Book Excerpt: "There Are No Shortcuts"

On American Schools


Our schools and, sad to say, some families do a very bad job with children in public places. "Kids just being kids" are often noisy and rude, spoiling a movie or museum for other people. We shouldn't accept this. We need to teach our children the proper behavior in all kinds of situations. If they're rude, let's teach them how to be polite. Just taking the kids on trips isn't enough. We as parents and teachers must do a better job if we want our children to be better human beings.

I once heard about another school that sent its fifth-graders to Washington, D.C. For their trip to the nation's capital, they spent a year getting ready and raised thousands of dollars. Yet the entire trip was only four days long, with the first and fourth days spent going and returning, leaving only two days to spend in the capital. When I spoke to one of the students to see how the trip went, she complained to me that she'd had a lousy time.

Front cover: 'There Are No Shortcuts' by Rafe EsquithExcerpted from There Are No Shortcuts by Rafe Esquith
(Anchor, May 2004).

"All we did was go to the mall," the little girl told me.

"Well, that's terrific," I told her, trying to put the best face on things. "The mall is exciting. There are the Smithsonian museums and the Washington Monument and the --"

"No, Rafe," she said, "we went to the mall. My teachers shopped for souvenirs and we hung out at the candy store."

We can and must do better than this.

Recently, another elementary school group went to Washington. There was a story in a local school paper about the trip. Sixty children went, accompanied by twenty-two adults! Of course the adults should be commended for their commitment to the trip, but if you need twenty-two adults to supervise sixty children, the children shouldn't be going in the first place.

Nearly every year the Los Angeles Dodgers are kind enough to provide baseball tickets to several games for students and the Jungle (Ed. Note: Rafe's nickname for the Hobart School is the "Jungle"). It's generous of them to do this, but the school does a dreadful job of running the trip. Many of the kids know nothing about baseball; most don't even know who's playing. They run up and down the aisles, buying food every five minutes and screaming their heads off. The group leaves by the end of the fifth or sixth inning, and the adult leaders congratulate themselves on having taken the kids out for an evening.

I'm sorry to be so hard, but this is a waste of what could be many valuable lessons for the children. They could learn about the great game of baseball and still scream their heads off. They could eat all the food they wanted and learn to understand the sacrifice bunt at the same time. And certainly they need to learn to finish what they start. Do we stop reading our book halfway through? Do we leave a play or movie in the middle? Leaving the game early is really teaching kids that it's okay not to finish things.

Hobart Shakespeareans pose next to FDR statueThe Hobart Shakespeareans take many field trips around the country with Rafe Esquith. Here a couple students pose with a statue of President Roosevelt.

Allow me to share with you the things that I love to do most of all: taking groups of children on the road. Hotel personnel stop us at the door and beg us to return. Restaurants throw out the bill or bring the students free desserts. Other diners in restaurants watch the group, come up to the cash registers, and pay our bills. Why does this happen?

It doesn't happen because of any brilliant teaching on my part. In fact, it happens because I've made many mistakes and stuck around long enough to learn from them. In my early attempts to travel with students, I wanted to take them places, but didn't understand that I was missing opportunities for them to learn about things that had nothing to do with the places we visited. Instead, I mistakenly believed that having kids walk up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial was going to be the highlight of a trip to Washington. My objectives were misguided.

I've since learned the best reason to take children on the road: children learn and understand how to behave by being exposed to new situations and watching others. Some children act in an inappropriate manner because such behavior is the only type they've ever seen. Children can learn how to behave appropriately at the opera if they see educated people model the manners we want them to follow. When a child accidentally touches a flame, he understands forever that fire is hot and dangerous. As a teacher of children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, I came to understand that my students would work harder for a better life if they saw the life they were working for. Taking the children on trips was a chance for them to become a part of America, to feel a part of our nation rather than an unwelcome guest at the party. It's admirable to encourage students to attend college one day, but more effective to take them to universities so that they can see the possibilities. When my students had the opportunity to stay in nice hotels and observe the respectful behavior of others, they began to emulate that behavior, not because of my teaching or inspiration but through the examples they witnessed.

Hobart Shakespeareans at MonticelloHobart Shakespeareans make a human pyramid at Monticello in Virginia

So parents and teachers, listen up. It's time to hit the road with a group of kids. Preparing the students for the trip is important. Once that preparation is done, the kids not only have a better time, but learning will take place in ways you could never predict. Through the opportunities these trips create, the students are allowed to discover important lessons by themselves and, in doing so, take charge of their future lives.

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Excerpted from There Are No Shortcuts by Rafe Esquith. Copyright © 2003 Rafe Esquith. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.