Elementary School Redux: There’s Always Another Way

September 15th, 2009

School has been a bit challenging this year for our young one. The 2nd to 3rd grade transition begins focusing more strongly on independence and responsibility.  Lots of new expectations, routines and challenges.  And not all of them something each child is ready for.  In some ways it seems like they’re trying to make miniature college students out of elementary kids… our son has even got an official weekly planner that he must fill out everyday on top of his homework.   Good that they’re teaching planning and organization skills I suppose, but sometimes it’s just so much for them at 8-9 years of age.

He is fortunate that his school is full of caring, professional educators- it’s really a good little public school.  However there’s always an oddity or two among classroom management styles. His 3rd grade teacher, for example, does not allow the students to have more than one pencil in their desk.  If they lose that pencil, they must ask for a new one, and then they lose one of their recess playtimes for not keeping track of their pencil. If they just want a new one, they have to hold up the stubby remains of the old pencil before getting it. Ugh.  This new rule after having had access to pencils for the previous three years in K through 2nd grades.

Anyway, unlike the sweet, touchy-feely first and second grade teachers (and don’t forget the treasure box!), his new teacher is all business.  So he has been a bit confused and overwhelmed by these new rules and expectations.

Case in point: The other day a note came home that he just “sat there” for three hours doing nothing in the morning.  I asked him what was the matter, and at first he didn’t know (he lives in the moment…).  But then he remembered:  “I lost my pencil and didn’t want the teacher to get upset by asking for another one, and then I didn’t know what to do…”  He really didn’t mind losing recess (they have three of them during the day), but he didn’t want to upset her, he felt overwhelmed and confused and so he just sat there with his head down.

Naturally my first reaction stemmed from that innate parental desire to just make everything okay for him (I haven’t figured out how to do that yet, and if you’ll be kind enough to share the secret I’ll gladly pay you a bunch of money).


     More rationally, I wondered why in the heck his teacher didn’t try to find out what the problem was, or try encouraging him to do something else instead of just letting him sit there for so long?! Argghhh.  And truth be told I was frustrated with him for not making his needs clear and asking for a new pencil and just getting busy.  It’s not like his teacher is a monster- she’s actually a petite woman and seemingly quite nice.  Well that’s another story…  But her business-like demeanor in the classroom will take some getting used to for him.

Besides, it’s so simple to me, right?  Just get a new pencil and get the job done?!  I was like that in 3rd grade, right?  Well, not at first anyway, but I was a fast learner.  Bear with me for an historical digression:

School always seemed fun and exciting to me somehow, and learning was a positive challenge.  But I remember testing boundaries in 3rd grade, to the point of making a really cool paper airplane once during a reading session.   I don’t know what I was thinking, other than being a little bored and trying to get the other kids’ attention.   They watched me with that airplane, wondering what I would do… almost daring me to throw it.   I remember the smiles and glee in my classmates’ eyes when I zinged that sucker toward the front of the classroom while the teacher was sitting with her head down reading.   Incredible!  That airplane flew beautifully, it was an amazing sight really, soaring toward the blackboard, rising higher and higher, and then?  It swooped down almost purposefully into the great big foot-high bun of hair right on top of the teacher’s head!

At first the silence was broken only with the gasps of my classmates while all eyes were riveted to the white airplane sticking out of the teacher’s hair.   And then laughter erupting all around me, at least until the teacher stood up.  I thought maybe it was okay?  Maybe doing something funny was good?   I was looking at the airplane, amazed at the result of my craftsmanship while also staring at the teacher’s face.  My eyes then grew wider with the knowledge that I just did something really, really bad.  Reality set in quickly with the,  “Who threw this airplane!”  voice that I had not heard before in a classroom.   This was one of three Catholic schools I attended in various states, at least through fifth grade, and I wasn’t going to tell a lie and commit a sin.   I raised my hand slowly, somehow knowing that I was all alone in this, and she motioned me to come up to the front.  I was then forcibly escorted by my arm into the hallway where I received a very stern lecture by a red-faced woman with spittle coming out of her mouth.   That was a new moment in my life.

I have no idea what she said, and was left in a chair for an hour to contemplate my actions.  I like to think I helped educate an entire class of kids regarding what one should or should not do in a classroom.  And it was about that time that I came to the conclusion that upsetting the teacher didn’t result in anything good, ever, and that doing tricks for one’s classmates didn’t help matters much either.  Getting in trouble was just not worth it, and I didn’t like the visibility.  It really didn’t have anything to do with my parents either- I’m not even sure they knew about it.  If they did, I was fortunate in that they probably just laughed.

But I think I decided then and there that I would not stick out in the classroom ever again.  And I didn’t. *(Pamela makes a good point that this  would be a sad lesson- learning to be invisible.  I would absolutely agree, but that really wasn’t my point.  What I mean by not sticking out, is that despite a person’s experience, there’s always another way to go about things, or see things, or learn from things… and you didn’t need to try to do things (like throwing paper airplanes) and stand out in a negative sense, except to be yourself.)

