Hold Hands and Stick Together: the Next Educated Mind May Change Your Life

Looking over Ojai, CA | Photo: Ken Lund/Flickr/Creative Commons License

It's entirely possible that school will end in May in Ojai. This will be a celebration in some quarters, but a dire loss in others.

Ojai, of course, isn't alone. What's happening in this small town sixty-five miles north of Los Angeles mirrors what's happening across California. There's not enough money for education. And so education is diminished on many fronts. In Ojai, if Proposition 30 doesn't pass, the kids get out three weeks early. I know there will be some celebrating because I was a kid once.

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But I am an adult now, and while this is a handicap on many fronts it does allow me to see beyond summer. So do other adults. Which is why Proposition 30, which will establish temporary taxes to fund education, is on the November 6 ballot. Similar ballot measures are hoping to bolster our struggling schools. Ventura, where I live, will vote on Measure Q. If Measure Q passes property owners will pay an additional $59 a year in taxes for the next four years. The money will go directly into the classrooms in the Ventura Unified School District. The hope is the money will help reverse the trend of swelling class sizes and prevent more cuts in programs ranging from science and technology to reading, writing, and math. People are against it. They argue that they are short on money themselves, and with increases in Federal and State income taxes already in the offing this will sting them even more. No doubt, this is a valid point.

I'm not a political columnist or an education expert. I am a parent, and, with full disclosure in mind, I am married to an amazing teacher. This does not place my wife in a minority. Because of cutbacks, my wife teaches a combination classroom of 3rd and 4th graders. Thirty-one children. There is no aide. This is like asking a juggler to, well, keep thirty-one minds in the air. Or, if you're prone to pessimistic analogies, that little Dutch boy putting thirty-one fingers in the dike. My wife cares about each and every child as if they were her own. This doesn't put her in rarefied company either. But even with all the amazing teachers, the battle is a losing one.

In Ojai, where my wife teaches, some residents are trying to help the schools. Since 1993 the Ojai Education Foundation has worked to raise money for the schools. Recently several women organized the "100 for Ojai Schools" campaign. They are asking each household in Ojai to donate $100 for the schools. This won't happen. This is sad, but understandable. These days not everyone has $100 to spare. But the broader picture is sadder; in Ojai, Ventura, and pretty much every town, city, and county in the state, those who care about education have to hunt for money, hat in their hand.

Politics have become very, very complex. Politicians can speak in a language few of us understand. I have read ballot initiatives three and four times and had no idea what they were saying. There are honest people trying to do the right thing, just as there is deception and self-interest. Often I am baffled. But I am clear on this. Something is seriously wrong when our most important asset has to ask for money.

If you are old enough, you may remember Robert Fulghum. If you are young enough, you are likely living by some the dictums he brought to light. In 1986 Fulghum wrote a book called "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." Among the things Fulghum learned in kindergarten...

Share everything.
Play Fair.
Don't hit people.
Put things back where you found them.
Clean up your own mess.
Don't take things that aren't yours.
Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.

Fulghum was a minister when he wrote these ground rules as part of a sermon. When they became a book, the book was a smash hit. I interviewed him shortly after the book ended up on thousands of bed stands. Sitting in a hotel room in Los Angeles he told me he was glad he'd written the book, but they weren't really his words in the first place. He learned them from his teachers. A five-year-old could tell you that.

But many adults saw the rules as Fulghum's, and they saw how the rules made sense in the adult world, too. Clean up your own mess; here, the underpinnings of sound environmental policy. Don't take things that aren't yours; here, the underpinnings of aggression and war. Play fair. Wouldn't it be nice if deception and self-interest succumbed to this one?

At times, I have been accused of being a child. I am never offended. Children are not perfect. We only have to look back to our own childhood to know this. But children do see things simply. They really look (another of Fulghum's kindergarten rules). They aren't confused or bogged down by the fog, intentional or unintentional, of adult detail and complication.

Once, working on a book, I spent several days at a preschool in Ventura. Our sons had gone to the preschool. Ten years later many of the same teachers were still there. For some reason they welcomed me back.

In the days I spent at Children's World I received a refresher course in Everything I Already Knew but Had Sadly Forgotten. I learned why we have two ears and one set of lips (Hint. Which is most important?). I learned the purpose for living (love). I learned what it means to be a family, and what to do if I do something wrong. I learned to see the astonishing in what many see as commonplace. I learned that William's mom has long blond hair and there's a lot of brown under it.

One day there was an altercation. Someone pushed someone else off the box at the water fountain. There was crying on the one hand and protesting on the other, but the teacher handled it simply.

Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.

It was great fun palling around with my friends Alek, Elise, and Kelsa. These kids, four and five years old, were so very bright. Supernova bright. They did and said things that stopped me slack-jawed, and then, after I recovered, made me goose pimple with hope and joy. With minds like this, the world might be made closer to right. Or, if you have had encounters with the likes of Alek, Elise, and Kelsa, remarkably better. For all of us.

Robert Fulghum had another Kindergarten rule. Hold hands and stick together. Louis Pasteur went to school. Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, Jonas Salk, Bill Gates. You never know when the next well-educated mind will directly touch your life. We are all in this together.

It's been four years since my visit to Children's World. I hope Alek, Elise, and Kelsa are not missing out on science, reading or something that will spark their minds and send them off to places we have never dreamed of. I hope they're not sitting in a classroom with thirty other kids while a caring teacher works only to put out brushfires and address the bare bones basics. But there's a good chance they are.

Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.

Ken McAlpine is a three-time Lowell Thomas award-winner. His most recent book is "Fog," praised by one critic as "one of the most intelligent, richly detailed, deeply felt and evocative novels I've read." He writes weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog about Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

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