An essay about the value of public education and how it influenced the lives of two men, one black, the other white, plus novelist John Irving’s elitist reaction to Vermont’s Public Education Funding Act. 

This essay first appeared in The Sunday Rutland Herald/The Sunday Times Argus on November 1, 1998.

A couple weeks ago I toured New England performing ZEN MOUNTAINS-ZEN STREETS: A Duet for Poet and Improvised Bass, with my friend, avant garde bassist and composer, William Parker. William Parker was born and raised poor and black in the projects of the South Bronx in New York City and educated in the public schools there.

I come out of a white, working class background in Cleveland, Ohio. Many of my people, like William’s, were factory workers, domestics, and postal workers. Neither one of my parents graduated from high school; in fact, I am the first person with my name to have a high school diploma. In other words, William and I, two people obviously so different, from such different places, have much in common also.

As William and I drove from town to town through New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont we visited about our pasts, our childhoods, our educations, and the school teachers who inspired us.

Both of us would readily admit that our families and the way in which we were raised had much to do with what we’ve been able to accomplish as adults, but we both would also say that the teachers we encountered in school, the ones who saw our potential, also had much to do with our futures. In other words, for both William Parker and myself what happened to us in public school made a big difference in our lives.

When I was in elementary school in Cleveland, every couple of years we were taken to Severance Hall to hear The Cleveland Symphony. ALL public school kids got to do this, not just some from the more affluent neighborhoods or from private schools. I can remember those trips to this day, sitting in the 3rd balcony listening to the symphony. I’d never heard anything like it before.

William Parker has similar stories to tell about how–even though when he was in the 8th grade a guidance counselor told him that because he was young, male and black, he was destined to push a clothes rack through the garment district for the rest of his life, even though that happened to him–there were other teachers in his life who saw his great potential with writing and music and who encouraged him, fought for him, to accomplish something more with his life than what the guidance counselor said he was destined to become.

Both William Parker and I were given the chance in a public school to see possibilities greater than we had imagined.

As William and I traveled through New England I told him about the controversy raging now here in Vermont over Act 60, whose proper name, by the way, is The Equal Educational Opportunity Act.

I told him also about what novelist John Irving has been saying about how this act, because it takes money from rich towns and gives it to poorer towns, is Marxist. I told William about how John Irving said, “There’s a minority which is an open target in this country which no one protects, and that’s rich people.” I told William about how John Irving didn’t want to send his son to the public school because he didn’t want to expose his son to “trailer park envy.” I told William that John Irving said, “My response is as brutally upper class as I can make it: I’m not putting my child in an underfunded public school.”

William sat quietly in the car for a while and then said, “What makes rich people harden their hearts? If you see children who are hungry, don’t you feed them? If you have enough, why wouldn’t you share it with those who need more? What makes rich people harden their hearts?”

I had no answer.

We can infer from what John Irving says that he does not care that thousands of kids in the poorer towns may not get an equal, even start, the same chance to succeed that the kids in the more affluent, better funded, better staffed and equipped school systems get. Clearly John Irving does not believe in equal opportunity.

But for the rest of us, if we believe that poor kids in poor towns right now, or in some other generation, kids like William Parker or David Budbill, if we believe that poor kids, like these kids, should not be penalized for the place or the class into which they are born, then we must support Act 60.

Beyond all the arguments about how Act 60 will be implemented there is a fundamental question and it is: Do we as a people here in Vermont believe our children, ALL our children, no matter where they come from or how rich or poor they are, deserve an equal opportunity to an education?

Our reputation as a fair minded state is at stake. And so is the future of our children.

© 1998, 1999, 2000, by David Budbill, all rights reserved,
permission to reprint must be gotten in writing from
David Budbill: david@davidbudbill.com
or from the publication in which the essay first appeared.