Sunday, September 5, 2010

The School of Life

This week and next are back-to-school weeks for my children. They are spread out between two different schools. While the children haven’t changed schools, they have moved to different campuses—in both cases much larger ones. For me this means figuring out new areas of town, new buildings, new bus routes and stops, plus the usual parents’ meetings and the inevitable checklist/scavenger hunt for the items requested by their teachers.

My daughter, especially, is apprehensive about beginning middle school. She went from an elementary campus with two classes per grade to a preschool-through-12th grade facility with 5000 students. Last year she was one of 25 kids in “Valerie” ‘s class. This year, there are 11 homeroom classes in her grade and hers is simply designated by a letter and a number.

I asked her how the first day of school was. It seems she spends a lot of time trying not to get lost. She likes the novelty of having an electronic photo ID for the cafeteria and being able to choose what she eats, she says two out of her 6 teachers seem nice, one teacher is particularly concerned that the children display appropriate manners and respect for authority (which is fine by me, but the form this takes seems excessive to her), another teacher has berated her for fanning herself during class (it is very hot in Spain in September and none of the children’s schools has air conditioning—fans in Spain are a common and useful accessory for women), she describes being separated from friends by a plume of pushy 8th graders on the courtyard. I mentally picture the courtyard in “Prison Break”.

Already I have failed her. I rented her school books from the parents’ association, but did not pay attention to the last-call date for sign up and payment. Because I signed up late I could not pick up the books until the last day when half the books were missing and many of the ones left were in pretty sorry condition. She says her teachers will berate her for not being prepared and not taking care of her school material. Even though the parents’ association lady assures me the teachers are used to this situation and understanding, my daughter doesn’t believe it. I tend to agree with her. I remember my own experiences with secondary school teachers, especially those that reigned like absolute monarchs over their classrooms. Such teachers could be arbitrary and cruel.

One such pedagogue was my fourth grade parochial school teacher. Mr. G. was not unusual in arranging his students’ desks in alphabetical order; he was unusual in that he called his students by their last name. There was no Mr. or Miss in front of it either—simply “Mason” barked out military style, generally in a tone of voice indicating strong disapproval. Mr. G had military affectations—no doubt adopted to inspire terror in and consolidate his power over the child. Only now, as an adult, can I see how unsuited he would have been to any military environment involving interaction with grown-up peers or superiors.

These were the days when nobody seemed to care about children’s fragile egos. When I asked him once about a C grade I received on a science project, he responded with—“Oh, you’re the one who turned in that piece of crap.” If you had any particularity, you had better hide it from the watchful eye of Mr. G. One of his favorite sports was singling out those children for special humiliation. I remember one girl in our class who blushed easily. Mr. G used to stand her up in front of the class and he see how long it would take her to blush. The highlight of Mr. G’s year was a spring project he called “Real Life.” He introduced “Real Life” with gusto: “Now kiddies, you may think life is coming home from school and having your Mommy fix you cupcakes. Well I can assure you, it’s not. What we’re going to learn about next is ‘real life’.” He then explained that our project was to assume that we were getting out as enlisted personnel from the military and that we had no special job skills. We had to look at the want ads in the newspaper and find a job and apartment.”

Even now I have nightmares that I am back in middle or high school and the bell has rung for class and I can’t find the right classroom, or I get to the classroom and everybody else has started a test and I cannot even begin to answer the first question. I remember desperately looking for the familiar face of a friend amid the sea of people in the cafeteria. I remember the excitement of that special Friday in the month that would be “little round pizza day”. I remember the official rules—there is an honor code where you are obligated to report any transgression of your peers and I remember the unofficial rules—people cheat, they often get away with it, if you turn in your peers you might as well move to another school in another state because your name will be social poison. Your teacher may be a cruel, sadistic tyrant but God forbid you go above their head and complain about them to the administration or, worse yet, ask your parents to do this. Maybe receiving negative grades on their papers (according to a system where a certain number of points are deducted for every transgression against English grammar and composition—thus the end-game is limitless) is not very morale enhancing for children, but getting the class lecture afterward about “how little we respect certain students who must not be named who go whining to authority to complain about their teachers” is worse. Oh and those school elementary school projects, those aren’t projects for the children. Those are contests for the parents…not to mention the little girl who will dig up her dead and buried dog and label its bones in order to win an elementary school science fair--that’s the kind of person who will do anything to get ahead later in life.

Like most people, I had some truly wonderful teachers who believed in and nurtured my potential. I had others who prepared me for “real life”…

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