As school begins


My grandson, Harry, wanted to be Robin, of the Batman and Robin duo for Halloween when I saw him at the beginning of August. Now, he wants his mother to be syrup, his father to be pancakes and he will be Leopard Boy. By October thirty-first there will three or four iterations of his costume. He has a hard time choosing among so many options: King Arthur, Lancelot or Spider Man? He also knows what he wants to be when he grows up: a knight-in-shining-armor and tap dancer combined. He seems so full of childish desire and energy; so boundless in his imagination and curiosity that life makes him dizzy at this tender age of four.

While I love the wide-open way he takes on the world, and while I marvel at his willingness to explore and challenge himself, I feel a gnawing sense of dread as I think of him entering regular kindergarten next year at this time. Not because he will lose his joie de vivre—his parents will make sure to keep that alive. And not because he does not need the social structure and interaction of his peers—he enjoys being with other children, likes his pre-school and is bereft if he spends too many days with adults. My nagging doubt about next year has nothing to do with Harry. He needs a classroom and organized soccer and daily instruction in reading or math concepts. I get that. And I even have faith he will have a teacher who loves kids his age and believes in the importance of their joy as well as their determination.

What I worry about, though, when thinking about the teacher, is whether she will, or he will, feel free to encourage the tap dancing Lancelots and the painterly Wonder-women in her room. He will likely go to school in Brooklyn. I have heard stories about little ones in schools who become sick and lose sleep over tests in New York. They dread school. This happens at age five, six and on up.

How soon will Harry become literal instead of imaginative in his answers and his images? How quickly will he become solemn, walking to lunch in absolute silence, sitting at tables without speaking while he eats? And when a classmate, say Daniel, falls to the floor while walking to catch up to others, will Harry be reprimanded and made to stand against the wall at recess for stepping out of line to help Daniel up? Because these are scenarios reported by teachers and administrators around the country. (See Reuben’s Fall by Sheri Leafgren for a discussion about what messages we are sending to children in the regimented, highly disciplined atmosphere of some of our schools.)

What are we teaching children about compassion, about enthusiasm, about color and dance, when we limit many of these things in some of our “No Excuses” schools? Not all schools that use this label would react in punitive ways but I know that some push their disciplinary code to extremes. Some require that all teach from scripts, insisting on the use of specific phrases when reacting to student questions. Some such schools have decided not to have after school poetry time with writers because this time is devoted to preparation for tests, the same tests that give kids headaches and panic attacks at the age of seven.

Ah, but I have told these stories before. I have asked if the most elite private schools in our country have rid themselves of art, music, poetry, recess, laughter, silliness, and indeed, individual acts of kindness, from their expectations and I know they have not. Rather they provide for field trips to museums, more time on computers for play and creativity, more music because they are aware it encourages intelligence, more theater because it encourages collaboration, more thoughtfulness because it encourages the best in our kids.

When I give talks to teachers I also mention that it does not hurt to “cut deals.” It seems self-evident that when a child is homeless and forgets his pencil, or loses her assignment book in the shift from her relatives’ couch to the shelter, the humane response is to set up a way for her to replace the book and proceed with class without expecting less of her in her effort to learn.

I was a teacher who believed in structure to create order out of chaos in my classroom. Yet if a fine discussion developed as my students reacted to a complicated work of literature or an article about a time in history or a science article about speed or light, I went with that discussion. We still had the test later in the week. We still had a vocabulary quiz each Monday. Yet we also had the chance to think more critically about the world, to engage with each other around a topic that expanded on the assigned text. I could not have followed a prescribed lesson to save me.

I was lucky enough to retire before testing mania hit hard. I was lucky enough to teach in a more moderate time. I was especially lucky enough to teach when there was time for play: to laugh, to invent, to dance down the hall to the lunch room once in awhile if you were a first grader. I taught at a time you went to visit a teacher’s farm if you were a chemistry student in high school, or spent an hour hidden in the art room throwing pots if you were a young man, like my son, who found school oppressive even then. I grateful for my years in this profession.

One thing that truly worries me is that we are not only losing the liveliness of our children when they enter school, we are losing the excitement and humor of our teachers. Yet we know we can create rich environments with high expectations. We can create whole schools with kids who learn and study and try real hard on their tests, without forbidding them to help a classmate who falls, or reprimanding them for chuckling when they read think of something funny.

Now, our hope for public education lies with those teachers who, despite the climate of disapproval or even the denigration of their profession, stay in the classroom because they love the interaction– the wild way kids think and imagine. Our hope is with teachers who, despite the authoritarian way they are treated by administrations at the building level or the district level in their cities and towns, rebel in their own way. They are the teachers in Seattle at Garfield High School who refused to give an unnecessary test or the ones in Tucson who kept their Latino Studies program going under the radar when they were instructed to shut it down by the state legislature. I bow to all who come and stay and fight. I hope they teach Harry Emmett Landsman, who is just at this moment deciding that his Gramma Julie can be a slice of bacon for Halloween and his Pop Maury can be a glass of orange juice, that he can be funny and disciplined at the same time.

I bow to his teachers for their longevity, because for them, as for me, there is no other job that is as challenging and rewarding and frustrating and stunning in its beauty as a being in a classroom with brilliant minds.