Part 2 of Snapshots from School
By Cynthia Peters
Note: As I explained in my previous commentary our family’s relationship to schooling is unusual. Both our kids have homeschooled – in a mostly unschooling fashion – for most of their lives. Our shock at what we saw happening when our oldest daughter started attending school might seem wide-eyed and naïve to many. I’m sure it is. But perhaps there are some lessons in it. That said, this piece is written with apologies to those kids who don’t have the option to go to school if they want to and to those who don’t have (or don’t think they have) the choice to leave. Also, apologies to the many teachers and administrators out there who continually reach out to kids despite institutional norms that pressure them to do the opposite.
“Dealing with schools was the worst part of parenting,” a friend recently said. Her words rang in my head as my partner and I tried to support our 15-year old through her first term at a large public exam school in Boston. School was quite literally getting in the way of our relationship, and it was getting in the way of her growth and well-being. She was tuning out and turning off; and the more we coaxed her to hang in there, the more she got bashed. We couldn’t see any way forward for her except to get used to it. Or not.
The worst part of parenting, in my opinion, is negotiating the pressure to seek private solutions (that will at least benefit your offspring) with the desire and need to find collective solutions (that will ultimately benefit all of us).
How do you support a kid to master the skills she needs to survive in school – when those skills themselves are anti-social, debilitating, and oppressive? For the first three months of the school year, it seemed like what Zoe needed the most was to be able to do what she was told without worrying about whether it was right, fair, or sensible; to shrug off the violence she witnessed; and to call on stamina and a thick skin to survive. Although there is perhaps a time and a place for all of these qualities, it seems illogical in the extreme (if your goal is education) to be systematically squashing kids’ ability and desire to think, to be inuring them to violence, and to be training them to take it. It is not illogical at all, however, if your goal is to train future contributors to the institutions of work, leisure, and governance as they are currently defined. You might as well start early getting them used to the behaviors and pressures they’ll experience in the future.
We tried different approaches to helping Zoe get what she wanted out of the school. She made good friendships; she became a member of the Gay/Straight Alliance; she discovered an interest in biology – so there were reasons why she wanted to be there. We helped her try to balance suffering through the rest of it with hanging in there in order to get the parts she wanted. But ultimately the balance was impossible to achieve. At least for her. On December 18, 2006, I unenrolled Zoe from school. The process was instructive.
At one point, we sat in the office for about twenty minutes. During that short time, we witnessed the “disciplinarian” (let’s call him Mr. D) deal with several children. One kid – maybe a sophomore – was brought in to be reprimanded for skipping class. During the reprimand, the kid barely made eye contact with Mr. D. He basically looked like he was having an out-of-body and out-of-mind experience – which may have been a most effective escape route as Mr. D’s apparent goal was to shame him, humiliate him, and threaten to take him off the ice hockey team.
There was no respect for privacy. The whole “conversation” happened in front of anyone who happened to be in the office. There was no attempt to find out what was going on with the kid or to explore why he wasn’t going to class. Mr. D did not even seem particularly concerned about the fact that the kid was basically acting like a zombie. The whole charade seemed like a ritual enactment of the essence of mandatory education today. Mr. D represents institutional authority, the enforcer of the rules, the wielder of the carrot and the stick. He makes it clear that he doesn’t care if the kid is *learning* so long as the kid is *showing up.*
After he left, a younger kid came in who apparently was not so alienated from authority and still retained some idea that you could get support navigating difficult situations in school. He was being bullied by kids in the lunchroom and he came in asking for help. Mr. D talked to him the same way he talked to the other kid – his words and his tone moving along the narrow spectrum between shaming, blaming, and humiliating. “What are you doing in here talking to me? I don’t want to see you back here. We all have problems sometimes. Get back to class.”
Violence, bullying, and mean behavior are expected and almost condoned in this way. It’s an institutional norm. Get used to it. In Zoe’s English class one day, three students walked in during the middle of the period to harass a girl who had supposedly stolen something from one of them. The teacher maintained a perfectly blank expression, did not engage the students, and called security. I don’t blame her for not getting in the middle of what could have turned into a physical brawl. Eighty to 100 teachers are assaulted each year in Boston public schools, usually when they are trying to break up a fight (according to the “Boston Globe,” 12/29/06). But after security came and removed the players in this particular episode, the teacher simply returned to the lesson. “Turn to page 56 of `Jane Eyre’.” There was no attempt to process what had happened or make sense of the experience.
