I imagine that the day a child starts school is one
of the most exciting days for a parent. It marks the start of the
journey down the long, expensive road of formal education. Every
parent hopes, I assume, that his or her child is receiving the best education
that money can't buy. Of course, exactly what happens to the children
between the hours of 8am and 3pm is left entirely in the hands of the public
school personnel. While some or even most of the teachers and
staff are qualified and trained, this is sadly not the case with everyone.
As one of the untrained, clueless members of the staff at a new school
in Washington DC/in the DC area, I was able to observe firsthand the sad,
and often hilarious, world of public kindergarten. All in all, the
experience left me with one simple question: "What The Hell is Going
My simple question, however, refers to several different "here"s. I first found myself asking this question the moment I stepped through the door on the first day of school. I was suddenly confronted with a confusion not felt since the fall of 1982, when Mrs. Braithwait eagerly (or so it seemed) welcomed me into her first-grade class. Suddenly, I found myself surrounded by clueless, crying children. Unfortunately, unlike back in Mrs. Braithwait's class, I could not partake in any crying, urinating, or running around while making high-pitched noises. I stood there, however, crying on the inside, making a panicked, soft yet high-pitched "ugnnnnnnnn" noise to myself, which prompted the first of what would soon become a daily
chorus of "What the Hell is going on here?"
A brief explanation: Fresh out of college and seeking gainful employment, with minimal experience handling children and even less knowledge, I was hired rather quickly by this kindergarten thanks to a few blood-ties. There was no real interview, no examining of citizenship, no background check, and no questioning of various facial scars. I was quickly accepted by the rest of the staff, apparently glad to see some male blood in the group. (Little did I know that my young, capapable arms and legs would be my main contribution to the school. The other women were a little too slow to catch all the children, but more on that later.) On the very first day, I immediatley I realized that I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. Though everyone I knew had warned me, I took no heed. "Kindergarten? No problem." "Sounds like fun. I like kids." Oh, you fool.
Admittedly, after the first-day horrors, for both the children and the staff much of the second day was surprisingly pleasant. Although I still had no idea what my function was, the scenes of childhood innocence were rather touching. Children of varying backgrounds playing together, enjoying each other's company. I remember walking into the classroom once to find the children dancing together, awkwardly holding each other's shoulders. It was really rather touching and actually
gave me a warm fuzzy-feeling inside. This ended abruptly, however, at approximately 8:57 am, when one of the children wet his pants for a second time. Although all children were required to bring extra "emergency" clothes for just such an occasion, the young lad had already depleted his supply of emergency clothes. Quick thinking prevailed, however, and it was discovered that the boy's sister was also in the class. Therefore, he was given a pair of his sister's turquoise underpants, in a bold display of decision-making that will someday be recounted to countless psychologists. It was a sight to see. A horrible, horrible sight.
Moments later, the "accident" was being spread to the rest of the room by careless, playful feet, despite my best containment efforts (which consisted of carefully putting a chair over the puddle and patiently waiting for the floor to absorb the urine). Apparently, this was the first part of a surgical strike by the children to take over the classroom. While preoccupied with their little distraction, the other teacher and I did not notice another group of children hoarding the various games, puppets, and books, thereby effectively taking control of the room. The other children, some wet, some crying, and all unamused, wept at the realization of their powerlessness. Meanwhile, the new warlords reveled in their victory by simply holding their bounty, but not taking advantage of the endless amusement that was now theirs to dispense
however they saw fit.
My teaching partner,Kathy, formally trained in primary education (much unlike myself), dealt with this new act of aggression swiftly, however. She had precisely the needed weaponry to deal with the current crisis. Kneeling down, and in her best grown-up voice, she unleashed a volley of " Is that how we share?" "Would your mom be happy if she knew you
weren't playing nice?" and "D you need a 'time-out?" . . . which actually worked much better than my previous attempts at chasing the children, grabbing them forcefully by whatever appendage I could get my hands on, and screaming, "Gimme the puppet back, ya little punk!" While my attempt resulted in a chorus of high-pitched crying and "I'm gonna tell my mommy!", Kathy's state-approved methods worked remarkably better. (But only in getting the games back, however. My methods were
far more effective in instilling the state-approved Fear of God into the little bastards.)
From the very beginning, I had the feeling that whatever semblance of organization the school had maintained for the benefit of the parents was hanging on by a thread. The head of the school obviously never heard that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, because good intentions were all she had. And I don't mean that everything she did was with good intentions in mind. I mean that good intentions are all she had: no follow-up ideas, no plans, nothing. Just ideas that she thought might be good, and $3000 dollars per student from Uncle Sam. But I never saw a cent of it. So it was up to us to make do with the small amount of supplies we had. But while she had her head full of good intentions, I had only one: survival.
