In It For The Money: Our Schools

"Just as I very much like living in a community where we set our children to the task of building and working inside of ersatz, air-filled land-whales, I also very much like living in a community where we will name a school after a person because that person was good and faithful and kind."

My son starts third grade at Pattengill this week. He spent the first three years of his compulsory education riding the big yellow bus to Bryant Elementary – Pattengill’s K-2 sister school, sorta-kinda over by the municipal airport and town dump.

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

Every day, on the way home from the bus stop, I’d ask what he did that day at school. Invariably they’d done nothing. I’d prod, as directed by the school: “Which specials did you have today? Did you go to the library? Did you have gym? What did you get in trouble for? Did anyone fall out of a chair?” and basically get nothing.

He clearly demonstrated that he was learning things somehow – he was reading ever more voraciously, and suddenly knew perfect squares through 10 and what a rhombus was. If the school accomplished that through long days spent sitting motionless and staring into space, far be it from me to disrupt their zen practice. “Nothing” was, after all, getting results.

But as it turns out, my kid is a damned liar. They hardly did any “nothing” at all at that school.

Enter the Loose-Leaf Golem

At the end of the school year my boy brought home a trashmonster, his backpack heavy with pounds upon pounds of classwork, much of it unfinished, or seemingly untouched (kinda confirming his claim that he does nothing at school).

Knock, Knock. Who? Yes!

Knock, Knock. Who? Yes!

Embedded in that mess of nightmare penmanship and abandoned math sheets were bizarre gems, like these little daily writing things. I don’t know what these were supposed to be: They are half-sheet size, stapled into booklets, rarely dated.

Sometimes they are just a sentence or two about his weekend or favorite food, but often they are these weird schematic jokes.

Or little nuggets that read like spitball pitches for indie horror films in an alternate universe where the SAW franchise was conceived and executed as an animated series a la Muppet Babies. My favorite of these reads (with spelling corrected): An unfortunate hamster and a monkey with big ears tied together to a bone.

An unfortunate hamster and a monkey with big ears tied together to a bone.

An unfortunate hamster and a monkey with big ears tied together to a bone.

If any of you aspiring young filmmakers want to option this concept, the boy and his lawyer are taking meetings.

So that’s something they did all year: They scrawled cough-syrup fever-dream koans on little pieces of paper. Also, they published a fiction anthology.

This thing weighs over a pound-and-a-half and is thicker than my thumb. My boy’s contribution is the first chapter (?!) of what seems an awful lot like Snoopy/Pikachu slash fic in which wolves bring the intrepid couple magical weapons and a sonorous bird.

An anthology of stories by the students in Mr. Kinasz's 2nd grade class.

An anthology of stories by the students in Mr. Kinasz’s 2nd grade class.

More chapters of this – occasionally illustrated, invariably scrawled edge-to-edge, front and back, on loose sheets of college-rule paper – were embedded in the classwork trashmonster.

There was also the unpublished first draft of the first book in his series “Presidents in Peril,” in which Lincoln is saved from wolf-assassination by a time-traveling ninja (also an excellent film pitch, in my humble).

I realize that I’m running the risk of being dismissed as flip, so here’s a slightly more somber piece of classwork I extracted from the work-lump my son brought home from school.

Below is a single page from a not-at-all radical second-grade civics curriculum. That final box is a bit squished. It reads: The community may be abandoned.


“The community may be abandoned.”

We’ve lived next to an abandoned house for as long as he can remember (#PureMichigan), and we’re middle-class pink-colored people – which is to say we’re the sort of Americans that, statistically, are doing OK right now. That is what OK looks like in 2014.

In the Belly of the Beast

Oh, and, one more thing: My kid’s second-grade class made a whale last year.

In the belly of a blue whale.

In the belly of a blue whale.

It was a 1:1 scale replica of a blue whale, made from black plastic tarps and inflated with industrial blowers (the kind the custodians use to dry the floor after waxing. Sorry the photo isn’t super-fantastico; there was no practical way to get a pic of the outside of the thing, because it was as big as a blue whale.)

A whale. A whale. They made a whale, and then inflated it, and got inside it as a class, and made measurements so they could tape down 3×5 index cards labeling the locations of all the organs.

They worked on it for months – during which, every day, I asked my kid: “What did you do at school today?” and he answered “Nothing.”

He spent his days toiling in the belly of a whale.

Yet that was “nothing” to him – nothing at all. We live in an age of wonders.

These are our tax dollars at work, Ann Arbor. These are our tax dollars at work, Michigan.

This is what we vote for when we vote for millages. This is what we destroy when we slash budgets and privatize services.

This is what we destroy when we permit ourselves to obsesses about the less-than-meaningless minutia of testing tests – to better test the tests’ capacity to test our kids’ capacity to test well on future tests of their test taking skills.


