My cousin asked me and my sister to volunteer at her daughter’s school for their end of the year/holiday party. We came around lunch time and sat in the parking lot for a few minutes in a spot marked “visitor parking.” We walked up to the plain brick building and waited to get buzzed in. We went into the front office and checked in, were given directions to the classroom and went on our way.
My younger cousin’s class was just heading back from lunch so we met them in the hall way. “Single file!” the teacher yelled, followed by calling on specific students to get their acts together. Last stop before class was the restroom. “You better use it now.”
We continued down the hall to prepare before the kids’ return, my cousin and a classmate given the duty to unlock the classroom door and let us in. I couldn’t help but notice the uniformity of the almost white hallway tile to the almost white classroom tile, the painted brick on every wall in the same lifeless almost white. [Maybe there was a wholesale sale on this “color”?] Overhead boasted those cheap fluorescent lights, creating dull shine spots on the floor + those basement style ceiling tiles that brown so quickly and easily and always felt too low.
We set up in a the corner in the back of the classroom at a rounded table piled with old assignments and supplies. A cool, sunless, late fall day riddled with showers all morning, yet the room was uncomfortably warm-despite its two windows wide open to a small courtyard.
There are so many kids I whispered to my sister.
And the room is so small she whispered back.
They’re in fourth grade. A pretty even number of girls + boys. Some in school uniform, some not. [I assume the purpose was to make the troublemakers easier to spot.] Many hyped on whatever they put in school lunch meals and anxiousness, they filed in and found their desks. Mrs. Anderson gave them another quick warning to be quiet and started her lesson.
My heart sunk. Half the students took heed and hung on their teacher’s every word. A handful stared at us or the clock or their shoes instead of the white board. Some chatted amongst themselves. Others looked completely detached from their surroundings, in a world far away from division and lifeless tiled floors and dingy ceilings that hung too low.. But really, how you can expect an 8 or 9 year old to concentrate on division [that new weird shit, too] after a toxic meal that probably hyped them way up only to drain their brains is beyond me.
Mrs. Anderson finished her explanation and began making her way around the room to assist students individually. It got really loud. Only the threat of no holiday party got them to settle. My sister and I worked simultaneously to keep the noise level down [the teacher had given up after the first few warnings] and help a few students. A half dozen or so hands raised high for help at a time, but hey, there’s only one Mrs. Anderson. But even on this good day with a pair of assistants, there was at least thirty of them, so some kids never got help.
Again, my thought wandered: even if there’s a lottery to get your child in, my cousin’s fourth grade class is not unique. There are hundreds-probably thousands- of children that aren’t dumb, they just don’t learn well in certain environments. And there are children that are not hyperactive or jittery by nature, they’re just pumped with poison then forced to attempt to consciously take in new information and quietly complete a task in a warm, crowded cell. For hours.
Only when work time ended and the music started did everyone come back to life. And these kids can move! And know all the lyrics and steps to the latest dance songs.
They just can’t do division.
It’s been decades since my elementary school years and I understand time brings change, but it was nothing like this. I loved school. I loved most of my teachers. I loved listening to other student’s thoughts and learning. I don’t remember most of my classmates being so disruptive and off task; I can tick off the few names of the rowdy ones with one hand. From all six years! The coldness came from the AC, not the lack of life in the hallways and classrooms. There was no looming sadness.
Did I just have it good or has it always been this way?