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Back to School

Spiffy new clothes, a shiny bookbag, freshly sharpened pencils, and the promise of the beautiful autumn leaves arrival were nice. But they couldn’t make up for the fact that a new school year was beginning. Where oh where had the summer gone? – – neo-neocon

Yesterday I heard of a young mother who came downstairs early in the morning to find her fifth-grade son dressed for school but flat on his back in the middle of the living room staring in despair at the ceiling.

MOM: “What on Earth do you think you’re doing?”

BOY: “I can’t do it. I just can’t go to school anymore.”

We all know how that small strike ended. Management made an offer (“Go to school or else.”), and the union of one caved in with a plaintive “But mom….”

I first thought that there was rough justice in that. After all, the thought of actually going on a ten-minute “I-won’t-go-to-school” strike never would have entered my ten-year-old mind. If it had I would not have heard the dreaded promise, “Wait until your father gets home.” No, I would have heard the thermonuclear announcement, “I’m calling your father at work and telling him to come home right now.” That one always alerted me that I had only one half-hour to get my affairs in order.

Today, after mulling the lie-down strike a little more, it seems to me there’s more than a little to be said on the side of the fifth-grader’s strike. After twenty years of schooling and more than thirty on the day shift, those early grades seem — looked at through society’s grubby glasses — to be an idyllic time. After all, weren’t they?

No real worries. No problems with the opposite or the same sex. No goals other than getting to Christmas break, Easter break, or the long and endless summer. No money to make. No money, in fact, to speak of at all. All your expenses covered. No taxes. No sense of mortality. In short, the lost and golden land of childhood. We all think of it, once far removed from it, as some distant Edenic idyll.

But if we try and shift our point of view a bit, and if we try to remember all those things the haze of our twice-told childhood fairy-tales hides from us, we might see it — just a bit and just for an instant — from the point of view of the fifth-grade boy flat on his back in the living room staring at the ceiling in utter despair.

Here he lays. He’s been going to this job of his for as long as he can remember. Unlike my experience which didn’t start until kindergarten, today’s boy has probably been working in the education industry since age 3.

They started him out on basic blocks and why he shouldn’t nail somebody who took his cookie. Those are hard lessons. How to stack something up so it doesn’t collapse in a heap at the first shudder in the earth. How to “share” your very limited and very personal resources. Why you don’t just whack anyone who irritates you with the nearest blunt object.

These are basic lessons, and we forget how hard they are. Some of us don’t learn them at all. Those people are either in prison, assembling bombs, or CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

Still, that’s your entry level position in the educational-industrial complex at age 3. It’s all downhill from there.

For years you get up at an ungodly hour and don’t even get a chance to read the paper. Plus, no coffee at all. Not. A. Drop.

You are then pushed out of your home and either driven to your “office-complex” by a cranky chauffeur with complete control over you, or you get to ride with a few dozen of your more-or-less peers with different ideas of hygiene and levels of intelligence in a shaking tin box with no seatbelts, driven by some of the least intelligent members of your community. I’d be a nervous wreck by the time I got to the office, I’ll tell you.

Once you do get to the office, your time to just goof off is extremely limited. No leisurely stints by the water cooler for you. No coffee cart with tasty pastries coming by after only an hour. Bladder issue? Raise your hand and get a note. Other than that you are never alone.

You get one break out in the dirt, with, I might add, no coffee. A couple of hours later you get a quick hit of really bad food that is the same this Wednesday as it was last Wednesday. After that, it’s back to your office where they don’t even have a little cube for you, but slam you together with 15 to 30 other slaves to the clock in a room fit only for 10.

In some huge gesture to your youth, they let your out of this joint at 3 in the afternoon. They tell you it’s a “school day,” but if you’ve been up since 7 and out at three, that’s a full eight hours in my book.

Oh, and no chatting with your friends. Yes, you, pipe down. If not it’s off to the CEO’s antechamber for a quick and humiliating performance review. Daily if you don’t snap out of it. If you really don’t snap out of it, we’re calling your father AND your mother to come here from work right now.

Perhaps you get to enjoy the mastery of your skills? Don’t make me laugh. Master one thing and boom here comes another.

Comprehend fractions? That was so last week. Now do long division. Made a volcano that blew up on cue last week? Big deal. This week you are going to construct an Algonquin winter lodge diorama from scratch — and it better have plenty of cotton balls for snow.

