The Story of a School

I’m cleaning out my attic, and in the process found two poems that are old enough that they were printed out on purple ditto paper. When I smell it, it reminds me of elementary school and square cafeteria pizza and all of the things that I loved about not being an adult yet.

The poems were given to me by my mom when I started my teaching career. She was a preschool teacher, but she also had very firm beliefs on allowing students to have the freedom to be creative, the freedom to be themselves. Both poems are a sad commentary on what happens when schools and school systems require students and teachers to conform to a specific standard in the effort to make things equal. In doing so, they suck out all of the greatness that children and educators have to offer the world. Our current system, including the Common Core, are so focused on making everything the same, that it has shut down the possibility of new and unique thought. Where will our next generation of inventors, creators, innovators, artists, and thinkers come from if they are told what to do and think from a very small age?

After reading these poems, this short cautionary tale poured out. It made me think, even as I was writing it: Am I encouraging my children to hold onto their right to be different? Am I encouraging them to think outside of the box if the box is too small? Am I supporting their teachers for doing things their own way?

There once was a school perched high atop a hill. The people who lived in town had to look up to see the bright blue doors, painted the color of a robin’s egg, and the sight of the school made them smile. Every morning the children of the town would walk up the hill, and from the windows of the school the teachers could see the rainbow of children, laughing, running, racing to reach the door, and it made the teachers very happy indeed.

The teachers were happy because each child was different, like the piece of a wonderful puzzle. Even the smallest child had a voice, and each voice was unique. Every day they learned something new, with such joy that they didn’t feel as if school was work at all. In each classroom, the children were exploring their world in a special way, and just as no child was the same, no teacher was the same. Every person, big or small, brought their individual gifts to the school atop the hill.  It was a great place to be.

One day, a man from the big city came and saw that the children were all learning differently, and the teachers were all teaching differently and he frowned. “I run a big business, and in a big business, we do everything the same, so that our product comes out properly.”

The teachers laughed and told him that children are not products, they are people with their own spirits and gifts that need to be nurtured and encouraged to grow.

The man from the big city said, “The teachers are too different. They need to learn to conform to the same standard.”

And again the teachers laughed and said, “What good would we be if we did not use our own strengths and gifts to guide the children?”

But the man talked to a crowd from in front of the blue doors, down at the town, and his words made the parents of the children uneasy. He told them that their children were unprepared for the big city, for the big business.

The parents looked at the rainbow sea of faces, teachers and children together, and wondered if the man was right. Perhaps everything should be the same. Everyone here was so different. How could they tell what was good and what was not good when everything was unique?

The man began by telling the teachers what to teach.

“I can teach the children many different ways and they will learn even more,” they protested. They showed him their ideas, happy to create wonderful lessons that the children would remember for years to come. But the man told them that these were no longer things that the children needed to learn.

He told the children what their work should look like. He showed them how things should go, and what they should do to make their work look all the same, so that it is fair and equal.

“We like our work to be our own,” they said. They wanted their creations to look the way they did in their mind’s eye.

The man said, no. We must all end up with the same product in the end or we can’t be sure that you’ve learned anything at all. He told them that school was not a place for imaginations, but a place for hard work and following the rules; staying in the lines, and doing what you’re told.

The parents began to fret. Their children no longer ran up the hill to the school atop the hill. They trudged up the hill slowly, heads hanging, and waited quietly by the doors, which were now painted gray.

The teachers no longer looked out the windows, anxious to see the children’s excited faces. They were too busy looking at the lessons they had to teach, and the framework they had to follow perfectly to the letter. They no longer had time to spend thinking about the children, for now their job was to make sure that each box had a big black check mark at the end of the day.

The teachers fought the man. They told him that he was guiding them down the wrong path, leading them in the wrong direction. But he ignored them. His job was not to make the teachers happy, but to make sure that everyone did everything the same.

Eventually, the man had his way, and everyone was the same and everything was fair. Every child learned the same way and every teacher taught the same way.

And no one loved to teach.

And no one loved to learn.

And the school atop the hill looked down on the town, but the town no longer looked up the hill at the little school. They didn’t have to, because they already knew what they would see. It was always the same now.

Written with the wonderful teachers in my life in mind; thank you for continuing to fight the good fight to keep the school doors blue. Thank you for allowing my kids to be themselves. Thank you for bringing your own magic into your room each day, even when lawmakers, our state and county leaders, try to take it away by forcing conformity and uniformity. We love and support you.

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