Your average guy goes for a haircut every few weeks. I don’t have time for that, so I have a guy come to me. He charges ten bucks, but I say: what the heck; time is money. I’d rather pay the big bucks and save an hour.

I even give him a $10 tip, which makes it a $20 haircut.

This is a level of extravagance you might not expect of a man like me, who once cut his own hair. It’s because I feel bad for my haircut guy.

He’s underpaid.

Not as a haircut guy, but in his primary profession: teaching fourth grade. When you think about it, what job carries more responsibility or is more important to the future of our community-country-species? Why do salesmen earn more than teachers? Why do plumbers?

Supply and demand. But demand in the teacher business is a funny animal, given our system of mostly-public education. Parents would certainly demand good teachers and low student/teacher ratios. But parents aren’t the ones making the “buy” decision, unless they can afford private school tuition. (Vouchers may or may not be a good idea — school choice and magnet schools certainly are — but vouchers would not raise the overall number of teachers, and thus lower the student/teacher ratio, in any appreciable way.)

Anyway, whenever I get my haircut, my haircut guy comes over along with his partner — another elementary school teacher — and I learn something about life in the trenches.

Here’s what I learned today:

My haircut guy, who teaches inner city kids, has 34 of them in his class. His partner, who recently switched to a private school, has 15.

And there, ladies and gentlemen, you have it. At the critical stage, the point of maximum leverage, when kids are young and impressionable and not-yet-gang members . . . when they crave love and attention all too many don’t get at home . . . when their social behavior and productive capacity are being formed for the next six or seven decades and their citizenship skills are being honed . . . we are sticking 34 of them together in a class and hoping that my haircut guy will somehow be able to maximize their human potential.

Well, he can’t — no one can — and he knows it. Especially because the kids from the toughest backgrounds are precisely the ones who need the most attention, who are the most difficult to control.

Not that all these kids will fail. I have one employee, 26, who graduated high school unable to read or write and fell prey to crack — yet who, amazingly, somehow beat his addiction before I ever knew him and who, for the last few years, has been a hard-working, tax-paying illiterate member of society. He now has two kids of his own soon to enter elementary school, to whom he can’t read and with whose homework he won’t be able to help.

His kids at least have a loving father who’s “there” for them. They may turn out fine. But they will be in class with 32 or 33 other kids, some of them less well behaved, and a teacher whose primary function becomes keeping order.

How do we get more bright, enthusiastic young people to choose teaching over, say, personal injury law or real estate? (Not that we don’t need good personal injury attorneys and real estate agents. But our deficit in those areas, and many others, is less than in teaching.) The first thing I guess we need to do is create the jobs for them — the demand. Fewer kids in a class means higher taxes, or shifting money to education from other things — neither very appealing. But what more important investment can we make?

It’s not new schools that are so badly needed — staggered scheduling and summer sessions could wring more use out of existing buildings. Computers can help — see Monday’s comment if you have a ratty old 386 in the attic collecting dust. But is there really a substitute for a good teacher and personal attention?

What would you advise my haircut guy to do? With 34 young minds and characters to help mold, many of them coming from fatherless homes, and/or illiterate parents — can he really be expected to break the cycle of poverty and disaffection? It would be tough at any class size. But 34?

I know, I know. I’m getting pretty far afield from your immediate money concerns. “He used to cut his own hair?” you’re thinking. “Wonder what that would save ME? There’s Bill’s hair, and the kids’ . . . we could save $500 a year tax-free doing that, which invested at 14% a year would grow to a million dollars in just 43 years. Where do I get a haircutting doohickey like that?”

Well, I say you’re being ridiculous. First, you’d never earn 14% after taxes on your money over 43 years. Second, the kids — and very possibly your hair — will be gone long before then. So this million bucks is illusory. But the 34 kids to a class are not.

Tomorrow: The Not-So-Wealthy Streetsweeper


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