lunes, 30 de noviembre de 2015

Are school children all right?

Last week I met someone quite interesting. Or, let's say... different. We were at the beach and our kids were happily playing. They had just met, but they were getting along so well that this person and I were both reluctant to go home, even though it was getting dark already. At last she told her children that they really must go because they still had to do homework and get ready for school the next day.

She and I hadn't exchanged a word, but at that point I couldn't help looking up from the book I was reading. She smiled at me and that encouraged me to ask the question that was fighting to leave my lips. 'Homework? Your kids go to school?'

She smiled again, this time a bit bashfully, I thought. She shrugged her shoulders and said, 'Yeah... That's what we do!'

I looked at the children. They hadn't stopped playing in the sand. They were discussing how deep the tunnel they had dug should be and the danger of it collapsing if they kept digging. They were a boy and a girl, and the two of them together with my two boys had been constructing this formidable sand fortress for well over an hour. They had all contributed something, whether it was with ideas or actual modelling. They had listened to each other and interacted in a most respectful way. The other mother and I had not intervened at all. In sum, they seemed perfectly normal children.

Yet, it doesn't happen every day that you meet someone who takes their children to school. I was curious to know why she would have chosen this path for her children, but at the same time I wanted to be careful not to sound judgemental. After some thought, I ventured to say: 'There's a family on our street who also take their children to school. We don't know them much, though. They keep to themselves. In fact, they're not even from here, they're from some other country. And very religious. They might even be fundamentalists.'

'Oh, we're not religious,' she hastened to say.

'Ah, okay.' I nodded enthusiastically to show my approval. 'Sorry for having implied that you were, but you never know these days... I've heard that in Catholic schools they tell the kids about a... god? And something like heaven and hell, eternal life, punishment... Aren't children supposed to learn rather than being indoctrinated? And then, of course, you hear these horrible stories about priests sexually abusing children. I would be terrified to send my children to school.'

'Our school is nothing like that. Religion is not even a subject, so it's great.' She was still smiling. I was relieved that she hadn't taken offence.

'A subject?' I pressed on. 'Sorry, I'm not familiar with the school system. What is a subject?'

'It's like a branch of study. What the children learn is divided into subjects, like English, Mathematics, Science, Technology, History, Geography...'

'Ah, yes, I think I've heard something about it. You mean, for example, that rather than reading a book for the pleasure of it, they have to analyse it and do comprehension tests so their teachers know they've understood? Or that instead of playing Monopoly, Lego, or multiplying on Minecraft, they must memorise times tables that they'll never use, when they can instantly get the answer using a calculator?'

'Yes, that's exactly right. After all, it is important to know what an alliteration is,' she said with a laugh, which made me think she was being sarcastic.

I smiled and muttered, 'Of course.' I was not brave enough to admit that I didn't remember what an alliteration is. After all, I'm a writer! What writer doesn't know that! I googled it later when I got home, so now I know: an alliteration is the commencement of two or more words of a word group with the same letter, as in this poem by Maria Paz Samelo:

Students studying Social Studies
Sacrificing under the sunshine
So sudden, so sad
But sharp mind shining on
They share, tiredness they spare
At last they survive!!
Shamelessly showing their
Sweet success

She hesitated a moment before saying: 'As for the times tables, yes, they do have to memorise them. You never know when they'll need to know that eight times seven is... Hang on, let me check it on my phone.' She rummaged in her bag for a few seconds. 'Ah, yes, fifty-six. I'm not very good at memorising numbers myself, but kids who don't know their times tables look really bad. They could even be bullied by their peers for this reason. What's worse, they won't pass their tests and will get bad grades.'

'Excuse me but is that even legal?' At this point, I was having trouble hiding my astonishment.


'To drill children, as opposed to letting them play, explore, question, solve problems... think critically?'

'Oh, yes, it's perfectly legal. Other types of child abuse are also permitted and even condoned. After all, it's for their own good. It's actually best if they're trained at an early age. The better their grades are, the easier it will be for them in high school.'

'You mean you plan to take them to high school as well? But they do have the option to not go to school, right?'

'Uh... No, they don't. When they're adults they can do whatever they want. But while they're still living under my roof, they must do as I say. And I say they are going to school. But it's fine, they love school!'

I nodded, still trying not to judge, but the thought crossed my mind that maybe I should contact the social services. These children could be in danger. I looked at them more closely. They didn't show any signs of abuse or self-damage. I had heard stories about schooled children who pulled out their eyelashes or harmed themselves in other ways, and I knew for a fact that some were even given drugs to keep them quiet and still. These kids, however, seemed to be all right despite their schooling. I forced myself to relax and keep asking questions.

'Aren't you worried that they will become obedient and easily influenced adults? Or that they have so little time to play? Or about what they will do when they enter the real world after having been shunned from it for so long? And what about socialisation!? Do they actually have any friends?'

'Of course they have friends. There are other children in the school.' She laughed.

'Of course. Excuse my ignorance. Schooled children are so rare that one tends to think they must be awfully isolated from society.'

'That is a myth, you know,' she said, showing a bit of defensiveness for the first time. 'There are lots of schooled children. In fact, schools are growing in popularity. They are great for parents as well, so they can have a break from the children.'

'But the children are there to listen to their teachers, keep quiet, and get good grades, not to play and socialise.'

'They still make friends. Besides, the years are conveniently divided according to age, so they don't get a bad influence from older kids. And then, there are school holidays, of course. Look at them. They didn't have any problem striking up a conversation with your kids. They are not awkward or weird just because they go to school.'

'Well, I must admit they are very polite. Do they always raise their hand before they speak? And are their first three words always Excuse me, miss?'

She laughed again. 'They do get carried away sometimes. I have to remind them that it's okay to relax at home.'

'I guess you're lucky that they're happy to comply. They could have turned out to be rebels. I heard another story about some parents who tried school for their kid. He really liked school, his parents said. But when he got home each day, he was angry and disruptive, and very disrespectful to the parents. They talked to his teachers, initially thinking that the problem might come from being schooled. But the teachers said he was great in school, so the parents concluded that he was just one of those kids who are not fit for the family environment.'

'That's interesting. What did they do? Did they adopt him out?'

'They thought about it, but that wouldn't have solved anything because they didn't think they were the problem, it was just that the kid didn't like having parents. They knew he loved school, so the answer was easy: they sent him off to a boarding school.'

'That's a good idea.'

'Yes, I guess. Each child is different.'

'Well, we should really go,' she said getting up. 'It'll be hard to get these children to do their homework now, but we must keep their teachers happy.'

'Ok. It was really nice talking to you and learning about alternative ways of educating our children. Thank you for that.'

'Any time! It was nice talking to you too.'

She urged the children one more time. They stopped playing almost immediately, said a feeble goodbye to mine, and they were gone.