Saturday, November 03, 2007

School is Awful. Just ask Junie B. Jones.

I was raised by two school teachers. I grew up in small private schools, enjoyed myself about as much as I expected to, and after a few bumps and lumps in elementary school, I did very well. I have no moral opposition to school. You might even say that I like it, or that I like the idea of it, in its imaginary, perfect form. There's not much cuter than a well-stocked smoothly-functioning Montessori classroom, with all the little trays and doodads around the walls, and little busy children briskly occupying themselves at tiny tables.

I'm not homeschooling because I hate school. I'm homeschooling because I think homeschooling is cool. I'm homeschooling because I think my specific child needs it. I am completely open to the possiblity that he might want to go to school someday, and I will definitely let him try it and see how it goes.

My son is not open to that possibility. He does not like school at all -- not the idea of it, not the reality of it, not the smell, sight, or sound of it. Nothing about it interests him. Why? Where did he get this idea? I have been very, very careful in my characterization of school when we talk about it. I do not say it is a nightmare sweatshop where children go to be chained to desks for hours at a time, pushing heavy pencils across black and white worksheets until their little eyes bleed. Of course, I also do not say it is a happy valley of magic playtime where elves feed you gumdrops as you learn to play checkers better. I try to be realistic. There are good and bad things about school, like there are good and bad things about everything. (Except stale candy corn. There's nothing bad about stale candy corn. But I digress.) Benny's opinion of school is so violently negative -- when we visited Boston and stood on the site of the first public school in the country, he made this face:

Why so glum, chum? What beef could you possibly have with public schools, having attended one approximately zero times in your life? We recently attended a violin workshop at a cute local school, and Benny spent a lot of time making me reassure him that he wasn't going to have to "go to school" -- that our attendance there was only temporary and completely disconnected with enrollment. Sadie liked it. Driving away on the last day, she said she wanted to go back there again. Benny immediately jumped in and said, "No Sadie! You don't want to go to school! Don't listen to her, mother. She just likes the playground. Sadie, you can get a playground anywhere! You don't have to go to school to get a playground!"

Where does this prejudice come from? Is there a back room of my mind, where a "school is bad" filmstrip is playing? Has he been able to perceive this opinion without my intention?

Then I look at the books I have exposed him to, and the shows he has watched on TV. What images of school has he seen, what situations have been dramatized for him? Guess what? More often than not, school is portrayed in books and on TV as a stressful place where bullies torture you, teachers misunderstand you, and lessons confound you. A place where you feel trapped, bored, and rebellious. There's Junie B. Jones, manipulating and suffering her way through first grade, and there are the Captain Underpants boys. Even a pious, innocuous little PBS show like Arthur shows school as a dangerous territory to be navigated with fear and trembling. I suppose the episodes are written in an exaggerated way so that school children can relate to them, and can learn to deal with reality. But how does that classroom look, to a kid who's not in school? Every day there's a new problem. Maybe Benny is getting his impression of school from these books and TV shows. I can see how that might happen.

So is contemporary children's entertainment just a secret propaganda tool for the homeschooling army? Do any of these fictional children enjoy school, do any of them have fun and interesting teachers, good friends, and happy days? There are a few books and shows that do not portray school as a hellscape of oppression and gloom. Dora the Explorer is one, but of course it is, because Dora is an unschooler. (Or possibly just a neglected child whose parents should probably be reported to CPS -- but let's put the best construction on everything and assume they're following her around in a magic helicopter in case the crocodiles don't abre at the right time.) Clifford the Big Red Dog portrays school as a fun place with positive interactions and favorite teachers. Magic Schoolbus has created the ultimate fun science teacher, although the kids still complain and whine in their little dialogue bubbles.

All this is symptomatic of the larger problem that exists in attitudes toward school, not just in my little child, but in the world in general. People seem to cheerfully just assume that kids hate school. That they can't wait for vacation. That they have to be forced to go. It's so much a part of the way we view childhood that we think nothing of basing a whole series of books on how rotten school is and how much kids hate it. Remember, I liked school. I was raised by teachers who made school so fun for their students that their kids didn't want summer vacation to come, they didn't want to stay home sick, they looked forward to the fun and interesting things happening every day at school. So -- is there something missing here? Why can I not understand why we don't expect that sentiment to be the norm, rather than the exception?

