The letters came from camp with a regularity that reeked of rules rather than inspiration. Twice a week, every camper was apparently forced to drop something into the mailbag or get no lunch. It was a classic matter of publish or perish.
Now, letters from camp are, by popular demand, considered cute, and none of these parents' children were slouches in the cute department. Yet, when the six parents compared mail one long summer evening, it wasn't to regale each other with precious stories of snakes and mosquito netting. They were not amused.
They were rather, each and every one of them, painfully aware that their children couldn't spell worth a damn. Or a dam. Or a damn.
These parents, in one way or another, worked with words for a living. Misspelled words sent them into tirades against copy editors, computers and anyone who played scramble with their prose. But this time they were in a fury against the schools.
"What are they teaching kids these days?" ranted a man who is not at all prone to accusing amorphous "theys," and who considers himself very much a part of "these days."
"I wish they'd worry less about stifling creativity and more about literacy," said a gentle poet whose wife had barely restrained him from returning the letter to his son with the errors circled.
As the evening wore on, the discussion moved from the outer edge of the problem - spelling - to the center. In one way or another, they shared feelings of impotence about their children's education.
Never mind their perfect attendance records at parent nights and teacher conferences. They were still sure that parents had about as much clout in the schools as the consumer movements had in Russia.
Between them, their children had attended public schools for 22 years. And yet, they were not even sure what a 10-year-old child should be able to spell. They didn't know whether new math was better than old math and revisionist new math better than old new math. They didn't even really know how to judge one sort of teacher or curriculum or theory against another.
They didn't think the "experts" knew, either.
The crisis of confidence seen in this trio of parents reminded me of a letter I'd had from a thoughtful woman in Ohio. I had written that the vote against school funds in Cleveland was a vote against children. She disagreed. It was rather, she said, a vote of no confidence in the schools.
Now, these parents, too - all school-bond voting, card-carrying PTA members - had begun to regard school with the suspicion they usually reserved for the FDA. One year a teaching method - like saccharin - was a boon, the next year it was virtually banned, the next year resurrected.
From one child to the next, the classrooms were opened and then closed, structured and then unstructured. No sooner would you be certain of something("Small classrooms are better for learning") than along would come a revisionist to argue that it wasn't necessarily so.
We seem to know more about the casual effect of chemicals than we know about classroom size, and more about the relationship of sodium nitrites to cancer than teaching methods to learning.
If the confusion about educational theory weren't enough, we are now increasingly uncertain about the quality of instruction, and aghast when we find teachers actually flunking competency tests.
Parents once sent their children to specialists: to doctors for health, to school for knowledge. The school always knew best. But now parents have learned skepticism. They no longer think of themselves as patients, but as consumers.
They aren't really simple-minded, back-to-basics, minimum-competency freaks. They are not really the sort of people who want to go "back" to anything. In their childhood, basics had included nailed-down desks and permission slips to go to the bathroom. They had spent years lining up by height.
What they want is some sort of quality control, some checkable coherence, some kind of consumer testing service. You see, they are as tired of blind faith as they are of "skeduals" and "canoos" and "espeshully cownsillers."