Earlier this week I was listening to the guidelines and requirements for school children getting ready to start the new term.
It put me in mind of something Iíve suspected and spoken of briefly here several times: The tripwires and confines and hurdles we put on our children, and on ourselves.
I know I am a self-admitted relic. I find myself longing for a world that doesnít exist anymore, and probably never can again. But I wonder sometimes if itís just here, or if itís everywhere, that things have gotten so horribly complicated of late. Or, in the obverse, if there are any small pockets of such a world still hanging on by its fingernails.
People ask why there are so many juveniles in the arrest reports, so many problem children in schools, such poor academics, and they toss around all sorts of ideas then settle on some reason or another and create a social, counseling or academic program to correct it. In they end, all theyíve done is complicate the problem.
Kids donít need more programs, they donít need more busybodies worrying about their mental health, their home life, their homework and their clothing. They need less complications. The fewer the better, because weíve gotten to a point where we never let kids be kids anymore.
We act like an education is the only chance kids have of being happy, and we take away the happiness of being kids trying to save their lives. Of course a suitable learning experience is important, and college should be strongly encouraged, but itís appalling, criminal even, to load a sixth grader up with enough homework to eat away two or more hours of their evening even one day a week, much less four or five. Completely insane. They spent eight hours in school already, burdening them with two more hours of schoolwork is ridiculous. We grumble and groan as adults when we have to work longer than our scheduled work day, why do we do it to our children?
You know what those kids should be doing in those two hours? They should be riding their bikes on the sidewalk, and if itís illegal in your community for sixth graders to ride bikes on the sidewalk then go to the governing council or whatever and demand that they change the law or youíll vote them out of office next time faster than they can say "extracurricular." If you live in the country, they should be skating or chasing toads or having tea parties with tiny miniature wares. Instead of giving eighth graders four-page essays for a weekend batch of homework, those kids should be playing in the rain, fishing in the bayou, making a tree house, anything that doesnít involve a pencil and paper, and especially does not include a joystick or a control pad.
What are we doing to these kids? "Oh," they say, "we have to educate our children! The Japanese are beating us in educational statistics, turning out a more educated, productive and successful work force than we are!"
Who gives a rip about the Japanese? Are their children happy? Do they know how to find doodle bugs in those little craters they make in the dust? Do they know how to fingerpaint and make a mess? Can they draw a hopscotch grid? Jump rope? Can they put a chain back on a bicycle without help and do they ever turn off the television?
We put computers in all our schools because our kids need to learn how to use them, but we send them home, too, or we buy them at home, and they sit there with a mouse in hand and the door to the front yard might just as well be locked, bolted, chained and welded shut.
"Every boy is entitled to a creek," Havilah Babcock wrote. "If no creekís handy, maybe a meandering brook will do for awhile. But it must have a few holes that he canít see the bottom of. Thatís an absolute requisite, and thereís no getting around it."
Babcock grew up in a world where there were strict schoolmarms and more strict principals, and became a professor of English at the University of South Carolina. He was reared by a father who understood the value of an education and a stern hand regarding the boyís getting one, but didnít mind taking him out of that little white hallowed hall of education now and then for a trip to the lake to catch bluegill with bee drone larvae on a hook, or pick up a little .410 shotgun and shoot quail in the foothills. Education isnít all the Three Rís, you see. Itís all about the world and the people, places, things that move in it.
I speak of outdoor things because thatís how I was raised, without tons of homework and with tons of time on the water and in the field, but of course all circumstances are personal. It might be baseball for a kid, or art, writing or collecting, stamps or coins, building and flying kites, chasing dandelion fluff in breezes, burning leaves with a magnifying glass, keeping a careful eye on a cocoon for weeks until a monarch butterfly emerges, finding old bottles, paper mache.
The reality is that weíre condemning our children to lives of Prozac, acid reflux disease and other stress-related illnesses by grilling them to death in classrooms and sending them home laden with heavy books, buzzing computers and glaring television screens pounding at them with sounds and visuals of buy-buy-buy-buy-buy.
Iíve heard of school systems going to four day weeks, nine-hour days. All this, in megamall schools covering an acre or two with concrete, steel, plaster and cinderblock. They say the extra hour doesnít hurt the kids, and they get a three-day weekend.
I protest that the extra hour does hurt the kids and they donít get a three-day weekend because they still get burdened, perhaps more so, with excessive homework and stress.
Goodness, canít we letíem be kids? Whatís the point of being young and strong and full of energy if you canít enjoy it?
When rains like this summer has brought around here swell ditches, kids donít play in them anymore because parents worry and fret about diseases or something. I played in many a flooded ditch with lots of other school kids and never suffered dysentery, bubonic plague or hepatitis.
I thought I wanted to be a hunter at some point, and so with my grandfatherís old bolt-action .410 shotgun I asked my dad how to hunt quail. He gave me a few pointers, and donated a worn-out old leather carpenterís bag to my cause to carry shells and birds if I somehow managed to hit some. Then he sent me off with this equipment and advice to figure the rest out on my own. That was in the day when you could send a young boy out into the fields to learn how to hunt quail without too much worry. Because by and by a farmer would stop by on his John Deere tractor to inquire about the boyís parents, how his grandfolks were getting along, tell the boy about the covey of birds he spied near the old gate over north of the cornfield, and might load the boyís worn carpenter bag with a few ears of golden-sweet corn to take home to his mother for supper as lagniappe. Best of all, though the boy never knew it, the old farmer on the John Deere tractor would be watching the boy from afar while he ploughed his fields and worked the land. Heíd be sure to tell the boyís father if the boy was handling his gun dangerously, or shot a mockingbird (the ultimate sin), or was smoking cigarettes behind a grove of hackberry trees. In those days, we all looked out for each other.
I believe in community schools, but school administrators do not. They believe in megamall schools, like weíre going to be building here in west St. Mary soon. I believe in schools as they were laid out 50 years ago, a school dotted here and there where kids did not have to spend an hour or more on a hot or freezing bus; where there might have been 20 kids, max, in a class; where teachers got to work more closely with their students instead of being unwillingly saddled with guidelines and criteria and pace schedules and goals and gauntlets that do nothing but impede the flow of education and the wonder of childhood.