"They didn't do it that way when I was in school." This thought passed through my mind over and over again the first year or two my daughter was in school.
It started with kindergarten orientation and a question on the information form about toilet training. Hidden in the institutional jargon was the question "Can your child go to the bathroom by herself and wipe her own bottom?"
I knew potty training was a controversial issue with some parents, but what, I thought, is the world coming to when there are children entering kindergarten who can't go to the bathroom by themselves?
The arrival of the 'Welcome to School' letter from the teacher and assistant didn't ease my fears: it was informative, cheerful, inviting, but sprinkled with bad grammar and improper punctuation. Educational rigor begins in kindergarten, and if the teachers were not rigorous in their own writing, it could only go downhill from there.
But the letter turned out to be a fluke, not at all representative of the conditions in the classroom. The teacher was great, the TA genuinely loving and supportive in the way that builds character, not ego. The classroom was pleasant, my daughter liked school. I took a deep breath, closed my mouth and concentrated on inputs from my eyes and ears.
I did ask questions, but tried to ask them non-judgmentally. That's not easy.
The crux of the matter is that school is something we all know something about. Everybody spent at least nine years and more likely twelve or thirteen years of their life under the direct influence of a school system. It is something we all feel we can speak on with some authority.
But: what is it that we really know?
For starters, we know what it was like at our school, when we were in it -- how many years ago?
Somewhere into my daughter's third or fourth year in school, it occurred to me to calculate how long it had been since I was in school. Yikes.
And then there was location. Reading, writing and arithmetic may be universal, but the schools instituted to teach them are governed by local ideals. Rural, suburban, and suburbanizing school systems each come at education with different experiences. Further, each principal adds his or her own stamp, for better or worse.
Its mind-boggling to think how much the world has changed since my generation started school. Back then, my parents rented black telephones from the telephone company. The phones had curly cords and rotary dials.
Kindergarten was a half day. We had a real piano in the classroom and my teacher played it while we sang. I didn't learn to read until first grade, when I met Dick and Jane. "New math" came along in third or fourth grade.
Our elementary school averaged between two and three classes per grade and went from kindergarten through sixth grade.
We had safety patrols - older students selected by their teachers to receive special training from the county police and deputized to enforce proper behavior on the bus. They got to wear cool dayglo orange belts and badges, and served as color guards for the school flags.
On the bus, the only kids with assigned seats were those who caused trouble.
Junior high school covered seventh through ninth grade. My year was first to attend the brand-new one. It had a "media center" (not a library) and was air conditioned. It was built with "open" classrooms - movable partitions, few solid walls,-- to make the learning experience more flexible and open.
By ninth grade, they were adding walls.
A school system reflects the world around it. Outside the classroom, we had landed on the moon, resisted Communism by sending young men to bleed and die in Vietnam, and integrated classrooms. We watched Richard Nixon create the Environmental Protection Agency, go to China, and resign in disgrace. We had reacted in horror and outrage as the Arabs embargoed oil, gasoline prices rose and Japan addressed the problem better than Detroit, with small, fuel efficient cars they gladly exported for our use. And, with much pride and many worries about the future, we celebrated our Bicentennial in 1976.
And that was all before I graduated high school.
How were your school years different? I'd love to hear about it. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org