Previously (elsewhere): The Order of the Soul (Compass Rose)
Last week we went to see a classroom for our son.
The school in question had quite a good reputation. This was a place people wanted their kids to go, and when we had been there previously to see a different type of classroom, we understood why, or thought we did. It was doing the thing it was doing and hitting all the bases.
We had just been to a place with a less good reputation, and seen a run-down, not-well-equipped, kids-not-under-control version of this classroom, and were hoping that this version would be better.
We walked in and it looked nice. It had the things such places have. There were things to play with and kids were scattered around playing quietly. Our son walked towards one of the things. One of the kids already there said hi to him. We and the school’s people watched. I surveyed the room.
Everything looked like it was supposed to look. This was a nice classroom. Kids were playing.
Something was wrong.
I told myself it was nothing. We kept watching. We hoped our son would make a good impression. This was a place people wanted their kids to go. We wanted him to be allowed to go here.
Our son did not want to play much with the other children. We knew this was bad. They would not like it. They would think it meant something was wrong; that he was not ready. He was supposed to want to play with them. We were told he needed to play with them. We felt like we were failing somehow. We hoped he would reconsider.
One of the two school employees that went in with us tested our son, seeing if he knew his numbers and his colors and his shapes. He did ace the numbers and colors and shapes. That felt good. Why was the test even there? I wondered why the older kids needed to be learning single digit numbers.
The employee finished the quizzing and started furiously writing things in boxes on a piece of paper. I hoped they were good, positive things.
I looked around the room more. There were things in corners, things in boxes. The things were trying too hard, somehow. You could smell the educational plan, the committee meeting, the boxes being checked off in a distant room.
There was a sign that said “Manipulative Phrases.” It was about how to get conversations started by asking how things work. Not what I think of when I see ‘manipulative phrases.’ Refreshing!
Also not how any human voluntarily interacts with any other. It was off. Alien.
Something was wrong.
I looked around at all the things in boxes. Lots of things to do. Nice things.
I recognized a lot of the other things from other classrooms. Must be common core. All hail common core. Common core killed outside play. Common core killed nap time.
I saw the wheel with what the weather is today. I saw the sign with the day of the week it is, was yesterday, and will be tomorrow. Same everywhere. A checkmark in a distant room.
Something was wrong.
I told myself it was nothing.
There was something called ‘the cleanup song’ queued up on YouTube. There were four minutes left to play, the children were told. They did not react. Then there were two. Again they were told. Again they did not react. Then there were none. I assume a button was pressed. The song played. The children put their things away, silently, expressionless. A young boy gathered up pattered tiles off the floor and stacked them in his hands. The teachers must be happy.
Something was wrong. These kids are four and five. Kids this age aren’t like that.
But wasn’t that the goal? To get kids to understand. To help them cooperate, to be ready for school. Hence the name, preschool. Wasn’t it nice that they had order and all the kids were well-behaved?
It was nothing. A powerful mantra. It was a good thing.
It was circle time. The kids gathered in a circle.
Our son did not join the circle. We tried to get our son to join the circle.
He did not want to join the circle.
We kept trying. He kept not wanting to.
He wasn’t wrong. The circle was lame. Super lame.
All the other kids were smiling. They liked the circle. Why did they like the circle? Where did they get this level of buy in?
A full four adults, myself included, were trying to get my son to join this circle. He was failing the test. We were failing the test. He needed to join! Or else! Things! His future! The alpha quadrant!
I heard myself talking. I said “Join the circle. Don’t you want to bow to social pressure?”
Out loud. I said that out loud. The other adults did not react. They somehow seemed amused. No funny looks. The other kids didn’t notice. They weren’t listening. No curiosity. There were lots of strange people there and they didn’t notice. In order to sit in a circle.
I kept going. “Don’t you want to conform? Everyone wants you to join the circle.” I had one or two more. It felt right. It fit. I was sure, somehow.
How was I so sure? I didn’t know. I decided I must have picked up on something I hadn’t consciously processed. We went outside, they talked a bit among themselves, then talked to us. They said they’d think about whether they had a place for him that met his needs.
We asked a bunch of questions. The answer to all of them was “it varies.”
We left and started walking back towards the subway. We would discuss our findings. What did I think?
What did I think? Something is wrong.
I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. But did I have the right to say that? Isn’t this place doing everything it is supposed to? What could I actually point to? Who was I to say, no, run screaming for your life?
This was what everyone official said was appropriate. This was what we were supposed to want. If we didn’t do it we would be hurting our son. We would be irresponsible. It would be just awful. We would be just awful. We’d certainly be to blame for what happened. There would be no end to the trouble. The city would try to punish us, deny us other things we needed; not everything they wanted for us was bad. If we just said yes we could be done with it. This is what people do. It must be all right, right?
I didn’t know what I was going to say.
My wife asked what I thought of the place.
I said “This is what a school is, right? This is what the thing is?”
I looked at her face. Something was wrong. The answer scared her. She wanted to disagree. Maybe she didn’t know how. Maybe she didn’t think she had a right to. Maybe she wanted to let me finish first so she wouldn’t anchor me. Hard to tell.
I said “It felt like… this is where children’s souls go to die.”
She said “yeah, it felt that way to me too.” The relief in her voice was palpable.
It wasn’t just me.
“It was like the Stepford Wives in there.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean.”
The light had gone out in those kids. They weren’t being creative or curious. They were following a routine, a series of prompts and triggers. They were inmates, worn down into submission.
They were four and five!
I had social confirmation now. I had permission. “We are not sending our son to prison.”
My wife wasn’t willing to endorse that metaphor, but shared the sentiment. We were in agreement. We would find another way.
It hit me what had almost happened. What we had almost done. To our son. To save some money on services, to bow to social pressure from an authority we knew did not even have our best interests at heart or much of a clue.
How many other parents knew but did not feel they had the right? Knew in their gut what was about to happen, but did not know how to say no, or could not afford to? Were too worn down by life, by work, by the bureaucracy, without the time or money to stop what inertia wanted? How many kids’ souls have to die, slowly, one day at a time?
Something is wrong. Really, really wrong.