Alma Matters: Thoughts on Today's Students

At my old school, students are now encouraged to consider the world outside the building.

Every year about this time, I get the back-to-school itch. The smell of plastic pencil cases fills the air, and I dream about the days when I broke in a pair of stiff new oxfords, donned an itchy Black Watch plaid jumper, and trudged off to School 84. 

The school was the primary reason my parents built our home in the Meridian-Kessler neighborhood. The institution was prestigious in the ’50s, known for good teachers, a strong student body, and parental enthusiasm. My siblings and I walked five blocks, picking up more kids the closer we got to the building. Traffic boys helped us at the corners, and when we arrived, we dutifully hung our outer garments in the cloakroom. 

I took the walk again last spring, and just as your old house is never as big as you remember, neither was the journey so long or eventful. This time, I took notice of the mature, flowering trees and stately Tudor homes behind trimmed green lawns. I used to enjoy spotting my friends’ houses, but I doubted Monalee Kelsey was still on Delaware or Susie Hunter at the far end of Penn. 

The stroll was motivated by more than nostalgia. School 84—my School 84—had received national recognition last year as the country’s top elementary magnet program. My little Joseph J. Bingham School, with its mirror-image staircases, shiny travertine floors, and heavy oak doors? Its stage, where we performed “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” wearing flowered hats fashioned from paper plates? Its corner library on the second floor, where we checked out books that Miss Coffing made us transport in plastic bags, and its music room, where we sang “Frere Jacques” along with Miss Groff? Its cavernous gym, where Miss Galley harshly judged our forward and backward rolls? Where we carried little stuffed Bingham Bears crafted by PTA moms? That School 84? 

Sort of. My alma mater became a magnet school in 2006, a concept I admit has eluded me. It mixes up in my mind with charter schools, which receive state funds without normal public-school regulations. I think. A magnet school, on the other hand, is part of a local district and has a unique curriculum. An IPS brochure describes School 84, now labeled a “Center for Inquiry,” as an “International Baccalaureate World School.” 

Frankly, the notion leaves me more lost than when I got turned around in—and eventually locked inside—the boiler room where I went to fill the class watering can in second grade. What I recognize is a regular school, where teachers stand in front, and kids sit in rows and complete workbook pages, and, if they’re good, are rewarded with a fun art project. This is not that. 

Who teaches the pupils how to diagram a sentence, a skill I silently use even today when parsing proper grammar?

After the reenacted walk from my former home to my old campus, I took a building tour to see what this “Center for Inquiry” business was all about. The visit revealed that even if the new system felt foreign to me, an ex–elementary schoolteacher, the unconventional process works. Nary a teacher stood before a classroom, and nary a student occupied a traditional desk, least of which the kind I sat in, with a lid-top and inkwell, behind a taller classmate, for most of my growing-up years. This time, the kids engaged in small-group discussions, solving problems posed by teachers who ambled among the gatherings asking interesting questions—about deciduous trees, breast cancer, recycling. Nobody was bored. “I wonder” questions commanded their attention rather than “do this” orders. 

As impressed as I was by the highly charged atmosphere, I was equally worried. Who, I questioned my guides, teaches the pupils how to diagram a sentence, a skill I silently use even today when parsing proper grammar? The answer: No one. I find this sad, even though the guides assured me that basics are still being taught, just not as overtly. I doubt that my eighth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Harding, who prodded us as we stood at the blackboard drawing vertical and slanted lines between parts of speech, would have approved. But a parent I spoke to likes that his daughter, at kindergarten age, can count in Spanish and Chinese, and that the staff doesn’t underestimate how much she can learn. Students present work portfolios in place of routine parent-teacher conferences. “It makes go-getters out of them,” he said.

I observed a positive vibe, which in my era was present only on the playground. There’s gardening day, bike-to-school day, and a chicken coop on the premises. The music teacher plays the drums, and no one is scared of the principal. 

A portrait of the school’s first top administrator, Miss Elizabeth Scott, has been moved from the office alcove to the media center, but I could still feel her eyes following me. The Hoosier Group landscapes still grandly adorn the hallways, the old wood doors still creak on their hinges, and the same SCHOOL EIGHTY FOVR is carved into the limestone out front. But the kids in the classrooms are different. They speak out rather than sit silently, question instead of merely answering, and, above all, consider the world outside the 84-year-old building.

I suspect, though, that no student had a clue as to the school’s namesake, Joseph J. Bingham, he of Bingham Booster fame, who left school at 14 to help support the family. He owned a soap-and-candle business and served as a newspaper editor and a board member of the Tippecanoe County schools. He died in his North Meridian Street home in 1896, at the age of 81. 

Bingham might make a worthwhile “I wonder” discussion, leading to questions about how an individual merits naming rights to an institution and what other interesting Hoosier names appear on local streets and buildings. I wonder myself. 

Illustration by Andrea Eberbach

This article appeared in the September 2012 issue.