Back to School: Revisiting California's Golden Age of Public Education

In Blackboard, Lewis Buzbee compares the progression of his daughter, with his earlier journey through California's public schools. Things have changed.

Blackboard: A Personal History of the Classroom

Publisher: Graywolf
Price: $23.00
Author: Lewis Buzbee
Length: 216 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-07
Author's website

Above: Blank blackboard with colored chalks and eraser image from

A product of the golden age when California's postwar public schools were ranked first in the nation, now a writer of children's books, Lewis Buzbee returns to where he started, nearly a half-century ago. From kindergarten, he moves through his elementary, junior high and high schools, before summing up his stint at three institutions of higher learning, and then his career teaching writing to extension students. Throughout, he briefly explains how education has developed, and he blends light analysis with his own quest as a student.

In the Santa Clara, pre-Silicon, Valley, he began in 1962 at Bagby Elementary, one of many sprawling, open-aired, low-slung, baby-boom, suburban schools, this one built a year before he was born. He finds much the same expanse today, and he juxtaposes his younger self as he stands in the same classrooms. The poet and creative writing instructor that he is now surfaces, as in this passage: "Mrs. Babb would be grading papers at her desk, and I would be standing just outside the classroom door, thwocking the erasers together, teacher and student working in concert somehow, me watching the words and numbers and ideas from the previous week as they drifted across the playground."

While whiteboards and dry-erase markers replace the chalk-dusted, eraser-powdered, durable black or green boards, those lasted two decades, he tells us, while today's stolid computers may be turned over every two or three years now.

He shows how kindergarten, as a garden to cultivate the minds and bodies of children, grew from German reformer Friedrich Froebel in 1837; the roots of "school" burrow back to the ancient Greeks, who used the word for learning together as derived from the one for "leisure time", denoting what for millions of children elsewhere in the world may still be an unachievable dream, the freedom to learn.

This opportunity, when Mrs. Babb called upon young Lewis to show his work at the black or white board, comes with struggle. "School can, in its best form, allow us to move beyond our terror." Buzbee relates his own fear of "showing" math problems, and he reminds us how school, with supportive teachers (one can never fully account for the same patience in one's classmates), can overcome our uncertainties.

He reveals how, not only at Ida Price Middle School but in his bass guitar lessons on the side, being a successful learner demands one take risks. He mastered skills by memorizing times tables, musical scales, or French conjugations. These mental exercises, as with a guitarist figuring out riffs, cut grooves into the mind by repetition. These years of drill and discipline, as he recounts from lessons in junior high and at Branham High in San Jose, turned him away from a working-class household, where he struggled with doubt, into a confident, college-bound student.

Part Two tells of his shift from orientation to matriculation. While the transformation as a young adult in the mid-'70s was less swift than the two years of junior high, where he entered liking Bobby Sherman's sappy "Honey" and left humming the Beatles' menacing "Helter Skelter", Buzbee kept testing himself. After a year at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he returned to the Bay Area to be near a girlfriend while attending the local junior college. He praises evenly the highlights of both places, followed by the completion of his degree as an English major at nearby Santa Clara.

After that, he rejected a career as a high school English teacher for one as a writer. Successful enough to live in San Francisco, he returned to the classroom to teach creative writing, first at Berkeley and then the University of San Francisco in extension programs. He adds his own continuing education as a student, this time learning how to draw. Meanwhile, he compares the progression of his daughter, Maddy, with his earlier journey through California's public schools. They have changed, certainly.

Educated at a Montessori kindergarten, a French immersion grade school, and a Friends junior high, Maddy represents a generation raised by parents unwilling to commit their children to decaying city schools even as they wish they could improve. As my wife and I are the product of Californian public schools in that golden age (and former teachers in the Los Angeles schools ourselves in a far more tarnished era full of cutbacks, unrest, population growth, and declining standards among both faculty and students), we had sought alternatives, however rickety or utopian, for our children, educated within our city's similarly declining system.

So, I understand Buzbee's dilemma. He may sidle past certain problems; he tries to solve others. Ambitiously, he concludes with seven strong recommendations.

First, he would halve K-12 class sizes. Doubling salaries, while tripling those in junior high, he would have new teachers mentored, giving sabbaticals every fifth year. He'd happily, showing his NoCal leanings, tax away to pay for this, as well as classrooms reliably warm in winter and cool in summer, stocked with supplies, and surrounded by open space.

One casualty of urban overcrowding on many Californian campuses is the loss of fields and P.E. for overstuffed two-story buildings, rather than open-plan, classroom structures resembling motels. He does admit that desks have increased in size, to account for the spike in childhood obesity.

Finally, Buzbee would enable daily time to stare out the window. He'd also abolish bake sales to raise funds for strapped schools.

This ambitious plan, with a touch of Swift's "Modest Proposal", pivots around the simple fact that schools are not factories, and mechanization is not the answer to what human enterprise can do. As a father of a private high school student, Buzbee assures us he will be happy to pay higher taxes so that the rest of the public school youngsters in California (and the nation) can enjoy the golden age of education which he, myself, and millions once did. If only my sons, his daughter, and millions of our neighbors' children (and adults) could do so now.


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