Saturday, November 26, 2011

Crossing Guard: Getting There from Here


For several of the years I walked to elementary school, a very thin, tall-seeming woman in starched black uniform and military-structured white hat, orange neon belt, and disconcerting sunglasses walked to the intersection by my house to hold out white-gloved hands and say to the kids coming over across the field and from the other side of my street, “Cruss.” It was really the “oo” as in “crook”: “Cruss,” she would say, and the few words she might add, “Get bahck” or “vait dere until I say” were inflected in what I later learned was German. I made fun of this, practiced making my voice like hers. She was terrifying. Gossip swirled, her origins becoming the stuff of myth. I think now that when she was a little girl in Germany, she never imagined herself at a suburban intersection in Virginia guiding kids across the street en route to school, and yet there she was.

This post is really about why so many people hate going to school. Shakespeare knew it, said it in his “Seven Ages of Man” (“All the world’s a stage”) speech growled by Jaques in As You Like It, as the second age, after infancy: And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
/ And shining morning face, creeping like snail
/ Unwillingly to school.  

The trouble with school, of course, is that it’s an institution. After a while, Ideas often become Institutions, so whether it’s school or a corporation or a Republic or a Communist State, at some point we humans cease to remember the founding principles and begin instead to feed the Beast that is the Institution.

I was reading this morning a review of an American Masters documentary about Woody Allen, who when walking past P.S. 99 (in New York, public schools have numbers) said, “I still think of it as a curse.” I had a student in my first year who told me the story of his mom taking him to kindergarten that first day, and when she picked him up asked him, “Well, how was it?” and he said, “Okay,” and she asked if he had anything he needed to do for tomorrow. He paused, looked at her. “I have to go BACK?” He hated school for the rest of his life.

It seems to me that there are three groups of people who absolutely hate school, and two groups contain people who like to Do Stuff:
·      The first are the Arts and Sciences Geniuses, those kids who are ready to observe, make experiments, listen, play, discover, much of it involving initial daydreaming time, and none of it wasted.
·      The second are the Mechanical Geniuses, those kids who have a gift for building, making, fixing, planting stuff, and who want to get their hands dirty doing it.
·      A third group—who may well also belong in the first two (or a fourth one, below)—are the kids who are physically, mentally, or emotionally “outside” the “norm,” who, whatever their talents or energies, stand apart and are visibly “other.”

School, as it is currently institutionalized, sucks for them.

A fourth group, Everybody Else, contains the people like me, in the hump of the bell curve, who get fairly solid B’s and C’s and really are pretty happy to be institutionalized. We just go with it. We don’t stand out much. We are straight, or know how to fake it, even to ourselves. We like learning things, would never have the imagination to find this stuff out on our own, and for the most part enjoy our exposure to new people, literature, writing lessons, science, math, history, and even the standing broad jump challenge in P.E.

As the years go on, around 7th grade say, we in this fourth group may start to realize how weird we actually are, how much we are not really “of” the institution at all, and we find this out because we meet someone who says what we’ve always been thinking but had not articulated, someone who trains an imaginative lens, or a cynical eye, or an amused twinkle onto a typical school situation, and we look in their mirror and find ourselves. Possibly our own inner soul inspired this new friend to brave the observation. Then the institution loses its grip, in a good way.


What do you remember most about school? As an exercise before reading the rest of this post, write the first five memories—images, assignments, people—that come into your head. Don’t judge them or censor them (no one will see it), and set it aside.

Take your time. I’ll hum.

All done?

