"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Last month, in the midst of Chicago’s seven-day teachers’ strike that left thousands of parents across the city scrambling for childcare, I ran into a neighbor at the grocery store who looked as though she was holding onto her sanity by a thread. “Soon,” she said to me, through gritted teeth. “The strike’ll be over soon, right?”
I nodded sympathetically.
“How are you managing?” she asked.
I began to shake my head, to remind her that my kids were not yet in kindergarten and attended a private preschool, but then I stopped. “Oh, you know,” I said. One of the kids started screaming for Fruit Loops, and the two of us parted ways. It wasn’t until I’d made it to the checkout counter that it occurred to me what I’d done. That I’d basically lied, letting this woman go on with her misconception that I was, as she was, making my way through the public school system.
In part, the lie was a product of the strike. I knew from other friends in the system what a strain it had been (even for the many parents who wholeheartedly supported their teachers), and I would have felt like a jerk saying, “Oh, we private school parents have been managing just fine.” But the more I thought about it, the clearer it became that there was something else going on. I remembered other conversations where I’d made similar evasions. I recalled other instances of guilt throughout the preceding year as my husband and I reluctantly came to the decision that we were not going to be sending our kids to public school, not when our son started kindergarten and not any time in the foreseeable future.
My husband and I both attended public schools. We believe in the benefits, both individual and communal, of supporting public schools. We hate the idea of paying more for our kids to attend elementary school than I paid for either my bachelor’s or master’s degrees. We hate that we were sending our kids to a school at which others (friends, neighbors, acquaintances) are excluded by the “inadequacy” of their incomes. And we hate, at parent-teacher conferences and volunteer events and seasonal fundraisers, feeling like deadbeats compared to the high-earning parents of our children’s classmates.
But despite all our guilt and discomfort and high ideals, we came to the decision that we weren’t sending our children to Chicago’s public schools. We weren’t going to be the super-parents who, through tireless volunteering and organizing and advocacy, turned our neighborhood school around. We weren’t going to spend the countless hours required to enter into the city’s tortuous lottery system for select magnet schools. We were going to walk our kids down the street, and quietly, shamefully, remain a part of the problem.
For many of our friends raising kids in the city, private school is simply not an option. It wouldn’t be an option for us, either, if my husband’s parents hadn’t offered to help subsidize their grandchildren’s education. Without such assistance, we’d be doing what most of our urbanite friends with preschool-age children are doing right now: freaking out. For many of them, the school quandary represents the first major roadblock in their years or sometimes decade-long commitment to city living. As a generation of gentrifiers, we’ve embraced public transit and rented small apartments with nooks that can double as nurseries. We’ve turned our backs on our parents’ conception of the middle-class dream, a dream that includes a single-family home and a sprawling yard and two or three cars in the driveway. We believe in cities. There’s not a solitary aspect of the suburban lifestyle that could woo us back to the byways and Applebee’s of our youth. And then, our kids turn 5.
As in many other major cities, the schools within the Chicago system run the gamut from utterly broken institutions to revitalized neighborhood schools to selective-admissions schools with reputations for academic excellence. Where a particular child ends up within this system depends on a combination of geography, income, academic aptitude as judged by a standardized test, a parent’s familiarity with the system and motivation, and a family’s luck in the partially randomized process known as the CPS lottery. Any Chicago parent who does not want to send her child to the neighborhood school enters this lottery and is assigned a number that is somewhat random and somewhat influenced by the median income and education level of residents surrounding the student’s home address. The number the student receives determines which, if any, selective admissions or magnet public schools the child will be offered a spot in.
For someone like me, someone educated in a rural-suburban public school system, the entire process seems bizarre, inscrutable and utterly daunting. And yet, my husband and I agreed that come pre-K, we would begin the process. Our children were happy and thriving at their private school; the faculty and staff were infinitely supportive; and our kids seemed to be learning and growing in a nurturing, stimulating, calm and loving environment, yet something felt wrong about it.
Part of this was probably our own public-school backgrounds, that the culture of private school felt odd to us simply because it was different. But as time went on, I began to get a nagging sense there was something else, that in using money to opt out of a flawed system to which our friends and neighbors and fellow Chicagoans were consigned, in fleeing a system that the strike itself had revealed to be strained almost to the breaking point, we were abandoning the principles — commitment to diversity, cultural opportunities for all, socially progressive politics — that had made us want to live in the city in the first place.
The moral implications of this sort of exclusivity bothered us enough that, as kindergarten approached, we considered the public options. But when the time came this fall to make the leap — to go on tours of public schools and rank our preferences and sign our son up for the ETS-administered aptitude test and find out if test scores and enrollment at our local school were on an upswing or a downswing, to, in other words, seriously contemplate taking our son out of a school where he was learning and happy and gamble on a public — we just couldn’t do it.
