On Being Left Behind

Sometimes, the legacy of the New Critics gets the best of me, and I end up getting carried away with a close reading.  That’s happened today with “no child left behind” and the “left behind” books.
First, I have a sneaky suspicion that being “left behind” might not be such a bad thing.  I guess that goes back to my own education.  

Return with me, if you will, to a basement in a town in Michigan, circa 1967: a group of kids (including me) sitting around a turntable, listening (for the umpteenth time) to Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention’s album “Freak Out,” singing under our breath to the lyrics of “Hungry Freaks, Daddy” with its rejection of “the great midwestern hardware store philosophy that turns away from those who aren’t afraid to say what’s on their minds–the left behinds of the Great Society.”

Even then, I wanted to be a “left behind.”  I hated my school, and I did not do well there.  Nor had I in the one before, nor did I in the one after that.  I wanted out; I did not want to go in the direction “they” wanted to take me.

And I was not alone.

Today, the juggernaut I wanted to escape from goes on, but now its sights are set on heaven, not simply the Great Society here in this world (though many feel that is their earthly reward for the constancy of their belief).  Now, they have exhanged the idea that we “non-believers” (of whatever sort–then it was simply belief in the rewards of material gain) will be left behind in the quest for material goods for a grander vision, one that includes those goods and heaven too!  And, now, they have made my position even clearer.  In the sixties, I wanted to be left behind.  Now, “they” are telling me I will be left behind–and are telling me so with pride.

Used now in that series of books by Tim LeHaye and Jerry Jenkins, the phrase “left behind” carries with it a feeling (one that Frank Zappa was using ironically) that anyone with any sense wants to be on the train, the car, the boat, the plane, or–yes–the bus (Ken Kesey: even you were a bit elitist with your ‘Are you on the bus or off the bus?’).  It does not leave room for the millions of us who never wanted to go in that direction; it assumes that everyone should (at least).  There’s a smugness in the phrase that I find distasteful, at the very least.

Deep down, there’s also that coupling of “left” with “behind.”  It’s the left that is standing in the station (in this view) while the train to glory pulls out.  This one is certainly implicit in “no child left behind.”  The sense is that “we” can do better, with our reliance on standards and testing, than did those leftists who so long controlled our schools (uh, not!).  Clear-eyed conservative guidance can undo the damage those fuzzy liberals have caused: that’s the implication of “no child left behind.”  (Thing is, it really doesn’t consider the children or learning–but that’s another topic).

Enough for now.