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Henry: Students need encouragement with instruction

A file photo of school buses.

A file photo of school buses. Photo Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

Kids across America are going back to school. Hurrah for them! Of course, in nontraditional quarters some went back before Labor Day, but that is clearly against the order of nature.

Having schools open early is like having Christmas carols and decorations before Thanksgiving, another offense against custom. Maybe Congress should pass a Deck the Halls With Boughs of Holly After the Last Thursday in November Act.

When it comes to the new school year, a new law may not be needed. But we traditionalists still believe it is better to have kids return to class when the streets are clear of men in seersucker suits, so that young minds are not filled with sadness for all the little seersuckers cruelly slaughtered for purposes of haberdashery elegance.

So good luck in your studies this year, dear future generations of America. Before you step on the yellow bus of destiny, pose for mom or dad as they take your picture ready for school on the first morning. This is also traditional, although these days a cell phone may be used to take the picture.

My daughter, Allison, and my son, Jimmy, posed for many a start-of-school picture. There would be Allison fresh and smiling and Jimmy pained and drooping. What is it with boys when you try to take their picture? It is easier to take a good picture of a leopard hunting in the wild.

But rest easy, students, because now that your parents have taken the picture digitally, you will never see it again. It might go on Facebook, but it won't turn up in family scrapbooks or on the fridge or in a hallway collage as happened with my kids. It will simply disappear into the digital cloud.

A word about self-esteem: This is the season when various authorities on education -- that is, people who don't know the first thing about it but were once kids -- will bemoan teachers' efforts to instill self-esteem into you. They will say that you have to earn self-esteem -- that everyone can't be made a winner in a feel-good program. Actually, this view never goes out of season.

This is the tip of a very large iceberg of philosophical thought -- and like an iceberg it is cold. Those who think like this see every problem as something to be dealt with harshly, firmly, with no room for mollycoddling or positive words of encouragement.

It is a very good philosophy for a world where every issue is black and white. It would be nice to live in such a world, but unfortunately we are stuck in ours where most things are flecked with gray.

Now it is true that I myself managed to get by without any noticeable sense of self-esteem when I was a kid, and I did quite well in an era when the idea of role models had yet to be invented. But there's nothing wrong in teachers sharing the praise among those who worked hard and succeeded and those who worked hard and came up short. There's nothing wrong with a caring attempt to reach a kid who few others care about, maybe not even Mom or Dad.

Like most well-meaning things, self-esteem programs can become silly, but public education systems are the product of government and government has a special talent for silly. That doesn't change the fact that trying to convey some love for a kid has more potential power than trying to bully him (or her).

And how do I know? Hey, I was a kid too, and it was back in the days of the pharaohs when the old-school way of doing things was universal. They didn't have a paddle at the schools I attended -- they had a rattan cane, a terrible weapon of mass instruction. It hurt like hell.

And so did I become a paragon of learning and a pillar of decency? Er, not quite. I think I would have done better with a self-esteem program. Having watched corporal punishment applied brutally and arbitrarily, I became outraged by unfairness and skeptical of sternly imposed authority.

In short, I started down the road to becoming a liberal. Now you mockers of self-esteem wouldn't want that to happen to any kid, would you? Old-school thinking deserved an F in some areas and that's why the education world changed.

That's still no excuse for starting classes before Labor Day.

Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.