My son attended Clifford E. Bryant Elementary School for three years. It wasn’t until that final day – the day I saw the whale – that I stopped to actually read the plaque next to the rather dour portrait of Clifford E. Bryant hung in the lobby. It’s hung high above the door my son walked through no less than 1,000 times, in the building bearing the name of the man pictured there. And what does that plaque say?

Clifford E. Bryant came to Ann Arbor after World War II and was hired as a custodian for the Ann Arbor Public Schools on August 16, 1946. He worked in the school system for 25 years. Mr. Bryant was not an ordinary custodian. He had the reputation of being a friend and helper to both students and teachers. He was not a tall or big man in physical size, but he was in every other way. Although tradition dictated that schools be named after deceased persons, Clifford Bryant was honored during his lifetime. He was chosen because of the kind of man he was and what he did for the children, teachers, and parents of Ann Arbor.

I’m including a half-tone photo of Bryant from a 1972 newspaper article instead of a photo of the plaque, because I think it makes a  better portrait of the man.

Clifford Bryant

Clifford Bryant

On the occasion of the school being named for Bryant, AAPS assistant superintendent of operations Emerson Powrie (who had worked with Bryant as a principal) said, “I’m very pleased that the [Ann Arbor Board of Education] has recognized that faction of the school community that is so often overlooked. Cliff was a very dedicated employee and deserves such an honor.”

I want to flag a couple things here.

First and foremost is the primacy of always reading the plaque – and the sooner the better. I wish I’d known this three years ago. I wish that I could have told my son, so that he would have more than 1,000 reminders of the other thing that I want to flag: The little things count.

We didn’t name a school after Clifford Bryant because he fought in a war (although he did), nor because he saved a bunch of kids from a fire (he might have), or because he cured cancer (which doesn’t seem to be the case), or because he walked on the moon (which no records indicate ever happened). He was not rich (according to any reports I’ve seen), he didn’t revolutionize desktop computing (to the best of my knowledge), and he didn’t appear in 47 top-grossing films nor win an Academy Award for his role in Good Will Hunting. As near as I can tell, his death wasn’t even very widely mourned – heck, he passed just six years after the school was named for him, and yet doesn’t seem to have even warranted an obituary in the local paper.

So what did he do to deserve this honor?

He showed up faithfully. He worked kindly. He helped. In short, he bent the arc of the moral universe in exactly the way that we all want our children to aspire to: By being gracious on the daily to those around them.

At a fundamental level Bryant was a custodian: He steadfastly protected and maintained something of value to us all.

And just as I very much like living in a community where we set our children to the task of building and working inside of ersatz, air-filled land-whales, I also very much like living in a community where we will name a school after a person because that person was good and faithful and kind.

Happy Trails

And here we are, Dear Readers, at the end of the road.

I’ll level with you: This has been a ton of work. In the normal course of events these columns consumed hours upon hours of typing, backspacing, typing, revising, cutting, cutting, cutting, and cutting, followed by my endless compulsive nit-picking and fidgeting and altogether trying of Mary Morgan’s good faith and Dave Askins’ monumental patience – and those were the columns that went to print.

Uncounted were the hours spent standing in lines, pestering folks, fruitlessly Googling, working the phones, and otherwise chasing down leads that evaporated to nothingness. If you knew how long these 33 columns took to write and research, then you’d know the awful truth: That I’m not just a self-aggrandizing blowhard, but also a damned fool.

Say what you want, Gentle Readers, but at least I was always a fool for the facts. I reported what I saw as faithfully as possible, and told you the truth to the best of my ability. And over and over and over again I have been surprised, and humbled, and intensely flattered by your honesty and patience and good will in coming along with me on what has been, quit literally, a fool’s errand. That we are here, together, at these words so low on the last page of the final column is a testament to your civic fortitude as much as my obstinacy.

So while it’s a bummer we’ll no longer hang out like this, it’s also a tremendous relief. I’m sure you understand.

That said, I continue to write.

Something like this column – albeit much shorter and more poorly proofread – pops up on my website now and again. If you want to be kept apprised of that, you can sign up for my newsletter (and hear from me not more than weekly) or follow me on Twitter (and see many more pictures of my toddler attempting to feed gin to a stuffed lemur). I also write other stuff. Amazon will happily sell it all to you, and places like Literati can certainly get ahold of the things actually printed on paper.

If any of you happen to know someone looking for a somewhat obtuse columnist interested in a new project, I’m willing to talk. No reasonable offers will be dismissed out of hand.


  1. By Karen Hart
    September 1, 2014 at 11:07 am | permalink

    What a fabulous article! Thank you.

  2. By cosmonıcan
    September 1, 2014 at 11:25 am | permalink

    I think the traditional term for those little self-published efforts is “Chapbook”. I would hate to see the word disappear, since people have so many modern ways to make them, though they’ve been around for three or four hundred years (or more).

