By Bev Schellenberg
Students young and old have returned to school, a yearly phenomenon as certain in September as rainfall in Vancouver. Depending on where you stand on the conveyor belt of life, you likely fit somewhere between ecstatic-that-school-has-begun (as in the case of most parents, some students, and some more senior mall-frequenters) to unfazed-and-basically-unaware (as in computer programmers with no children and entropic lives). Regardless, we all hope students are learning, developing, and growing.
And becoming valuable members of the society. Some say 12 years is more than enough time to learn the ropes (right, high school students?), while others, like the BC Ministry of Education, argue that we need to be in school even longer. To that end, the government has established over 100 Strong Start BC Centres, where children can begin public education at an earlier age. The idea seems to be much like that behind Robert Fulghum’s famous book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten — that the earlier you teach kids to clean up after themselves, share, and so on, the sooner you’ll turn out fully-functioning adults.
I have to admit, though, that as an educator who has taught in both the elementary and high school system, and as a parent of children in the public education system, I’ve long questioned the ultimate value of early schooling. Granted, Fulghum’s book has some good points (it did stick around on the New York Times bestseller List for almost two years, after all), and the kindergarten curriculum does too. But most of what children are taught in that first year has nothing to do with the curriculum — namely, how to line-up, and how to be quiet.
As a music teacher of kindergarten students, I found both lessons frustrating to have to deliver. I wanted my five and six-year old students to sing their way to the water fountain, dance to the washroom, and do a crazy walk on their way to assembly. I wanted my students to cheer, to spin, to drench themselves in the glorious rain-shower of music, unfettered by societal norms. Telling them to “put on their marshmallow slippers” as they lined up for the washroom, telling them to be as “silent as mice,” and whispering, “One, two, three, eyes on me” and waiting for their subdued and automaton-like “One, two, eyes on you,” was not how I wanted to function as an educator. After a year of teaching music to two kindergarten, two grade one, one grade five and one grade six class, I still couldn’t figure out how to encourage the students’ bubbly enthusiasm while still upholding school and societal expectations. So I left my job.
I may be coming around to Fulghum’s point-of-view, though. This past summer, I suddenly appreciated the importance of learning to line up, and the value of fitting into a crowd. In August, my 10-year old daughter and I headed for a quick trip to Victoria. Attempting to save gas and money, we joined the large queue of walk-on pedestrians at the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal. I became concerned when I overheard a man in front of us talking on his cellphone, saying there was no way he would make the ferry we’d come to catch — the 10 a.m. ferry. Soon a couple behind us were talking about the unlikelihood of making the 11 a.m. ferry as well. So there we were, my 10-year old daughter and I at 9:20 a.m., with the prospect of standing in a line-up for over two hours to get on the ferry. Suddenly I understood why a very high fence topped by barbed wire separated the happy vehicle travelers who were going to make the 10 a.m. ferry from us. For a moment I even considered teaching my daughter the value of climbing fences.
That’s when those two biggest lessons from kindergarten came in handy: for the next hour, my daughter entertained herself, and remained within the societal limits of normalcy (without an iPod, cell phone, book, or handheld game, might I add): she paced, she meandered, she observed, she hummed, we chatted. At no point did she complain or even question what we were doing. From being in kindergarten, and also having attended six years of school, she was used to standing and waiting.
Fortunately we did make the 11 a.m. ferry. My daughter remained resolute, socially appropriate, and even pleasant through a line-up for the ferry cafeteria and for the bathroom facilities, for public transit, to get into the B.C. Provincial Museum, for dinner, to pay our hotel bill, for Denny’s breakfast the next morning, for the bus ride to the Victoria Ferry Terminal, and for the return ferry ride. The overnight trip to Victoria was enjoyable, thanks to what she and I, successful products of the public school system, were taught in kindergarten: patience, how to keep oneself entertained, social appropriateness, and a positive spirit.
And I am grateful.