Miss Lawrence looks better and better, though at the time it didn't seem that could ever be possible.

She was formidable, a taskmaster who insisted on the rigors of drill, always conducted in such a way that no one present could feel entirely comfortable. You would be called upon by name and required to stand and recite, before all your peers, thus displaying either woeful ignorance or, one hoped, mastery of the subject at hand.

Even now, so many years later, I can still feel that tingle of anticipation--or was it dread?--as I waited for her imperious voice to call my name. Then it was my turn to rise and perform, for better or worse, usually the latter.

And even now, merely the remembrance of that moment triggers a response:

"Prepositions. Aboard, about, above, across, after, against, along . . . . "

Perhaps it was entirely meaningless, the most extraneous sort of baggage, that hammered-in and hard-earned ability to recite all of the prepositions, in alphabetical order, or similarly to fulfill some other assigned task in grammar or English composition.

I certainly have no idea whether that sort of drill qualifies as acceptable educational technique today. But I do know, in looking back on the experience, that I feel increasingly grateful to Miss Lawrence and the other teachers of P.S. (for Public School) 101, in the village of Forest Hills in the borough of Queens in the city of New York. This was way back when Fiorello La Guardia was mayor and everything was wonderful, though of course it wasn't. Among other problems, there was the Depression and a war about to begin.

But there was nothing wrong with Miss Lawrence and her fellow teachers of P.S. 101. They were superb, as was the public school system of New York City, and I will bet that the rest of my classmates of that long-ago time would feel the same. We were well prepared and proud of our grammar school, as it was called then. The faults we carried from the classroom were our own, not the failings of teachers and schools.

Parents of today's schoolchildren cannot say as much.

The battering being taken lately by America's educational system surely comes as no surprise. It would be difficult to find a parent anywhere who is entirely satisfied with the quality of the education his child receives. Certainly no citizen can look approvingly at the state of American education today.

Still, the nature of the case being made about our schools and our students is severe in the extreme.

In little more than a week, three independent reports, from three groups of distinguished citizens, have drawn a devastating indictment of American education. First came the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education with its arresting, if not apocalyptic, language about "a rising tide of mediocrity" that threatens "our very future as a nation and as a people."

Then we had the testimony of the National Task Force on Education for Economic Growth, which included governors, corporate leaders and other key citizens and warned that the poor quality of American public schools threatens the nation's military, economic and social well-being. Finally, last Friday, a Twentieth Century Fund task force, composed of prominent educators, weighed in with a scathing report on federal elementary and secondary education policy. The first two sentences give the flavor:

"The nation's public schools are in trouble. By almost every measure--the commitment and competency of teachers, student test scores, truancy and dropout rates, crimes of violence--the performance of our schools falls far short of expectations."

Nor will this be the end of similarly strong educational critiques from other blue-ribbon national groups. For months to come, other reports will be made public on the sorry condition of American education.

Now one can argue, as some leading educators are doing, that the overall impact of these reports is destructive. The collective indictment is so sweeping, the language so filled with doomsday phrases that it distorts reality. All schools, all teachers, all students obviously are not that bad. The picture is too dark and depressing.

But in another sense these reports perform a great national service. They say, in effect, that the quality of our schools is a fundamental measure by which our society should be judged.

They say that in the end all other questions--whether economic, social, or military; whether involving our ability to compete with other societies or to improve public health at home--come back to the basic tools our educational system provides citizens. They say that the classroom counts, that standards do need to be strengthened, that conditions can be improved and that the country can do something about it if it chooses.

And, happily, they do not indulge in the polemical nonsense of ideologues who would have us believe that the reason we're in trouble is because we have banished God from the classroom and that the way to achieve excellence in education is to pray for it. If you want to know what's wrong, look no farther than the nearest college football coach who is paid more than his school's president.

My favorite American teacher, aside from Miss Lawrence, is that cranky old introvert, Henry Adams. As always, his observations are uncannily on the mark.

In the early years of this century, when as an old man he was writing his great "Education," Adams returned from a long trip abroad. He arrived in New York for the first time in 40 years and was stunned to see the changes:

"The outline of the city became frantic in its effort to explain something that defied meaning. Power seemed to have outgrown its servitude and to have asserted its freedom. The cylinder had exploded and thrown great masses of stone and steam against the sky.

"The city had the air and movement of hysteria, and the citizens were crying, in every accent of anger and alarm, that the new forces must at any cost be brought under control. Prosperity never before imagined, power never yet wielded by man, speed never reached by anything but a meteor, had made the world irritable, nervous, querulous, unreasonable and afraid."

And all that was before the Wright brothers flew their first plane, before our cities' streets were filled with automobiles, before the first mushroom cloud rose to the heavens.

Adams mused about what would be required of the new American of the 20th Century who faced such bewildering new forces with greater ones surely to come:

"History saw few lessons in the past that would be useful in the future; but one, at least, it did see. The attempt of the American of 1800 to educate the American of 1900 had not often been surpassed for folly; and since 1800 the forces and their complications had increased a thousand times or more.

"The attempt of the American of 1900 to educate the American of 2000 must be even blinder than the Congressman of 1800, except so far as he had learned his ignorance."

That new American, he believed, would need to be trained to "think in complexities unimaginable to an earlier mind." As the 21st Century beckons, that need becomes even greater. Adams was clear about one thing: the central challenge to American society lay in education. It still does. He knew, as he said, that a good teacher affects eternity.

Miss Lawrence might not have put it so grandly, but her purpose was the same. Now, as she would say, back to drill--and basics.