Posted by: chrisdavis | January 27, 2009

Growing up absurd

“It’s not what you say to me that’s important; it’s how you make me feel.”

I’m getting really tired of hearing my students describe themselves as “dumb”. I hear it almost every day.

“I’m dumb and I don’t really care,” a student said to me today. The other day in the hall I passed a girl and she said as she passed, “There’s goes the only person who doesn’t think I’m dumb.”

Last Thursday I was standing in the middle of the hall as the students entered the building and began walking to class. It was like being in the middle of a two-lane road with the traffic going by me in both directions. As a girl passed by me she stopped abruptly, gave me a hug, and walked on down the hall. I looked at her in disbelief as she disappeared into one of the rooms. I didn’t even recognize her. She must have been one of the many teens I don’t know who had been in one of my classes. I had no idea what was going on in her mind.

Today I subbed in art class. I got the class started in the drawing lesson their regular teacher had left them to do. It was the day’s final period and many of the boys were about to go stir crazy. They talked, pushed one another around, asked if they could go to the bathroom, asked again, goofed off and were generally crazy. I sat and watched them. They are supposed to behave (which means sit quietly and do what is expected of them). I can’t bring myself to make them do it.

“You know,” I told one boy (who was asking me if he could go to the bathroom or to the library or anywhere that would allow him to move around) “you aren’t acting like a public school student is supposed to act.” He just looked at me, not sure he wanted to know what I meant. If he had asked, I would have said something like, “All public school students are supposed to do the same thing at the same time without making any noise while they are doing it. You, on the other hand, are acting too independently.”

I had lunch duty today. While I was walking around the lunchroom listening to all the energy being expended in youthful conversation, I noticed one, lone table in the corner. Three boys were sitting at the table. I walked over to the table and sat down.

“Is this the ‘bad boy’ table?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said one of the boys. I recognized him from one of my classes a couple of weeks ago.

“Were you a bad boy today?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “I was caught sitting at a table that is not my Homeroom table. We have to sit with our homeroom class instead of our friends. They make you eat lunch at this table if you do something wrong. I don’t get it. Why can’t we sit with our friends?”

“Hmmm,” I said. “Why don’t you do something about it?”

“Do something about it! What can I do?”

“Well, you know, there is a right way to petition those in authority if you don’t like their decisions. Why not find out if any other students in the school think like you do? Write up a petition and pass it around to all the students. Have those who want to sit with their friends, instead of with their Homeroom, sign the petition.”

“A petition!” he said. “I never thought of a petition.” His eyes were wide with the possibilities.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “If you decide to do this, I would recommend that you give the Principal some room in your petition. Why not ask him to give you the liberty to sit with your friends for one week. If it doesn’t work, he can put you back to sitting at a table with your Homeroom. Tell him you are willing to take it a week at a time.”

“A petition,” he said again. “I have friends in each of the other grades. They can work on the students in their grades. Yeah. I’ll do it!”

Lunch was over. The students picked up their trays, filed one-by-one to put their trays in the tray window and left the lunchroom. As one of the kids (not the one I had been talking to) passed the other lunchroom proctor, the boy said, “Hey, Mr. Deets, why do we have to sit with our Homeroom. Why can’t we sit with our friends?”

Mr. Deets (responding as if the question had been impertinent): “So you can learn to do what you’re told. That’s why.” The boy dropped his head and left the lunchroom.

So public school exists to teach people to do what they’re told to do. Hmmm…

In a society that is increasingly fragmented, in which the only genuinely successful people are independent, self-relaint, confident and individualistic, the products of school and schooling are irrelevant. School as an institution “schools” very well. But, it doesn’t educate. We force children to grow up absurd–John Taylor Gatto


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