Thursday, May 23, 2013
Back to School
Yesterday, I was in a second grade classroom for the first time in a long, long, long time. Our son was in second grade in 1979-1980, the year we returned to Ohio after a year's sojourn in Lake Forest, Illinois. I was in second grade in 1951-1952, Avondale School, Amarillo, Texas, where my father, a World War II vet, was stationed at Amarillo Air Force Base during the Korean War. (Fortunately, he did not go overseas.)
We were visiting the classroom of our older grandson, Logan, whose class was doing a poetry recital at 2:15 p.m. We were the first parents or grandparents to arrive at the school--hey, you never know how long a trip is going to take. Don't want to be late--or to miss it altogether, right? We waited in the main office, reminding me of other waits in the main office when I was a student (Joyce has very different school memories in this regard). I was not in trouble much--but some. And I did make visits to the office every now and then. Once--honest to God--it was for going down the up stairs (Adams Elementary; Enid, Oklahoma).
Slowly, the other parents and grandparents arrived, and we eventually found Logan's classroom after negotiating a labyrinth of hallways that would have sent Theseus home in tears as the laughter of the Minotaur echoed behind him. We sat in little second-graders' chairs (Will I be able to get back up? I wondered) until the room was jammed. Then we watched a twenty-minute PowerPoint presentation about the kids' year--seeing them in all sorts of activities, from reading on the floor to playing outside to entertaining visitors to ... you know. The kids all gathered up by the screen and whooped with laughter whenever they saw something amusing--especially the day their teacher took pictures of each of them, individually, making funny faces.
As I looked around the room, I realized that what I was seeing was totally different from what I had experienced in Amarillo in the early 1950s. Sure, some things were the same--inspirational messages on the walls, posters here and there. A chalkboard. A flag. But the rest was different. The room was air-conditioned, for one thing. Think you've suffered? Sit in a brick building with small windows in the Texas Panhandle in June. (Oh, we were tough!) Logan's room had a digital projector affixed to the ceiling, and little tables were distributed around the room in clusters. Little quiet areas with soft things for them to flop on while they read or worked together.
When I was in second grade, no one cared how comfortable we were. Silent, we sat in rows of wooden lift-top desks that were bolted to the floor. Facing the front and the teacher. We sat at our desks and did work--rarely, if ever, did we work together, which, of course, was cheating. Occasionally, another teacher would come in--the music or art teacher; mid-morning we would go outside for recess, my favorite time--by far. We had no physical education teachers or classes. Oh, the other activity we had? Practicing for atomic bomb attacks. Getting under our desks, holding our arms over our heads. I think even the dimmest of us knew that was pointless.
Whenever we went anywhere (to the bathroom--always in groups, to lunch), we lined up--Single file, Indian-style, said the teachers--and off we marched, making certain we stayed in our row of floor tiles as we moved down the tiled hallway. As silent as a funeral procession.
Soon, the PowerPoint was over, and we moved outside to the school courtyard, where the kids lined up like a choral group and chanted in groups the little poems they'd memorized during the year (I didn't recognize any of them). Cookies and punch and proud parents (and grandparents) ensued. And I thought about how alien all this would have seemed in Amarillo, 1952.
Yes, second grade seemed like a much more warm and welcoming place than it was in my day. Soon, of course, the youngsters will be entering a different world--a colder world of lock-step curricula and high-stakes testing. And there will be no more poetry borne on the bright May air.