Somehow I managed to figure out at a very young age, that if you just do what the teacher wants, getting things accomplished, along with the studying and homework of course, you can get decent grades and get through school just fine.  And then you can manage your own time… your own program and do the stuff you really want to do.   Teachers love kids who just do what they ask them to do…


     So back to the story at hand:   As I sat there with my son last week, I really wished I could inject him with some kind of Vulcan mind-meld device that would give him years of experience and knowledge about the world around us, just for momentary use of course…  Enough to stand up, walk briskly to the teacher, look her straight in the eye and say:

“Ma’am it seems I’ve lost my pencil. Now I understand I’m going to lose my recess, and that’s fine even if it is a really silly rule. But I would in fact like to learn something here! I really love school you know,  and I especially enjoy science and reading.  Math? Not so much, but even that is better than just sitting in my chair for three hours with a sore butt!  So please get one of my personally-labeled pencils out of your cabinet, and would you mind redirecting me a bit? I seem to have forgotten what it is we are working on. Thank you!”

The squeaky wheel gets the grease as they say, even in the classroom. Our young one is a bit shy and not very assertive at times, so he doesn’t ask for help when he needs it. After relating his predicament to his teacher, she remained ever the professional.. “He needs to learn the rules and do it on his own…” Ah the rules, always the rules.  We don’t want learning to get in the way of the rules now do we?

She’s right of course, within reason, and at least in terms of her classroom management style and meeting the expectations established for the kids in that context.  The pencil rule isn’t something I would do, but then again she’s been teaching for 20 years and I haven’t. The kids are going to have to learn to succeed in that environment.   But you know, there’s always another way… another angle, a different approach and a child that isn’t the same as the four thousand seven hundred and fifty-two children they’ve worked with previously. And it’s not just teachers, but as parents and mentors too.  Sometimes I think we miss opportunities to really make a difference and gain a little perspective.

Ah well, the school year has just begun.   And it looks like I’m going to get to know his teacher really well this year.  We all must learn to navigate the written and unwritten rules of life.  And more often how to succeed despite those rules and the challenges we find along the way.  As for my son, I know he’s going to have to learn at his own pace. And I’ll love him just the same. But sometimes it’s really hard to watch.

9 Responses to “Elementary School Redux: There’s Always Another Way”

  1. pamela

    I was laughing so hard at the thought of the plane landing in the teacher’s hair and so sad by the end of the story. You learned to be invisible in the classroom. I can’t think of a worse lesson to teach.
    Some people shouldn’t be teachers.
    I don’t envy you this school year.

  2. Pamela- Oh, I know… really :) Re-reading my words, I can understand your comment. What I was attempting to share was that despite a person’s experience, it wasn’t necessary to stick out negatively to get through school, that there’s always another way to go about things, etc. As for me, I was never out in front in school at the beginning, and maybe I did enjoy being in the background. But I was more like a fast turtle, steadily achieving, and usually finished at the front. Want to be my editor…? :)

  3. Ed

    Excellent post and brings back so many memories for me. I too find the pencil rule kind of odd. Although perhaps I needed that rule growing up because if it were still in effect, I would be missing recess at work fairly regulary to this day.

  4. if i were to vulcan mind meld with my son he’d say something like “i think the pencil rule is lame. focusing on something so menial clouds the mind for deep thought. can we just please learn something here besides trying to be anal”

  5. R. Sherman

    The pencil rule seems a bit much, but then I recall my wife was a teacher for a year at our Lutheran School. She was amazed that some of the kids (blessedly few) couldn’t keep track of homework, pencils and whatnot or decided to get up and walk around in the middle of class. When she tried to address these behaviors with parents, they seemed oblivious to the need for their children to begin to develop good study and organization habits. I can see the teacher’s conundrum. If s/he does nothing, one or two of the students will be constantly disrupting class. Thus, we have have the rule in place about recess, etc. Unfortunately, there are always unintended consequences for everything, especially when the rules are geared to the lowest common denominator.


  6. This reminded me of an incident last year with my younger daughter’s best friend. She had written an essay for English class and was SO excited about it — she had spent a whole evening perfecting it and couldn’t wait to get it back to hear what the teacher had to say. Which turned out to be, in toto, “You were supposed to use blue ink, not black.” So she rewrote it, in blue ink. Only to get it back again with a note saying, “You used the wrong blue”. Needless to say, that was the end of her enthusiasm. I do realize that organization and discipline are necessary, but it wouldn’t have killed the old bat to have written some kind remarks on the essay itself along with the critique.

    Your son is lucky to have you around to put things in perspective — if there’s an understanding parent, that can do a lot to mitigate the rough edges at school.

  7. Vince

    IS there not something very wrong with a kid carrying weight for weight the equivalent of a special force battle-pack.

  8. Ed- I like to have a few extras around too!
    Karl- I’ll bet he would do real well after that! :)
    Randall- Good point; the unintended consequences have consequences too. But yes, the free spirits in the class are very different. Volunteering with the kids at times, some are focused and rigid, others are dreamy and uninterested, with most falling in between. The pace of the convoy however is usually dictated by that of the slowest ship!
    Vince- I wondered if anyone would say something about that! Fortunately the picture is deceiving and his pack isn’t very heavy. But yes there are various books and a lunch kit to fill up the space. It’s kind of like a house though… the more space there is, the kids just want to fill it up with stuff!

  9. I loved your airplane story. I didn’t learn that lesson early!

    And it’s hard to believe that my little girl is now in middle school (a time that I was a terror for teachers and administrators–I’ll wait till she’s in college before I share those stories)

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