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Bill Nye

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My School Days -- The Crazy Luck

Posted: 01/21/09 05:38 PM ET

Welcome to Washington, President Obama, you've got more than enough to do. But as the most audacious hoper on Earth, here's hoping you can lead us to set great goals for our schools. You can learn from your daughters; their school is amazing.

Before I was admitted to Sidwell Friends, I sat with 54 other kids in my English class at Alice Deal Junior High in Washington, D.C. I sat next to Martin. He was bussed into my school from another part of town. He had to get up around five every morning, because the courts had agreed that our neighborhoods were really not separate, and most especially not equal. His buddies from his neighborhood teased him. I used the word "teased." It's what I told my parents the kids were doing. But really, they were fighting-hard, in the style of a boxing match complete with jeering onlookers and referee. Martin's friends and enemies penned him in and slapped him around, because he was trying to fit in. He wanted to learn, among other things, what our English teacher was showing us. I am not sure how much longer reference books printed on paper will be practical, but in these days, we were to look words up in a dictionary and learn them -- an all-important step in learning a grown-up's vocabulary. As spit-wads from our sleep-deprived, angry classmates flew past us, sticking and dripping on the once noble slate blackboards, Martin and I did our dictionary assignments.

My heart breaks every time I think about it. Martin had never been shown the key words -- the words in bold at the upper corners of facing pages in a dictionary. His elementary school had failed him. It had failed us, all of us. How, I thought, can a person get through life without knowing the words adults use? How can the other kids not see how much there is to lose by not having command of language? What an unobservant adolescent I was.

It was about hope. Unlike me, the bussed-in kids didn't have any hope -- or not much. They expected to be excluded and shortchanged, because they always were. As I look back, the anger there was so deep, the tension so high, that it's a wonder more kids didn't get shot. One did. Not in my school, but in the school where my dad grew up. This was along with everyone else getting shot, Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy, and Martin... Martin Luther King.

So, my parents set to work to get me out of the D.C. public schools and into a school where there was more preparation for college and less gunplay. I often joke, that I got into The Sidwell Friends School, where Malia and Natasha Obama have matriculated, on a clerical error. My parents worked hard and sacrificed a great deal, and I got a partial scholarship, maybe also by accident. I guess I was good at math, but it sure didn't feel like it. Every kid was smart and had the habits of study.

The work was much harder at Sidwell, but the studying so very much easier. Every single moment of every day, I could not believe my good fortune. The halls were clean -- spotless. The lockers worked. I mean not just that they didn't have broken hinges; the combinations worked. No one seemed to feel like ruining them out of spite. No one got locked inside one. And the desks... there were no huge gouges to disrupt my already reckless handwriting. They were so smooth, so well made and well cared-for. It was, at first, incredible. I thought someone was playing a trick, a cruel joke. Sooner or later, I figured, they'd make me sit at a beat up desk and in a chair with broken legs that tipped and rocked, while I would try to write. The thing that still amazes me, when I go back, is the smell. Sidwell smells approximately like a spring day. In Junior High, it was a heavy smell, not just old, but with a mean, pungent anger. It's not easy to have a good school day, when everything smells like urine, the pungent urea molecules being diffused into the school's aging air ducts by a warm radiator someone had marked.

When I arrived at Alice Deal, the teachers were dedicated career professionals, who took their business seriously. These were the kind of teachers my dad must have had at Central High (now Cardoza), where the football team called it's signals with Greek letters. By the time I was graduated from ninth grade, about half of the dedicated teachers had left. The Marion Barry School Board's careless idea of giving teaching gigs to unqualified cronies and letting bad go to worse was too much for the oldschoolers.

Sidwell, on the other hand, has remarkable teachers, professionals, who know their business so very well. Sidwell Friends is a Quaker school. This tradition features countless "moments of silence." The idea in Quaker Meeting is to sit and think. Sidwell teachers do their very best to get kids prepared for the world; I guess by subtly imparting a bit of quiet wisdom. I had, as you might imagine, fantastic English, math, chemistry, and physics teachers. I stay in touch with Mr. Lang, who encouraged me to take the then-new Physics Advanced Placement exam. He, along with everyone there, changed my life.

At my middle school were a great many children of diplomats. Being from South America and Eastern Europe, these kids could really play soccer (football). At first, they could dribble circles around me. At recess, I learned to play, after a fashion, that fashion being aggressive. When I got to Sidwell with its Quaker tradition of pacifism, I found that the boys did not play rough. They never stepped on an opponent's foot. They never shouldered a guy into the goal post. They didn't even sneak in a kick to the shin. The league even banned slide tackling, which was a gym-class-at-the-office at my old school. The very civilized style of play is fine at Sidwell, but I'm not sure how good it would be in a real league, where guys are out to intimidate as well as score.

Before my time , my older brother and sister also had excellent teachers in the public schools. What happened? Books have been written. But before you read too many of them, use your daughters' experiences at Sidwell as a model. Imagine every kid in America having a school experience akin to the excellence at Sidwell.

My father was a third generation Washingtonian; I am fourth. Like anyone else, I have tremendous pride in my hometown. For better or for worse here in California, I still read the Washington Post. I still root for the Nats (a baseball team.) I know that some parts of Washington have come a long way since the chaos of my middle school days. But, anyone can see that the prosperity of modern globalized retail hasn't spread everywhere.

President Obama, it would be an audacious hope indeed to make every school in America as good as Sidwell Friends. You know better than anyone that the longest journey starts with a single step. Go to Sidwell; soak up the scene. Then, set a goal to give a high-quality experience like that to every kid we have. It's the key to a literate and scientifically literate society that can change the world for generations to come.