My Mann Horace

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The library at Carl Schurz high school in Chicago is truly magnificent. It has so many pieces of art that I doubt I could ever describe them all. But the portraits of great writers, artists, and thinkers through the ages is something worth sharing here.

When I saw a portrait of Horace Mann on the wall, I was transported back to the baseball team that I played in as a young kid. We were the Horace Mann educators, and I didn’t know who in the world Horace Mann was. I assumed he was a baseball fan, though.

As time went on, I learned more about Horace Mann. He probably never saw a baseball game either, based in when he lived. But he changed education in many ways, beginning with the idea that everyone should be educated in the first place.

Once upon a time, somebody like me didn’t receive an education. The need to teach me how to read and write and work with numbers just wasn’t there. But Mann argued that teachers needed training, schools needed textbooks, and  society would be better off if these things were made available to all children, paid for with taxpayer funds.

I’m very glad that Horace Mann fought for these things and brought them to fruition. I wouldn’t be writing this otherwise.

Remembering Miss Kathleen

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My teenager is away this weekend, visiting a friend over the holiday weekend. In her absence, the rest of the family worked to clean up a room that we call the play room. It doubles as our guest room, and in a few weeks we’ll be having visitors in for a graduation weekend. We may need a couple of weekends to get the room looking guest-worthy.

One of the things I need to do during this process is remount an dry erase board that once hung on the wall. And it’s not just any old board, either. It holds a very special meaning to me and my family. It was once used by Miss Kathleen, who was my older daughter’s alter ego. It seems like a month ago, but it’s really been a number of years since Miss Kathleen plied her trade in our guest room.

Miss Kathleen was the firm and persistent teacher who taught my younger daughter how to read. She ignited a passion, and instilled a love of the printed word that will hopefully never be extinguished. She was my little one’s most important teacher, and one that I will always be grateful to.

Time moved on, as it always does, and Miss Kathleen went on a never-ending sabbatical several years ago. I once tried to press her into duty again, but the willingness wasn’t there, on either side of the instructional divide. This made me sad, of course, because there’s always a hope that the past can be relived again, if only for a brief moment. But Miss Kathleen, and her eager pupil in our play room, will live on in my heart. And now that I’ve told her story online, she’ll outlive me, as well.

I’m grateful that Miss Kathleen once came to pay us a visit, and I hope that all children get to know–or even to become–someone like her in the course of their youth. They’ll be better people for it.

Purple Pride, win or lose

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Image from Flickriver.com

Last night I went to see my daughter in Romeo and Juliet. She’s an amazingly talented kid, and I marveled at her and the others in the cast. In just a few weeks, they’ve come together from all different places and brought this story to life. We give teenagers a bad rap sometimes, but knowing there are kids like this out there, who are willing to put their time and their energies into pulling this off–and without being paid to do it–leaves me very hopeful for the future.

As I was getting ready to attend opening night last night, I pulled on a purple Northwestern sweatshirt. I’ve always been proud of my alma mater, because it’s one of the best universities on the entire planet. Everybody says that about their own school, of course, but there’s evidence to support this, too. When people hear about colleges and universities, they usually associate the schools with their football team. Or maybe their basketball team. But the assumption–unless you’re MIT or an IVY League school–is that you’re only as good as your football team. Or maybe the school only exists to provide another college football team to the world. Neither of these is the truth, of course.

I didn’t put on my Northwestern sweatshirt to represent the football team, either. I’m genuinely proud of where I went to school, as everyone should be proud of the school they attended, wherever and whatever it is. Education is a sign of achievement, and if you’ve reached a level where a school grants you a degree or a diploma, go ahead and tell the world about it.

The football team was miserable when I was on campus in the late 1980s. When I was a senior, in the fall of 1989, they didn’t win a single game. So to see them resurrect the football program, under the masterful leadership of Pat Fitzgerald, has been gratifying to see. They’ve finally won a bowl game, even, and this fall should be one like I never thought I’d see.

I can’t wait to see what happens on October 5, when the B1G (or the Big Ten, for an old-timer like me) sees its game of the year played in Evanston when Ohio State comes calling. But win or lose, I’ll still wear the purple proudly. I’d much rather win, of course, but nobody wins all the time in life. Thank goodness nobody loses all the time, either.

The future of books

If I haven’t admitted this before, I love having books. I enjoy reading them, but there’s also something about surrounding yourself with lots of books. I think it makes a statement about valuing the written word. I frequently go to yard sales and book fairs, searching for old books that I can buy for a quarter or 50 cents.

This past Christmas, my wife surprised me with an Amazon Kindle Fire. She uses it much more than I do, but in theory, at least, the thing is mine. I even have a Cubs carrying case for it, and I took a picture of it when I was out on New Year’s eve. If I can carry it around without losing it or crushing it somehow, I think it will be a great thing to have.

But what does the proliferation of tablets, and e-readers, and smartphones that allow you to download and read books, mean for books in the future? For starters, it means that books costing $20 or more can now be purchased digitally for several dollars less. Which option are most readers going to choose? I know the answer to that, and you probably do, too.

Physical books, as we have known them all our lives, have been in a downward spiral for a few years, at least. I work in publishing, and there aren’t any growth opportunities in this field. Digital publishing, yes, but books themselves are moving the way of carbon paper and pagers.

But books should be different, you might say. Ever since Gutenberg and the Renaissance, people have had a kinship with their books. And I fully agree with that. However, people’s need to read will adapt to whatever form the material is presented to them. Books will always be one of those formats, of course, but digital is also coming into view as an appealing alternative.

This is all being fueled, of course, by the internet. Isn’t that how you’re reading this, after all? The internet has made photographs obsolete, has brought the Postal Service to its knees, has put many booksellers out of business, and has turned analog forms of recorded music into relics.  The diminution of the printed word–consisting of ink on paper with binding and a nice cover–is another logical step along this progression. Whether or not it’s actually “progress” is open to discussion, but it is happening, and will continue to do so.

The final frontier in this process is school textbooks. My children now lug an inordinate amount of paper to school with them each day, and a tablet that can be used to present all this material to them–and to make it come alive for them in a way that textbooks cannot–is something that almost needs to happen. As digital content changes our everyday lives, it seems foolish to require that children remain burdened–literally as well as figuratively–by these behemoths.

Once tablets become cheap enough that schools will buy them, instead of bulky textbooks that will become outdated in two years, this evolution–revolution, really–will be complete. And like smoking indoors, it will only take a small amount of time before we wonder how we ever got along any other way.