Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What I Did at School Today

Yesterday morning I was happily puddling about with paper paste when one of the little girls at my table looked up at me and asked "Are you a Miss or a Mrs?"
            "A Mrs."  I said to her, pasting a strip of newspaper onto a balloon.
            "What's your Mrs name, then?"
            "It's right here on my name-tag - Mrs Tabubil."
            "Huh."  She digested this.  "Do you have a Mr?"
            "Yes, I do."
            "What's his name?"
            "Mr Tabubil, just like mine."
            "Is he a nice Mr?"
            "Don't be silly," another little girl said. "If he wasn't nice, she wouldn't BE a Mrs.  Is your Mr the nicest person ever in the whole world?"
            "Of course he is." I said.
            "See!?"  She said with deep satisfaction.  "I told you so." And she blew the first girl a raspberry.

I am a recently graduated architect living in a rural Australian mining town during a world-wide financial downturn. This means that I am working in the local school system as a teacher's aide.  I spend several mornings a week at a primary school near to our house.  This school sits in a very low income neighborhood, and the students face tougher issues than most primary school students - beginning with "I couldn’t feed you this morning" and working up to pyrotechnic behavioral problems brought to an early boil by severe physical and emotional abuse.  The kids play rough and cut up hard in class and they are very very sweet and some days they just about break your heart.

I spent this morning with a classroom of second graders, listening to them read.
            "Big Dinosaur chased little dinosaur into the rocks. Little Dinosaur looked out and saw Big Dinosaur waiting for him. Little Dinosaur hoped that Big Dinosaur would go away, but Big Dinosaur did not go away.  Big Dinosaur sat and waited- "
            Will Little Dinosaur be eaten up for lunch?  Or will Big Dinosaur lose him in the sticky swamp, where a little dinosaur can jump from fern to fern but a big dinosaur might become very very stuck?
            You'll have to read the book.
            There are sixteen sub-levels in the classroom reading set.  Some children are ready to graduate from the book-box, and round the stories off with sound effects and spicy character development.  Others, particularly the ones who cannot read very much at all, are very shy; stumped by the embarrassment of sounding out the letters in front of me. One small girl simply guesses, offers "cat" for "mother" and "duck" for "water."  She looks at the pictures instead, sucking on her lower lip and shaking her head.  I spell out loud, reading the story letter by letter and then syllable by syllable, referring over and over to the phonetic alphabet chart on the wall above the blackboard.
            "Now your turn."
            She fusses and fidgets and looks at her fingers.  I begin to spell again and then - what a moment! - she looks directly at the page and reads a whole line of letters one after the other.  "The. Mother. Bird. Sat. On. A -" she looks at the book, and then at me, amazed. She got it.
            It feels that good.

While the small girl and I read together, Teacher is giving the class a Very Important Talk.
            "You make a Strong Decision" she says, looking seriously at the children, "when you Use your Head Instead of your Emotions.   A Strong Decision is a Grown-Up decision. You don't just think about Yourself - you make a Strong Decision for All of the People in this Room and you think of All the Ways you Might Affect Them. A Weak Decision is when you use your Emotions instead of your Brain and you think Only of how good the Decision feels Right at that Moment.  Weak Decisions Hurt People.  When Thomas helped me clean up the classroom yesterday after art, was that a Strong Decision?  Mikal?"
            "Yes, Teacher. It WAS."
            "And when Petra tipped that bucket of crayons all over Carlie this morning, was that a Strong Decision or a Weak Decision?  Shenae?"
            "A weak decision."
            "And what -"
Her eye is caught by a boy who has escaped the talking circle and is sitting underneath a desk, scribbling long looping ovals in blue crayon on a sheet of paper.
            "Simon," she says sternly "Are you making a strong decision right now?"
            "Are you going to stop and join us in the circle?"
            Well - she's halfway there.
            We pick the kids up off the floor and march them off to the multi-purpose room for their morning exercise session.
            At the head of the room, a smiling Teacher steps smartly through a set of aerobic dance numbers, choreographed to booming techno tunes.  She's flanked by a double backing group of third grade girls - pony tails flying, dancing in formation, they know the steps- they're good girls.  And rather smug in the face with it, too.
            Halfway down the room, in the no-man's land between where the carpet stops and where the room becomes a garage for the school minivan, there is a double security cordon of aides and teachers.  Between the backing dancers and the security cordon is an absolute melee.
            The room is packed full of children - fifty-odd of them, from Prep to Grade Four.  They are dancing, talking, running races, spinning like tops, playing clapping-games, taking teacher-mandated time outs in the corners, or just plain staring into space and looking bewildered.
            I sympathize.  Some of the fourth-grade boys are staging fist-fights, their eyes carefully on the teachers, timing their swings for maximum adult outrage. In the middle of the room, third-grade boys are breathing heavily and breaking into exciting kung-fu kata unknown to any of the major martial arts schools.  Unfortunately for their flow, under their feet six small girls from the prep class are trying to take a nap.  There is periodic howling.
            Less than a third, perhaps, of the children are doing anything vaguely dance-related at any given moment. At the top of the room, the teacher steps through her paces, smiling sunnily out over the heads of her flock.  She is completely and cheerfully oblivious.  Her mandate involves techo-routines.  It doesn't say one single solitary thing about making the kids do them WITH her.
            Mine is a somewhat tougher gig. I stand in the security cordon, and as bemused children filter out of suspension I take them by the hand and dance them back onto the exercise mats, and keep dancing until they look at me in disillusionment and wander away.
            The really big fourth grade girls are too cool to even pretend to play along - they slump against the side walls, their whole bodies dripping with ten-year-old disdain and they giggle at us behind their hands and make the third-grade girls squirm.  I promise them 5 whole minutes of uninterrupted hyper-frigid glowering if they dance five minutes with me.  One risks a shy smile, but the long, scrutinizing cool looks of the others drive her back to the wall.
             On the other hand, when the bellowing begins, they have an unbeatable view - two of the more creative fourth-grade boys have pierced the cordon and discovered the mini-trampoline.  Which they are using as a catapult.
            Five-year-olds go tumbling.
            End exercise session.  Exeunt omnes.  In bits and pieces.

