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Old McDonald and Mr. Holland Take a Sentimental Journey

I took a media break yesterday. I like football when I'm sitting in the stands and know who's on the field, but overexcited Super Bowl hype holds no allure for me. It snowed all day, so I turned off my phone and the internet and read in front of a crackling fire.

Reconnecting with social media this morning, I found endless re-posts of The Farmer Commercial. It was the Facebook conversation du jour-- I wept, I remembered, I was drawn back into the greatness of our nation, farmers are amazing people, best Super Bowl ad ever, blah, blah, blah.

What the farmer commercial engendered in me was:

#1) A creepy flashback of hanging out in my grandmother's kitchen, where Paul Harvey was a revered radio presence and the current issue of Grit magazine held a place of honor next to Grandpa's easy chair. Good Day!

#2) A kind of irritation over how easily we're all--yes, I include myself here--duped into longing for simpler times, when men were men and women made applesauce. Even if we never lived in those times. Even if those times never existed. Even if we know that the trucks being advertised are made in Mexico.

We're all vulnerable.

Hey. I taught for 30 years in what was initially a rural district centered around a tiny, crossroads village. Many of the kids I taught lived on family farms. I loved teaching those children, and I very much liked their parents, who were--to a family--supportive of a solid education for all the children in the community. They served on the school board, headed up the PTO and bought trombones and flutes so their children could play in my school bands.

That little village is now surrounded by subdivisions and big box stores, but there are still a significant number of operational family farms chugging along, thank goodness. The schools are there, too, but neither farming nor education have escaped being driven and reshaped by economic and political forces, often in some very destructive ways.

We keep longing for purpose and dedication, though. Teachers constantly recycle their own ad-like memes on the internet, reminding us that caring about children is their job #1. The stock photos you see on education-related websites suggest that every school is filled with adorable, diverse children (and a whole lot of computers)--with an energetic teacher in front of the classroom, holding an apple, just beneath the Palmer-method handwriting border. Cue up American Symphony, from the final scene in Mr. Holland's Opus.

Last month, one of those "must-shares" was a graphic that read: "I care more about the people my students become than the scores on the tests they take." Like the blueberry story, Taylor Mali's poems about what teachers make or any number of digital aphorisms, hashtags and posters, there's a nugget of veracity embedded. The issue, however, is vastly more complicated than a bifurcated choice: Simple human feeling vs. cold test data.

I followed a conversational thread about that graphic, where the poster noted that he found the message "arrogant"--saying if kids didn't pass the "low bar" of state tests, teachers hadn't done a good job preparing them for "the people they become." Commenters referred to the "Sunday School" sappiness of the idea that caring trumped content delivery. The discussion devolved into an argument about whether state tests really were a low bar.

Honestly? I felt like punching some of the commenters, even though I wouldn't ever repost that particular graphic on my own social media streams. So much for humble sentiments about the dignity and importance of teaching or commitment to students. As for me, I'd pick the teacher who knew my child well and cared about their future goals over someone looking to pump up the test numbers any day.

Nuggets of truth wrapped in sentiment are the most dangerous kind of marketing. Sometimes, a truck is just a truck. But I'd like to believe we haven't given up on the things that made America great. And I'd like to believe that education will help our future citizens tell the difference between cheap emotional manipulation and what really matters.

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