schools

Class struggle

November 12, 2010: 11:44 AM ET

Writing a check for a soccer uniform, I thought, Gee, when I was a kid, my school had money for that.

Most of the time I feel okay with the way things are going. I'm not part of the half of our nation that seems to think everything is heading to hell in a handcart. But sometimes I get grossed out by wild discrepancies. A sense of dislocation overwhelms me, and up comes the gag reflex. It's not pleasant, but it always tells me something.

Anyway, three things happened. The first concerned Rupert Murdoch. He was at a black-tie dinner accepting one of the many awards I am sure he will receive this year, and he made some comments about how American public schools weren't up to snuff. "It's time to stop the excuses," he said. "It's time to push aside the obstacles in the way of reform and ensure that every boy or girl who enters a public school has the same shot at the American dream that our sons and daughters do." Of course, he then went off on a tear against teachers and their unions, but that didn't interest me as much as the fact that this was the first time in a while I'd heard a business mogul put out a clarion call to defend our public schools. Bravo, Mr. Murdoch, I thought. Good for you.

Thing Two: A couple of days later I sat down to pay the bills and found some I didn't understand. "What's this for?" I asked my wife. "Soccer uniform," she said. Gee, I thought. When I was a kid, my school had money for that. "And this?" I inquired. "Costume for drama class," she said. Gee, I thought, when I was a kid, my school had money for that. "How about this?" I said. "A clarinet," said my wife. "She's in band and you have to rent your own instrument." Gee, I thought.

In the town where I grew up they closed two schools recently. One has been made into condos. The other they tore down. The remaining schools have practically no resources. Average class size is up to about 30. This is in a town with two country clubs, both with excellent golf. Most parents with money send their kids to private school now.

Thing Three: Last Monday a couple of executives and I went down to the financial district of our fair city. In that small pocket of Manhattan not far from where the World Trade Center was destroyed, a forest of gorgeous glass and steel has sprouted. Residences. Parks. Offices. And the most beautiful building of all is a tower that rises over Battery Park, an enormous, glandular cathedral dedicated to the worship of Mammon. One company is housed there, but you won't find its name outside. They don't need you to know it's their building. They're doing fine without a lot of exterior branding, even if they're not well liked by many people.

I have visited St. Peter's in Rome. I've strolled around Notre Dame in Paris and the Temple of Dendur at the Met in New York. For sheer flamboyant display of unapologetic excess, none of them approach that spire on West Street. If Pharaoh had been presented with plans for this structure, he would have told his architects to scale it back a bit. Just for the optics, if you know what I mean.

We went up to the second floor for the investor conference that was the purpose of our visit. Serious people in business suits bustled to and fro. In a kitchen down a hall there were big vats of M&Ms and other munchies, plus lots of beverages in case anybody was in need of hydration. All of it was gratis. They say there's no free lunch, but they lie. Work hard. Dress right. Presto! Free lunch. We stayed there for about an hour. Did what we had to do. Then we went back to work at our building, which is very nice, even if the ceilings are a whole lot lower.

Last night I was downtown again, and I walked by the building on West Street. It was just as beautiful in the chilly autumn darkness, perhaps even more so -- because they leave all the thousands of lights in the place burning far into the night.

I wonder how many clarinets that would pay for.

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