Essay:Why We Weep
It began as a dream job, substitute teaching in elementary school.
My first class was a group of first-graders, and it was exhilarating! The morning was nothing special, but after lunch we went to recess, and one of the girls took my hand as soon as we cleared the building. I felt as though I had entered a time warp, almost as if I were a child again. We walked around the exercise track together, with me looking constantly over my shoulder to see if anyone saw us holding hands, and then we sat. I was astounded at the way the girls looked at me, seeming to flirt continuously and vying for my attention. I felt like a rock star surrounded by groupies. Now, I do not delude myself into thinking that I am cute. Satisfying to the ego as it would have been to think, "Wow! Look how cool I am!" it would have been self-deception, so I searched my memory banks for anything similar, and came up with this: the inmates at the L.A. County Detention Center for Women also acted that way, around anyone whom they thought might help them escape! Could these kids have tumbled onto the truth already? I remembered 5th-graders telling me in the school cafeteria recently: "This place is a jail!"
After recess we went back into the classroom, and watched a video. The same girl climbed up in my lap during the film. She asked me if I would be her daddy, and she began calling me that for the rest of the day.
Later the principal walked in, and decided that the atmosphere was too relaxed. After school, she invited me to come back the next day and sit in on other teachers' classes so that I could learn "classroom management."
All I had were first and second-graders. Strangely enough, after a couple of weeks, I began to consider 4th-graders as "older women"! Make of that what you will.
On what later proved to be my last day, I was at recess, this time in a different school, and the kids were crowding around me again, hugging me and jumping on me (yes, the boys, also, or else I would be writing this from a holding cell). Kids even came over from other classes to be with my group, and that was the beginning of the end. One of the teachers seemed upset at the idea of her students seeking the attention of an interloper (more on this in a moment).
The next day, the regular teacher returned, and quietly began grilling the inmates on what had transpired in her absence. In every class for which I subbed, including hers, the kids told me that I was the best sub that they ever had, and every group asked me if I could be their teacher permanently. She gave them enough rope to hang me. She drew them out, and discovered that I had given them piggy-back rides, among other things. That was all that she needed to approach my boss and get me relieved of duty on grounds of "behavioral problems."
When I was confronted with this at the hearing, I denied having any behavioral problems; I thought the kids behaved well, and they learned their lessons along with a bit more. However, it seems that some of the other teachers said that my classroom sounded like a wild party. Compared to theirs, I guess it did. Since when is the stillness of a tomb the only atmosphere conducive to learning?
A dear friend told me that I made two mistakes: the kids learned, and they had fun.
Before you think that I am down on teachers, let me hasten to add that the school system reinforces the vertical command structure and weakens the horizontal collegiality of teacher networks; by a clever system of rewards and punishments, the teachers are loyal to the system but not to each other. Spying and ratting on colleagues who defy the norm is not only encouraged but expected. If you will pardon the analogy, teachers are house niggers and students are field niggers.
I will let John Taylor Gatto finish this for me (comments in brackets are my own):
"The secret of American schooling is that it does not teach the way children learn, and it is not supposed to; school was engineered to serve a concealed command economy and a deliberately re-stratified social order. It wasn't made for the benefit of kids and families. School is the first impression that children get of organized society, and like most first impressions it is the lasting one. Life, according to school, is dull and stupid, only consumption promises relief: Coke, Big macs, fashion jeans; that's where real meaning is found. That is the classroom's lesson.
"The decisive dynamics which make forced schooling poisonous to healthy human development aren't hard to spot. Work in classrooms is not significant work, it fails to satisfy real needs pressing on the individual, it does not answer real questions that experience raises in the young mind, it does not contribute to solving any problem encountered in actual life. The net effect of making all schoolwork external to individual longings, experiences, questions, and problems is to render the victim listless. This phenomenon has been well understood since the time of the British Enclosure Movement which forced small farmers off of the land into factory work.
"Growth and mastery come only to those who vigorously self-direct. Initiating, creating, doing, freely associating, having a bit of time alone; these are precisely what the structures of schooling are set up to prevent, on one pretext or another.
"As I watched it happen, it took about three years to break a kid's spirit; three years confined to environments of emotional neediness with nothing real to do. In such environments, songs, smiles, bright colors, cooperative games, and other tension-breakers do the job better than angry words or punishment.
