A recent story in the news spotlighted a high school in Rhode Island which graduates less than half of its students. Just over half of Central Falls High School’s students are proficient readers, and just 7% are proficient in math. The Superintendant and the school board asked the teachers’ union to make some changes, including paid tutoring and two weeks of paid teacher training in the summer, as well as eating lunch with the kids once a week. The kids in Central Falls could use the help – most of them are very poor and many struggle with English as a second language.
The teachers’ union refused the changes. So the school board voted to fire the Central Falls High School teachers.
The aftermath rippled through the national media, culminating with President Obama citing Central Falls in a speech on education and declaring, “If a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn’t show signs of improvement, then there’s got to be a sense of accountability.” He surprised many by provoking teachers’ unions, a longtime Democratic stronghold. The question is gripping the country. Should teachers’ pay and status be tied to their students’ success?
I saw a cartoon commenting on the controversy. In it, a goonish, drooling kid with a finger up his nose holds a textbook upside down, a pencil through his ears. “Would you want this person to determine your salary and benefits?” the caption asks.
I admit, I am renowned in my circles as what my mother calls a “child scrooge”. I often find the behavior of kids noisy and disconcerting. But I found that cartoon’s implication repugnant: that kids struggle at school because they’re cretins, and the teachers can’t do anything about it.
I get a similar feeling about a story that’s closer to home: troubling incidents in Philadelphia known as “flash mobs” – late night swarms of hundreds of teenagers who sometimes just block the traffic, and sometimes do worse, like assaulting bystanders and looting stores. Amidst the furor to arrest the troublemakers and charge them with adult crimes, and the handwringing over the dark side of the social networking sites supposedly behind the gatherings, I’m anxious over something different. Do hundreds of city parents either not know or not care about where their kids are late at night?
The fact is, it’s just as easy to demonize kids and teens for problems that involve them as it is to demonize any group of people when you face an issue with an us vs. them mindset. Of course, the problems involving kids are numerous. Recently, I shopped in a department store with my mother. There was another mother-daughter pair nearby, although that daughter was about 22 years younger than I. As I quietly combed the racks of denim, the 4-year-old’s wails rose like the relentless chatter of a cicada plague over a sleepy forest. “Mommmy! Mommmy! Mommmy! Mommmy!” she cried. “I’m tired! I want to go home! Mommmmy!” She oozed out of her stroller and collapsed on the carpet. It was beyond irritating. But as I faced a sea of “perfectly slimming” jeans and khakis, I knew that I felt just like she did. Perhaps the only real difference between the four-year-old and me is that she has yet to master accepted social inhibitions, like the one that keeps me from weeping and prostrating myself like a squid washed up on the floor of the mall.
A wonderful banjo player gathers a small crowd in the train station – but only the two-year-old is dancing. A 9-year-old boy hears a long-winded speaker say she will conclude shortly. “Finally!” he moans, audible to all present. Don’t we all sometimes wish we could start a dance party in the train station or whine loudly and roll our eyes when someone drones on too long? Kids’ behavior reminds me not of their bizarre differences from my adult self, but of our native similarities – before the unfettered expression of those universal human joys and exasperations are ironed out of us by politeness.
Maybe it’s just my skeptical personality, but I’m constantly surprised by the trusting nature of small children. Recently a friend asked me to supervise his little girl while he stepped out of the room. The child promptly tumbled and hit her head. She had never met me before, but when I picked her up she burrowed into my lap. This is, perhaps, something else we lose or suppress as adults: a native desire to trust and rely on others emotionally and physically. For most people, this trust is replaced with a wariness of others that emphasizes our autonomy and intellect as adults. But if we connected more to that childlike faith in others, we might realize that the bad, ungovernable, unteachable qualities we see in kids, whether they’re failing math or running in a flash mob, are human traits we all should have some responsibility for.
I don’t think kids are challenging to teach because they’re kids, a different species from my adult self. I think they’re challenging to teach because they’re human beings whose inhibitions and personal accountability aren’t in place. What could be more challenging than molding someone else who has all the same human failings you do – unmasked by your practiced patience and tact?
I rode the bus last month with a mom and her daughter, who was probably about three. The child slumped sideways like a rag doll in the large seat. “Sit up! Sit up the right way!” Her mother said. The child faced forward and stuck her legs out in front of her, her ankles reaching just beyond the edge of the grown-up seat. It reminded me of kids in school. They might get specially sized desks and chairs, but school is still an eight-hour workday. If I can’t wait for five o’clock, how does an eight-year-old feel?
The little girl on the bus clutched a wrinkled McDonald’s bag. She plunged her hand in for a French fry. “We don’t eat that on the bus!” Mom swept the bag away. The child immediately gave into some of the most acute grief I’ve ever seen at close range. She slumped as if she had received a fatal wound in battle and sobbed into the seat. I considered moving to higher ground as the snot coursed down her chin. Couldn’t mom just cede the fries for the sake of everyone else on the bus?
“Are you going to have a tantrum now?” the mother asked.
“No,” she wept.
“Well, are you going to close your mouth?”
“Sit up properly! Right now!” Mom was returning to basics.
Through her paroxysms, the girl hauled herself upright. “I want my friiiiiiies!”
“We don’t eat them on the bus.”
It took only about six blocks for the tempest to wane. The little girl wiped her tears, crawled into the next seat and wrapped her arms around her mother. I heard a faint crinkle of paper and the mother seized a small, questing hand. “You’re trying to reach those fries!” The child squealed in delight at her own cleverness as the mother wiped her nose on an unworn sweatshirt.
Children are as stubborn and whiny and wily as…well, as any grown-up person is tempted to be. Would I like someone to order me not to eat my very own French fries? I’m human – of course I wouldn’t like it. But I’d probably yell and cry about it only if no-one had ever taught me I that shouldn’t. One of our most important jobs as adults is to inculcate in kids the sensibility and the accountability that makes the grown-up world function. The 15-year-old in the flash mob is not the only one who is responsible for his behavior. The lessons on sitting up straight, not eating on the bus and shutting your mouth may accumulate agonizingly (for all involved) on a hundred tragically French fry-less rush hour buses, or (as we can hope becomes a reality in the American education system) in a million classrooms where the extraordinary people who choose to teach persevere for their students, seeing a class full of young human beings, not a problem demographic for which adults are not responsible. Those insufferable kids aren’t aliens. They’re people who just haven’t learned what I’ve learned.