Okay. Here are my first five, written just this second:

1.     Mrs. Angle and her purple suit, powder skin, red lips, cat-eye glasses.
2.     Tile floors.
3.     Trees visible around the periphery of the school, always glimpsed over courtyard walls.
4.     Cindy Sears, tall and gangly and large-toothed, merry-eyed and energetic, walking up to Miss Covington’s desk to do a 4-count burpee as penance for saying “Okay” as a verbal filler, a tic repeated a half dozen times in any sentence, and agreeing to this exercise in self-improvement, and how I deeply admired her spirit for it.
5.     This very nice woman, a young, sun-weathered jock of a gal—it’s her face I see, very pleasant—who taught us square-dancing in the Multipurpose Room when I was in fifth grade, and the smell of old tater tots and sour milk enveloping me as the tinny fiddle sounds came from the record player, a man’s voice commanding us to allemande right and left—her encouraging face against the light of the high windows.

Analysis: What I See in My List: It’s what I don’t see in my list.  There’s nothing here about reading. I can say with complete honesty that I remember absolutely nothing I read in school until I read “The Lady, or the Tiger?” in Mr. Rampley’s 9th grade English class. There’s nothing about math, science, history; no big concepts or giant breakthroughs; not even the playground.  And yet all the listed memories as well as the unlisted ones are part of life experiences that helped to make me a teacher, actor, director, writer, editor; to live in the country in Virginia and in the wilds of New York City; to study Virginia Woolf at Oxford and perform comedy at the People’s Improvisational Theater on E. 24th Street. Plenty of people who were part of the same institutions as I was took entirely different paths, will remember totally different things, and yet we are all part of the same story.

Aside: None of my memories appeared in the form of a multiple-choice question.

All this said, Woody Allen the Artist turned out pretty well. It’s hard to imagine him becoming an even better filmmaker, whether or not his art is to your taste. Most of us turn out pretty well, my evidence for this being how well the vast, vast majority of 10 million people behaves in the New York subway system on a daily basis.

And yet.

There is unhappiness, disappointment, and a feeling of profound confusion and worthlessness among many of us, even as we get up, shave and shower, make coffee, and remember to mail the goddamned bills. Can better schools preempt this?

So perhaps another question to ask about your own school life is this: What lessons, teachers, encounters, experiments, or academic moments can you point to, directly, and say, “Because of that, I am X”? What would you have wanted more of? Why?

AN EXERCISE: To be completed whether or not you think Public Education as an institution matters, should you love me. (Yes, I am playing that card.)

Part 1 of this exercise: Before you or I spend one more ounce of brain energy and heart-squashing rage on the institution that is school, Miss O’ asks that you expound on your political views of education as an institution. What do you believe? Write a tract. Why do you believe as you do?

Part 2 of this exercise involves reflecting on your own education: From the playground to the music room, from subject to subject, classroom to classroom, teacher to teacher, over all the years you attended, what do you remember? What stuck? Give yourself several days and pieces of paper to jot notes. It takes time. Write a while and then go back to whatever you were doing. It’s amazing what a short walk to a new task will do to jog a memory.

Part 3 involves doing a bit of geometry: First, reread Part 1. Then reread Part 2. Now: How do you see your experiences leading to or informing your beliefs? Then turn out a theorem on What Education Should Be. If school could be whatever you had wanted, how would it work? What would it be?

A Guideline: Miss O’ is asking you to use your own experiences, and she knows that for readers out there with children this may be impossible, since much of your view is now clouded by the experiences that your child(ren) appears to be having. I say “appears” because, well, look what I remember about school. You’d think with my B’s and occasional A’s that I was more academically minded than I really was.

To close, one more memory: I am in a skirt and knee socks, hair in pigtails, standing on the school loading dock (old bread smell, overcast skies, white light) during recess in 5th grade and telling my best friend at the time, Lori German, “I hate your guts.”

Sweet times.


If you care to, send me a 100-word or so “Statement of School Belief” in the Comments of this Blog Post. I would love to read them, and I am challenging you to summarize.

Until next time, when we hear Miss O’ say, “Don’t go the direction I say, go where my hand goes.”

BONUS TRACK: “The Seven Ages of Man” by William Shakespeare, As You Like It

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,                       
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
And then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,  

Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard, 
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut, 
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

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