“I know how you feel,” a friend who was going through the same dilemma told me over email. “Our neighborhood school is two blocks away from our home. There are a lot of indications that it’s been moving in the right direction for the past few years, that it may be on its way up and that if parents like us sent our kid there and got motivated and involved, we could be doing something good for our neighborhood and our community, not to mention our own finances. But 75 percent of the kids at this school are eligible for free lunches. Fifty percent live in homes where little or no English is spoken. Many of them may live in homes where there aren’t many books being read. Classes are big. Teachers are over-burdened. Am I really going to send my 5-year-old who’s just starting to learn how to read into that environment? Part of me wants to. Part of me thinks I should. But I don’t know if I will.”
Failing schools and the questions they raise for parents trying to do what’s right for both their kids and their communities is not a problem unique to Chicago. Another mother I spoke with in Minneapolis describes the problem as a conflict between perceived and actual values. The local private school she’s considering for her daughter is predominantly attended by people like her: white, educated, liberal, defenders of the arts who try to enact politically progressive policies in town. She said, “All these parents want to send their kiddos to a great school. But I think that we’re torn between what we perceive as the best learning option for our kids versus what we perceive to be the best outcome for our communities. It would be better for our communities, obviously, if parents with money and time and motivation sent their kids to schools that were in trouble, but how much of that has to do with wanting what’s best for them and how much has to do with wanting to assuage our own guilt?”
Another friend in Brooklyn, N.Y., takes the argument one step further. When I first mentioned our private-public dilemma to her, she responded by saying, “I don’t see how that’s a dilemma.” As she saw it, “‘liberal guilt’ surrounding education is a privilege; it’s a privilege to not want to send your kids to the best private school because it’s not ‘just’ or ‘even’ or (I hate to say it), because it isn’t diverse enough.” She told me about how her own parents, as immigrants, moved to an affluent suburb of Long Island where they didn’t fit in, so that their kids could go to the richest (and, sadly, whitest) school. “I hated it,” she told me, “and tried explaining the reason to them, and they just couldn’t understand what I was going on about.”
I’m sure all of us can find fault in our own education, and I certainly wished at times that I’d had other options. My own K-12 education may have been free and easy, but it wasn’t necessarily very good. Sure, I had a few exceptional teachers, but I also had a lot of mediocre ones, and some who were ill-prepared or incompetent. The buildings (or trailers) where I went to school were functional but not fancy. Basic supplies were available but not abundant. AP classes and enrichment opportunities were few. The hallways and classrooms were safe, but far from bustling with intellectual vigor. I still went to the University of Virginia, and I still managed to succeed there, but maybe it wouldn’t have been so hard if I had gone to a more rigorous private school.
Still, I can’t help wondering if there are things I learned about perseverance that my own kids will be sheltered from in our quest to provide them with the very best opportunities. One winter in my senior year, my AP European history teacher just gave up. She was fresh out of school, inexperienced, underpaid and probably overwhelmed by a job she didn’t love (she left the next year). I was frustrated by her indifference, but eventually, snowed inside during a long winter blizzard that brought a halt to our classes, I did something unusual: I started teaching myself. I read that textbook cover-to-cover. I annotated and took notes. I looked up words and concepts I didn’t know. I learned the hell out of that book. It was interesting material.
I did so well on the exam that I considered majoring in history, but the experience taught me something else: how to make the best of the hand you are dealt. You learn to compensate for a crap teacher, a four-week school closing, a trailer instead of a classroom. Sometimes it’s the making-do and not the cards themselves that are important.
My husband describes the pride of coming from a public school and attending a private university where so many of the kids went to Andover or other prestigious private schools like it. There was a certain level of self-sufficiency in his earlier education. He learned to play his hand very well.
But I can’t help feeling different when it comes to my children. They are being taught wonderful things by talented, inspiring teachers. Their private schools have classrooms brimming with enthusiastic educators and engaged classmates and shiny new computers. But I will continue to worry about other things they might be learning, along with their ABCs: That they are part of a privileged few who are “worthy” of such abundance in education. Or this, which surely will come back to them in many ways over the years: That we live in a country where the most important building blocks of a successful future are doled out not according to talent or need, but the depth of one’s pockets.
Kim Brooks' writing has appeared in Five Chapters, Glimmer Train, One Story, Epoch, and other journals. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, she teaches writing and is at work on a novel. Her website is http://www.kabrooks.com/. You can follow her on Twitter @KA_Brooks.More Kim Brooks.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)