The ABCs of B2S

Yeah, it's that time again. Time to start planning for school.

Illustrations by Brian Breneman

Remember that strip of pictures and letters that wound around the top of the chalkboard in first grade? It had a picture of an apple for an Aa and a Dd for da-dog and a goose for Th“The goose says, ’Tttthhhh,’’ which was pretty much the end of school enjoyment for those of us children who were missing our front teeth. “No, honey, not ’Ssssssss,’ let’s work on it during recess.” (OK, maybe you had a mother for “Th.” Will the humiliation never end?)

Obviously, school left some of us deeply scarred, so we thought we’d try to come up with a better alphabet to help parents and students better prepare their minds for heading back to school in a matter of days. We’re sorry, it’s just something we do every year. You’ll be all right. It gets better.

ACT (and SAT).  These are the targets at which students will aim, or be aimed at by their parents, from nursery school to 12th grade. As the students become aware of the importance of these be-all and end-all objectives, they will learn other important things about the world—that one size fits all, and assembly lines are the way the world works. And when the tests are behind them, they will be introduced to that empty feeling that will keep coming back when things of importance don’t live up to their billings.

Books. While textbooks seem to be a fading medium for the dissemination of knowledge, we know students will still be carrying backpacks around that weigh up to 30, 40, 50 pounds. Still, the move to e-textbooks is far from a perfect transition, as those of us who prefer e-books can attest. While e-books can broaden and deepen discussions with outside links to databases or websites, sometimes charts and graphs don't render correctly, the internet is not yet ubiquitous, and its spottiness may in fact help to reinforce the cycle of poverty. And nobody ever forgets to charge their textbook.

Class. Go to class. That's pretty easy to do when you're in elementary school and your mom drops you off in front of school or the bus pulls up right in front of your house, and you can't really think of anywhere else you could be, but it's tougher to remember to go to class when you're older and you have friends with cars and drugs. But go to class. You can fake your way through a lot of stuff at school, but you can't convince anybody you've been doing the schoolwork when the teacher doesn't know what you look like.

Dropouts.  This is a deadly term, one with such formidable negative power that some students stay in school just to avoid it. So, naturally, the powers-that-be stopped using it, opting instead for at-risk. (In Tennessee, “The term ‘ ‘school leavers’ is preferred here over the more pejorative ‘ ‘school dropouts.’” Tennessee Youth Community Needs Assessment, 1994.) Just two months ago, an arm of Tufts University issued a report, Don’t Call Them Dropouts. So dropping out becomes easier when the term being faced is the less stigmatizing at-risk. As it happens, though, as time goes on, education folks are now also trying to redefine at-risk. National At-Risk Education Network: “There is some serious debate over exactly what the term ’at-risk’ means.” It’s hard to keep up.

Education. Let’s be honest. Kindergarten through 12th grade is filled with hours of unadulterated boredom, better things to think about, and nuggets of things worth knowing. Now, let us put one notion to rest: You will use algebra after high school. You will use it in college, and if you can neither do algebra nor get accepted into college, you can expect to earn around $20,000 a year less than someone who got a bachelor’s. Do you know how many fewer dollar meals that is a year? Well, first, you’d have to figure out what amount of tax at 7.725 percent plus what number of dollar meals is equal to $20,000. That’s why we all have liberal arts educations.

Failure. Most teachers, even the bitterest, cruelest, most child-despising ones, don't like to fail students, if for no other reason, than that it makes the teachers look bad, too. The point is not to despair. Even if you're really struggling with the material or personal problems, the teacher still wants you to succeed. Even the shitty teachers want you to learn. (And there are shitty teachers out there. You'll have to suffer through some no matter what. If it's possible to be great at something, it's also possible to be terrible at it.) Generally, as long as you show up to class, complete every assignment, and at least attempt to learn the material, you'll be able to at least grab that D-.

Guns! Just kidding. Gifted and talented.  The unlimited capacity of education to categorize and label every student is at play here. This would be the opposite number of special education students. Unfortunately the labels usually come before consideration of the impact of labels. “Family therapists, school counselors and school psychologists should anticipate immediate difficulties for siblings, and to some extent parents, when a youngster is identified as gifted.” (“Labeling Gifted Youngsters: Long-term Impact On Families” by Nicholas Colangelo and Penny Brower, 1987). Be careful what you wish for.

Homework. There are so many better things to do once a person gets home than to crack those books and make home life as soul-suckingly dull as the time spent in those hallowed halls. We're not advising draconian methods for motivating students to shut down the cell phones, social media and gaming, we'd just like to point out that the difference between an ‘A' and a ‘C' for a child who doesn't have other social or emotional issues almost always boils down to completing homework and handing it in on time. We know it can be burdensome, but it's got to be done.  

