Monday, February 22, 2010

SSO Tour

Today I was shown around the primary school where I'll be working as an SSO. 
            When I arrived, I had to wait a while by the admin desk. On the floor a small girl sat cross-legged, patiently waiting for somebody, next to an enormous backpack that was larger than she was- almost.
            "I don't need chairs." She said to me, very sweetly.
            I watched Cathy, the principal, as she stepped out of her office and collared a 10 year old boy who was moodily kicking at the wainscoting; he was out of uniform - dressed expensively in designer hip hop rig, red streaks jelled up in spikes all through his hair.
            Cathy said "Good Morning" and the boy sneered and exploded a loud burp into her face.
            "I beg your pardon."
            "Having a good week, then?"
            "Planning on having one?"
            "Where's your -"
            And then he popped another one, louder and longer, and, abruptly, he changed and became a little boy, who answered all of her questions eagerly - his father is in Darwin, and therefore Not Around, and his Mum is pulling him out of school this afternoon because she feels like going to Adelaide for a holiday.  Then he shut off- burped in her face again, and shoved a greasy McDonalds bag into her recycling basket, and came out whistling.
            Poor kid.
            Cathy stayed in her office - presumably sorting out her trash, and a man, shambling, unshaven, with his shirt-tails hanging down his legs shuffled into the office.
            "Morning Mr Hanks!" the receptionist chirruped.
            He acknowledged her, unsmiling, with a vague half-raise of his hand.
            "Daddy!" the little girl jumped to her feet.  The receptionist smiled at her fondly and, expressionless, the man signed the little girl out. They passed slowly back down the corridor together, the child's enormous backpack banging against the backs of her knees. Whatever possesses people to give small children such large bags?
            This school is considered a Category One School, meaning that the students are classified as severely disadvantaged.  Almost half the students have subsidized enrollment. One third of the student body is indigenous Australian. The kids are tough little cookies and vulnerable babies - often both.
            Cathy took me for the royal tour - there is a computer room, new this year, but as yet it has no computers.  Cathy gritted her teeth and told me that the computers are all in storage pending the room being finished - it was supposed to have been done over the summer break, but the desks weren't installed till last week, and the contractors are being artfully vague about when the wiring will begin.
            The library is in chaos for similar reasons - but the new furniture (book shelves and primary color reading tables) is all in place - the frazzled SSO librarian is attacking great leaning towers of books and educational posters queued up for re-shelving. Even with paperbacks teetering sixteen stories high, it's a friendly room and the new tables and chairs are fantastic - perfect from small children to cuddle up with a picture book - or spread out crayons and draw.
            The school smells powerfully of nostalgia- wooden cubbies and powdered poster paint - I spent the tour taking deep surreptitious inhalations and, behind my eyes, painting with long-handled wooden brushes, the bristles scarred and stripped from stirring glue pots, and watching the powdered paint dry and swirl away from my paper in a cloud of softly scented pigment . 
            The classrooms and the hallways are painted in primary colors and pasted over, floor to ceiling, with student artwork and spelling posters.  The classes are small and the staff clearly makes a concerted effort to make the school a positive and supportive place for their kids.  The teachers are young and enthusiastic; many are on their first posting. Cathy said bluntly that she work hard to make their job as pleasurable as possible - in other words - please let them want to stay on past the end of their rural scholarship bond!
            We stopped at the door of an assembly room where Years Two and Three were having Physical Activity.  Three young women led a pack of children through a vaguely Jane Fonda-ish dance routine; perhaps half the children danced along with them, the others lay on the floor kicking their feet - at the shins of the dancers mostly, the rest dangled upside down from chairs, and forebore to notice the activity in the middle of the room. On the edge of the crowd, three small aboriginal girls stood sucking their thumbs or their fists, and stared at us warily as we leaned in through the door.
            "Physically, our children are very small."  Cathy told me.  "You don't notice it until you see them next to other students at inter-school sports days, but they're shorter, and much more delicate.   It's Malnutrition."  
            She grimaced sadly. 
            In the year 7 classroom it was recess and the kids were backpack-diving for morning snacks.
            "Nutritional food!"  The teacher bellowed.  "That means a piece of fruit or a vegetable only, Samantha!"
            Samantha, a tough young lady with a decided chin, gave her a blank look and dangled a chocolate bar ostentatiously between her fingers.
            "About 50% of them bring fruit."  The teacher said to Cathy in an under-voice. "If I can work on the parents-"
            A throat cleared behind us.  An frighteningly energetic young woman bounced impatiently on her toes her eyes fixed on Cathy.
            "Would you like me to finish this up for you?" She said brightly.  "You're needed in the conference room right now."
            "Is the mother - "
            "Yes."  The young woman said.  "She's still here -"
            And Cathy was gone.  Not even a puff of smoke left to trail in her wake - just spontaneous teleportation. The young woman looked at me and visibly shuffled mental note-cards. 
            "Sarah Cart- assistant principal.  And you are?"
            "Tabubilgirl - SSO tour."
            "Really?" She said, her eyes faintly covetous, and she whisked me back to the admin block, where I was speedily introduced to the Year 4-6 reading specialist, signed up for introductory "shadowing" shifts for Thursday and next Tuesday, and signed and sealed, found myself waving bye-bye at the front door before I knew what had hit me.  She really is appallingly energetic.

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