Our kids started school again this week. One of the teachers wants the kids to bring their morning snack in a container labelled “snack.” It’s annoying to have one more thing to remember, but I see the sense in it. A kid who turns up with a miscellaneous bag of food for the day is likely to snarf down the whole thing at snack time, and then have nothing left when it’s actually lunch time.
I was trying to remember how we handled snack time when I was seven. I don’t think we actually had one. Kids had the option to buy milk for ten cents, or chocolate milk for fifteen. This was delivered by a milk monitor, who was chosen by the teacher as an honor. Once she chose me, and I had no idea what to do, so I stood out in the dim hallway and cried. This was my go-to strategy throughout my school career and beyond.
Schools are gentler on children now, in some ways, and harder on them in others. In general, I don’t trust people who think everything new is bad, any more than I trust people who think anything old is bad. I don’t have the emotional bandwidth to ponder anything heavy right now, anything about society or culture or civilization. But I have been thinking about how different some little things used to be. I was in first grade around 1980, for reference.
When I was little, snow days were reserved for real blizzards, when the roads were mayhem and the snow piled up past our waists. They definitely never cancelled school for just plain low temperatures, as they do now; and they never cancelled it until the morning. We woke up early after staying up late, staring out the window and hoping. My mother would tune the radio to a station on the foreign end of the dial: M106, the local rock and roll station. The DJ would reel of lists of school closures every six minutes or so, in between sets of songs. My poor mother, cursing and muttering as she suffered through “Like a Virgin.”
There were school buses, but only if you lived a significant distance away. My sister, in fourth grade, used to walk me, in first grade, to school over a mile away. There was a crossing guard who looked exactly like the Queen of Hearts, glaring at the cars to stop, then glaring at us kids to go.
If it was cold, my terrible mother would make us wear full-body snowsuits from Maresn’s Army Navy Department Store. We certainly never had indoor recess on account of cold weather, like my kids do now. I do remember students standing in a huddled circle on the playground, taking turns at being the one who got to stand inside in the relative warmth for a few minutes. It was all very Siberian.
We sledded down the big hill all winter, where the sun hit the slope and polished it to glaring ice. When it warmed up, of course we played tag and hide and seek, jump rope, hopscotch, four square, red rover, cat’s cradle, and some dimly-remembered stair-hopping game called “Witchy-Poo,” and my kids play many of these same games. I remember hanging upside down on the jungle gym languorously wailing, “We Are the World.”
Playgrounds really were paved, and every playground had a real see-saw that swung up and down freely with a musical groan. Sometimes some malicious girl on the low end would suddenly leap off her seat, leaving you to plummet to the ground, jarring your tailbone and clashing your jaws together. Now most playgrounds are padded, and the parts that move have a limited, baffled range of motion. Sometimes the railings are so high, you can’t even tell you’re off the ground even when you’ve climbed to the top; so kids are safe but they also don’t figure out what’s safe and what will get their heads bashed in.
I clearly remember the heady thrill of linking arms with a friend or two and roaming belligerently around the playground chanting, “WE-DON’T-STOP-FOR-NO-BOD-Y. WE-DON’T-STOP-FOR-NO-BOD-Y.” If anyone got in our way, we would, as advertised, not stop. There was also the chant that went, “We are drunk! We are drunk! A bottle of beer, a BOOT in the rear; we are drunk!” and at “BOOT!” you would kick your leg up, can-can style. It would be hard to overstate how much fun it was. Way more fun than actually being drunk, as I later found.
We had heard that in West Street School, the mysterious school on other side of town, the strange children there called their teachers by their first names. This was scandalous and unsettling. Teachers were always Mr. or Mrs. or Miss. In fifth grade, we had our first teacher who was a Ms., which inspired much eye-rolling. She had a perm, too, if you can imagine, and glasses with some kind of tricky scallop built into the frames. Probably from Massachusetts.
When kids were bad, they had to fold their arms on the desk and put their heads down. The really mean teachers would yell, “I wanna see noses touching the desk!” This was intensely mortifying. You didn’t know if everyone else was doing something cool or something boring or maybe just staring at your stupid, exposed, beet-red neck. It only happened to me once or twice, usually when the whole class was being punished en masse. But a few times a year, the real reprobates would be put “in castle,” and the custodian would be summoned to erect a cardboard box around the bad kid, to segregate and humiliate him; and that’s how he would stay all day. I suppose it was a refrigerator box, but it might as well have been an iron maiden. Brutal.
Their was one kid named Keith who got in trouble a lot. Like all the rest of the class, I was mean to him, all the time. When I made his valentine in third grade, I put a pig sticker on it. When the music teacher paired us up to folk dance, I grabbed my hand away as fast as I could and wiped it on my pants. I saw him many years later when I was taking some test, an SAT make-up or something. He softly offered me a Chiclet, and I said no, and acted like I didn’t know him. I have always felt bad about that — even worse than I feel for everything else I did. Man, I am sorry.
I don’t really know what typical discipline is like now. I guess it varies widely from school to school. They are allowed to use “fidgets” in school, to keep their hands busy while their minds are concentrating; and there is an assortment of futuristic chairs to suit every possible sitting style. In the hallway of my kids’ school, there is a list of activities they can do — crab walk, hop on one foot — to get the wiggles out if they can’t behave in class. Sometimes I discipline kids that way myself. Sometimes I am more old school.
We had a teacher with a mania for tidiness in fourth grade. He was a tall, broad-shouldered Irishman with thick glasses and a bristling red mustache. He would inspect our desks, striding up and down the rows of the room like General Patton, and if one desk were found to be especially sloppy, he would hoist it up in his mighty arms and dump it out onto the floor and then stride away, leaving the sniveling child to crawl around in the wreckage and put his belongings back together. Strangely, I remember him mostly as a kind man, in between his sudden furies. He never dumped my desk, I guess.
Anyway, that school had polished hardwood floors and enormously high and gracious windows, so now it is condominiums.
It is strange that, when my kids show up with some new evidence they’re being treated with care and concern, and being protected from something harsh in the world, I’m impatient and annoyed. I don’t actually want them to be cold and hungry. I don’t want them to break their elbows and be crushed in spirit. I want them to be understood.
Still, I don’t think I’ve ever seen kids have as much fun as we had when we chanted, ” WE-DON’T-STOP-FOR-NO-BOD-Y.”
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