On the way back to the classroom, one boy breaks away from the crocodile and races off ahead of us.
            "Mikal - that is a very weak decision!"  Teacher bellows down the hallway.  "A STRONG decision would have been to come back and stand in the line here with all of us!"
            The classroom is locked, so Mikal isn't going anywhere interesting.  Teacher squares her jaw and we stand there, twitching and giggling, until he becomes bored sitting outside a locked door and slouches back, not looking at Teacher, and shrugs into place at the back of the line.
            Back in the classroom the children practice their lettering - writing out lines of "oo" and "oe" and, when they are done, coloring in a picture of a donkey printed inexplicably on the next page.  One boy uses his workbook to hit the girl next to him over the head.  She howls and brandishes a pencil.  Confiscating the notebook and putting it firmly back on the desk, I ask him sternly "Was that a strong decision?"
            "No!" He shouts gleefully.
            "Are you going to do your work now?"
            "Don't have to do it just because you say so."
            I sigh, very quietly.  Don't undress the Emperor, kid.  The rest of them think I have actual authority here. I am big, they are small - for most of them, that's enough.
            Finishing their pages, they bring them to me for the Adult seal of approval. 
            "Lovely."  I enthuse. "Very good lettering on this page.  What a nice coloring job you did there!"
            One boy is less than impressed.  "You didn't mention that I painted his tail green!" He wails.
            "You're quite right."  I apologize.  "What a very green tail!"
            "Or his teeth all gray!"
            "Oooh - yes, they are grey - has he been eating licorice today?"
            He stops wailing and considers it.  "Lots and lots and lots!"
            I send him off for the highest honor that is mine to bestow - a visit to the library for a sticker from the Librarian's Drawer.  Scratch 'n sniff.

Teacher interrupts our writing practice for an Important Announcement.
            "This afternoon" She said solemnly "I saw someone make a weak decision.  It is very easy to make weak decisions - What is not easy is Doing the Right Thing and coming back and changing your weak decision for a STRONG one."  She stop talking and beams at the class.  "This afternoon Mikal did not Let His Emotions Control Him.  He made sure that his Thoughts were In Charge of his Emotions.  I am giving Mikal a citizenship award.  Mikal - take this and show it to the front office - you have been a Class Ambassador today, and we are all Proud of You."

Lunch is peaceful.  We eat sandwiches and apples (only Healthy Snacks (TM) are allowed in the classroom) sitting cross-legged on the carpet.  Except for the boy who throws his yogurt at his neighbor, misses, and gets the carpet and the wall and the window ledge and the window panes instead.  Under the inflexible eye of teacher, he wipes up every drop of his Weak Decision, too - except for the thick white spray across the back of his own head and uniform shirt.  Teacher is secretly very impressed.  I can see her calculating trajectories inside her head and wondering how he managed it.
            Before the kids go out into the yard, they have Circle time.
            The children sit in a ring around Teacher's chair and, one by one, she asks them how they have been feeling today.
            "Carlie?" Carlie waves her hands high above her head and beams at us.  We smile back happily.
            "Thomas?"  Thomas makes a medium size equivocal motion in front of his chest.
            "Oh dear.  Do you want to tell us why?"
            "Because Alex pushed me in the chest and he didn't say sorry!"
            "Oh Alex," Teacher sighs.  "Alex, how are you feeling today?"
Alex is a tight bundle on the rug, his hands pushing down hard on the carpet.
            "Do you want to talk about it, Alex?"  Teacher says gently.
Alex shakes his head violently, his head buried in his chest.
Teacher looks at the class.  "What happens when somebody doesn't want to talk about things?"
            "We respect his feelings" the children say. "And we don't make him say anything he doesn't want to say."
            "Thank you." The teacher says.  And smiles. "Shanae?  How are you feeling today?"
Hands wave high overhead. "Because we were with YOU all day today, teacher!"
            "How very kind you are! Thomas - where are you going?  When you were medium unhappy we all listened to how you felt.  We respected you.  Class- what is Thomas going to do now?"
            "He is going to sit in the attention chair and respect everyone else the way they respected him!"
            A small girl, her face and her dress smeared and grubby with last week's dirt, the shoes on her feet worn to flinders, sits with her arms wrapped tight around Teacher's arm.  Staring up at her, her face glows.

Many of these kids come from really rough homes.  The toughest ones - particularly the older kids in the Upper Primary classes, they batter at you, until you find out what life is like - in some very specialized ways - for each of them the moment they walk off the school grounds at the end of every day. After that, there is nothing they can do that will dent you.
            I can't write about any of that.
            If all these children learned at school came down to Circle Time - sitting in a safe and quiet space, watching Teacher show them how to share and how to listen and how to care - there isn't a single larger thing you could give them all year.

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