The First Day of School
Sacha is a mother of two children who lives in Brooklyn, New York.
The first day of school is such a momentous occasion, filled with expectant adults repeatedly asking wide-eyed children if they are excited, giving off the impression that children have reached some sort of long sought after milestone. Why can’t these adults be honest about their own memories of school? Most people have a mixed review of school at best. It seems as if it is a necessary evil – almost like life itself, in a way. If that is so, why do we pretend to celebrate the first day as if it’s some sort of long awaited accomplishment…when for many it is the beginning of a twelve-year sentence where children are forced to spend a decent chunk of their days, relatively still, inside a concrete box?
Children are about to be inducted into a mini-adult world – or at least some perverted version thereof. At school there are rules, hierarchies, and obedience to authority, along with bells, a corporate curriculum, and an indoctrination whose ultimate goal, inadvertently, is to break to their spirit.
It’s not that children are inherently innocent or needlessly naïve; they are by nature curious about their world and want to learn. But those over-hyped “rigorous expectations” can incite just the opposite – a deadened interest in the world around them. And while the purported business of schools is to educate children, many do not seem to do a terribly good job; the schools in the United States are ranked twenty-fifth in math, seventeenth in science, and fourteenth in reading amongst industrialized countries. With a few exceptions, children get an education despite school. What children do learn in school is how to play the game of school – how to kiss up to the teacher, how to do enough to get by, how to do well not because of a love of learning (at a certain point this gets beaten out) but because that is what is expected of you should you wish to earn a decent income and live a fading (thanks capitalism!) middle-class life.
Why can’t our schools be more like our pre-schools – where learning is softly lit, in rainbow hues, and teachers speak in excited tones about the wonders of the world, where there is mutual respect between students and teachers?
|"Why can’t our schools be more like our pre-schools – where learning is softly lit, in rainbow hues, and teachers speak in excited tones about the wonders of the world; where there is mutual respect between students and teachers?"|
They Don’t Like This Place
The worst is when I walk into the building, full of fluorescent lighting and linoleum floors and I pass the children crying – screaming really – about how they don’t want to go. “Don’t leave me here,” they wail between sobs. If it were only one or two – but it’s at least a handful – so it’s disconcerting and I can’t ignore it. They don’t like this awful place. They know. They know in a way that we supposedly successful, intelligent adults can rationalize away. They know they are no longer safe. They know the world has just changed for them – and not in a good way. My daughter is well-behaved. But she knows too. And later on, the kids all know, together, as they grudgingly trudge through the school culture, counting the days until they are free. I remember in seventh grade, daydreaming on the school bus and somehow I had convinced myself that I was in eighth grade and only had a few more months to go before I would finally be done with middle school. Then I came out of my haze, stomach dropping as I realized I had, sadly, a whole another year and a half before I would be free.
“You’re supposed to be reading now,” she almost snapped. “What…what is this backpack doing on the table? That is unacceptable. Hang it up, right now.” She just about barks the words as the poor confused kid does what he is told. It’s not exactly that she is disrespectful when she speaks to the children, it’s that the tone of her voice suggests that life itself is a joyless affair, that any spark of creativity must be stamped out in order for the child to solely adhere to the drone of authority. “She talks in a mean voice,” my daughter noted, “as if she is almost about to yell. She is meaner to us when you [the parents] are not there.” My daughter went on to observe that it almost seemed like her teacher wanted the children to act out, to be bad, so she could give them the “bad” color coin.
From Nurturing to Authority
How is it we allow for a rosy-colored world in
pre-school only to dunk them into an unfortunate dichotomy of good and
bad a year later? (Careful, conscientious teachers can make sure to
distinguish between the behavior and the child, but many do not, so the
child is in danger of internalizing the good/bad as themselves and
confusing their inherent worth.) The school day, as described by my
daughter, consists thus far of a lot of sitting around and not learning
anything interesting. Perhaps that will change. Perhaps it will become
more interesting. But my fear is that the cold, unfriendly environment
of her teacher and classroom will set the tone – so any learning that
may come afterwards is tepid at best.
“People keep telling me to give it time – that it’s
such a huge transition and that it will take a while to adjust.
But what if it’s a transition that is not worth adjusting to?”
Curriculum night. Here were all the parents of my daughter’s first grade class sitting in small chairs, awkwardly poised against the tables while the teacher talked at us about the wonders of the Common Core. “First grade is meant to be rigorous,” she says. This along with reading levels – as determined by the Common Core, aka, some nameless, faceless authorities at the Department of Education – that ranks every book by a corresponding letter (A is easiest). “When they graduate kindergarten, children should be reading at a level ‘D’,” the teacher remarked. By the end of the first grade year they should be at a level H –or maybe it was ‘P’ or ‘$*&@’ for all I was concerned. It just seemed so regimented – so un-organic.
The children pick the books out of plastic bins that correspond to their reading level as determined by the teacher. The children no doubt will be assigned to different reading levels dependent on their ability and, of course, we will all figure out on what level our child – as compared to the other children in the class – has landed. The comparison and the hierarchy and sense of being pigeonholed starts so young.
And the Common Core – presenting it as if it was this paragon of virtue rather than what it is: a version of 1984. There has been a tremendous amount of backlash – thank goodness – regarding the Common Core but this teacher did not even hint at it. Like a dutiful soldier, she was going to carry out her marching orders and pretend this was for the greater good. It was so…lifeless somehow. I found my mind wandering as the teacher was talking – bored and nervous at the same time, like I often was at school. Coupled with my daughter’s avid dislike of the place and the knowledge that there are alternatives – I secretly wondered how long we were going to last.