One o’clock. Your project for this hour is the basic structure of the cell. Okay, two o’clock, everybody stand up and turn to the person next to them and say, “Hola, como se llama…”

Day in day out, week in week out, year in year out … you trudge off to this room crammed to the brim with bird’s nests, flash cards, trilobites, pilgrim hats, Indian headresses, drawings and paintings in which the proportion of the head to the body is never right, but looks for all the world like an exhibit by demented Fauvists with no drawing skills whatsoever and a very garish color sense. Twice a day, everybody in this room is let out. Is it any wonder they run screaming into the sunshine?

You have no veto whatsoever over your co-workers, your working conditions, your hours, or your choice of when to do what tasks. Everyone does the same tasks at the same time for 55 minutes and then it is on to something new.

Did I mention the fact that you can’t quit? If you try to quit they send the Gestapo to your home and track you down and haul you back.

There is, however, judgment. Oh, the judgment. Constantly tested. Constantly graded. Constantly up for criticism with your single allowable plea being, “Guilty. But with an explanation.” It’s like an annual review every week with no raises, ever.

And nothing, nothing you do, is ever quite good enough, is it? Except for that four-eyes up in the front row who always gets it done perfectly. No mistakes ever. You know, the kid who will be pantsed and then smothered with 30 co-workers backpacks out behind the backstop one rainy afternoon.

By the fifth grade, you’ve been in this dead end job for about seven years. If you’re lucky, your pay has gone from a dollar to ten dollars a week. Get straight A’s and you might get a bonus of one day at the local “Magic Kingdom.” Then it’s, “Okay, break’s over. Everybody back on their heads.”

I don’t know about you, but that sounds like one of the worst jobs in the world. In fact, the more I think about it the more I want to lie down with that kid in the middle of the living room and say, “I just can’t do it any more either.”

It took me about 30 years to get to that point. I guess I’m not as smart as I was in the fifth grade. In fact, I’m sure of it.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • John Venlet September 4, 2017, 10:07 AM

    Gerard, you neglected to mention the fifth graders, mostly boys, who have been coerced and forced into becoming drug consumers because of ADHD or ADD in this day and age. How many, I wonder, kids are on the ADD/ADHD drug regime because they’re a bit fidgety, or faster learners than their school chum contemporaries, simply for the benefit of the pharmaceutical coffers?

  • Casey Klahn September 4, 2017, 10:29 AM

    Don’t let my 2 teenagers see this article. Freshman and Sophomore.

    I’m at least thankful that my son, whose *science* teacher that enjoys global warming went on a rant on day 1 of school about…racism.., understands that liberals will liberal and he just tunes him out. Smart kid. Where I live, the chances of a race riot are well below zero percent.

    Hey, here’s my chance to brag on my son, just turned 16. He came downstairs complaining the week before school that he was being forced to go back to the “industrial era school model,” in this new tech era. It was silly, but something I’d never thought of before. Bright kid, but ADHD as hell. Starts strong, fades hard; pulls it out in the last weeks of the school year. Spoke in full sentences when he turned 3. idc if he gets Cs all through school, because I know how he learns.

    It’s a scary world ahead, though.

  • Anonymous White Male September 4, 2017, 10:34 AM

    “How many, I wonder, kids are on the ADD/ADHD drug regime because they’re a bit fidgety, or faster learners than their school chum contemporaries, simply for the benefit of the pharmaceutical coffers?”

    Or because Ms. Busy Body needs to believe it is a defective kid instead of her inability to rise above her college programming or because she is a terrible teacher. Or because Mom actually believes those high priests of the Pharmaceutical Industry called Medical Doctors that tell her to “trust them” and that it is for the best. Or because Dad would rather ignore his kid and watch some ball sport on the boob tube. Or because the kid is just being a typical boy.

  • Mike G. September 4, 2017, 11:24 AM

    I remember getting a three day suspension from school. I walked home and before I got there, my mother had drove home from work and was waiting for me. She took me back to school and marched me into the principal’s office, told him being suspended was a vacation for me and what he should do is use the board of education across the seat of learning in addition to keeping me after school for a few days.

    That will definitely curb any rambunctiousness, especially after dad got home and had “the talk” with me.

    Of course, back in those days, teachers and principal’s were still allowed to use corperal punishment.

  • Mike G. September 4, 2017, 11:25 AM


  • james wilson September 4, 2017, 1:07 PM

    When Tocqueville declared Americans to be the best educated people on earth he noted they attended school six or eight years, if that. They had an early and practical education from work, the odd volume of Shakespeare, reading the Bible, and periodicals. They were literate, innumerate, and argumentative. He received answers for his questions to ordinary people that the aristocrats of Europe had never thought of. Now we take many more years to dull the minds and spirits of the young so they may know their place in a dead culture. Most great men are privately tutored and all are self educated.