How did the kids in the class respond? “We were just laughing,” said Zoe. I can imagine the nervous laughter that results from being trapped in a place where stuff like that happens, where it’s considered normal, where everyone proceeds as if it hadn’t happened, and where you take note for future reference of how these things are handled. An underlying but powerful current of violence is practically palpable.
It’s not just evident in the fact that police confiscated 577 weapons from Boston public school kids last year or that many children say they fear for their safety, but it’s clear in these other not-exactly-subtle ways as well. When class is disrupted and a brawl is threatened in the middle of 9th grade English, and the teacher does not even register the event in her countenance or her conversation, the lesson of that period is clear: that’s how it is. Get used to it.
While waiting in the office, I had the opportunity to talk to Zoe’s art teacher – the one who gave her an F on a project (and then supposedly threw it away) because she had neglected to list the section number at the top of the page. “What was the idea of failing her for what was just a slight bureaucratic error?” I asked.
“Well,” he explained. “I have to sign in every morning when I get to work. If I don’t, I get in trouble. She needs to learn how to follow the rules.”
“Okay,” I said, “Leaving aside whether art class is the appropriate place to teach future workplace rules, why did you throw the piece away? Don’t you think that sends the wrong message – like the art itself doesn’t matter?”
“Oh,” he answered. “I didn’t really throw it away. I just threatened to do that.” He laughed. “I tell all the kids that, but I don’t really throw them away.”
More charades, in other words, like what happened in the office with the disciplinarian. The first kid who came to see Mr. D didn’t really have to listen; he just had to present his body to the office so that the act of listening could be simulated. The second kid brought more of his whole self to the office, but learned the important lesson that that was a mistake. If you bring your whole self, then your whole self gets bashed.
It’s not that they are in school to learn or to grow. It’s that they’re there to follow a script. Furthermore, it’s fine – even preferred and expected – that kids do so in a zombie-like fashion. When I question a teacher for trashing my kid’s work, his only words of comfort are that she wasn’t singled out. I’m supposed to feel better because he does it to all the kids.
As we were leaving, the bell rang. “Uh oh,” said Zoe. There was a two-second pause during which there was silence, and then mayhem as doors flew open and kids began sprinting in all directions down the hallways. We pressed ourselves up against the wall as the kids flew by. They had three minutes to do whatever they needed to do plus get to their next class on time. Three minutes is not enough time to get to your locker, stow books from your last class, get books for your next class, use the bathroom, or check in with a friend. It’s barely enough time to traverse the enormous expanse of the school. It’s certainly not enough time to change gears from Latin to geometry or history to gym or to reflect on what you’re doing or to think. It’s arbitrary regimentation, and it doesn’t make sense for children or probably for any living things.
But everyone does it because it’s the rule and because if you don’t, you’ll have to go see Mr. D., and play-act in the charade of dominance (his) and submission (yours), which, assuming you have the resources to make the calculation, takes more energy than hurrying up and getting to class on time.
Dropping out isn’t the answer for everyone. The advantages and disadvantages of staying in school might balance out for some in favor of staying. I wrote a number of years ago in my review of the “Teenage Liberation Handbook” by Grace Llewlyn (http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2000-03/20peters.htm) that it takes a certain amount of privilege to walk away from school. I am grateful that we were able to step outside the institution, but I’m appalled about what we left behind.
Furthermore, individual solutions, like the one our family found, don’t begin to address the institutional nature of the problem. For that, we need a collective solution. Last year, Boston high-schoolers organized to force the school board to rescind its policy of locking out students who showed up to school late. If they can organize themselves to be let in, they can organize themselves to be let out or to have a say about what happens inside. They can say en masse that they refuse to participate in the charade anymore. The only thing that props up Mr. D’s authority, after all, is the teenager’s agreement to present his body for simulated listening. He has the power to refuse to do so – but it will only register if he organizes with others.
Workers do it when they strike. Soldiers do it when they refuse to fight. Students can do it too. Everyone has a right to meaningful, empowering education in a non-violent, non-oppressive environment. The responsibility to make that happen belongs with all of us.
To solve many of the pressing problems we face today, we need every one of those minds to be tuned in, interested, present, and cared for. That’s just one reason (there are many) to have more humane, liberatory schools that help kids use their minds rather than coach them to turn off.
Stay tuned for Part 3 – “Snapshots from Unschool.”