Maybe if most kids hate school so much, there's something wrong with the most schools, and not something wrong with most kids.


  1. i'm one of those school likin' folks - for the most part, i really liked it. even when i was not doing as well as my cousin (who was my age and in almost every class as me). i especially loved college. but i remember just having a lot of fun in school - it was back when playgrounds were cool and fun and we got to do a LOT of fun things. and we had lots of art etc.

    irene, i am happy to say, loves school. last year, almost every single day, she was bouncing when we got there and bouncing out to me when the day was done. this year it's a little less bouncing, but she still says she loves school. i am not as thrilled with her teacher, but she truly enjoys learning.

    and magic schoolbus? irene has been loving the books since she was wee bitty. rhys is now a huge fan.

    i don't know where i'm going with this. i've forgotten.

    i think you have a point about the books though.

    brain loves school - and some days, even binky barnes likes it.

  2. Anonymous6:32 AM

    I passionately hated every single day of school from day one right through college. Just about every day I lied and said I was so sick as to be near death, ought to be allowed to expire in peace and comfort in the quiet of my home. Mother automatically waved the castor oil bottle at me, I shut up, and that was that for another miserable day. Then I really liked law school, found it interesting, wanted to go there every day and see what horrible thing would happen next, enjoyed the vicious arguments, the atmosphere of intellectual warfare to the death. Good clean fun. The only thing I remember liking from elementary school was that on the first day, the little boy across from me wet his pants and thus created an actual puddle on the floor under his chair until the teacher came along and embarrassed him out of his mind by yelling about it and yanking him across the hall to the nurse's room for a clean-up. Aside from that, I mostly remember staring for hours at the pictures of Washington Crossing The Delaware and Lincoln's statue in the Lincoln Memorial. I spent a great deal of my elementary school experience wondering why Washington's boat didn't sink under all that stuff, and with all those people standing up on one side. I can think of almost nothing good about the way children are warehoused in schools across America. Yes, as a teacher I ameliorated the boredom of my students so rigorously that some of them are probably still in recovery. However, the entire premise of public school is evil. There's no excuse for sitting children down for hours at a time, day after day. That's sick and wrong.

  3. I think the main reason for the portrayal of schools being as negative as you say is because of the need for drama, and drama's need for conflict. It wouldn't be very interesting if schooldays were shown to be sunny and smooth all the time, firstly because they're not, and secondly because who wants to watch that?

    However I agree about the way the portrayal of school might affect the views of a child, because it affects mine. American TV and film presents a terrifying picture of school which you don't get in other countries (I'm British). While that's mainly a problem for high school (where popularity and fitting in are more important than learning) it also leaches into the image of lower schools too. The problem of bullying, especially, becomes more intractable when 1) it's shown as all-pervasive, so adults think of it in a kids-will-be-kids way and 2) bullies are essentially shown as popular and enviable, and never really get their dramatic comeuppance.

    I don't think I'd like to go so far as to demand that writers show some moral responsibility (although that's been the norm for most of literature's history) but it's something to think about.

  4. Anonymous2:22 PM

    " is a nightmare sweatshop where children go to be chained to desks for hours at a time, pushing heavy pencils across black and white worksheets until their little eyes bleed."
    That's how it is for me. Your kids are so lucky to be homeschooled.

  5. Anonymous6:25 PM

    I've never liked school at all really,especially when I started moving out of childhood and into the dark and somewhat gloomy tunnel known as adolescence.The main reason I never really liked school and still don't,in fact I would actually go so far as to say I hate it with passion these days is that the class sizes were far too big and still are,the curriculum is repetitive and dull for the most part,and most of my teachers were/are so uninterested in us and have no passion for their jobs.Also there's this horrible "hierarchy" kids and especially teenagers create.You have to have this certain brand of runners (sneakers),the latest phone,and you're a social pariah unless you've "met" or made out nearly by the time you're in 7th grade.School for me is a place where we learn pointless,mind-numbing facts about things that will not benefit us whatsoever in the real world.School is a false,artificial place that is nothing what the real world will be like.