It’s a common story in public education really. Administration goes to some kind of conference and tastes some tasty Kool-aid handed out in small flowered cups from some other administrators working the upward ladder. Needing a program, those sipping the refreshing small Dixies of information come back to their respective school districts with all the revelation of Tom Wolfe’s pranksters and laud the mind-expanding possibilities of said program. Oh, God, “if only you mere teachers, who’ve not sipped out of those cups could see the possibilities the way we do,” they say. The principals’ eyes are wide and dilated. They speak in new acronyms. The program will be a perfect fit for our school! Even though we don't have the details down, and even though the schools that have implemented the plan are nothing like our school, it will be like...like (breathlessly delivered here) "a cross between Fernand Leger and Dr. Strange, roaring together and vibrating off each other as if somebody had given Hieronymous Bosch fifty buckets of day-glo paint and a 1939 International Harvester school bus and told him to go to it." (Tom Wolfe, Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) The principal (I’ll refer to her as the chief from here on) damn near passes out with all of the beginning-of-the-year enthusiasm—some of it real and some of it just thespian mirage.
Christ, if we could just expand our simple teacher minds to see their possibilities. Maybe the chief should just distribute blotters of LSD at the library door before the meeting, and we’d climb on board. The younger teachers and new teachers are working very hard to see nothing but possibilities. They’re not going to need to place any little cartoon character on their tongues. The older teachers, the master teachers are skeptics by nature. That’s where you need to hand out the LSD first.
But of course, we’re educators, and like any group of teachers at the beginning of the year—with only one paid day to prepare everything—it’s hard to take any of this breathless prattle from the chief very seriously. A giddy chief with no logistical plan—to that we groan and roll our eyes. “How is this going to work?” somebody asks. And with eyes still dilated in enthusiasm, the chief spreads her fingers out in front of her as if to spread magical fairy dust upon the staff and happily replies “I want you to figure out how we’re going to do it.” Then she uses a new acronym she learned from her friends on the merry prankster bus ride back from the conference. We sit like dumb prisoners chained to a wall, heads all facing her, some strange shadow of reality—confused by the new shape in front of us. “Your departments,” she finally clarifies. Now, those with the lowest thresholds for bullshit are clearly not “on the bus.” Sighs and huffs are audible.
But, skeptics and optimists alike, for the next several weeks we take the sprinkles of fairy dust, mix it with clay and common sense and come up with a viable intervention plan. It’s not perfect. It’s easier to follow. Instead of a Hieronymous Bosch we offer up an Edgar Degas. We took the chief’s instructions, “got on the bus,” and fetched up a program that would work better for kids and teachers. We thought for ourselves and used our own creativity. We spent our own time working on the plan. We presented it up to a supportive staff. Isn’t that being “on the bus?” We learned this week, er….fuck no.
Evidently being “on the bus” is driving it hell-bent down hill without brakes just like the pranksters did in The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test. We’re using the chief’s plan, conceived in some cosmic collusion between a top-down mandate from central office and some notion of principal autonomy. Being “on the bus” is conformity to the wishes of those driving the bus I learned.
(I suppose that’s why I always had problems with Wolfe’s book. I kept thinking, aren’t they just conforming to nonconformity? Okay, that and the fact that I hadn’t dropped acid. I could be a poor critic.)
So next week, we’re driving the bus into the land of “Smart Tuesday.” Students will get to “do their own thing” and join us “intrepid travelers” with the goal of taking their academic skills “FURTHUR.” Perhaps there will be Kool-aid at break so we all see the cosmos fly by in day glo crazy colors as we ride the brakeless bus to the bottom of the ravine.
“It's like a boulder rolling down a hill - you can watch it and talk about it and scream and say Shit! but you can't stop it. It's just a question of where it's going to go.”—Tom Wolfe (Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test)