondly recall their happenstance meeting; Whittier addresses the lamentations in the lines just before the phrase Clinton used:

Alas for maiden, alas for Judge,
For rich repiner and household drudge!
God pity them both! and pity us all,
Who vainly the dreams of youth recall;

But in closing, the devout Whittier favors fervent faith over futile melancholy.

Ah, well! for us all some sweet hope lies
Deeply buried from human eyes;
And, in the hereafter, angels may
Roll the stone from its grave away!

Alert reader revision

Last week I credited Bing Crosby with singing Irving Berlin’s song “Abraham” in the movie Holiday Inn.

That was half-right.

However, as an astute reader noted (from memory, no less!), the lyric I singled out was actually sung by Mamie, played by Louise Beavers, with her children on her knee.

Kudos and thanks to Stephen Caldwell for helping set the record straight on a beautiful scene from a great film classic.

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