Opinion: Local grade school gave me optimism for future

I saw the front-line troops assuring Thomas Jefferson’s vision for the preservation of our democracy: America’s public-school teachers

My job titles are pediatric oncologist, medical school professor and college chancellor and chief executive officer. Every now-and-then, however, my principal job title is “grandpa.”

While on a recent work assignment as grandpa, my daughter gave me my list of duties for the day. On the top of the list was to help my son-in-law take my 5-year-old granddaughter and 7-year-old grandson for kindergarten and second-grade orientation, at the start of the new school year at the High Point Elementary School of the Fulton County public school system.

High Point Elementary School is a Title I School. Under a federal law called “Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as amended by The Every Student Succeeds Act,” financial assistance is provided to schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families. The law is designed to help all children meet state academic standards. High Point enrolls about 670 children from pre-kindergarten to fifth grade.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

After finding a parking space, we followed a crowd of little children, some excited and some nervous, and their parents into the school. I had been instructed that there are a list of tasks you have to accomplish for elementary school orientation: find the name of the child’s teachers, locate the room assignment, hand in the correct forms to the school nurse, sign up for your number in the queue for school drop-off in the morning and pick-up in the afternoon if the child isn’t taking the bus, meet the teachers, drop off your child’s school supplies of pencils and crayons and help the child get accustomed to the new classroom.

I got to see the future of America at High Point Elementary School. Dozens of smiling teachers and administrative staff, wearing identical T-shirts, were cheerfully directing lost parents, welcoming little children and liberally dispensing praise and hugs. Some of the teachers had their academic credentials listed on the classroom doors and in handouts. These women and men were the products of the tax-supported state universities of Georgia— what we used to call, when I was young, “the state teachers’ colleges.”

The elementary school was old, and clearly well-worn by generations of little feet tramping the hallways. The original building was erected in 1963 with additional wings added in 1987 and 2007. It was, however, scrupulously clean, orderly and clearly under the supervision of an administrator with a firm hand on the tiller. The walls were festooned with signs about respect, courtesy and good listening skills. My 7-year-old grandson had told me who was in charge. He showed me a picture of “my principal, Dr. Danielle Miller.” To Principal Miller, I tip my hat.

Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1787 and expressed his view that “above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to, convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.” He supported “a system of general instruction, which shall reach every description of our citizens from the richest to the poorest … .” Jefferson advised that “if the children are untaught, their ignorance and vices will in the future life cost us much dearer in their consequences than it would have done in their correction by a good education.”

I can say that I saw the front-line troops assuring Jefferson’s vision for the preservation of our democracy: America’s public-school teachers educated at America’s tax-supported colleges.

And then there were the students: children of every shape, size and all the colors of the mosaic of a diverse America. Every little child was carefully under the supervision of mom or dad or grandma or grandpa. And every parent or grandparent was busy making sure that their children are safe, comfortable and ready to be educated to take their place in the world.

There was, however, a disturbing sight at High Point Elementary School. A police squad car was parked at the front door. A uniformed police officer was standing in the lobby surveying the crowd. My daughter had forewarned me that during school hours “the school is locked up tighter than a drum.” It was a reminder that too many Americans are more attached to their semi-automatic firearms capable of the mass slaughter of children and are insufficiently concerned about the right of a 5-year-old to peacefully learn their ABCs and arithmetic. It is wrong that children should worry about learning how to hide under their school desk to protect against an active shooter. I don’t know if any members of Congress who have opposed sensible gun control legislation are taking their children or grandchildren to public elementary school orientation this month, but if they are and they can sleep at night, may God have mercy on their souls.

Elementary school orientation was finished. We all headed home for some playtime before summer days turn into school days. And at least one grandpa finished the day feeling hopeful that the future of America looked a little brighter than he had previously thought.

Edward C. Halperin, M.D., M.A., teaches history of medicine at New York Medical College, where he is also chancellor and chief executive officer. This essay represents his views and not those of the college.