When I asked Deval Patrick last week to talk about his experience in school — the role it played in crafting the expensive, expansive education proposals in his current budget — he started by talking about a guy named Leo Webster, a classmate from the ’60s on the South Side of Chicago.
When Patrick went off to Milton Academy and beyond, Webster stayed in Chicago, worked and had a family, eventually got back in touch. Now, they reminisce fondly about their sixth-grade teacher, and try to figure out what happened to the kids they used to know.
“You know, Leo could run a company. He could be mayor if he wanted to,” Patrick said. “But more to the point, there are other kids we’ve talked about who were just so witty and alert, and imaginative, who have vanished.”
This sense of looking backward, I think — to realizing, with survivor’s guilt, the value of the big leg up — is a key to understanding Patrick’s wishful-thinking budget, which would eventually increase education spending by $1 billion per year. (I imagine those ideals played a role when Patrick chose his former aide Mo Cowan, who also grew up poor, for an interim US Senate seat.)
But another overarching value, less acknowledged in the hand-wringing over achievement gaps and charter schools and union battles, is Patrick’s nostalgia for the people he encountered in his own years of public education. In a long conversation in his State House office, what struck me was how fondly Patrick talks about the Chicago public schools that he attended through eighth grade, where he confronted 40-student classrooms and a host of social woes, but still managed to gain ambition and self-worth.
“As grateful as I am for the experience at Milton, I didn’t start my intellectual journey at Milton,” Patrick told me. “I don’t know where I would have been, but it’s always given me a little heartburn that Milton seems to get all the credit.”
This is a part of Patrick’s life story that often gets obscured, for reasons that make sense. It’s easy to spin a compelling tale (and to win a big book contract) over the notion of leaping quickly from low to high. So nearly everyone knows that Patrick grew up in public housing and won a scholarship to Milton Academy — where in 1970, he says, students still arrived at school in cars driven by liveried chauffeurs and drank tea poured by ladies in white gloves — and then glided to Harvard College, Harvard Law, and the top echelons of American business and government.
Patrick lives in a mansion in Milton now. His daughter went to Milton Academy. But his tendency to mention his old Chicago teachers by name has become a bit of a joke among political reporters. There was Mrs. Eddie Quaintance, his sixth-grade teacher at Terrell Elementary, who taught her class to count in German and took them on a field trip to the Chicago Lyric Opera. There was Mrs. Threets from third grade and Mrs. Weissenberg — the first white teacher Patrick can recall — from seventh.
And while Patrick clearly showed unusual promise as a student, he says his success stemmed largely from the way his teachers treated him.
“I got stuff at school I didn’t get at home,” Patrick said. “Every kid is hungry for the company of adults, and positive feedback from adults. And my mother was fabulous and strong, but remote and depressed. And my grandmother was probably the wisest person I’ve ever met, but also just ornery. My grandfather worked all the time. And I got encouragement and a lot of love from my teachers, and I responded to that.”
Patrick says it was “serendipity” that rocketed him to prep school, but it had a lot to do with the rigid structure of Chicago schools when he was an eighth grader, considering high school options. Back then, he said, students were funneled into three distinct tracks: general high school, vocational school, and technical schools.
Patrick wanted to go to college, so vocational school was out. But the general high school in his district, three blocks from his home in a riot-racked neighborhood, had broken windows, chains on the doors, police protection on nearby streets. And because Patrick wanted to be an architect — “I still want to be an architect,” he told me — it made sense that he’d go to a college-prep technical school, where he could learn mechanical drawing.
At the time, Chicago had two technical schools. “The one on the North Side was famous, beautifully equipped,” Patrick said. “The one on the South Side was, at that time, anyhow, kind of a mess. And it just wasn’t happening.” His guidance counselor even appealed to the school district — please take this kid, he’s special, he’s graduating first in his class — but the North Side school refused to take a kid from the South Side.
It was then that Mrs. Weissenberg spotted a flyer on a bulletin board for “A Better Chance,” a charity aimed at opening slots at prep schools to what were euphemistically called “non-traditional” students. Weissenberg gave Patrick’s mother a set of pink application forms. Patrick filled them out, and, a few months later, an acceptance letter came from Milton Academy.
Patrick downplays the extent of the culture shock he faced in Milton, crediting kind teachers and friends who helped him navigate the culture of the rich. “You get to realize,” he said, “that every 14-year-old there is scared to death.”
But he laments that few other people seemed to be able to bridge the two worlds. “When I came home, people had a limited appetite for the stories I was telling” about Milton Academy, he said. “And then at Milton, there was a limited appetite for details about the South Side of Chicago. So there was this whole experience of feeling like you were straddling these two worlds, and that acceptance of one required rejection of the other.”
There are plenty of practical reasons why education shouldn’t be so stratified; there are only so many scholarships or prep school slots or Metco opportunities. That was the basis of Patrick’s school-reform Achievement Gap Act of 2010, which expanded charter schools but also allowed low performing traditional public schools to bypass union and district rules in the name of turnaround.
In this new proposed budget, much of Patrick’s education money would go to low-income kids: giving them access to quality preschools, expanding their middle-school days, increasing grants they could use to attend state college. In some business-driven circles, the plan has been critiqued for changing too little — not expanding charter schools, leaving bureaucracies intact, declining to upend the kinds of inner-city schools that Patrick managed to escape.
In education, it’s hard to get out of that “stratified” paradigm. Patrick has been accused of hating teachers and of loving them too completely. The secret may be that he’s not thinking about Massachusetts teachers at all. He’s thinking about the kids back in Chicago.Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JoannnaWeiss.