Like the high school lab partner who wakes up in the middle of a science experiment after the smoke has cleared, syndicated parenting columnist John Rosemond recently discovered the 26-year-old public art project on the side of the N.C. Department of Public Education building and declared it stupid.
In a January column, Rosemond takes issue especially with the centerpiece of the 30-by-90-foot Education Wall created in 1992 by Duke University artist Vernon Pratt with design help from Carrboro writer Georgann Eubanks.
The wall features a child’s drawing, several bars of a John Coltrane song and quotes about education from noted North Carolinians.
In the middle is this snippet from Fred Chappell, who served as the state’s poet laureate from 1997 to 2002:
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Rosemond, apparently misconstruing the word “awed” as “awesome,” was offended as only a pro-spanking, anti-coddling, let-them-cry parenting expert could be. He compared the quote with another on DPI’s Facebook page, one taken from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. about the function of education being to teach critical thought. Rosemond wrote that the two contradicted each other.
“On the one hand, they are in awe of children; on the other, they believe children should be taught humility,” he wrote of state leaders who, by the way, Rosemond says should not be in the business of installing art at the public’s expense. In this case, $107,000.
“The awesome child, like the awesome adult, does not possess suitable capacity for self-criticism,” Rosemond said.
The columnist, whose advice is published weekly online, in 225 newspapers (including The News & Observer) and shared in lectures Rosemond delivers to teachers and parents across the country, is a native North Carolinian who still lives in the state. But he didn’t know, he said, until someone sent him several photographs of it recently, that the side of the state education building facing Halifax Mall in downtown Raleigh had been used as a giant red granite canvas. He still has not seen it in person.
When reached by phone on the way to a speaking engagement, Rosemond stood by his interpretation, saying “awed” – the state of being awed, or in awe of something, and “awesome,” which means capable of inspiring awe, are synonymous.
“It’s a celebration of children, is what it is,” said Rosemond, who has built a career – and countless columns, including this one – on the notion that children are natural-born narcissists who do not need parental help in building up their self-esteem.
“Personally, I don’t like celebrations of children,” Rosemond said. “I think celebrations of children are misplaced, somewhat distasteful.”
Rosemond, who is prone to calling other psychologists’ child-rearing theories “claptrap” and “worthless,” describes Chappell’s work on the wall as “unmitigated drivel.”
The excerpt is from a poem of Chappell’s first published in the 1970s called “Child in the Fog,” about walking to school on the first day of a new academic year, with an early-morning gray mist swirling between the child’s home and the schoolhouse door. Once at school, the child’s fears will be allayed as he learns about the great world beyond it.
“It might have helped if Mr. Rosemond had looked up the source,” said Chappell, an internationally acclaimed writer who lives in Greensboro and continues to publish.
“He’s been to school. Is he literate?” he asked of Rosemond.
The child in the poem, Chappell said, “feels the world is saying to him, ‘You are a child, you are suitable to be awed. You will learn things at school that will blow your mind.’ That’s all it says.”
Rosemond is not the first person to misread — or object to — the sandblasted stanza. When it first went up, a legislator thought it said a-wed, as in wedded, and thought the state Department of Education was endorsing child marriage.
Vernon Pratt died in 2000 of injuries received in a bicycle crash. His collaborator, Eubanks, who has just finished another book, said Pratt would relish the fact the Education Wall is drawing attention more than a quarter-century after it was completed.
“Art is supposed to do that,” she said.
CORRECTION: Vernon Pratt’s name was misspelled in previous versions of this article.