Monday, February 21, 2011

True Story From My Public School Experience, or: How I Saved My House By Peeing My Pants

One day in second grade, I was sitting at my desk and suddenly I had to go. I was just about to ask my teacher, Mrs. Sparhawk, for permission, when another child raised his hand and asked if he could use the restroom - and was completely berated for not going during the regularly scheduled bathroom break, which was just a short while before. Like that boy, I did not yet need to go at that time, so I didn't avail myself of the opportunity. Big mistake. After hearing the other child get yelled at, I was now too terrified to ask. I tried to hold it. The harder I tried, the worse I had to go. Finally, I could wait no longer. I remember I was wearing a short corduroy jumper and tights - an outfit that did very little in the way of liquid absorption - and I could hear it loudly trickling onto the floor. I remember seeing kids' faces as they turned around in their seats and stared at me. I was then marched down to the office, and the secretary called my mom to bring me a change of clothes. I sat there, wet and uncomfortable and humiliated, for what seemed like hours. What was taking her so long? Finally she arrived with my clothes and with a story that made me feel much better about what had happened. She had left work to go home and pick up some clothes for me, and when she got there she discovered that the house was on fire! The fire had started in the chimney and just that one fireplace wall was burning yet. So she was able to call the fire department, and they arrived and extinguished the fire before much damage was done. If I hadn't had my accident, the fire would likely have progressed much farther before anyone noticed. So instead of being upset with me, my mom was overjoyed! I was a hero! I had saved the house!

What got me thinking about that experience was a book I just finished reading called "Dumbing Us Down" by John Taylor Gatto. He was a public school teacher in Manhattan for 30 years, who won multiple "Teacher of the Year" awards, and he wrote this book as sort of a whistleblower to the public school system about what really goes on in a classroom. He says that he teaches children emotional dependency:
"By stars and red checks, smiles and frowns, prizes, honors, and disgraces, I teach kids to surrender their will to the predestinated chain of command."
and intellectual dependency:
"Good students wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. It is the most important lesson, that we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives. The expert makes all the important choices..."
As I read these descriptions, my mind instantly went back to my memory of this event. Thinking back on it from my current point of view as a parent, I am appalled at that teacher's behavior. I understand that in order to manage a room of 30 children, there has to be order and routine, but a person's biological needs can't always fit into a prescribed schedule. To berate and terrorize little kids for needing to use the bathroom at an inconvenient time for her - well, shame on her. I asked my mom about it the other day. I said, "What did you do? Were you livid? Did you give them an earful or what?" and she said she had no idea about the cause of my accident. Maybe I was too ashamed, or maybe I just didn't know how to put it into the right words at the time, but she didn't know about it until now.

I refuse to hand over control of my kids' education to the "experts." I choose to let my kids learn in an environment where they may attend to their bodily functions whenever their bodies dictate. I'm not saying that all teachers are bad, and I know they have an incredibly hard job... but not all of them are great. In the 12 years I spent in the public school system (I was moved up a grade in elementary school and therefore graduated a year early) I can count the "great" teachers I had on one hand. And whether a given teacher is good or bad, the deeply flawed system they must work under is unacceptable to me. Here's another illustration: at my local Barnes & Noble, there is a wonderful section of educational materials. There is also one shelf of books for school teachers, and one shelf of books for homeschoolers. There is a stark contrast between the two - the overwhelming majority of titles for school teachers are about managing children and keeping order in the classroom, and the ones for homeschoolers are actually about how to facilitate learning. Do I want my kids to be trained automatons who can mindlessly obey orders, or do I want them to actually use and expand their minds and enjoy doing so? For me, there's really no question.

1 comment:

  1. John Taylor Gatto is the patron saint of our homeschooling. Without his arguments and experience, I'm not sure my husband would have accepted that school is *not necessary.*

    Teachers have an impossible situation--they have to wrangle a herd FIRST and then sprinkle some worksheets in to prove they have "learned."

    I taught four semesters of composition at the community college. I felt more like a gatekeeper than someone helping people grow as writers. It was: "You fit through this narrow requirement of what counts as good, you others don't fit."

    Most of the people in class were not going to be academics for their lives, so why the emphasis on writing like an academic (citations and all that)? Because there has to be a standard, even if the "real writers" break those rules AS A RULE.

    So glad I found your blog.


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