Many weeks into his epic hike along the Appalachian Trail, author and humorist Bill Bryson picked up a Nashville newspaper to see what was going on in the world he’d left behind.
To his surprise, he read that the Tennessee state legislature was considering outlawing the teaching of evolution in public schools.
“The article reminded us that this was not a new issue in Tennessee,” Bryson later wrote, in his 1998 environmental opus, “A Walk in the Woods.” “The little town of Dayton…was the scene of the famous Scopes trial in 1925, when the state prosecuted a schoolteacher named John Thomas Scopes for rashly promulgating Darwinian hogwash. As nearly everyone knows, Clarence Darrow, for the defense, roundly humiliated William Jennings Bryan, for the prosecution, but what most people don’t realize is that Darrow lost the case. Scopes was convicted and the law wasn’t overturned until 1967.
“And now the state was about to bring the law back, proving conclusively that the danger for Tennesseans isn’t so much that they may be descended from apes as that they may be overtaken by them.”
The wry passage came to mind last week as Bainbridge Island School District officials put out a call for candidates for our next school board. Filing deadline is in early June, and with three positions coming up for election and two certain vacancies, there’s a fine opportunity to rally fresh perspectives and new enthusiasm on the group charged with guiding local public education.
What recalled Bryson’s observations – and recent headlines nationally – was the litany of issues we can be thankful probably won’t come before our next school board. The weirdly recurrent debate over evolutionary theory (Kansas, Pennsylvania); religious texts as elective coursework (Texas); bitter and divisive racial politics (Seattle); public funding for race tracks instead of local classrooms (South Kitsap). Instead, the next Bainbridge School Board can focus its energy on updating he district’s social studies curriculum, better integrating technology into local classrooms, and seeing through the construction of a new high school wing. A much better use of time than arguing over “intelligent design.”
Is this corner of public service right for you (and vice versa)? Folks who’ve done the job sum up the ideal school board candidate this way: passionate about education, but agenda-free; intelligent; understands that they will be one of five (“plays well with others”). The frustrations? Finding out that “the wheels of change move so slooooowly”; “you aren’t always utilized, but are sometimes ‘managed’ by the administration”; watching the state continue to fail in its paramount duty of fully funding public education, meaning islanders have to fall back on special levies and private fund-raising to keep classrooms functioning. But there are also rewards: “a sense of shared mission – improving education for our kids, and hopefully for all kids”; the opportunity to meet lots of great kids and community members; working with “really great peers on the board” who become your close friends; “the feeling that you might actually be of service to the world in a small way, helping to make a difference for the better.”
Parents of young students might make ideal candidates, serving as they follow their youngsters through the school system and seeing the challenges at each level. But you don’t need a kid in school at all, just a devotion to public education.
For more views, prospective candidates might want to call one of the current quintet – Dave Pollock, Mary Curtis, Mike Foley, Cheryl Dale, Bruce Weiland – and ask about their experiences and goals. We would ask only this: don’t run for School Board if you want to impose a narrow agenda on the curriculum, or if you just want to ban a book.
Especially if you’re from Tennessee and were offended by “A Walk in the Woods.”
Don’t worry, it’s not a required text.