By Damon Krane
The Athens Agenda Magazine
I was studying to be a high school social studies teacher when I found myself required to observe a class of preschool children and their teacher. I didn’t really mind. Observing any level of schooling is fascinating. I think it’s often the most genuinely educational thing you can do in a classroom. And this wouldn’t be my first time being an observer at school.
Somewhere between K and 12, I must have made the discovery out of sheer boredom that one way to escape the monotony of school’s alienated busywork and authoritarian indoctrination is to disengage from the role of student and to take on the role of observer. It helps you maintain a certain awareness of your surroundings that tends to be deadened by fulfilling the conventional role of student as passive recipient of information.
While we are students in the sense of being passive containers for knowledge, our attention is focused on learning in school. As a result we often become less conscious of our learning about school. And while we’re busy going through the motions, memorizing facts and phrases in order to regurgitate them on demand at test time, we often take for granted the organization of the institution we’re in. As long as a student is passive container, the only control she can exert over her formal education comes down to how well she will complete objectives determined by others. Thus being a good student is measure of how good someone is at jumping through someone else’s hoops.
Given the reality of compulsory attendance, one way to exert control over your own (albeit informal) education at school is to take on the role of observer, turning your attention to the actual organization of school, discerning the nature of the social relations therein, and maybe even imagining how those relations could be different. Sure, your grades may suffer, but you’ll be free to learn your own lessons about school.
Of course, I don’t know that this occurred to me when I was in preschool. If it did, I sure as hell don’t remember it. In fact, by the time I was assigned to observe this preschool l hadn’t been around little kids in so long that I didn’t remember much about what they were like. My work for the last several months had concerned high school students and thinking about how some of them resist authoritarian schooling during adolescence to assert their own sense of self. But little kids? What were these dependent little creatures? How would I relate to them?
It was a little awkward at first, but soon I was engrossed in my observations. The children’s personalities were very distinct, and they appeared to be at different stages of development. I tried to figure out as much as I could about how they made sense of their world from watching them interact with it.
As things turned out, I ended up being more of a participant-observer. I wasn’t just some silent, creepy guy in the back of the room, scribbling down notes. I helped the students distribute milk cartons to their classmates at lunch time, I read them stories, and I joined in their games when they asked me to. It was good to be around little kids.
When I met Nina, she was about four years old and must have had a cold because she had the habit of making this loud snorting noise when she inhaled to clear her nose. (Something must have been going around at the time, because before my assignment was over I had to wipe away a foot-long glob of snot dangling from little Eli’s nose as he stood there motionless on his little tricycle after an explosive sneeze. The snot removed, Eli peddled happily away.) I always thought Nina’s snort was funny. Even though Nina would lurch as she made the noise with what seemed to be her whole body, the noise still seemed so much bigger than the little body it came from. As I think of the words I might use to describe that wonderfully disquieting, unexpected noise that came from that little four year-old girl: “uncharacteristic,” “ironic”…they all seem wrong. Uncharacteristic?
No, I don’t think it was uncharacteristic/or Nina. I think she just hadn’t learned yet that it’s impolite for girls to not be quiet and meek.
I got a clue as to why that might be the case one day when, after the teacher had conducted an activity where the children were to differentiate between food that was “good for you” and junk food, Nina raised her hand to inform the teacher rather matter-of-factly: “My mommy says soy milk is better for you than cow’s milk.”
My eyes widened. I certainly didn’t know about soy milk when I was in preschool! I smiled and thought about how I love this atypically progressive little comer of rural Southeast Ohio. Uncomfortable, the teacher deflected this challenge, saying in a somewhat doubting tone, “Well, I’m not sure about that.” It was obvious that Nina had a somewhat different background than the rest of the students. I kept an eye on her.
Then, one day as Nina’s teacher was sitting on a chair above the children she had gathered around her on the floor below, a very interesting thing happened. After going through one of the regular moming activities –perhaps song time– the teacher asked the children if they’d like to read aparticular story. In response to the question and her expectant smile, several “yes’s” were uttered. Nina, meanwhile, had her head down as she fiddled somewhat disinterestedly with her shoelaces. Then all of the sudden her head popped up, her eyes gleaming as if a little light bulb had gone off above her head. Nina
may have even had a slight smile on her face as she looked directly at her teacher and
All of her classmates immediately looked at Nina in surprise. And after a split-second of silence, more light bulbs started going off, and a giddy chorus of “no’s” erupted from the newly animated children. The teacher’s gaze, however, zeroed in on Nina. Disregarding the other children, she said in a somewhat stern voice, “Well, everyone else wants to read the story, Nina, so that’s what we’re going to do.”
The other children fell silent at once, and the teacher got out her book. She began to read, and the light in Nina’s eyes grew distant once more.
I was astounded by what I had just seen. The teacher’s response pissed me off, but it didn’t surprise me. What surprised me was that I don’t think Nina had anything against having that particular story read to her. Obviously, the other kids didn’t either. Nina was simply testing the situation, which in itself meant that she was able to think somewhat outside of it. Despite the fact that the teacher’s directive was worded as a question, Nina sought to find out for herself whether or not it really was. Nina was openly questioning her teacher’s sincerity – and by doing so, Nina was also challenging her teacher’s authority in a way that was surreptitiously, and yet undeniably, defiant. It broke no spoken rule, but nevertheless constituted a fundamental departure from Nina’s expected role as a compliant student. And though her classmates seemed astonished by Nina’s challenge (maybe it was the first time they considered the possibility of such resistance), they recognized it for what it was, and virtually all of them immediately joined with her.
That the teacher directed her response to what became a collective rebellion only at Nina is also instructive.
I’ve thought about Nina a lot since then, because I learned from her the young age at which we’re capable of recognizing a fundamental part of the nature of our surroundings: that the true test of whether or not a relationship is voluntary, as opposed to coercive, is whether or not we have the ability to choose “no.” That is, to choose not to go along with someone else’s wishes for us. To have even been able to recognize this somewhat veiled coercion, I assume Nina must have had enough freedom in her life from which to differentiate it. In a school system based on the notion that people will not learn (or work) unless forced, bribed, or tricked, coercion and manipulation will be the norm for Nina. Nina asked her question, and she got the answer. Though she exposed the situation for what it was, as long as she’s in school there will be little she can do to escape it. And I wonder how long it is from when we learn not to ask a question until we learn not to think a question.
The playwright Bertol Bretch once pointed out that in order to create the illusion of self-management, people often end up pretending that their “chains” have actually been their choices. (I’ve often thought that would be a more appropriate engraving than the motto currently inscribed on the college gateway.) Those who are rewarded for hoop jumping aren’t inclined to question the sport’s legitimacy. Even those who aren’t particularly rewarded would often rather not entertain the notion that they are being trained for the passivity necessary to facilitate their future exploitation as obedient workers, apathetic citizens, or willing cannon fodder.
I hope that amid all the enticement to accept this comforting lie, Nina will remain a conscious observer of her surroundings rather than internalizing the norms of the confining role forced upon her. I hope that in the absence of examples of more voluntary, egalitarian means of association before her, she won’t acquiesce to the point of shutting off one of the most wonderful and potentially revolutionary capacities we possess. I hope she’ll always snort loudly when she has a cold.