Breakfast of Champions

He scaled an intellectual Everest at age twelve. What's he like at sixteen? Meet George Thampy.

"All education, regardless of whether it's in public school, private school or homeschool, is value-laden," asserts Ray, a former professor of education at Seattle Pacific University. "The question then arises: Who has primary authority over values and worldview taught to children? And again, you've only got a few choices: the family or the state."

Reich and his ilk come down on the side of the state, Ray argues, while people like James Dobson, founder of the arch-conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, feel that public schools are diverting kids away from what their parents teach them. "If you go back to the beginnings of the public school system as we know it today -- the mid- to late 1800s -- there was a tremendous debate over whether the state should be involved in collecting taxes and running schools," Ray notes. "It's not a new debate at all."

The old debate gets another dusting-off this month in Harper's, which features a scathing critique of modern public schooling by a former New York state teacher of the year named John Taylor Gatto. "Do we really need school? I don't mean education, just forced schooling: six classes a day, five days a week, nine months a year, for twelve years," Gatto writes. "Is this deadly routine really necessary? And if so, for what? Don't hide behind reading, writing, and arithmetic as a rationale, because 2 million happy homeschoolers have surely put that banal justification to rest. Even if they hadn't, a considerable number of well-known Americans never went through the twelve-year wringer our kids currently go through, and they turned out all right. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln? Someone taught them, to be sure, but they were not products of a school system, and not one of them was ever 'graduated' from a secondary school."

Jennifer Silverberg
Bee yourself: George Thampy toughs out the 2000 national competition
Bee yourself: George Thampy toughs out the 2000 national competition

Counters Reich: "Gatto's been writing the same thing for fifteen years now. Sure, it's a nice polemic. But a guide to public policy? What exactly is he proposing? That we dismantle compulsory attendance laws and expect everyone to homeschool, or to allow children to direct their own schooling?"

In the conclusion of his paper, Reich touches on the notion of how homeschooling and public schooling might coexist. "There are a host of open questions about the consequences of homeschool-public school partnerships," he writes. "But to the extent that bringing children back within a campus-based school environment conduces to meeting the interest of the state and the child in education -- especially to the extent that it brings children into social and intellectual contact with other children of diverse backgrounds -- such partnerships should not be summarily dismissed or discouraged."

Which, in a roundabout way, brings the discussion back to George Thampy. "One of the real problems with homeschooling is that you're lost in terms of what goes on," Reich says. "So it's a good thing from a public-policy standpoint to lure people back into private or public schooling. The fact that Thampy returned to school is a positive development."

It's the second day of school in Casandra Clausen's Spanish class at Westminster Christian. Today's assignment is totally unrelated to learning a foreign language: Each student had to bring to class a brown paper bag containing personal items that symbolize important elements of his life.

Most kids pull out photographs of their families. Some pull out knee pads and tickets to baseball games, symbolizing their love of sport. One displays a "Sore Loserman" campaign pin, commemorating the defeat of the Gore-Lieberman ticket in 2000. Seated in the back of the room next to his jazz-enthusiast buddy Dan Serber, George Thampy has drawn the next-to-last straw for this early-morning show-and-tell. Instead of a paper bag, Thampy whips out a black thermal cloth lunch bag. The items he has brought: a squeeze packet of horseradish, a pair of socks, a pump bottle of hand soap and two chess pieces, a king and queen.

"Believe it or not, these are some of the most important items I have," says George, his smirk evolving into a toothy smile.

The class erupts with laughter at a most unconventional class clown. In the cauldron of sociological tumult that is high school, there's a fine line between full-throttle dork and the brilliantly quirky kid everyone loves. It is evident that Thampy has landed safely in the latter category at Westminster. It certainly didn't hurt that everyone knew his name before he ever set foot in the building.

"He came in as a phenom," admissions director Florence Lewis recalls. "So he wasn't having any trouble getting recognized in the halls."

"Most people, that's the first thing they know about him," echoes Serber, who like Thampy has been permitted to navigate Clausen's Spanish class at an accelerated pace. "He's gotten well accustomed. People accepted him into groups."

Having known Thampy through church since fifth grade, classmate Philip Pohlman is in a unique position to comment on the social evolution of his friend. In his estimation, Thampy has made great gains socially since coming in from the homeschool hinterlands.

"He's always been the smart one," says Pohlman. "He used to be more shy; now he's more open. He's met people from different backgrounds."

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