Memories of Grade School–Ron Parlato

November 8, 2012

Philosophy

My first memory of elementary school was from kindergarten, where this baby-breath fat kid kept poking me in show-and-tell.  My mother said he was probably still sucking the bottle and was infantile and to pay no attention to him. My father told me to hit him in the nose the next time he did it. Funny how only pieces of memories stick with you. I remember the rancid baby breath, my mother’s comment and my father’s advice more than I do what happened later. I would like to think I popped the fat kid, but I honestly don’t remember.

I do remember doing “a fat kid” and shoving little girls in the thorn bushes on my walk down Commonwealth Avenue to the Stanley School. I got a wicked lashing from my father, more because he felt he had to be polite to the fathers who furiously complained for him “to do something about that kid or else” than for the actual transgression. “Boys will be boys” was his motto and he just was taking out his own frustration on me.

My next memory, a happy one, was from second grade. I was the teacher’s pet because I was such a good student and behaved (no further macho incidents), and on the last day of school she offered me a going-away gift (I was transferring to another school) – anything on one of the bookshelves. I chose a copy of The Odyssey and a tiny cactus plant in a small, porcelain frog.  I still have the book.

I have fragmented memories of third grade, and, for some reason, one classmate has stayed with me. He was a tall, uncoordinated, very dumb kid who kept asking the teacher what she meant. In those days most subjects were divided by ability-groups, and he was always in the ones at the bottom; but in more general classes such as geography, we were all together.  The sessions were bad enough – I had gone through the Rand McNally World Atlas many times at home – and this particular classmate made them even worse.

I have no recollection of what the classrooms were like, just a collection of desks and chairs, a blackboard, chalk, and big erasers. I walked the mile from home, sat through the morning, walked home for lunch, and then returned to finish the day. I moved from one class to the next without incident or note. My real memories only started when I started the seventh grade in a small country day school near my house. It wasn’t the school that cemented the memories, but early adolescence. My most lasting memory – a look up the sleeveless blouse of one of my female classmates – is a good example.

Despite my indifference to my surroundings, educators and administrators have been tinkering with the school environment for at least a hundred years.  It was not only important what you learned but how. A retrospective of these reforms was written by Alison Lurie, a few years ago, in The New York Review of Books (12.18.08):

“Until the mid-eighteenth century boys and girls were often seen as miniature adults, as uncivilized imps of Satan, or, with John Locke, as blank sheets of paper on which a parent or teacher could inscribe knowledge and morality. The Romantic movement of the late eighteenth century cast the child as a Wordsworthian innocent, naturally good and eager to learn; it also had important and lasting, though far from universal, effects on the physical form of schools.

Louisa May Alcott represented the radical educational theories of Ralph Waldo Emerson in “Little Men” andJo’s Boys” – that all children are potentially good, and that if they are educated with kindness and according to their individual needs they will grow up to be worthy citizens of a democracy. The fictional school looks like a large, comfortable family house – which it once was – and is surrounded by orchards and woods. The children have their own garden plots, keep pets, and go on educational nature walks.”

The Waldorf movement begun in Europe in 1919 believed in encouraging individuality and creativity, and “its schools today, in many parts of the world, still tend to be rambling, informal-looking buildings that sometimes recall Alpine chalets, with their steep overhanging roofs and peaked gables; a few look rather like the fantasy houses of Oz.”

Montessori schools stressed self-directed learning and physical activity and a special appreciation of nature. “These schools, too, tend to look like large, comfortable houses surrounded by grass and trees. Inside, their classrooms are full of samples of the natural world: ant farms and chickens and white mice; and the walls are papered with the children’s drawings and paintings.”

Closer to our day, equally radical ideas about educational space emerged, themselves products of the social revolution of the 60s and 70s:

“The open-classroom movement had a significant though not always lasting effect on school design. One of its central texts was Herbert R. Kohl’s “The Open Classroom” (1969). Kohl criticized the hierarchical structure of contemporary schools, which, he believed, consciously or unconsciously taught obedience to authority and suppression of ideas and opinions.

Along with the campaign for open-space schools went demands for more comfortable learning areas. The sociologist Robert Sommer, for instance, criticized what he called “hard classrooms,” with tile floors, institutional furniture, dull colors, and overhead fluorescent lighting. He recommended instead a “soft classroom,” furnished with carpets, upholstered benches and hassocks, floor pillows, and spot lighting,” writes Lurie.

The structure of the classroom changed along with this new overall design. Gone were the old-style fixed one-person desks and chairs to be replaced by collaborative learning units. “This kind of classroom plan suggests that it is natural for teams or groups rather than individuals to compete and that you will belong to different groups at different times,” states Lurie.

The story gets more interesting when politics gets involved.  Politicians of all stripes, impatient with the pseudo-reforms characterized only by rearranging desks and chairs while student performance languished in the doldrums, lamented the passing of “The Little Red Schoolhouse.” According to Lurie:

“Liberals liked the small classes, the mixing of ages and skills, the informal scheduling, and the individual attention. Conservatives praised the one-room schoolhouse for its basic no-nonsense curriculum of “readin’, ritin’, and ‘rithmetic” and its emphasis on order, discipline, and obedience to the teacher; they also pointed out that in many one-room schools daily prayer and Bible reading were part of the curriculum.”

One of the greatest bits of intellectual gymnastics comes from those who say that the cushy environment provided by warm, welcoming, colorful schools with romantic links to nature and he wider world is wrong:

“Childhood should be presented as a lesser and more limited and uncomfortable state of being, while adulthood is shown to have far greater rewards and privileges. Otherwise, children will never want to grow up, and college students won’t want to graduate, take jobs, or sometimes even leave home. With the best intentions in the world, we will have created a population of sulky, disappointed adults who will long all their lives for the lost paradises of their youth,” says Lurie.

The school environment is constantly changing and today’s is more affected by the Internet and 9/11 than any romantic notion of life. Schools are becoming less accessible, more security-conscious and even moving towards the windowless big-box commercial model. This model conforms to security concerns for the school, the view that the outside world is a dangerous place, and the conviction that a child’s world can be geometrically expanded through the Internet than by any hokey nature walks.

Perhaps most importantly, these stripped down, institutional environments with functional furniture, computer terminals, and no distractions on the walls, are thought to be more conducive to basic learning – i.e. to improve test scores. Sadly, they make it easier for teachers to manage unruly students who really are not socialized enough to be in school.

I only remember the fat kid with baby breath, that stupid boy, and The Odyssey,and had no idea that I was being manipulated – but so what? Society is all about manipulation and being manipulated. Change never seems to matter, but as good American optimists we keep on trying.

I really should “Google” those two classmates that I referred to, to and see if he ever made it out of the third grade; or better yet, try to find out, if by any chance, she’s available.

Ron Parlato is a writer living in Washington, DC. He has close ties with Columbus, which he visits frequently.  His writings on literature, politics and culture, travel, and cooking can be found on his own blog, http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com.

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