For the majority of its 202 pages, Lewis Buzbee’s Blackboard: A Personal History of the Classroom is a lovingly written and unremarkable school-days memoir. What makes it a worthwhile read is that Buzbee mixes his recollections with notes on how California’s education system, and America’s, have declined since he was a student in the 60’s and 70’s, and calls for change.
Buzbee also touches on the history of education, tracking the development of innovations such as kindergarten and blackboards, and compares his experiences with those of his daughter, currently in high school. At its most significant, however, Blackboard is a call for schools to be better-funded so that today’s students can have the same opportunities that Buzbee did.
There’s nothing particularly unique about Buzbee’s story: a working-class student reaches the middle class through the opportunities provided to him by public education. This is, he reminds us, a good thing. When he praises the educators who helped make him who he is today, he doesn’t hold them up as exceptions; through them, he praises public education as a whole. “My teachers,” he writes, “were only exceptional in that they were exceptionally ordinary. I mean this as the highest praise. School, when it works as we know it can, is more available and ordinary than the movie version. This is school’s ultimate triumph, that it is so common.” This “exceptionally ordinary” resource has become less so over the past few decades, due largely, Buzbee writes, to underfunding.
The author’s love for his teachers, and learning itself, shines throughout Blackboard. He recalls how his teachers encouraged him to write and helped him learn about the world, often on their own time and despite their meager salaries. Of a teacher who helped him navigate his adolescence against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, he writes “I was stepping into an ever more confusing world, but there was a mentor beside me now, a guide who, ill paid for her efforts, freely offered her space and time.” He repeatedly writes, acknowledging both the cliché and its truth, that school saved him—he went wayward after losing his father to a heart attack in 7th grade, but his teachers helped set him on a path to college and future success.
He also praises a style of teaching with more memorization, discipline, and discomfort on the student’s end than in vogue today. Here’s a rhapsody on drilling the times tables: “Today, when I’m required to multiply, I look up and away—a natural instinct—gazing somewhere into my past, and there are numbers, waiting for me, the chant still running through my head and my body.” He also writes that, while he grew close to many of his teachers, they were ultimately mentors, never peers. Last November’s memoir Strings Attached praised a similar teaching style through a Ukrainian-born music teacher who embodied it, but more explicitly, and with a slew of asides about coddled-kids-these-days thankfully absent from Blackboard.
Though Buzbee briefly mentions that all the characters in a reader were White, he rarely acknowledges that while the schools in his day may have been better funded, they were also less inclusive. This is another case of a White liberal growing nostalgic for the “good old days” that only he benefited from. It’s not particularly egregious, though, because today, Buzbee calls for better schools for everybody.
As much as I enjoyed Blackboard, I can’t help but wish that some passages had been further developed (like the one about the teacher quoted above) and others had been excised (like one in which Buzbee catalogs the contents of a student’s desk). Most of this book is written in general recollections rather than scenes, making it hazy and sometimes dull.
Perhaps this reflects on the genre more than the book. In memoir, unlike fiction, you can’t make stuff up, so the memoirist has to step into generalities where a novelist could invent something clear and specific. A novel, however, couldn’t make an explicit call for better-funded schools (though it could still make an effective one).
Apart from its literary qualities, Blackboard is commendable for presenting the unpleasant truth that schools can be reformed, but all that has got to be well funded for it to work. Fiscal conservatives may disagree with it, but everyone should appreciate the candor of Buzbee’s conclusion: “read my lips: raise my taxes!”
–Available 8/5 from Graywolf Press