By Mike Rose
More than anything, it was the nihilistic policy and media language about schooling that got me on the road in the early 1990s to document good public school classrooms, and from those classrooms to draw a more comprehensive language—a richer set of stories—about public education in our country. In the back of my mind was William Least Heat-Moon’s wonderful book “Blue Highways,” a chronicle of his travels across the back roads of the country, which were printed in blue on old highway maps. Heat-Moon set out to discover America and, in a way, himself. My goal was different, but, I would later realize, not unrelated: I wanted to get us to think about schools and school reform in a different way.
This fall marks the 20th anniversary of the book that resulted from my journey—“Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America“—and that fact got me to look through some of the notebooks I kept during my travels. About mid-way through the writing of the book, the opportunity came up to drive with a friend across the United States, and I saw the trip as a chance to view the country I had been seeing in segments in one long arc.
I’ve pulled two scenes from the cross-country notebook: one from Tucumcari, New Mexico, the other from Rochester, New York. In addition to the teachers and students who form the core of “Possible Lives,” I met countless people in restaurants, markets, small shops—and just on the street as I was finding my way around. They were open to a stranger and added to the richness of the journey. I learned so much from these conversations: about local history, about changes in the economy, about regional speech and folkways, about the hopes and grievances attached to school, and about the place of school in memory.
It is mid-August, 1993, and I’m in the El Toro Restaurant in Tucumcari, New Mexico talking with a local woman named Edda, whose parents homesteaded just outside the current border of the city. She is with her daughter, the “baby of the family”, who will soon be going off to college in Texas, a hedge against the uncertain future in her hometown. Tucumcari borders Texas in east-central New Mexico, and has a population of about five thousand people. Its economy, Edda explains, is built on cotton and feed and livestock. Tucumcari’s once vital downtown, Edda continues, suffered as corporate retailers moved into larger neighboring cities, and the recession of the early 1990’s dealt a final blow. “There were nice shops here,” she says. “Used to be you could buy beautiful dresses right here.” The city is tearing down two historical buildings.
Edda directs me to an old building that houses the Tucumcari museum. It is not far away.
The main floor is crammed with artifacts of Tucumcari’s livestock industry—over one-hundred varieties of barbed wire—and with stone tools, pottery, and arrowheads from local Native American tribes. In the basement, the curators recreated a general store: A Victrola, lamp shades, hardware, dry goods, and all kinds of remedies: Chill Tonic, Hart’s Compound, and a laxative called Satanic, the devil’s arms opened wide across the label.
By the staircase, a sign: We do not discuss politics, religion, or the Civil War.
Up the stairs, then, to the second floor to find that about half of the space has been fashioned into an early Twentieth Century classroom. Rows of small desks with ink wells. A mannequin dressed as a teacher—long, green flowered dress, hair pulled back in a bun. The alphabet. Pictures of the presidents. A bookshelf with old books stacked sideways: science, geography, the Spell-to-Write Spelling Book, a Universal Composition Book. There is a globe, lunch pails, and an eighth-grade diploma: “Admission to High School.” It turns out that this building was Tucumcari’s old schoolhouse.
“Crazy Ronny” stands in front of a massive heap of metal, jagged sheets of aluminum, severed steel beams, copper coil, burnt vats and tanks. Ronny supervises this recycling operation in the defunct train yard in Rochester, New York, and he is electric with pride and get-go. The recycling plant has been running for two years, so Ronny has been with it as it’s grown. “We’re taking it in,” he says grinning, “faster than we can get it out.”
The railroad’s old roundhouse still stands—well, part of it…sections are sheered off to accommodate the lot’s machinery and the movement of scrap. The pits where mechanics stood to service the undercarriages of railroad cars are filled in, and the turning track in the middle of the yard is gone, though the brick lining remains.
Ronny is not a big man, but is wiry and powerful, with forearms that you get only from years of turning a wrench or winch. He is handsome in a rough-hewn way, and his face is bright with confidence. He is quick and generous with praise for his crew. He describes the difficult task of stripping the 4” glass lining out of chemical processing vats and says he doesn’t know how his guy does it so well. He praises his welders, their skill, their tenacity. My guess, though, is that he’s had tough times—in school, perhaps, maybe with the law. His tee-shirt announces Crazy Ronny, and he’s right at home in this metallic wasteland and up to the task of taming it.
During the decades before my visit in 1993, Rochester had suffered the fate of so many Eastern industrial cities: economic restructuring, empty factories, jobs lost. Recycling plants exist in good economic cycles and bad, but I couldn’t help but see this one as both outcome and symbol of hard times.
The remnants of closed shops are gathered together here, processed and crushed into usable material for new industries, or old ones surviving in other forms or locations. Creative destruction in a pretty literal sense, but only a few jobs are being created out of tens of thousands lost.
But in the midst of this post-industrial churn, Ronny found meaningful work. In the 1990s there were some government programs being floated to retrain former industrial workers for (much lower paying) service jobs. I couldn’t imagine a guy like Ronny sitting at a desk all day or helping people process a claim or find a better appliance.
This job mattered to Ronny. He supervised it and watched it grow. He knew what he was doing, had command of untold tons of twisted steel and iron, understood the flow of work and what his crew could do, appreciated their know-how—the skills involved in removing a four-inch layer of glass lining from a vat way taller than a man. My Uncle Joe Meraglio once said that the shop floor of General Motors was his schoolhouse. Ronny would understand exactly what he meant.
“Possible Lives” is my favorite of my books because of the many encounters and discoveries it afforded me. I began with the intention of writing about school and ended up writing as well about our country. About its physical and social landscape. About people like Edda, their cities’ history and economy, their hopes for their kids. About people like Ronny, what work means to them and what good work is, and how work can provide an education of its own. You can’t really write—or think or talk—about schools in any comprehensive way without writing about all that surrounds them, for schools are so embedded in place. Schools are porous; whatever is going on outside quickly makes its way into the classroom. And schools—memory of them, the experience of them—for good or bad shape individual and communal life. In writing about school in America, I learned about America itself. Looking back on “Possible Lives,” I see that it couldn’t have been any other way.