‘A Progressive Education’ by Richard Howard
Fans of the “School Days” sequence in Richard Howard’s 2008 National Book Award-nominated Without Saying will be glad to see that his newest collection, A Progressive Education, comprises a more in depth visit to the students of Park School, a “progressive education” middle school. Several poems are identical to sections in the original sequence, but in his new book, Howard broadens the character base. Notably, he has also moved his cast of students from fifth grade to sixth grade, with poems that used to say “fifth grade” now saying “sixth grade,” a harmless change that does not disrupt the acute syllabics the poet is famous for.
Growing up in Cleveland, Howard attended a similarly Dewey-inspired institution. He has said that the new book “involve[s] the disciplines and exemptions, as well as the vocabulary and, of course, the dramatis personae, of his own schooling.” Acting as a kind of precocious Greek Chorus, the Sixth Grade Class en masse periodically writes a letter to their headmaster, Mrs. Masters. They exalt, they tattle, they whine, and they preach, digesting the week’s field trip or student expulsion. In “E Pluribus Unum,” they define their school experience:
this poem together, our
Sixth Grade Class has discovered
by degrees, each of us for ourselves,
that Progressive Education works
by confidence in
what the Founders called
“mutual stimulus” – nowadays
most students tend to call it “teamwork” –
but regardless what it’s called
by us now or by them then,
the spirit of collaboration kept us
pecking keenly for the seeds you had scattered
These students are whip-smart and punchy, perfect grammarians, and generally more evolved than any ten-year-olds I’ve ever met. Maybe the world of Progressive Education is slightly cartoonish. Or maybe their erudition comes from the progressive system of which they’re so proud, although the students admit that tacking the word progressive onto any phrase “would make whatever / goes on around here sound ever so / democratic and therefore enlightened….”
The surreal smarts of these preteens do have a limit. With each letter, it’s more apparent that everywhere they turn is death, whether mentioned by teachers in passing or seen by the students themselves. After a visit to the Dinosaur Wing of the Natural History Museum, the class seems to have
figured it out, about death: the Dinosaurs
may be extinct, but
they’re not dead! It’s a different thing, you dig?
When Duncan Chu’s lhasa jumped out the window,
or when Miss Husband’s
parents were killed together in a car-crash,
we understood that – that was being dead; gone:
no body around.
Isn’t that what dying has to mean: not being
here? The Dinosaurs are with us all the time,
anything but dead –
we keep having them!
Unable to wrap their minds around “not being here,” the class “is convinced that dinosaurs… / are alive somewhere / on Earth,” and imagine a conspiracy that hid them “Somewhere Else, a long ways away.” Yet they are also profoundly suggesting that existing in memory only is still a kind of existence.
Soon, the students encounter death firsthand. A stray peacock from an eccentric neighbor’s yard wanders into the school parking lot one afternoon. Before the parking attendant can clear the bird from the hood of a car, Arthur Engelhurst (“Arthur Englander” in previously published versions), the class dunce, strangles the peacock to death in a violent fit, screaming that he’s “killing a vampire.” Deeply disturbed, the class begs Mrs. Masters to expel Arthur and allow them to “buy the peacock lady another bird / (not one that’s already ten years old – a chick / would be fine with us: / we could feed it bread and watch it grow.)” Unwilling to accept the death as loss, the class sees not a peacock but a phoenix.
They later retract their request to expel Arthur when Duncan Chu, the class brainiac, discovers he was performing a Hasidic ritual called kapparot, where the believer whirls a live chicken over his head. Arthur somehow “mixed it up with vampire movies” and forgot what the ritual was for, knowing only that “he had to do it / right.” Rather than traumatizing him, the whole, whacky affair instead inspires Duncan Chu to conclude that “religions die once they’re / proved true. So that / science is the tombstone of dead religions.” Like Duncan, the class rationalizes death and attempts to comprehend or dampen it with logical sleight-of-hand.
