“We’ve been saying that Myrtle’s having an affair with Tom for the money, but that has a different connotation than saying she’s having an affair with him because of his wealth,” says a blond guy in the front who’s been relatively quiet during class so far.
By “relatively quiet” I mean he’s only contributed to the class discussion of The Great Gatsby three or four times so far in the first twenty minutes of class, in addition to joining in every time the entire class offers up an answer to a question in unison. Other kids, by contrast, have contributed answers to every single question. Almost all are leaning forward in their seats eagerly.
It’s the most engaged high school class I’ve ever seen. Anywhere.
I’m at Harvard-Westlake, generally considered to be the most elite private school in Los Angeles, occupying something like 22 acres of gently rolling hills in Sherman Oaks, including two gyms, a tennis court, and a putting green and a performing arts center so complete that in addition to having two theaters and a dance studio, it also houses a roomful of electric pianos. Notable alums include Sally Ride, Eric Garcetti, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Shirley Temple, Jason Segal and both Gyllenhaals. There is no information on the website about diversity, but admissions information is offered in Spanish, Chinese and Korean; 17% of students get some kind of financial aid toward the $34,000 annual cost. Statistics aside, the majority of students I see on campus appear to be white.
There are days when the discrepancies between the schools I’m visiting are so startling that I go into a kind of shock. Yesterday, I was standing outside the gate at Locke High School in Watts, standing on graffiti-sprayed cement and buzzing at the gate of a chain-link fence. By contrast, this morning, driving up the winding road to the administration building at Harvard-Westlake, I was greeted by a security guard, given directions up a winding road to my own visitor parking space and, once inside, offered a fresh cup of coffee and a comfortable chair by a friendly receptionist. To know intellectually of the vast inequality of opportunity for children in this city is one thing; to experience it personally within 24 hours is mind-numbing.
But before I can contemplate any of this, I’m greeted by 11th grade honors teacher Jeremy Michaelson, a tall, genial guy who’s been teaching here for his entire career, ever since getting his Master’s in his twenties. “This is a wonderful, wonderful place to work,” he says, with feeling—a rare statement to hear from a teacher. Because I’ve just come from Locke, whose students come from one of the lowest-income communities in the city, I’m struck by the similarity of some of his comments to Kristin Damo’s. “I hope for my kids to be better observers of the world,” he says, reminding me of her hope that she’ll instill curiosity in her students. “I want them to be able to read the world and see it as more meaningful than it was before.”
I ask him about pressure, thinking of my conversation with Ben Arnold at South Pasadena High School, many of whose students were also from high-income families and who, Ben felt, sometimes were too focused on getting the “right” answer in order to keep their grades up for college. “I don’t blame the kids for being obsessed with their transcripts,” says Jeremy. “My challenge as a teacher is to get them to forget all that when they walk in the classroom.”
And to my amazement, they do. When I pull up a chair, unnoticed, the small circle of kids is already talking about the previous night’s reading in The Great Gatsby before the rest of the class of fifteen is even there. “I like Myrtle way better than I like Tom,” one girl is saying to another, and the two try to puzzle out what they even like about her. When the class is finally there, a full-out discussion breaks out immediately in the tight circle of students.
Jeremy, at the front, almost never utters a statement. In fact he keeps his speaking to a minimum, mainly asking questions, directing their attention and pushing them to look more closely at details. “Why do you think it’s strange that Gatsby holds his arm out trembling?” he asks one girl.
“It’s just peculiar,” she says.
He pushes. “Why is he trembling? Is it fear?”
“Maybe longing,” says another girl. “It’s like wanting something so badly you tremble.”
“I saw it as awe,” says the boy next to her who’s dressed as a Campbell’s soup can to promote a food drive.“And reverence. Like a religious trance, like someone who’s about to praise the Lord.”
“And why does he stretch his arms out?” Jeremy asks. “Do you always stretch your arms out when you want something? Last night I longed for dessert but I didn’t stretch my arms out to the refrigerator.”
What astonishes me is that every single kid is fully, intensely engaged—not just passively paying attention but clearly thinking, listening, responding. Every so often Jeremy will ask a question and they will call out responses almost at the same time, overlapping each other in their enthusiasm, as when Jeremy asks, “Myrtle’s compromising her dignity in order to do what?”
“To live!” yell several kids all at once.
Their enthusiasm is infectious. I realize, as I sit here, that this fully-engaged, questioning environment is what we’re talking about with Common Core: a teacher who asks brilliant questions and a roomful of students with the reading and analytical skills to respond to those questions, or ask questions of their own.
What I’m struck by here is how complex this process actually is. What appears to be pure analysis involves reading skills and vocabulary, of course, but also deep social and emotional skills. “’Money’ sounds dirty and cheap,” the boy observes. “’Wealth’ is how you see yourself.”
For hours afterwards, I’m puzzling over the many layers of meaning this student decoded in order to make this comment, which resonates for me over my whole project. What kind of educational wealth (or money, which does sound dirty and cheap as this student astutely observes, but arguably has made possible at least some of this excellence) has it taken to get these students to this point of deep, complex critical engagement? Clearly, in Jeremy, they have a master teacher. A small class of only fifteen makes it possible for everyone to speak and be known personally. Most of these students have probably been educated in settings like this since they were in preschool, which may have begun as early as age two, and in addition to the rich roster of arts programming here in music, dance, theater and visual arts, most of them have probably attended after-school enrichment programs and summer camps throughout their young lives.
What is the relationship of wealth to education? Is it the same as the relationship of money to education? When we demand that all of our students be given an education that enables them to think as clearly, critically and enthusiastically as these Harvard-Westlake students do here, what resources are really going to be needed?
I’m still thinking about this question days later when I visit Catherine Ricohermoso-Stine’s class at Animo Leadership Charter High School in Inglewood where I am also blown away by a class that’s 100% engaged in Gatsby, but in a totally different way. It starts with an invitation to a cocktail party. I’ll tell you all about it in my next post.