Tuesday, September 16, 2008

"As the Twig is Bent, the Tree's Inclined"

As my kids recently returned to school, I was once again reminded how much I respect and appreciate those who have chosen the profession of teaching. It's something I grew up with. Both of my parents are retired educators. I am so proud of my father, James Leonard Shurtleff, chemist by trade - educator by profession. After years of teaching chemistry at Jordan, Hillcrest and Brighton High (where he was, "horror-of-horrors," my Sophomore Chemistry teacher,) he spent the rest of his career as an administrator at Brighton and Bingham High School and Midvale and Mt. Jordan Middle Schools. My mother, Sandra Shurtleff, retired after thirty years as mostly a First-Grade Teacher at various schools in the Jordan School District, finishing at Granite Elementary. I say, as did Abraham Lincoln of his mother, that "all I am or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother."

We send our children off every morning to spend seven or so hours with one or more adults who will (hopefully) shape their minds, motivate their talents, inspire curiosity, and awaken them to the world around them and their role in it. Some day I'll post my feelings for my Sixth Grade teacher, Naomi Brems (formerly of Cottonwood Heights but now of Boulder, Utah) who had a powerful and lasting impact on my life. I once gave my father a little wooden block for his desk with a brass plate that bore a quote from Alexander Pope: "'Tis education that forms the common mind. As the twig is bent, the tree's inclined."

Perhaps that's why I have spent a higher percentage of my time as attorney general in our schools directly educating Utah children than any other single pursuit: Internet safety tour; club drug "Reality Check" tour; introduction of the Netsmartz Internet safety training, assemblies on youth suicide prevention, bullying, the dangers of alcohol use and abuse, and steroid dangers; "substitute teaching" numerous classes; personally mentoring fifth graders at Washington Elementary; and instructing teachers, administrators, and PTA members on school safety, civics and bullying prevention. In addition, I have aggressively secured the funding for our children’s education, twice standing firm in prohibiting top federal and state officials from taking actions that would have resulted in the loss of millions of dollars in school trust land revenues held in trust for Utah's school children.

I have received hundreds of letters from principals of high schools, junior highs and elementary schools from around the state thanking me for my efforts and securing critical trust funds. In my replies to them, I often include my favorite prose on the subject of education. It is a little long, but I hope you'll read it here, then go to your next Parent-Teacher Conference or Back-to School-Night and thank your kids' teachers for helping them grow straight and tall into mighty oaks:


In America, then, everything was free, as we had heard in Russia. Light was free; the streets were as bright as a synagogue on a holy day. Music was free… Education was free. That subject my father had written about repeatedly, as comprising his chief hope for us children, the essence of American opportunity, the treasure that no thief could touch, not even misfortune or poverty.

Father himself conducted us to school. He would not have delegated that mission to the President of the United States. He had awaited the day with impatience equal to mine, and the visions he saw as he hurried us over the sun-flecked pavements transcended all my dreams.

So it was with a heart full of longing and hope that my father led us to school on that first day. He took long strides in his eagerness, the rest of us running and hopping to keep up.

At last the four of us stood around the teacher's desk; and my father, in his impossible English, gave us over in her charge, with some broken word of his hopes for us that his swelling heart could no longer contain. I venture to say that Miss Nixon was struck by something uncommon in the group we made, something outside of Semitic features and the abashed manner of the alien.

All three children carried themselves rather better than the common run of "green" pupils that were brought to Miss Nixon. But the figure that challenged attention to the group was the tall, straight father, with his earnest face and fine forehead, nervous hands eloquent in gesture, and a voice full of feeling. This foreigner, who brought his children to school as if it were an act of consecration, who regarded the teacher of the primer class with reverence, who spoke of visions, like a man inspired, in a common schoolroom, was not like other aliens, who brought their children in dull obedience to the law; was not like the native fathers, who brought their unmanageable boys, glad to be relieved of their care. I think Miss Nixon guessed what my father's best English could not convey. I think she divined that by the simple act of delivering our school certificates to her he took possession of America."

Chapter IX." by Mary Antin (1881-1949)From: The Promised Land by Mary Antin. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1912.

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