Ignorance. On the one hand, ignorant is what you'll be if you don't get a good education. But on the other hand, it's somewhat amazing how much ignorance you encounter while obtaining an education. Some of it comes from know-it-all students who just need to sit down, shut up, and quit spouting their ignorant ass opinions. But grown-ups can be just as ignorant, and many of them have surprising gaps in their education, like a PE teacher who can't name a Shakespeare play or find Gaza on a map. The greatest ignorance, though, comes from the proto-fascist hall monitor types, the school police and vice principals of discipline and the like, who often seem to think that power is knowledge, rather than the other way around.

Jerry rigged. This is the way education is put together in Nevada. The Fourth Ward School on the Comstock is still standing today because it was a world-class, state-of-the-art facility built when the silver bonanza was flush with funds for good works. It's also about the last time that happened. Ever since, Nevada has been doing education on the cheap. In the 1950s, Mary S. Doten Elementary School in Reno had Quonset huts in the playground as supplementary classrooms. Sixty years later, Robert Mitchell Elementary School in Sparks has mobile homes in the playground as supplementary classrooms. Nor has much changed as technology became as important as buildings. “Thirty minutes a week in a lab with old computers to practice math facts is not going to cut it,” a Washoe teacher said this month.

Kids. Summer can be a time for the crew, the 1-10 kids in the neighborhood who choose to hang out together. Sometimes, summer is an opportunity for kids who prefer their own company to chill without any social pressure. But when school is in session, everyone has to deal with people who come from different backgrounds, have different interests, who have a variety of skills and skill levels. While society has learned many lessons with regard to acceptance, unsophisticated people can believe their homelife is the gold standard and all others must conform. Look for allies; it gets better.

Lust. You know that Van Halen song “Hot for Teacher”? Actually, if you’re in high school right now, there’s a good chance you don’t know that song, since it came out in 1984, probably at least a dozen years before you were born. But go check it out. It’s up on YouTube. It’s very educational.

Mentoring. This is the kind of thing that once made school a joy for some, when a student discovered that one teacher who had an impact on the rest of her or his life. Naturally, like the parents in Peanuts who organized “snow leagues” to regiment children making snowmen, education officials decided many years ago that letting a mentor situation develop naturally was not enough. It had to be organized. Now many schools and school districts have mentoring programs. That’s how mentor turned into a verb, which added a side lesson to the process for students—that it’s OK to convert nouns into verbs, the language be damned.

Nouns. Nouns are people, places and things. Often a teacher will bring this word up in grammar classes. Teachers often complicate grammar beyond necessity (although they’ll often tell you we’re unnecessarily simplifying grammar). Trust your trusted news source. There are eight parts of speech—verbs, nouns, pronouns, adverbs, adjectives, prepositions, conjunctions and interjections. If you know the meanings of these words and can identify them in a sentence, you’ll be qualified to talk in post-graduate classes with doctoral students. Pro Tip: We know people who still sing the Grammar Rock song, Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here, when they’re trying to figure out if something’s an adverb:

Organic Chemistry. Mark Twain once said, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” It's really easy to think of yourself as a prisoner at school, as an inmate being directed and told where to go, when to go there, and what to do once you get there. And that's even how a lot of the teachers and administrators might see you: as a subject in their educational kingdom. But that's not how it is, really. Those people actually work for you. They're there to serve you. It's your education. They're just there to facilitate it. Figure out what actually interests you and make sure that's what you learn, whether it's organic chemistry, operational support systems or origami.

Permanent record.  “That will go on your permanent record!” students are told from day one. Of course, there is no such thing, not with the kind of detail Big Teacher describes to terrified first graders. There’s a transcript, but except for deportment grades, it contains little about conduct. The permanent record does serve a purpose, however. It teaches students an early lesson about Authority and how, as in the cases of marijuana, Vietnam and Iraq, those in authority will happily lie to us. For our own good, of course. The real permanent record is the internet, so don’t put anything on there that can get you indicted later.

Questions. It doesn’t matter if you’re kicking your first little darling off into the kindergarten meat-grinder or shooing your angsty 17-year-old into her last year of high school. You’re going to have questions. Often you can go to the internet. For example, the Washoe County School District’s page is at Each of Washoe County’s schools also has a specific home page. Those can also be accessed from the District’s main page. For questions that can’t be answered without direct human interaction, call 348-0200. Just don’t ask why Washoe County Superintendent of Schools Pedro Martinez fired Schools Police Chief Mike Mieras. Your child’s security is none of your business.

