Christine Rhyner

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Doing School in the 21st Century
8/22/2015 12:00:01 AM by: Christine

Remember school in the “olden days” as my kids refer to my childhood? (Or anything pre-millennium for that matter).

I would dress in one of perhaps two fall outfits my mother bought —no matter if it were 95 degrees in the shade—and carry in a paper bag that which had a fifty-fifty chance of being the now outlawed peanut butter and jelly—the cheapest lunch then that could be crammed between two slices of bread.  (Seven kids to feed is a lot). In the crook of my elbow rested a couple of prized new notebooks. Two number 2 pencils that I had carefully sharpened to lethal-looking weapons with the family crank operated pencil sharpener lay tucked in my pencil case.

Once in class, I received someone else’s used textbook from the year before and either giggled or gasped at the doodles and teacher observations in the margins. I held my breath every time the teacher waked past me, fearful he might think I was responsible for the graffiti in the book.

Anyone could waltz into the building including parents with forgotten lunches, alumni dropping by to visit, or drop-outs making plans with friends for lunch or after school. Uninterrupted walks down the street and into a wooded area during lunch periods were common. Birthdays were celebrated with homemade cupcakes.

Everyone knew what was available to us and if you wanted to do something you simply showed up. Teachers knew families and families knew teachers. Notes were sent home.

By my senior year I had a schedule with just a couple of morning classes. Before noon I would hop on the kindergarten bus where dear, faithful Teddy, the driver whom everyone knew and loved, would call me “baby” and it wasn’t politically incorrect, sexual harassment or meant in any negative way. It was okay. He even drove off his route to drop me off at my front door…

I’m not saying the old days were better. A trip to the restroom could result in bullying that rivaled root canal. Sitting on the bus home, you might find your hair set ablaze by a student behind you while the bus driver ignored the atrocity (true story).

No, things weren’t necessarily better, but they were simpler.

Our schools are now a reflection of the litigious, bureaucratic, over-priced society in which we now live. Reams of information need to be printed, read, hand delivered to professionals who barely have time for appointments to review it all, signed, verified, triple-checked, submitted with blood and followed up on.

While I feel thankful and privileged that my children and I have the internet at our disposal, it is laborious, frustrating and impersonal to have every last scrap of information and communication online. And there is a ton of information overload. On the one hand we have a gazillion clubs, sports, activities, organizations and groups to be part of. On the other hand, we have a gazillion clubs, sports, activities, organizations and groups to be part of.  So why is it that we always seem to miss things?  Even with unending visits to the school website, a job in itself, somehow I find myself unaware of an important meeting, a really cool camp, this or that activity…I’ll ask one or both of my kids, “Did you hear about this?” The answer is always, “Nope,” accompanied by a glassy-eyed stare into space. Isn’t homeroom the place for announcements about what’s going on?

Want to sign your child up for a sport? He must be “cleared.” With all the urgency of re-starting a dead man’s heart with a set of shock paddles, the school requires a physical examination, updated vaccines and gobs of paperwork informing them of insurance, neighbors, next of kin, intent to hold them liable for nothing from a scratch to a fractured skull—all completed and turned in to a nurse at sunrise by a parent so you can hear “Clear!”

Now your kid can try out for a sport.

Why are honor roll letters that are actually sent home the same exact form letter quarter after quarter for kid after kid? Why not add a personal touch like, “Johnny, you show such an amazing proficiency in languages,” or “Ruth, you scored the highest in the Math SAT’s than any other student ever in the history of the school’s existence?”

 Why are progress reports posted with teacher comments such as “Can do better,” without talking to my kid about his performance or informing me as a parent as to how that might be achieved?  What kind of extra help is available to help them do better? It’s online. Go hunt for it.

 While I hunt, fight with passwords, smack the computer when it freezes, click, download and print, my kids give me blank stares, no doubt wondering why I am forever on the computer.  It’s all online. Oh, they have the proficiency to access anything, so why aren’t they doing the work? The schools know the problem is the motivation factor. Trolling the school website is usurped by the Xbox, texting friends or watching “The Walking Dead.” Kids can’t be held accountable for the massive undertaking that is now “school,” so parents, let’s eliminate having a life to be in the know.

 Just yesterday I was directed to no less than five crucially important files to download. When I got to the last and it was a form requiring me to sign off on who is going to be signing forms, I had to pick my eyeballs up off my desk and pop them back in my head.

 And just when did books become outlawed?  I realize they can be heavy but none of my peers ever turned into Quasi Moto from hauling around textbooks. I cannot read nonexistent books with my kids or help them study for tests unless I go online. “What page are we studying?” I might ask my child. “I don’t know,” is inevitably the answer. Online I see one inch of random text from some unknown page…

 Yet, even without actual books, the demanded supply lists are unbearably long and so specific I fear that my kid will get in trouble if his folder is an eighth of an inch off. Why does my daughter need 500 index cards for one class? In the more than forty –five years since I could hold a pencil I don’t believe I’ve gone through half that. And why is it that I am buying multiple rulers each year? Growing up we had the same wooden one in a drawer for years. Today, the plastic ones they sell snap in half before they make it out of the car.

 Any visit I make to their schools requires I hand over my license and muster a smile for the Big Brother photo they snap of me. Of course they need evidence should I steal a child or sneeze without covering my mouth with my arm—a sneeze into a hand now results in a penalty trip to the washroom—for kids and adults alike.

 I let my kids stay home on their birthdays, sleep late, stuff their faces and go shopping for junk. It’s no fun going to school on your birthday when kids are considered too fat to consume cake. It’s no fun to go to school when the list of required behavior in order to attend the school play is two pages long and requires triplicate signatures. When I hear, “I hate school,” my knee-jerk reaction is to commiserate, “Me too!”

 I have enormous respect for educators and like I said, immense gratitude for what is available to kids today, but for sure, neither of my kids will remember laughing on the kindergarten bus with a Teddy who called them “baby,” while he played pop songs on his radio and dropped them off at noon at the front door. As for me, my new job for ten months out of twelve is visiting the school website, un-stuffing my email accounts and paying for unused supplies we’ll throw out next summer.

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