August 25, 2007

Back to School

baktaskul.jpgYESTERDAY 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 any more."

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 few plaintive "But mom's.... "

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."

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. And who will be smothered with 30 co-workers backpack 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.

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Posted by Vanderleun at August 25, 2007 10:29 PM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Gosh. When you put it like this I'm starting to think that it's a GOOD thing that my childhood was spent in such a thick haze of daydreams that I was only aware of school at recess time.

Posted by: ccwbass at February 3, 2005 3:03 AM

But Gerard, children thrive on challenge. They
bloom with pressure. And then they get old.

After that ... they lay on the floor just because they can.

Posted by: Steel Turman at February 3, 2005 4:10 AM

All, true, sadly enough. But: eating paste!

See? there are plenty of compensations for the drudgery of elementary school.

Posted by: John Schwartz at February 3, 2005 8:12 AM

An excellent point. I still think we should ring a bell at about 10:00 and yell "Recess!" at work.

Posted by: Stephen B at February 3, 2005 9:46 AM

More motivation to homeschool mine.

Posted by: Karl Gallagher at February 3, 2005 10:09 AM

I'm with the kid. I hated school except for Kindergarten (which was all play) and recess.

When I'd miss the school bus I'd have to walk or bike to school. One day I decided I would play hooky and just stay in the woods. But there was no one to play with. I get bored. Time dragged on. I finally went to school. It was only abou 11 am when I got there.

I always stared out the windows in class. Rarely enjoyed school.

Once I heard about some schools that would have a Field day once or twice a year. All day long outside playing games, sports. I wept in envy. My school had no such thing.

If they'd combine something like Boy Scouts with school, I'd have been a happy camper.

Schools are killing our boys' spirits now. Saying they're all ADD and drugging them into submission. It is a war against boys now.

No, I'm with that kid and his brief strike. They're killing him and doesn't want to give in.

Posted by: mark butterworth at February 3, 2005 12:04 PM

It ends? wah wah wah wah
not if you can become a college prof such as ward chirchill

Posted by: yochanan at February 4, 2005 7:09 AM

Should not have been drinking coffee when I started reading. Too good.

Posted by: EagleSpeak at February 4, 2005 7:55 AM

I spent much of my school day before age 8 figuring out new routes to get home (UK in the 60's).

Fortunately, my Mum saw me in the bath one day, couldn't help notice the bruises and minor knife wounds (!), and I had a change of school.

Just in time, I was becoming as brutal as the gang of rough, tough 10-year-olds bullying everyone else smaller than they were. You know what it's like when you're 8, and you see 6-year olds crying with hunger as their lunch money has been stolen every day for a month? I was strong and heavy for my age, they didn't pick on me. It got me mad, it was so Unjust.

So I started waiting in ambush for individual gang members on weekends so I could go 1-on-1 and beat the fertiliser out of them. It got so I was enjoying it. They started hunting me to push me under a bus, like they did to another kid who'd tried to hold out on them. I obtained a penknife by pulling it out of my leg during one narrow escape, and kept and used it whenever one of them produced a weapon. I was only 8, God help me.

Bullying is no joke, and school for some kids is a nightmare. Golding had it right when he wrote "Lord of the Flies".

In the next school, sure there was the odd fight, but it was just boyhood dominance games, no-one got hurt. Always 1-on-1, a "fair fight", and your opponent would sometimes help you up if you got knocked down. It was like heaven.

Posted by: Alan E Brain at February 4, 2005 9:54 PM

I loved this post (especially the "no coffee" part)!

As the mother of a 4th, 1st, and kindergartener, I could totally relate. Have to admit, on occasion I grant them a "mental health day" and let them cut class simply because they are "overwhelmed." Sometimes, I am, too. Hubby hates it when I do that, but what the hell, you only live once. Sometimes you gotta hide at home and reach the next level on the GameCube or hit the playground when it's 60 degrees in February. There's NEVER going to be a time when the system isn't sucking the life out of you. When you're lying on your back saying "no more" is the time when Mom needs to rally and preserve your sanity. Good lesson in a balanced life, I say. Writing, coloring, and making homemade bread -- much better than Ritilan.

Posted by: cj at February 6, 2005 9:53 PM

Yes, I agree completely. I took my kids out when it was still illegal and did a half-assed job of homeschooling them because of the dreary hell that was school. They are all fine and some of them are big acheivers with big degrees. I only wish someone had had pity on me.

Posted by: pbird at February 6, 2005 10:39 PM

Absolutely 100% correct. I remember, albeit vaguely, times in public school when I felt I was drowning in a slough of despond. I do, however, seem to recall getting over it in a couple of days or weeks.

For those who don't get over it, perhaps we could go back to the good old days when kids worked 12-14 hours a day from the time they were five or six. Too much hassle bringing those days back? There are plenty of places in the world where the good old days are still here.


Posted by: Chris Warren at February 19, 2005 1:34 PM

Time was, they called it the "twelve-year sentence." Today it's more like fourteen, and the inmates are more dangerous than anywhere else outside a federal prison.

