Wed 29 Aug 2007
Oscar said “bye bye” today, for the first time. and the second, and the twenty-second. suddenly, clear as a bell, he is all about farewells.
and September is in the air, here, lurking in the crisp chill that comes with the dew, and the drop of the sky into darkness earlier, earlier…and i have that delicious feeling of fall melancholy…like everything is just a little sharper from not having the sun bear directly down on it…so i am casting forward to Septembers to come and goodbyes that will be more solemn than the laughing delight of “bye bye bye bye” that was today.
because September is school season. in four years, i will take Oscar to kindgarten…and presumably every September after that for…well…a long time, if all the weighty tomes lying around this house don’t make him run screaming for a full-time McJob the minute he turns sixteen. his parents have never really entirely left school, after all…we work on a campus that this week is gearing up, filling up, bringing all of us on board the Good Ship University back to the rhythms of school life. last year, in September, home with the baby and disconnected from the September-as-start-of-a-whole-new-year calendar for only the second time since 1976, i felt thoroughly adrift. this year, i am anchored again by registration deadlines and orientations and the smell of new books, even if they are not mine.
Julie‘s Hump Day Hmmm this week is about schools. and i’ve longed to participate in the Hmmm for awhile now, but i never make it, never quite seem to get the days straight or get myself organized in time. i am late even to this conversation, but i still want to throw my two cents in. or one cent, really, one coin with two sides. because i am a teacher…and yet i’m ambivalent about school. or rather, about sending my kid to school. because school, sometimes, teaches the exact opposite of what we think it’s there to teach: years in school, just like years in any other institution, can harden a mind and soul just as easily as they open it.
i loved school when i was small. i was a teacher-pleasing, overly chirpy little creature who got great pleasure out of waving her hand in the air and did absolutely cringe-worthy things to try to cultivate teachers’ affections, like drawing them little pictures with hearts on them all over my spelling tests. i was smart and naive and innocent and earnest and a little desperate for approval, but overall a happy kid in elementary school. i understood very little of what happened once we got past basic multiplication in math class, true, but other than that i was keen to learn, and i felt capable and supported and a part of my school community.
then i hit junior high like a tank hits a wall, rather literally. thanks to the late cutoff date for starting school in this province, i was only eleven until late January of grade 7, among the youngest two or three kids in my class. socially, the climate changed overnight, and that was hard. painful. i was an only child, growing up with an isolated, fiercely conventional mother and a very elderly grandmother. sarcasm wasn’t a big commodity in my home, and i was confused and wounded by the barbs that were lobbed and bandied about as currency all of a sudden, and by the obvious jockeying for position and power and cool. but this wasn’t the change that caused damage.
it was the teachers, the learning climate. my junior high ran firmly and strictly on the rails of the old military model that is the foundation for most schooling in the western world today, no matter how we talk about child-centered education. my school was particularly removed from the child-centered model and functioned instead as an institution of power, where threatened teachers perceived students as much as potential disruptors as learners, where the lowest common denominator was the goal for everyone and heaven forbid one get saucy and read ahead in the textbook and show the teacher up.
we had, for homeroom and science and math, one particularly Draconian young woman who had no business being a junior high teacher in the first place and would have been far happier with kindergarteners or grade 12s or anyone other than the hormonal, confused adolescents who’d been dumped from a nurturing elementary school environment into a regurgitation mill and really didn’t know what to do with ourselves. she ruled by intimidation, by illogical threats, by sheer force of size. once, in the halls on the way to lunch break, she caught me chewing gum, which wasn’t allowed in class but had never actually been discussed – at least with us – in terms of non-classroom usage.
immediately she barked, “spit it out.”
just as immediately i, in a moment of cocky but genuine puzzlement, sure that there must be some mistake as to her purview in this situation, said “why should i?”
she grabbed me by the shoulders and slammed me up against the cement wall, knocking the gum right out of my mouth. my feet – i was still only eleven, and she was a two-hundred pound full-grown woman – kicked the air.
i know now that she just didn’t know what to do with me, with almost any of us. even the keenest, nicest kids eventually crossed her, stepped out of line unwittingly, accidentally. she had little empathy for us, so far as i can tell, little mercy. she must have believed we were really just there to be molded, not taught…merely beaten into proper behavioural shape by her sit down and shut up methodology, from which learning would naturally spring if we simply focused more diligently on our books. or maybe she didn’t know any other methodology. or maybe she was just mean.
i know she made me mean. i spent most of my two years in her classes sitting out in the hallway, which did little to improve my already limited math skills. but i learned from her. i learned that power can be horribly misused. that people aren’t always actually interested in what you know, or even in your good intentions, but in having you not make them look bad. i learned from her that every teacher teaches, but not always the things s/he thinks s/he is teaching. and i learned that school was no longer a just, nurturing place to bring my secret heart and my desire for approval and my enthusiasm, so i began leaving that behind. i still did well in school, more or less, and still enjoyed it for a multitude of reasons. but having that teacher for two years taught me to disdain earnest effort, to hide my struggles and my original ideas, and to mock myself and others whenever norms were transgressed.
i don’t want, when i send Oscar off to school however many Septembers from now, when the morning comes for a real goodbye, to send him into a place like that.
and i know most schools aren’t. i’ve worked in them for years. i see good things, for the most part. a lot of effort. a lot of caring. but still…it’s a normative system that requires a level of crowd control to function. and learning to function within a system like that can be really, really important. or really, really damaging. just depends on who’s at the helm. and we do not choose our children’s teachers.
i think schools are one of the strangest social experiments we, as a society, are involved in. they fascinate me, pulling and repelling with not-quite equal force. the draw has always been stronger than the desire to flee, for me, overall. but when it is not me, but my child, when it’s his earnestness and enthusiasm for learning and life and other people that’s riding on the experience….oy.
yeh, i’d like my child to love school, because i did, junior high aside. but more, i want him to learn to work hard, to learn to think and discipline himself and make choices and learn from others and shine his own personal light, to the best of his abilities. and i’m not sure that schools really teach that, or even can teach that, certainly not for twelve years solid.
Septembers are going to get harder in a few years, i think.