People keep telling me to give it time – that it’s such a huge transition and that it will take a while to adjust. But what if it’s a transition that is not worth adjusting to? The vagaries of public school culture: constant testing, hierarchy, and authoritarian dictates…perhaps these are lessons that life will teach us and we might as well learn them at age five or six. Or maybe we can stretch the ideals of childhood a little while longer so that when our children do learn about authority, hierarchy, capitalism, and the like, it doesn’t have the same potential to break their spirit.
“Will what I hope it can accomplish for my sensitive
daughter match the reality of what it is like to homeschool day
in and day out? Is it exhausting? Is it too much to ask of me –
would I be able to give my daughter what she needs, in addition
to meeting my own needs for downtime and employment?”
Recognizing It’s Wrong
There is a place inside yourself – a small quiet place, often – that will sometimes indicate when something is wrong. And this, for me at least, seemed so dreadfully, decidedly, wrong. This sense of taking my daughter into a melee of chaos every morning so she could sit, cold and alone, and forlorn for six hours learning what she might very well be able to learn on her own or with gentle guidance. For years, I have flirted with the idea of homeschooling, in large part because I believe it is potentially a way to keep the fire of curiosity alive, to foster a love of learning, to actively give in to the idea that you can follow your bliss. If public school did a better job of educating as opposed to thwarting our inherent spirit, I wouldn’t be writing this.
What About Going School-Free?
But admittedly, I do not, as yet, homeschool, so do not know if that is merely a fantasy of what homeschooling can accomplish or an approximation of the reality. Or more to the point, will what I hope it can accomplish for my sensitive daughter match the reality of what it is like to homeschool day in and day out? Is it exhausting? Is it too much to ask of me – would I be able to give my daughter what she needs, in addition to meeting my own needs for downtime and employment?
It seems that a number of families that have decided to embark on homeschooling can see that school as it stands is not the ideal. When pressed further, they might say it seems too rigid or forces an authoritarian schema that doesn’t mesh with their thinking. There is no doubt in my mind that it’s a tremendous amount of work that is not rewarded economically – but perhaps it is spiritually. Many families who homeschool are committed enough to make certain economic sacrifices. I know one woman, who homeschools her seven-year-old daughter, who has started teaching homeschoolers while her husband works twelve hour days. Others are able to juggle flexible part-time jobs and homeschool. Is this floating away from the mainstream truly worth it – do our free public schools necessitate what seems like extra work?
When I pick up my daughter from school, she says that in the six hours she’s been away from me she has not been outside – unfortunately, due to construction, the child- ren do not go outside for recess every day. Even some private schools here in New York City – not tethered to the Common Core and therefore allowed the freedom to have longer recesses – also adhere to the twenty minutes or less policy during a six-hour school day. That is just wrong.
|“In good conscience can I leave my daughter to toil the next twelve years of her life in this…as Peter Gray calls it, aptly…prison? Or must I – from that place inside myself – wrest her from her quiet desperation?”|
Collectively as a society, we haven’t acknowledged our disconnectedness from Nature and the problems that has ensued. Again, not everyone is a Nature-lover, but kids seem inherently drawn to it – and many philosophies encourage it. But not public school. Better they sit longer and do more work. I wonder if part of the reason the Earth is in dire straits is because, as industrial societies, we have collectively lost our connection to her. What a better to get it back than to teach our children about the wonders of Nature, to allow them to spend a modicum – at least more than the bare minimum – of the school day outside. So in that way, again, homeschooling or a more progressive academic environment would give children the freedom to spend more time outdoors.
Children are inherently wise. They come from a place of love and innocence. If that is not nurtured, it can be become lost and they all too soon become swallowed up in the world’s collective cacophony. An adherence to rigid rules and hyperbolic hierarchy can drown out a delicate wisdom – akin to the still, small voice within. Children can hear that better than we can – before we drum it out of them. At the parent- teacher conference, my daughter’s teacher pulls out a piece of my daughter’s writing. She has written, “Love is the most powerful force in the world. Everybody can experience love. I love love, do you?” I wanted to cry – isn’t that a large reason why we are here? To experience and express love even in the most adverse circumstances? To find faith in love amidst the darkness of doubt that dares to whisper that love doesn’t really exist? I wondered if the teacher had even read what my daughter had written because she only went on to speak about the importance of the standards of the Common Core and how my daughter’s vocabulary was a little short – at least as somehow defined by the Common Core and reinterpreted by this teacher. I don’t begrudge my daughter’s teacher; she seems to be doing her job as it’s been described. But at the same time, she seems to be missing the spirit of childhood.
In the end, I have to ask: In good conscience can I leave my daughter to toil the next twelve years of her life in this…as Peter Gray calls it, aptly…prison? Or must I – from that place inside myself – wrest her from her quiet desperation? Yes, school is free. But it is pretty far from freedom. Freedom to get in touch with her spirit, her passion, her ideals, her sense of self. There must be a better way – and even if I don’t know exactly what it is just yet, I know what it isn’t. And so we will attempt to embark on a journey – either to a different kind of school or we will eschew school altogether. And quite the adventure it will be for us both.