"The strongest links in the chains with which the school shackles the mind are the invisible ones. Constant bidding for a teacher's attention creates a chemistry producing the common characteristics of modern school children: whining, dishonesty, malice, treachery, cruelty, tattling [these traits carry over into adulthood and are displayed by many members of our government, making America the most hated nation on Earth in some quarters].
"Unceasing competition for official favor in the dramatic fish bowl of a classroom delivers cowardly children, little people sunk in chronic boredom, small-minded people with no apparent purpose for being alive. The full significance of the classroom as theater, as primarily a dramatic environment, has never been fully explored.
"The most destructive dynamic is identical to that which causes caged rats to develop eccentric or even violent mannerisms when they press a bar for sustenance on an aperiodic reinforcement schedule, one where the food is delivered at random but the rat does not suspect. Much of the weird behavior that school kids display is a function of the aperiodic reinforcement schedule.
"And the endless confinement and boredom and inactivity are cunningly designed to slowly drive kids out of their minds, breaking their spirits [the only real surprise of the Columbine and other school shootings is that there aren't more of them; the school naturally blamed everybody but itself]."
Above excerpt taken from The Underground History of American Education.
If I may add: to sum up in one sentence what he thoroughly explains in a full chapter;
"The purpose of public education is to maintain the status quo; not least of all is the prevention of another revolution."
And teaching, even as a sub, is still one of the best things that you can do. You can make a difference.
Gatto mentioned that, in his experience, it usually required three years to break a child's spirit. Interestingly enough, this was corroborated by someone on the other side of the ideological fence, the woman who wrote the book Substitute Teaching, which I devoured before I began my stint. She breaks the classes down according to similarities, and explains the benefits and drawbacks of teaching each group.
Her categories are:
Elementary School: "First, Second, and Third Grades" "Fourth Grade" "Fifth and Sixth Grades"
Middle School: "Seventh and Eighth Grades"
High School: "Ninth and Tenth grades" "Eleventh and Twelfth Grades"
What is the only grade given a category of its own?
For the first three years, the kids still have hopes, they still have dreams, they still believe, they still have a chance.
By the fifth grade kids have already accepted that the adult world not only sucks but has betrayed them. You look in their eyes and see that sullen resentment, that defiance that is smoldering beneath the surface but is not yet morphous enough, focused enough, to strike back. They no longer see adults as all-wise; they are now more interested in peer approval.
Fourth grade is a transition, wherein the kids have cast off from the shores of "mommy knows best," but have not yet reached the Island Fortress where it becomes "Us Against the World".
For three years, they tried. They tried being themselves and were not allowed to do so. They tried relating to the other kids, but adults interfered in that, also, defining not only the "who" but the "how" and the "when" and the "what."
They tried playing up to adults and giving them what they seemed to want, but that did not change their status: they were still kids, still a combination of talking pet and expensive nuisance. All they knew was that they needed sustenance and shelter, and were not allowed to earn these things on their own.
Separation from everyone except other kids their age kept them isolated from other viewpoints, leaving them no source of information except the propaganda of the indoctrinators.
Finally came acceptance of the fact that, although they knew that they were people, with as much right to be treated with dignity and respect as anyone else, they simply were not good enough for the adult world. Nor were they allowed to create their own. Naturally, they turn inward, looking to the other prisoners for social approval.
By the fifth grade this process is almost complete.
To me, this is a beautiful age. I fell for a fourth-grader a few years back when I was serving in the capacity of a teacher's assistant, and the feeling was mutual.
Although we never touched, the unspoken understanding was that we were soul mates. When we were together, nobody else existed. Looking at her, there was no time, no place, nothing. The Universe stopped, not daring to intrude on something that was obviously so much higher than "Reality."
The kids thought that it was great, but somehow word leaked out that there was a bond between us. Maybe one of the kids ran home and said: "Hey, guess what? Kim and our class assistant have a crush on each other!"
Why not? To them, the artificial barriers between the generations have been overcome; the kids are no longer "adults in training and on probation," but validated as people in their own right! Maybe the subservience is over! Heady stuff! Exciting! Kids do that innocently, not realizing that what is seen as pure and joyous in their eyes is not seen the same way through the impure eyes of adults.
As fellow Girl Lover Humanist observed at the original YANI Forum, keeping kids and us apart, and denying kids their sexuality, are necessary to preserve the authoritarian power structure.