My best memory, my only memory, of study hall was the time I was reading Huckleberry Finn for an American literature class. I was reading a passage describing the consequences of Tom and Huck’s foolishness when I broke out laughing. Study hall was supposed to be a sanctum of hushed, studious concentration. Surprised at myself I looked over at our study hall teacher Mr. H. He scowled and shot me a hard stare. I went back to my assignment thinking, “Sorry I was assigned something funny for my homework.”  

I never minded study halls. I’m not sure how I spent my time in them. Being a student who wasn’t too bent out of shape getting Cs in uninteresting classes they were useful to slap together last minute homework. That casual attention to detail kept me out of the top quarter of our class. I might have been in the top third which was nothing to write home about.

My Dad, a lawyer and a college teacher, never agonized about my grades except for his favorite subject, history. I was glad to show him my frequent As in those classes. However, as I got closer to college Dad finally got off his duff. When I came home with a D in Mr. H’s chemistry class dad made me quit tennis.  

As a perennial candidate for the school board I once came under fire for supporting study halls. The doctor’s and attorney’s wives on the School Board considered them a waste of time.  Children would profit by having real classes. As the United Negro College Fund’s ads said, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”  So too were study halls.  

Someone put a bee in Juvenile Court Judge, Jerry Martin’s bonnet about my support for study halls.  He wrote a letter-to-the-editor criticizing me.  

Rather than reply in the letter’s column I wrote the highly regarded judge a personal letter to explain  myself. To his credit Judge Martin wrote back and told me he had been hasty to judge me so severely.   I’ve had three more decades to stew about public education. I’ll  summarize.  

I probably pointed out to Judge Martin that many of the kids he saw in court were kids that our schools had failed. I’d seen this myself teaching kids who couldn’t or wouldn’t read. Some had parents who hadn’t graduated from high school. When I was in school kids could leave school at age 16. The freedom to be a fry cook was a lot more appealing than sitting in a class feeling stupid next to kids who liked school. Later as parents they couldn’t help but fall far short of helicopter parents who were coaxing their children like hockey pucks into the best colleges. Our legislatures were taking no chances. They made going to school mandatory until the age of majority. There was no more early escape.

In Duluth, ambitious but fair-minded parents eager for their children to enter elite colleges didn’t want to deprive other children from a full course load.  

Republicans who knew that children were falling behind because of their teachers and not because of their deprivation passed George W Bush’s “No child left behind.” Somehow they are still being left behind.  

Before Bush and, before I was on the school board, I read, or at least started reading, a book about the consequences of underfunded schools. Savage Inequalities by Jonathon Kozol made me so angry I couldn’t finish it. I was desperate to do things differently. Anything. When I finally was elected to the school board on my fourth attempt such a thing presented itself. I believe the charter school I voted to bring to Duluth is still here today because of me.

I still wear scars. Did it cause the revolution I hoped for? No. There are no easy answers short of giving every child a loving, prosperous, well housed, education-loving family.   

Back to study halls…taking them away and giving kids more classes was hardly enlightened. The non college inclined have been taking it on the chin all my life.   When I was in school lots of boys gravitated to machine shops. Many of them didn’t care a whit about Mark Twain. Their parents, unlike the doctor’s wives on Duluth’s school board, hadn’t prepared them for college.  

In 1969 guys who didn’t want to go to college enrolled because it was safer than getting shot at in Vietnam. The guys who preferred machine shops mostly dropped out and got drafted anyway while doctor’s and attorney’s kids kept their deferments.

After they got back Republicans crippled their unions because unions funded Democrats. Republicans explained that this was really freeing workers from having to pay union dues. Better yet Republicans freed industry from cradle to grave costs by championing foreign manufacturing. 

This had the additional benefit of giving American consumers inexpensive foreign produced products. Then President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, infuriated Republicans by stealing the Republican idea of “free trade’ and passing NAFTA. Republicans were so mad they impeached Clinton. He had committed high crimes and misdemeanors by perjuring himself under oath. Its hard to believe they once had standards like that. I’ll bet it was because of their study halls.  

Harry Welty doesn't have all the answers at