After a few days, the stress on all the teachers was evident. One of the Italian teachers lamented to me, in a rather endearing Italian accent, about one boy in particular. We'll call him "Marko" (since that's his name). It seems Marko was a rather hyperactive child who didn't speak much English (which didn't distinguish him from about 40 of
the 50 students at the school). However, this teacher didn't buy that. She was convinced that he did indeed speak English, and that he was using his supposed ignorance as an excuse. When I asked her whatmlanguage he did speak, she replied, in the most disdainful voice I've ever heard in my life "Rrrrussian!" Apparently old Maria Rosa had brought
over some good old-fashioned Continental attitudes to the New World. But at this point, I didn't care if she was Mussolini's mistress, as long as she could keep the kids under control. Unfortunately, she couldn't. But you know what? I still didn't care
However, the fact that the boy spoke Russian did give me an opportunity to fulfill a life-long dream, which was to chase a small boy around in a room crowded with children, all the while screaming "Nyet!" in my best Hunt for Red October accent, which was surprisingly not good at all. I therefore compensated with a bevy of Cold War fear tactics. For starters, upon capturing Marko, I proposed a plan to the other teachers. Since I was the amateur in the room, I expected some resistance from those well-versed in approved educational tactics, but it seemed to me that, since it was naptime, and Marko was
clearly not napping, drastic measures had to be taken. Since the nap-room was in the basement of a rented-out church, there were several large pillars on each side of the room. I took one look at Marko, one look at his unused blanket, and had a wonderful plan ( and by "wonderful," I mean "most likely not state-approved in any way, shape or form, and possibly illegal). My plan was this: put Marko against the pillar and wrap his blanket around him and the pillar, thereby attaching him to the pillar and rendering himimmobile, or "inert," which seems more fitting. Admittedly, as soon as the words of my plan escaped my mouth, I was a little embarrassed at my juvenile, morally-shaky plan. Much to my surprise, and delight, however, the
teachers whole-heartedly agreed. It was decided, however, that a chair might prove better than a pillar, so that whoever was holding the little angel could sit down while restraining him. I call it "leisurely discipline,"
although I'm sure a judge would call it something else entirely.
At this point you may be asking yourself, "What the Hell is going on here?" Well, let me explain (and by "explain" i mean "let me tell another anecdote). Although the methods of discipline seem harsh, I assure you, most of the parents more than made up for it at home. In my day, we were scared to death of our teachers. But now? When I threatened one student with spanking (an idle threat, I [assure] you.) she jumped into my lap, stared at me with Bambi eyes, and actually said in a whisper "hurt me?" To which I responded "What the Hell is going on here?!" Every morning upon arrival at the school I would ask myself: "what's wrong with these kids?" And every afternoon I would ask myself: "what's wrong with these parents? Especially one gentleman that came in to pick up his daughter that had the same hairstyle as his 5 year old demon-spawn,
and sported an all-black ensemble nicely capped-off by a black T-shirt that read "We on some spaced-out S*** !" Obviously a caring parent, teaching his young daughter to interpret comic strip expletives, which is state-required I believe by first-grade. But as I've said, I have no formal training: just an interest in shaping young-minds. One particularly good tactic that I developed was to take advantage of the surroundings. For starters, the school was in a church. So when a child would take a toy from someone without asking, I would give 'em the old Catholic guilt. "You wouldn't steal in a church, would you? (child
nods 'no') You don't steal from a church, right? (child nods 'no') The church steals from you ! (author nods a resounding 'yes') Needless to say, it was very rewarding to impart on the children a modern-day sense of right and wrong.
Unfortunately, after about a month of kids and their assorted leaky fluids, the fulfillment that I had last experienced on Day Two was a far-off memory, and I had had enough. Enough sickness, enough kicking, biting, scratching, and yelling. And I thought, "How in the world are schools like this allowed to exist? Where has the American system failed?" While I've always been a proponent and product of public school, this really scared me, so I asked myself a lot of tough questions. [But] before I had a chance to answer them, I realized that I really didn't care all that much and could be making a lot more dough at another job. If that's not the American way, I don't know what is. It's safe to say that, though, that I didn't leave the school an unchanged man. For example, now the sound of children's laughter to me is like a
dentist's drill, boring its way inside my skull. While trying to sleep one afternoon, I heard children playing outside my apartment, and thought "Why, God, why? Haven't I suffered enough?" To which He answered a resounding "Nope." Of course, I'm paraphrasing for the Big Guy, but since I believe in a vengeful, spiteful God, that's the answer I assume he gave because the kids just kept on laughing. So I laid there awake, tossing and turning, thinking about my time with the kids. I asked myself "Am I hopeful for the future? Do I think America's schools are on the right track?". . . NYET!