Thing is, most parents seem to need the break from their younglings. Well, perhaps "need" is the wrong word. They certainly want it, though -- sufficiently to drown the government-run schools in bucks. (Average cost per student per year on Long Island, "public" schools only: just under $18,000.) And you should hear the screams when an "austerity" budget causes the suspension of bus service.

If we go by the evidence, our love for our children is, shall we say, a smidgen less than the rosy pictures painted for us by our artists. Wait, perhaps that's overstated too. Perhaps we just like to keep them at a distance, in the hope that their absence will make our hearts fonder.

Nice essay, Gerard.

Posted by: Francis W. Porretto at February 20, 2006 1:51 PM

Editor red ink thyself:

There he lay (or lies)...

Posted by: das at February 20, 2006 3:04 PM

I think the kid might have a point. Mark Butterworth and Alan E Brain both got it right, as different as their posts were.

My experiences were nowhere near as serious as Alan's, though, but were bad enough.

As for Mark, my school did have a Field Day. Today, all these years later, I (fortunately) no longer remember exactly what happened; only that it was pure hell.

Mark is also right about the current War on Boys. I can't even imaging having to go to school nowadays. I spent lots of free time drawing pictures of soldiers, airplanes, guns and bombs. Today I'd be getting mandatory psychological counseling, if not a police record. So I'm kind of in a quandary here. While I had a lot of trouble with bullying when I was in school, the current efforts to breed (or drug) the masculinity out of boys is going to have dire consequences for our society in the future. Not least in our efforts to defend ourselves against Islamofascism.

I think homeschooling is a great idea. Thanks to the resources available on the Internet, it's more doable now than at any time in the past.

Still, it's probably just as well that I don't have kids. I don't think I'd make a good parent.

Posted by: rickl at February 20, 2006 6:13 PM

I still remember how shocked and betrayed I felt, when I learned that all my hard work and good grades from grade 1-8 didn't count, and only grades in 9-12 "counted" toward college.

This was when I was beginning to feel like the kid you described -- by junior high, kids had gotten so mean and vicious, and then there were the cliques. I felt like I was going to a factory job every day -- the school was way overcrowded, the teachers exhausted and unable to establish any personal rapport with the good students. I couldn't wait to get out of school and get a job, where I was sure things must be more humane than in the "education" factory!

My level of interest in high school went way down, and my grades reflected it. If only college had started after 7th grade -- I'd have qualified for a full scholarship to Harvard!

My wife had a similar horror story. We homeschool all our kids.

Posted by: don at February 21, 2006 1:32 PM

aA bB cC dD eE fF gG hH iI jJ kK lL mM nN oO pP qQ rR sS tT uU vV wW xX yY and zZ next time won't you sing with me to help me learn my abc's.

Im afraid of Kowalas... THEY BITE!!!

Posted by: KillerBlasterDude at February 21, 2006 1:53 PM

I actually tried this line of reasoning on my dad when I was in sixth grade, and again in seventh.

I didn't work either time, but to this day I remain convinced that I had some valid points.

Posted by: Murdoc at February 22, 2006 1:51 PM

Our educational system fails because our educators know nothing about children. Nor do they want to know anything about children. The goal of modern education is not to teach children, the goal of modern education is to control them.

As the inventor of the communications satellite would but it, "Any sufficiently advanced system of education is indistinguishable from play."

Posted by: Alan Kellogg at February 26, 2006 7:28 PM

Loved the essay! I went to Catholic schools and most of what you wrote was spot on for me, except for the heavy dose of guilt you got everyday too as part of the curriculum.

Posted by: R.Long at August 26, 2007 8:37 AM

One benefit our generation did have, Gerard-- no PC brainwashing as part of the curriculum. No let's-pretend-we're-Muslims for a week or similar nonsense.

Posted by: Connecticut Yankee at August 26, 2007 3:54 PM

You know what it's like when you're 8, and you see 6-year olds crying with hunger as their lunch money has been stolen every day for a month? I was strong and heavy for my age, they didn't pick on me. It got me mad, it was so Unjust.

Posted by: Guess at August 26, 2007 11:17 PM

I don't understand the sequence of timestamps on these comments. First one is Feb. 3, 2005 on an August 25, 2007 post?

Posted by: lpdbw at August 27, 2007 3:11 PM

Guess - It's a reprint. I totally enjoyed it the first time I read it, too.

Posted by: dan at August 28, 2007 8:29 AM

Turns out that there was a good reason why I vibed different at school.

I'd been diagnosed as mildly Intersexed back in 1985, but 3 months after my post in Feb 05, we found out that the "mildly" bit was wildly inaccurate.

Interesting that I'm on record as having a "typical transsexual's childhood" even before the symptoms became apparent. Even though whether I'm a TS woman with an appalling strange mutant endocrine system, or an IS woman so badly affected she looked male most of her life, is an open question at this point.

Posted by: Zoe Brain at August 29, 2007 10:45 PM
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