But the horror of death tends to find a way around syllogisms. A chain of gruesome run-ins with death follows this episode. The science teacher, Mr. Lee, passes an albino pig runt around the class that, afterward, is devoured by its mother. The students are shocked. After that, Mr. Lee brings a “fourteen-foot reticulated python” named “‘Rajah’ (an appropriate name for / an Indian python, everyone agreed / except for Arthur / Engelhurst, who kept on calling him ‘Roger’)” to class. A week later, the python crushes its handler to death (whose nickname, in Howard’s nod toward an etymological joke, is “Mort.”). A classmate’s parents are killed in a political riot with very little comment. As the mortality rate climbs in the class, the students ask “to learn / less about death and more about life – that is / what Biology’s meant to mean, isn’t it?”
Death isn’t the only subject beyond their reach. Before a field trip to the zoo, Miss Husband shows the class a movie about “S.I” (Sexual Intercourse). They’re horrified:
All three Davids –
Stackover, McConnahey and Hammerstein –
refuse to believe
that their parents, just
to have them, did what we all saw in that film –
the Davids are sure they’d have heard their parents
complain about that.
At the Reptile House, a zookeeper explains how a male Komodo Dragon forces itself onto the female, who then eats her babies. Occasionally, a female can also reproduce by fertilizing her own eggs. The class seizes on this fact with humorous insight:
Well, what we’d like to know is:
could Science obtain
in humans? If female Dragons can avoid
the discomforts and damages of S.I.
by sheer will-power
(that’s what it looks like),
can’t something of the kind be achieved for us?
Mrs. Masters, this is what our Class Project
would like to propose
as its conclusion
(with the assistance of Medical Science)
Howard devotes a few of the poems to the adult voices – Miss Husband, Mrs. Masters, a mother late to visit because she had to “pick up coyote piss – / for the garden. We use about a quart a month: / it really does deter the deer.” Mr. Lee calls the students “boys and girls” rather than his colleagues’ “more inflated forms of address” like “my esteemed Ladies & Gentlemen.” He reasons that “If you can’t be addressed / as Boys & Girls when you’re in Sixth Grade / then I can’t help believing we’ve been barking // up the wrong tree.” The children want to grow up as quickly as possible; the teachers gently encourage them to enjoy their childhoods while they can. When Miss Husband tries to read them Peter Pan (which she greatly admires), the class loathes the main character for his immaturity – who, in their right mind, would refuse to grow up? To the students, Mr. Lee admits that “it’s your success (growing up, God save us) which / upsets Miss Husband and other grownups who / prefer themselves (and you) to fail,” that this is her reason for loving the flawed Peter Pan. Mr. Lee encourages the class to
remember what you already know but
may not understand: people who “love PP”
have ignored the fact that presenting the Child
as Innocent is not the same thing as repressing
the Child’s sexuality – it is, always, holding off
any possible challenge to their own.
Though the adults round out the world of Progressive Education, it’s the students who sing with insight. When Miss Husband suggests they stage Our Town, the class scoffs at “that wretched tear-jerker” and decides instead to put on Georg Büchner’s Woyzcek, which they think contains zero references to death or “S.I.” Later, they discover that one of the students has heavily censored their copies of the script. Woyzcek, it turns out, is mostly about murder and sex. A progression through life, they learn, is invariably a progression toward death.
Whereas Howard’s previous characters lampoon, lament, and luxuriate a know-it-all air, the Sixth Grade Class at Park School presents a passion play of knowledge, yearning for the facts of adulthood, but damning “typical grown-up reasoning” – that which comes not from textbook logic but from emotional experience. With acute attention to subtle turns of thought, Howard walks us through the hyper-rational minds of ten-year-olds wrestling with the metaphysical. They want so badly to understand the world of adults. I’m embarrassed and moved by the familiarity of these sixth-graders: their stubbornness was my own pushed into the absurd only a little. I have a feeling these students could rattle off every American president in reverse chronological order and solve complex logarithmic equations, but they flatly deny those grand subjects of life: Sex and Death. And is it any wonder? Are we adults any different now? I don’t think so.