After three years in the Open Classroom Concept experiment at Lewis and Clark Elementary in the late sixties, I was asked to no longer be part of that school or my mother removed me from their experiment. The family history is murky on this count.I was in the third grade.
The next fall I found myself enrolled at St. Joseph's Elementary surrounded by children all wearing the same clothes. Well, that was not completely true. The girls wore skirts and the boys wore heavy dark corduroy pants with cuffs. But we all wore the same white shirts and the same green sweaters. This was my first introduction to enforced conformity and may have led to me becoming an anarchist (in the Noam Chomsky tradition) later in life.
I was one of three non-Catholics in the entire school so many of the rituals confused me. Once a week, the red-eyed alcohol-sodden priest made us all sit through some sort of Mass. I sat for three million years in the back while the entire school got a treat and I did not. The treats did not look very tasty. It looked like a piece of round flat cardboard but at the age of 10 all I knew was that everybody got to eat and drink while I just sat. Ash Wednesday found every single kid on the playground with the mark upon their forehead except for me and two others. The priest told me I could have the ashes too, that it wouldn't make me Catholic but even before I knew Walt Whitman I followed his advice to "resist much, obey little."
But what sticks in my brain all these years later is not the unusual rituals or the mass conformity or the curious psychology of Catholic girls. What sticks in my mind is that we were surrounded by female authority. To complicate this dynamic, most of the women had consciously chosen not to have males be a part of their lives. They were celibate. Having never experienced males (as far as we knew) or at least not any more they did not understand boy energy.
We always baffled, confused and astounded them. In response they squelched and suppressed our energy. Being boys we took advantage of this and sometimes drove them crazy on purpose. It was often worth an hour of detention just to see Sister Mary No Fun (that's what I call all of them now) completely lose it and hurl a stack of freshly graded papers across the classroom.
Two incidents in particular stick out from my three year sentence there.There were a lot of rules and they were hard to keep track of. The rules that made no sense were the most baffling.
One morning before school my friends and I were playing with our newly acquired DuncanYo Yo's behind the school. The day before a Yo Yo master had visited the school and done an assembly and showed everybody all sorts of cool tricks. Of course we all acquired new Yo Yo's and were practicing eagerly. We tried to outdo each because we were boys. Special attention was paid to the tightness of the knot because if was too tight it would bind. If it was too loose it would just stop spinning and returning. Predictably we tried to smack each other in the testicles every now and then. Being a boy can be dangerous.
But we weren't smoking weed. We weren't spray painting graffiti or vandalizing the school. We weren't chewing or smoking tobacco or fondling girls or looking at pornography. That all came later. No, we were playing with Yo Yo's.
Sure enough, we were deep into our innocence and fun and the head Sister Mary No Fun burst through the doors screeching incomprehensibly about how the entire school was looking for us along with the National Guard and the PTA.
For our crime of Yo Yo fascination and being in the wrong place for too long we were sentenced to write a 2,000 word essay on "Why School Rules Are Important." We would not get recess until this was finished. We were all in the fifth grade.
So for the great crime of playing with yo yo's behind the school we were sentenced to months of lost recess while we struggled with the Promethean task of understanding why all those school rules were so important. We would watch our classmates rush out to the classroom while we settled into our task. Eventually our incarceration created a stronger bond between us. Ideas were shared and "very very very very important" became a standard lead in to rules we tried to justify. We pushed the limits of bad writing just to regain our freedom.
Eventually, several months later, we had finished our essays. Like many of my school punishments, I failed to learn the lesson Sister Mary No Fun had in mind. No, it actually made me question many of the rules that seemed to exist for no apparent reason other than that somebody thought it was a good idea. To this day I can find no rhyme or reason for why I should tuck my shirt in, take off my hat inside (hat hair anybody?), or not wear open toed shoes. Wasn't the world conquered at one time by men wearing sandals?