  • Jimmy September 4, 2017, 1:50 PM

    Five years in Catholic grade school wearing those heavy, dark, salt-n-pepper corduroy pants that made you sweat every fall and spring when the weather was hot. No air conditioning. Why did God put us boys through that? Torture!! I used to sit there and smell my own crotch sweat and wonder if anyone else noticed it.

  • Eskyman September 4, 2017, 1:54 PM

    Wonderful account, but it left out the most crushing burden of all: boredom.

    Having to sit in a classroom geared to the dimmest of dim bulbs, whose idea of fun was for everyone to goof off, and most of the time you couldn’t even read a book to get away from the idiocy.

    Like most, I soon discovered that asking questions was verboten; you were slimed as being a suck-up by fellow students, or “argumentative” by the teacher. Either way, you lose. Volunteering information that you’ve learned is equally problematic, and God help you if you correct the teacher- however wrong he/she may be.

    I also learned that anything printed in a textbook was Holy Writ, and could not be questioned. Once I made the mistake of asking my father, a WWII/Korea vet, about a Pearl Harbor passage that was in my textbook. He said, “this is all wrong.” Then, to my horror, he crossed out a couple of lines and wrote in his correction. That happened in Hawaii, where we were living, and he was then a Lt. Cdr in the Navy. His facts were correct, and the textbook was incorrect. I was of course found to be at fault for defacing the textbook; no one (including me) ever mentioned it to my father. (No, I wasn’t scared of him; I just didn’t want to have another long fruitless discussion, like I’d already had with the school officials. I was a pawn, and there were no winning moves for me.)

    That was mental torture; not as immediately painful as being burnt at the stake, but longer lasting than any other sort of torture. Now I am pretty much a recluse, which is by choice.

    That’s what I learned in school.

  • Jewel Atkins September 4, 2017, 2:03 PM

    I read where parents…white, Christians and not sexually disoriented, complained about their white, Christian 8 year olds were hauled up to the front of their class and made to apologize for being white, privileged, heterosexual Christians. Yes. That’s right. You heard me correctly. The parents COMPLAINED.


    That’ll show ’em.

  • Rob De Witt September 4, 2017, 2:03 PM

    Looks like a lot of us had the same experience, even in the ’50s. School was deadly boring, and God help you if you were smart.

    It took me decades to figure out that the world was designed for the dimbulbs, and they just fuckin loved it. I saw a meme the other day that went,

    “You’re smart, attractive; you even seem successful. Why aren’t you in a relationship?”

    “I’m overqualified.”

  • Bill Jones September 4, 2017, 2:57 PM

    I remember being told “you’ll be going to school in 6 months” 5, 4 etc.
    Come the day I was driven there, met a bunch of kids and was picked up to go home.

    I remember thinking “That wasn’t so bad”. The true horror came when they told me that was how it was going to be for the next 14 years, More than three times as long as I’d been alive at that point.

  • ghostsniper September 4, 2017, 3:33 PM

    Sentencing a child to the public indoctrination system is the equivalent to strapping a 2 ton boat anchor around their brain handicapping them forever more. It is the ultimate cruelty and the effects last the rest of their lives.

    Having studied this issue in depth for decades I know the reason(s), all of them, are based primarily in laziness. Almost nobody can resist the lure of free lifetime daycare for their charges.

  • bgarrett September 4, 2017, 8:08 PM

    I’m old and dont have any kids in school. I’m just glad its gonna be cooler soon

  • Chuck September 5, 2017, 5:15 AM

    In Catholic school the nuns had an additional weapon: the spiritual. Do something wrong and in addition to seeing the principal (the chief nun), you were facing an eternity in hell. Then the following Saturday you had to explain yourself in confession (in those days it wasn’t called reconciliation, no, you had to confess!).

  • TwoDogs September 6, 2017, 2:31 PM

    I remember 6th grade as a soul crushing experience 50 some years ago. I just wanted to be free. Now, finally, after all those years of school and the workforce, I am. Thank goodness.

  • Anonymous September 7, 2017, 7:11 AM

    No, you are not free.
    You may have lessened the tension on the neck chains but as long as tyranny rules this geographic location on the map known as the USA you will always be a slave.
    They can come and get, cage, and kill you right now for no reason at all and there is nothing you can do to change that.
    You do however have the natural right and obligation to defend yourself from all others.
    Do you have the nutz?
    Most do not.