It’s 1.34am and I am sitting huddled under a blanket with my Mac on my knees. The air-conditioning is high because my eldest son and my husband have high fevers. They’ve got a 48 hour flu thingy. I can’t sleep so I sit and count away the minutes and hours until they are both better … or until I fall down sick too.
It is this recent bout of illness that has forced my hand on the school issue. Looking at my son all small and weak from the fever made me cry. Not a little cry, like a pansy Hollywood nose tear – nope, big gulping ‘I want my Mummy’ sobs that resulted in snot being wiped on my PJs. Here is this small guy (and my other smaller guy beside him) just so visibly vulnerable and needing the love of his mummy or his daddy and it just makes me so bewildered at how easily we give them over into the hands of COMPLETE strangers for the majority of their waking hours. It’s weird.
A couple of weeks ago I went to pick up my sons from school and only found my youngest waiting for me in the usual spot. After about five minutes of waiting and chatting idly about my son’s school day, we decided to go to my eldest son’s classroom to find him. On the way I was stopped by the front-office lady who told me my son was in the office with his teacher. She looked pretty distressed so I hurried off with her to find the cause. And there he was, crying so hard his face was red and squashed and his little shoulders shuddering with what I could only guess was fear or distress. His teacher was seated beside him and trying to comfort him with soothing words and pats on the back. How did this come about? Well he was told off by a teacher for standing up when the bell rang. He had shown and over-eagerness to leave the room and as a result had a middle aged woman grab him by the shirt and scream in his face. I later found out three boys from his class stood up for him, telling the teacher to back off.
How does this come about? How can it be that my child – who I willfully handed over to an institution that morning just like every school morning for the last 5 and a half years – is being reprimanded by a complete stranger for his desire to escape a room after 6 hours of ‘schooling’? Now I don’t want anyone to go silly over this teacher’s actions, because to be honest it’s been dealt with by the school after I was in contact with the principal. That’s not the focus of this post. The focus is the giving over of my son to this institution. His response to a bell … a behaviour regulator. Everyday, for 13 years, meeting characters like this who I do not know or know minimally. His distress was so great that he has refused to do lessons with this teacher again. This example, I am sure, is but a thread in a blanket that almost covers the world. I don’t want my child put in a situation like that again. And because he is in primary school (elementary school) I can be involved and I can make a change. This is an isolated incident that is manageable for parent and admin. When he is in high school this experience will become routine as this style of ‘behaviour management’ is much more frequent. He will encounter more teachers, more often, and more bells to regulate his behaviour and experiences. It terrifies me.
What has added to my fear? I just finished reading Gatto’s ‘Dumbing Us Down’. It’s a terrifyingly accurate portrait of schooling and what it is doing to our kids. It’s 1.58am on a Saturday night and I haven’t been drinking, so I’m not going to try to impress you with my astute criticism of his book. I just wanna be honest with you. I’ve always distrusted institutions and systems where faceless people dictate ideas and actions to the less powerful many. If you want you can joke about me being a socialist. I’ve been called worse. The book itself, in many respects, is anti-Capitalist and for good reason. The loss of family and community and the impact this this is having on humanity – our humanity, not the big thing, the unique individual thing … our humanness – is a central theme of the book which is simply a collection of essays and speeches written by Gatto. If you wanna taste, read his speech ‘The Six Lesson Schoolteacher‘ it’s disturbing in its insight and accuracy. It’s 22 years old and so relevant it hurts and makes me wanna blubber some more. What are we doing? It’s all wrong. We’re allowing ourselves and our children to be moulded into creatures of obedience and consumption. The saddest thing is when you ask a student in Year 9 what they are passionate about – you know, what they really love – and they can’t answer. They draw a blank. And you know they wanna say a celebrity’s name. They just are so disconnected from their community, from hands-on stuff, that they can’t answer that question easily. That troubled me last year when I tried to start my students ‘passion blogging’ … it was an interesting, although failed, experiment. It was just another homework task.
When I present on PBL to teachers, I typically say something like ‘The HSC is a blunt instrument hacking us to death one prepared essay at a time’. And it’s true. If schooling culminates in the HSC for students … 13 years of being trapped in a box with a bunch of humans your age and typically deemed to be of equal intelligence or capacity as you and being ‘taught’ be an adult deemed to be more intelligent than you … than it is all bullshit. And so it is. I usually say something like this too, ‘The world is a pretty shitty place but if we get our students to actively engage with their world and work together to solve some of its problems than maybe it’ll be a little bit less shitty’. And I think that’s true. But we need teachers who are committed enough to stand up against the bullshit. To stand up against the fear of those in positions of power above us, or of parents – who, guess what, we can actually work with, bring into schools, learn from. It didn’t surprise me to learn from Gatto that a genius like Benjamin Franklin chose not to go to school. Self-education is so powerful, but I think our kids are losing the capacity for it. And no amount of online web-tools, digital devices or gadgets are going to change that. Only people can change that. But will we? Do we – as adults who have endured the institution of schooling – have the capacity to stand up and say no? I think parents do.
And that’s what I intend on doing. Of course I don’t know how because the ‘way of things’ (what is deemed by most as ‘the only way’) means that to survive in this world we need two incomes which means two working parents, tried and grumpy and evermore increasingly removed from their children’s lives. How do I homeschool my boys and still provide for them the ‘basics’ like a home, food, clothes and (what I believe is essential) travel? I just don’t have that answer. This is all the more terrifying in light of the fact that my eldest son is in Year 5.
Two days ago when I announced to my boys that they would not be going to high school my eldest son protested a little. He couldn’t understand how he could ‘do his HSC’ or ‘get into uni’ without going to high school. I think he was more concerned that he would miss out on the typical experiences … that ‘rite of passage’ that is portrayed to them on television and film. And guess what? Those representations are often misrepresentations but often not – how happy do kids seem in schools on screen on the whole? I’d love to see the data on that … I reckon it’d show that most representations are negative. Truth and yet the images of it are compelling enough for a kid as smart as mine to be entranced by them. And he really only watches ABC3, ABC2 and SBS. This decision, ultimately, is one to be made by me and my husband. We stand firm on it together. High school as it is now in Australia holds little worth for my boys – what you learn in a typical school year can be covered in a couple of months. The rest is all a blur or bells, bullies, textbooks, lectures, commands, restrictions and rules.
I want my boys to be educated, not schooled. I want their individual selves to be nourished by the joy of discovery and inquiry. I want them to learn from and with their family. I want them to be valued for the unique people they are and will be. I will not put them in that sausage factory. Watch me find a way.