Reading. Yeah, sure, writing and arithmetic both also contain the letter R, but there's a reason that “reading” is the lead-off hitter of the “Three R's,” the trifecta of essential educational skills, which goes beyond the fact that it's the only one that actually starts with the letter R. Reading is arguably the single most important thing a person can learn how to do, in school or otherwise. Because once the skill of reading is mastered, all other knowledge immediately becomes more accessible. Learning how to read makes learning everything else a hell of a lot easier. Of course, since you're able to read this article, you probably know that already.

Student teacher. This was, of course, a delightful interlude in the lives of students, a new and inexperienced teacher, and the bravado of students was always on full display: “We've got a new teacher, and we're driving her to tears every day.” The truth was more practical. Students don't realize it at the time, but these are often some of the best weeks of a class. They see the course work through a new set of eyes, always knowing that the regular teacher—who may be sitting through some of the student teacher's sessions in the back of the room—will be back. Even some of those regular teachers say they get a lot out of the process.

Tangents. And we’re not talking about the straight line touching a circle, although, really, why shouldn’t we? We’re talking about the meaningless stuff that has come to define the education circus in the United States: sports, cheerleading, cliques, basketball shoes, cell phone quality, proms and senior pictures. It has been conclusively shown that people who pursue the adoration of their peers have more problems in the years past high school. Don’t believe us? Be yourself. You’ll achieve, and you’ll be able to concentrate on the things that matter, like your GPA and SAT and BFFs.

University. Higher education might not be for you. It’s not for everybody. And it’s a mistake to spend your high school years fixated on some dreamy university, as though your teens years were some mortal coil on which to toil in order to reach some divine collegiate afterlife. There are unique things about elementary school and high school that are to be cherished. And some people even have a good experience in middle school—or so we’ve heard. But all that said, here’s something to keep in mind: college is much, much better than high school.

Vocational education.  This is one of those parts of education that acts like a Rorschach test. Some people disdain it, others see marvelous things in it, some people go all through school barely aware of it. In real life, except for poor teachers, there is virtually nothing about it that doesn't contribute to a good education. Students who are really into a life of the mind but find themselves in woodshop can suddenly discover skills they never dreamed they had. Students who feel oppressed by academic subjects nevertheless know they are competent because of what they learn in more practical classes. Don't dismiss shop.

WTF. If you play close attention, and you keep your sense of humor close at hand, you will have many WTF moments in school, everything from “WTF, you don’t pronounce the ‘ ‘b’ in subtle,” to “WTF, the Fibonacci sequence shows up in nature all the time, that’s like proof of … infinite variation,” to “WTF, running shoes that are too big to run in don’t just look weird, they’re actually stupid,” to “WTF, if I don’t point out the irony inherent in having more people incarcerated in the land of the free than in communist China, maybe this government teacher won’t give me a shit grade.”

Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters. Sometimes, at school, it might feel like you're some kind of weirdo, some kind of mutant who doesn't fit in with the rest of the students. It might seem like you're about to start shooting lasers out of your eyes or something. Well, there are more options than ever as far as private schools, charter schools, vocational academies and other alternatives to traditional public schools. Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, also sometimes known as the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning, depending on the continuity we're talking about, is a fictional school for young people born with extraordinary abilities like telepathy, superhuman strength, or blue fur covering their body, and helps them hone and develop their skills so that the students can join the school's resident crime-fighting team, the X-Men. The point is sometimes the right school can be all the difference between feeling like a freak and feeling like a superhero.

Year-round schools.  Using schools to ease children into adulthood used to be the norm. But the Reagan and Clinton years put the burden for increased productivity in the world marketplace on the school system, and thus on students. “Let’s be like Japan” was the fad under Reagan, and Clinton claimed the nation had to be “like a big corporation competing in the global marketplace.” Billionaires like Bill Gates and Eli Broad started steering education toward treating school systems like businesses, getting quantifiable results to meet business needs. The legacy of all that pressure on students has long since been documented, but hasn’t resulted in reforms because the money that the Broads and Gates hand out comes with strings. So the education systems serve business instead of students through techniques like year-round schools.

Zoology. Sure, if your child ends up in one of those high end, Bill Gates-funded, Ivy League prep schools, maybe he or she will get to study some zoology. We’re talking more prosaically than that. How about that moose who’s going to tell him how to dress? Or that snake who’s going to hiss its gossip about her out of jealousy? Maybe you or your child will get a chance to study that ass who disrupts the class for everyone. One of the greatest things about K-12 is it really teaches you about life—both the parent who is trying to help the child negotiate those dear old golden rule days and the child who can only hope it’s over soon.