Friday, May 24, 2013

Third Grade: The Failed Soap and Rope System

Miss Winkelman was strict and unsmiling.  I learned plenty in her third grade class, but none of it was academic.

She kept an Ivory Soap Chart on the wall.  We placed our hands on our desks, so she could check for clean fingernails.  We had to produce a spotless handkerchief or a packet of tissues.  Hair had to be neatly combed.  She recorded her findings after each inspection. 

Perfection in all areas received a tiny Ivory sticker after your name.  One demerit was an orange circle sticker.  Serious failures of personal hygiene received a red sticker.  Our grooming history hung there for all to see.

Over time, I noticed something.  Soaps remained soaps.  Red and orange alarm stickers never varied much either, although I did note that oranges were likely to become reds.  I never saw a red improve to soap status.  I wondered about this.

I also remember Darrell, a boy who could not sit still or remain quiet.  He was a whirlwind from 8 am to 3 pm.  Whenever Miss Winkelman left the room, he was up and running in circles and climbing onto his desk.  Kids laughed and clapped at his antics.  I worried.  She’d return and haul him down to receive his paddling in the cloakroom. 

He never shed a tear.

He never changed his behavior.

Finally she brought rope to school and tied him to his chair when she had to leave.  He was bound at the ankles and wrists.  Yes, he was still, but he never stopped talking or yelling or laughing during her absence. 

When I told this story to my husband, who has been in elementary education for forty years, he was horrified.  He talked about danger and liability.  But mostly he talked about the damage to a boy who needed help.

I see now what puzzled me in that classroom.  The inspection chart, a Procter & Gamble marketing campaign, did not really improve children’s lives.  At our school, it labeled social conditions.  It created embarrassment.  We lived in a working-class neighborhood in that steel town.  Most of my classmates had parents who were shift workers, mothers and fathers who passed each other in the night.  Their children walked home to empty houses after school.  There was no money for pocket-sized tissues.  No one had time to comb or braid hair in the morning.  As my mother would say, theirs was a “catch as catch can” life.

And Darrell needed support, not ropes.  He needed parents who had time for meetings with counselors and teachers who could offer sympathy and lessons in behavior modification instead of punishment.  Surely someone knew that fifty years ago.

I checked Facebook to see if I could find him.  Sure enough, there he was—smiling for the camera and holding a gun.

I wonder if he was thinking of Miss Winkelman.   

Friday, May 10, 2013

Sixth Grade: English Major Math

When our sixth-grade teacher announced we'd be doing story problems, I could hardly wait.  Math with words?  What could be better?  I loved stories.

The problem on our homework sheet had something to do with speeding motorboats.  I told my dad I didn't get it.  He said he could solve it but not in a way that would make sense to me.  He said something about algebra.  Then he drew a picture with boats and a clock face.  There were arrows and something about mph.

"Do you get it now?"  he asked.

"No," I said.  "Where's the story?  Who's in the boats?  What does the lake look like?"

He laughed and explained that wasn't the point.  I'm pretty sure he mentioned x and y.

The rug had been pulled out from under me.  I wish I could say I'd moved past it, but I still harbor a grudge against whoever linked story with math.  I may not know a lot, but I know when a story is not a story.

It wouldn't be that hard to welcome literary folks into that mathematical tent.  Just hire English majors to write the copy for the math people.  Create a real story that begs to be be solved without numbers in the answer, but you'd have to work the problem in order to write the story answer.  Simply a shift in focus.  Because I don't know how to provide the particulars, I'll just resort to blah-blah-blah for the facts that would generate the kind of x and y stuff that warms algebraic hearts.

On Monday at blah-blah-blah o'clock, Zoey boards a train in Chicago to visit her sister Lisa, a student at Macalester College blah-blah-blah miles away in St. Paul, MN.  The train goes blah-blah-blah miles per hour, making a blah-blah-blah minute stop in Madison.  Meanwhile Jack, a graphic designer at 3M, leaves his office at blah-blah-blah o'clock, driving down I-94 at blah-blah-blah miles per hour, to hear Randy Sabien play music at Dunn Brothers Coffee blah-blah-blah miles away on Grand Avenue at 8 PM.  When Zoey's train arrives, she and her sister plan to go there, too, for coffee and macaroons.  The fates have already decided that Zoey and Jack are destined to fall in love if she arrives in time to drop her mitten at the counter and if Jack arrives in time to return it to her.  Is this pivotal meeting possible?  How could Randy, who loves macaroons, figure in?

Now that's a story.

English majors would gladly work calculations to see if a rendezvous with love is in the cards.  Upon finding it is, people who write effortlessly would appreciate the chance to describe the meeting.  English majors know the value of two hands touching over a wool mitten.  If it isn't possible, they'd eagerly grapple with the near miss and the pending mystery that could include Randy.

English majors know we are all x looking for y.  However long it takes.