I loved school so much I hesitated to ever leave. I loved my teachers, or some of them at least, because of the way they inspired or challenged me, the way they could connect disparate ideas in my mind with the elegance of a constellation map. But I also spent a fair share of my time passing notes and gazing out the window, so I know that what is learned is not always what is being taught. Much of what I learned in class what how to appear to be paying attention. How to wing it when caught out. That’s because my ‘unruly’ mind was the problem. For other children, it’s their bodies.
Sitting in chairs, paying attention, lining up quietly – these hard skills become prerequisites for school success. Acquiring these skills prevents you from being labeled as ‘trouble’. But when I’ve spent time with children who struggle with these for any reason, physical self-discipline becomes physical discipline. Being forced into a chair becomes its own punishment, its own measure of success. This can be true even when it gets in the way of discovering what a child already knows how to do.
There was a boy who hated maths. The moment that worksheets appeared he’d be wriggling off his chair to hide underneath it. If returned to his seat, he’d throw his pencils and smash his forehead against the desk hard enough to rattle the classroom. I was sent over to help him through, which in this school included rubbing the centre of his back and gently returning his attention to the task at hand.
“So, how about this first question?” I’d ask, looking at his worksheet on counting. But he didn’t want to think about that. He’d brought sweets in to share, and they called to him from the little bag stored in his cubby.
“Everyone can have one,” he said, excitedly. “I brought chocolates, but it’s a secret so shhhh.”
“That’s lovely,” I said. “Very thoughtful. Oh look here, how many boats do you see?”
“Yes, chocolate,” he said, as if I’d never spoken. “Because people like chocolate, don’t they. They like having their own.” He looked around the room, suddenly worried. “I brought four… but there are more people here.”
“How many people are there?” I asked.
“Oh, there’s you and teacher and…” he counted his classmates around the room. “Five. Two people will have to share one. That’s okay, you can have a whole one.” He patted my hand. “But there’s Kara too. So four have to share.” I looked around me and thought, bloody hell. He’s right.
There was a tug on my sleeve and he looked at me, suddenly distraught.
“Do you think they’ll mind?”