  3. By Kathie Weinmann
    September 1, 2014 at 1:50 pm | permalink

    When I saw the title, I thought “That S.O.B., sounding like another privatizer of public schools here in his last column on this last day of summer vacation”. but I I read on, bc I read most everything about Ann Arbor Schools. And you are right, so so right, and your child (and his classmates @ Bryant / Pattengill) are so so fortunate to be here in this Ann Arbor community with Ann Arbor Public Schools.
    I proudly admit it, I’m a retired teacher. And you’ve proudly admitted it, you’re an Ann Arbor schools parent. Big Handshake to you, and I’ll visit your page sometime.

  4. By Rod Johnson
    September 1, 2014 at 9:35 pm | permalink

    God damn it, you actually made me cry with this. I will miss your colmns.

  5. By Liz Margolis
    September 1, 2014 at 9:35 pm | permalink

    Wow, just wow! I needed this to begin the school year tomorrow! I am a proud AAPS employee, AAPS parent and AAPS graduate as well as the daughter of two AAPS retirees (one a principal and one a teacher, once teaching at Bryant!! My three boys all went through Bryant/ Pattengill, Tappan and Pioneer/Community. When we moved to the Bryant/ Pattengill neighborhood I was told by some of my neighbors that I would want to send our son to another school. “You don’t want him in that school,” they would say to me. Of course we wanted him in “that” school and every other AAPS school all three attended! Our youngest is a junior this year and reading this brought back so many memories. We loved Bryant and Pattengill – true gems in our district!
    Thanks David Erik for this excellent article (we also have those 2nd grade published books that we treasure!).
    Thanks Mary and Dave for the years of wonderful coverage of AAPS and the all around exceptional journalism that the Ann Arbor Chronicle provide to this community! You will be missed!

  6. By Rod Johnson
    September 1, 2014 at 9:35 pm | permalink

    (Um, columns.)

  7. By liberalnimby
    September 2, 2014 at 12:43 pm | permalink

    Thank you for your service to our community, David, and to the Chronicle for being a foolish enabler. (I also appreciate the Freudian typo in the final column!)

  8. September 2, 2014 at 12:56 pm | permalink

    One thing that is nice about this column is that you put a name on something that is often not noticed in the high-level systems views of “grading” schools with “colors” and test scores.

    Surveys show that most people who keep their kids in a school are pretty satisfied with it–and here you give some depth as to why that is.

    I really appreciate this as a “weekend before school starts” posting. I hope every kid, parent, and teacher has a good year.

    I also appreciate the school history that you give here.

    If you’re interested in local schools, I invite you to follow along at

    That will not make up for the loss of the Ann Arbor Chronicle. Mary and Dave, fare thee well!

  9. By Lyn Powrie Davidge
    September 2, 2014 at 5:44 pm | permalink

    Thank you, David, for this wonderful glimpse into public education, Ann Arbor style, and the reminder of the excellence of all Ann Arbor Public Schools. A special shout-out to Mr. K and all the other teachers doing a marvelous job under increasingly difficult circumstances.

    Mr. Bryant was indeed a fine mentor and role model for the hundreds of kids with whom he came in contact. I remember how pleased my father, Emerson Powrie, was when he learned of this particular naming decision, and the fact that Mr. Bryant could enjoy the honor during his lifetime.

    Like Liz (@5), I’m a proud AAPS graduate (Mack, Slauson, Ann Arbor High), former AAPS media specialist (albeit briefly), daughter of two late AAPS employees (a principal/administrator and a teacher) and wife of a retired Pioneer teacher. I can’t thank you enough for this article, and for its impeccable timing. I’ll be looking in on your website but missing everyone who hangs out here.

    Mary and Dave, what a great run. It’s all been said, so I’ll just add my own Thank You!

  10. By Alan Benard
    September 3, 2014 at 1:11 am | permalink

    Dave Nelson has been a friend for nearly as long as we have lived in Ann Arbor. He was a teacher then and, through his columns, he continued that compulsion to help others understand and grow. I have been excited by his work as a columnist. He started out good at it and ended up great at it.

    The Ann Arbor Public Schools is the reason we still live in this frustratingly short-sighted and incompetently run state of Michigan. Any sane person would sought a better deal after a 10-year, one state depression climaxed with the collapse of his employment and our major industry. We are still here because of the schools, and damn near nothing else except our good friends, like Dave and his family.

  11. By Char Hanchak
    September 3, 2014 at 11:28 am | permalink

    Dave those kids that say they did nothing in school grow up to be fantastically creative and productive adults with very fulfilling lives!

  12. By Barbara Carr
    September 3, 2014 at 3:04 pm | permalink

    Thank you for this joyful column and all the interesting, sometimes challenging, articles you have shared with us. You and the Ann Arbor Chronicle will be missed.