“Let’s do lunch!” How many times have you said that to an old friend — or new acquaintance, for that matter — and not followed through? Yeah. Me too, although I probably said something like, “We ought to grab a bite to eat sometime.” Let’s do lunch is not exactly a Porterdale sort of thing to say.
This week, after several false starts, I finally got the opportunity to sit down and break bread with an old friend — one I had not seen in about 35 years, and I don’t know when I’ve had a more enjoyable hour.
If you are from around here — and have been for a while — the name Herb Garrett might strike a chord. When I was just beginning my teaching career, way back in the previous century, Herb was the principal at Sharp Middle School in Covington. Now you need to understand, I taught and coached at Cousins Middle School and Cousins and Sharp were bitter rivals, so Herb was “the enemy,” and not to be trusted — plus he was a newcomer to Newton County during the tumultuous leadership turnover that followed the retirement of legendary Newton County school superintendent Whit Richardson.
I was programmed not to like Herb Garrett, understand. But I couldn’t help myself. I liked him anyway. He was always friendly and gracious to me and besides, Joanne Preston liked him and she and I were raised up together and I knew she was a great judge of character.
I left Newton County in 1979 — determined to make a name for myself as a high school basketball coach — and Herb and I lost touch. I would read in the newspaper from time to time about his meteoric rise through the educational ranks to high school principal and school superintendent and would comment with pride, “I know him. He’s a good guy.”
I often promised myself that I would give him a call sometime and try to reconnect, but I never did. A few years ago, however, Herb accepted a job as executive director of the Georgia School Superintendent Association. The mission of that organization is to be “the chief advocate for Georgia’s public school children.”
Lord, if anyone ever needed an advocate, it is the public school children of Georgia — because the people who are making decisions on their behalf in Washington, D.C., and the Georgia General Assembly and the state Board of Education make decision after decision after decision that make it harder and harder and harder to actually educate children.
But I was talking about Herb and me. A few years back he discovered my published musings and began reading my column. From time to time he would shoot me a comment via email on something that I had written about education or Newton County or both, and we become reacquainted online — and promising one another to “do lunch.”
Well, this week we finally did and, like I said, I have seldom spent a more enjoyable hour. We caught up on old times and remembered old friends — some of whom are no longer with us. We diplomatically avoided discussing any of the Sharp-Cousins athletic encounters, and as we shared stories of our past we came to realize that we had very similar backgrounds and much more in common than we could have imagined.
I learned, in other words, how much I genuinely like Herb Garrett, and hope I don’t have to wait 35 years to see him again. More importantly, we realized that we both have a passion for public education in Georgia and want, desperately, to elevate the level of education in this state — and we mean true education, not the memorization of standards and teaching to the tests.
Now don’t hear something I am not saying. I am proud to be an educator in the Rockdale County School System. Rockdale County has done a masterful job of meeting the federal and state mandates for public education. We do a great job, in other words, of what we are supposed to be doing. I have no problem with that.
My problem — and Herb’s — is with the mandate. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, schools are required to demonstrate adequate yearly progress, as determined, primarily, by student performance on a battery of standardized tests. Adequate means just getting by. Standardized means what everyone is required to know. In our state — and nation — our entire education system is built on having a minimum number of students make a minimum score on a standardized test — one the smartest student in the top school system and the worst student in the worst system takes.
When a state mandates that we measure success by having the minimum number of students memorize the minimum amount of facts — well, that’s a bad mandate. And to make matters worse, over the past eight years the state Legislature has provided minimum funding — funding that is far less than adequate.
Those were some of the issues that Herb and I discussed over lunch as we took turns preaching to the choir and beating that dead horse that Sonny Perdue dragged into office with him.
But maybe one day the politicians who play the tunes to which the educators are required to dance, will see the light — and change the tempo. Until then, I hope Herb Garrett and I can have a few more lunch-time powwows together. As Ludlow Porch said, “Beating a dead horse can be more fun than you think.”
Darrell Huckaby is a local educator and author. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.