The bus from School No. 5 labored up the hill to our house, feeding my trepidation as I clutched the small manila envelope.
Reaching home, I anxiously handed my report card to Mother. Validating my angst, she took it and reached into a battered shoebox containing the report cards of my older sister Tanja. The Olean school system in upstate New York was small and we all attended the same schools. Often, we had the same teachers as we aged up. This allowed for easy comparison, despite the fact that the convenience sample was woefully small.
Mother opened my report card, placing it side by side with Tanja’s for the same year and quarter. Her eyes moved slowly and deliberately across and down each card. She had a fierce expression and a quiet intensity.
She barely glanced at the A’s. Abruptly, her face froze at my A-minus.
In her thick, sonorous Eastern European accent she asked, “Vat happened? Vy da minus?” and pointed out that “Tanja didn’t have a minus.”
This quarterly academic torture was repeated routinely for my two younger siblings.
At that time, neither of my parents had completed a college education. World War II abruptly ended any possibility. What they did have was a first-class public high school education in The Netherlands for Father and in Poland for Mother. Each of them spoke multiple languages and read the great novels in their original tongue. A steady stream of newspapers and literary magazines also arrived in our mail box: Saturday Review, the Wall Street Journal, the Sunday New York Times, Commentary, and Time. A stimulating and rich ancillary education.
Although we complained incessantly about her unremitting nagging, Mother was the original “Tiger Mom.” She rode her four children hard, checking our homework, yelling “Spot!” from the kitchen if we fumbled a note during piano practice, as in “You missed a note at that spot and you better practice those notes over and over again!”
She made sure we practiced the French or German that our father taught us. Only after all our homework was done and the dinner table set could I go out and play with my neighborhood friends. But even during dinner, our education continued, with each of us quizzed according to our age about the alphabet, states, state capitals, and global countries and capitals. This relentless and sole focus on education was born of my parents experiences in the War, which taught them the value of education, what it requires, and what it provides.
The future of any culture and society resides in our children. Historically, teachers in Europe are considered important and highly respected members of the community. They’re seen as professionals entrusted with the future of children. Education is given funding primacy and isn’t dependent on local property taxes.
In North Carolina per pupil spending is 41st among the 50 states and dependent on the wealth of the community. N.C. school districts, once the envy of educators, have been balkanized into largely segregated and unregulated charter schools and underfunded public schools. Despite years of evidence of the benefit of early childhood education, North Carolina has long lists of children waiting for a place. Unlike Holland, the quality of a child’s education depends on where his or her parents live and how much they earn.
Even Dutch universities are heavily subsidized, with annual tuition less than $2,500 for most public institutions. In North Carolina, funding for the UNC system has not kept pace with increased enrollment and has steadily decreased, leading to rising tuition and fees.
My siblings I count ourselves lucky. Our parents had a wonderful public education that fostered a lifelong love of learning, which they imparted to us. We were exceedingly fortunate that Mother had the time, energy and foresight to nag us and that our teachers had the patience to help us learn. Through their efforts, we graduated to life. Over the last eight years, North Carolina has lost its way, sacrificing the needs of the next generation, for a tax cut today. It’s time to change.
Charlie van der Horst is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at UNC and a global health consultant. Follow him on Twitter @chasvanderhorst