From a kid's eye view

Tuesday, April 16, 2002

I wonder what Ed would do?

The next big issue in education in Storm Lake isn't a new one, but it will be a defining one.

Neighborhood elementaries vs. a central campus.

As we get closer to paying off the middle school, the opportune time will draw closer for planning the next elementary school for Storm Lake. Before we can do that, we have to make THE decision.

Do we try to replace the aging grade schools where they are now, at the four sides of the town, or make the big jump to one school to serve the whole community?

It's been on the mind of school leaders for some time. I think about it a lot as I walk along downtown with a kids' group on a field trip, or see them making their way across the crosswalk on their way home from school.

It's going to be a tough time to be a school board member. You're damned if you propose to build a big, expensive elementary and foresake the tradition of the neighborhood school, and you're damned if you propose to rebuild a series of smaller elementaries and ignore the sharing, equity and teamwork of a central campus.

It occurs to me that while much has been said about the relative costs and efficiencies of the two systems, what we need to know is what is best for those children.

How in the world are we mere adults supposed to know what it's like for a kid?

We pull an Ed Breen, that's how.

For those of you who don't know, Ed Breen is the yardstick by which I measure all public servants.

Ed Breen ran a little UHF television station in the town where I grew up not so far from here, and served as a member of the school board for years.

My grandmother was a letter-to-the-editor writer extraordinaire. Living proof that the pen was mightier than the sword. And when the school district threw our neighborhood children into a new school a good mile farther away, through a bad neighborhood and with no traffic signals at the crossings, she took the town fathers to task with energy and venom.

The city council and the school administrators blew her off.

When she had to pull a friend of mine out of the way of a speeding car one morning, she went to the school board. She wasn't the petitioning type. She wanted a traffic signal with a crossing button. She wanted sidewalks. A safety patrol officer. Safety fences. She wanted them NOW, mister.

They didn't care. All except for one.

The next morning, the doorbell rang at exactly 7:30 a.m.

I craned my neck up to see Ed Breen standing there, seeming about eight feet tall. "I," he thundered, "am here to walk you to school."

Now, you have to picture Mr. Breen. He was ancient, craggy as Mt. Rushmore, towering and imposing, at least so he looked that way to to my 6-year-old perspective. He was a gentleman's gentleman, wearing an immaculate floor-length black topcoat, a stylish hat and gleaming shoes.

Ed Breen was there to see for himself.

And so he did. He took my hand in his impossibly big one, stopped at house after house, and he walked me and my friends to school. He counted cars. Shook his fist at one that went too damned fast. Stepped in snow piles - and worse. Took note of missing sidewalk, broken glass.

I remember how cold it was, but he was back the next morning at 7:30 sharp, and the morning after that.

My mother told me years later that Ed Breen had addressed both the school board and the council like a clap of thunder. They wanted to take the matter "under advisement," but he was relentless. And he personally walked the kids to school until the traffic signals were put in, the crossing guard put in place, the sidewalk ordered, safety fences put up. He embarrassed them into it with kindness.

So there's my model for all people elected to boards and councils.

Ed Breen saw it for himself.

Before the time comes for us to make a defining decision about where our children and grandchildren will go to school over generations to come, I hope we will have the wisdom to go see it for ourselves.

There is no traffic study, "municipal safety team" or schematic drawing that is going to tell us as much as taking the hand of a 6-year-old and walking the way they will walk.

Cost is important. So is efficiency. But doing the very best we can for our children, the most safe, thoughtful, educationally correct thing for the right reasons - all of those little smiling, scrubbed, scrambling little reasons - is a world more important.

And we won't learn the solution inside a boardroom or in an architect's sketches.

We'll learn it from a little kid, if we try hard enough.