Another memorable encounter with strange rules occurred when I walked across the grass instead of on the asphalt sidewalk to get back into the building. The head Sister Mary No Fun observed this sin from her office. I was immediately summoned to her office where I endured her feeble efforts at giving me a hack. I still attribute the many times I endured corporal punishment to my interest in yoga in later life. I just got used to all those forward bends!
Some rules of the institution certainly made sense. To this day I do not run with scissors but I seldom tuck in my shirts or wear regular shoes. I walk across the grass whenever possible and often barefoot if it's warm enough. I still fail to appreciate the infallible bishop of Rome's fascination with sin, crime and punishment.
But despite the bizarre rules and curious, primitive and archaic rituals of Catholic school, what sticks most in my consciousness is that boys were taught and supervised by females. Public schools, at the elementary level, remain a bastion of female authority. There is nothing inherently wrong with this other than an issue of balance. Too often the only male authority young boys encounter in grade school are coaches and principals.
The coaches are the fun people. They represent action, adventure and challenge. The principal serves as a a "wait until your father gets home" anachronism. The teachers represent long hours in a desk learning stuff that often seems irrelevant in the mind of a boy.
Because I was both intelligent (I started reading on my own when I was three) and overly active in the eyes of the nuns I became a focus of concern both in Catholic school and my previous elementary school. Much of school involved reading. I would quickly finish whatever I was reading and then, well, I would find something
to do. Often this involved disturbing the other students or creating interesting and distracting diversions for myself.
This caused such consternation among the powers that be that I was tested by the school psychologist in second grade. According to family legend, she quit halfway through my tests and told my mother there was nothing wrong with me. I was just bored. All the school had to do was keep my busy. By the time I was in the third grade, they had me tutoring kids as old as twelve in reading. At the same time I took bonehead or more politically correctly, "remedial" math.
They also had me and five other kids doing "projects" constantly. I suppose this was an early attempt at talented and gifted programs. Projects meant spending a lot of time in the the library reading. I loved reading. It brought me into a world much bigger than what school could provide. Alas, all of these efforts to fit me into the school box went awry. I continued getting in trouble. My intelligence and hyperactivity knew no bounds.
Compound this with the "open classroom concept."
Nobody ever accurately explained the open classroom concept to me. Let's just say it was another education reform theory gone wild. From the perspective of a memory from third grade forty years later it was delightful chaos. Four classrooms were all semi-open to each other with four different teachers teaching four different lessons. I think part of the theory was that we would be absorbing part of each lesson.
"Open-space schools continue to be a very controversial idea for the obvious reason that a lack of architectural walls increases the noise and distraction making the teaching environment non-conducive to learning. It is generally accepted that this negative aspect disproportionately hurts students who have difficulty focusing because of ADHD or other attentional challenges. However, some studies have shown that the open-space school model has a tendency to increase curiosity and creativity of other children."
The transition from open classroom to the education system of the world’s most repressive and patriarchal religion was like parachuting only to discover too late that there was no parachute. I went from utter freedom and chaos to green sweaters, white shirts and corduroy pants just like everybody else. I recall distinctly my very first day in the fourth grade in Sister Mary No Fun’s class. I had endured several hours of forgettable instruction when finally recess arrived. I rushed back to the box of balls and toys at the back of the classroom. The coveted red rubber inflatable balls were gone! I had been too slow!
I said. “Shit, there aren’t any balls left.”
Sister Mary No Fun turned from erasing the chalkboard and screeched “Young man what did you just say?”
I thought she hadn’t heard me so I repeated myself. “Shit, there aren’t balls left."
My left ear to this day still bears the imprint of Sister Mary No Fun’s right thumb and forefinger. I believe it is also slightly longer than my right ear. She drug me to the office of the head nun where I received my first hack (more on nun hacks later). That was my first day at Catholic school and it never really got much better.
In the open classroom free love school “the child is encouraged to express himself.” We were not encouraged or technically allowed to swear but we were rarely punished for this. The freewheeling spirit of the 70’s dictated that dampening the child’s natural free expression could kill their spirit. The nuns had no such strictures about dampening a child’s spirit. In fact they excelled at it.
Boys Will Be Boys?