Between the ages of eight and eleven I kept a diary. Although I like to think I was a fairly imaginative kid, my diary entries are strikingly unimaginative and repetitive. But they are interesting to me nonetheless for one reason: every weekday entry during the school year started this way: "I went to jail, ugh." Throughout the entire course of the diary I never referred to school by any other term. The reason this interests—or rather confuses me—is that I didn't actually dislike school. I didn't love it, I may have been a little bored, but I had several good school friends, and I was comfortable there. My elementary school, and even my middle school were second homes to me. I do not remember experiencing them as places of stress or undue misery.
As I prepare to send my own daughters back to school, I've been reflecting on what a difference two or three decades makes. My daughters are in the throes of back-to-school dread, and for good reason: to them school does indeed feel like a sort of prison. Despite the "progressive," child-centered rhetoric of the last thirty years—rhetoric that is especially prominent in school boards such ours (Toronto District School Board), which pride themselves on their forward-thinking approach to education—I would argue that schools have become more repressive, more prison-like than when I was a kid. Take lockdown drills, for instance, which every school in the TDSB is required to conduct twice yearly. This is a practice that originated in prisons as a means of containing riots by controlling the movement of the inmates; its adoption by school boards throughout North America is justified by citing hypothetical threats to "security." When my children were subjected to their first mock "lockdown" in grade 2, they were traumatized, their minds filled for days with images of potentially violent intruders skulking around the schoolyard or wandering down hallways. Around the same time, the school implemented new anti-bullying policies and procedures, the literature for which was full of references to "safe" schools. Could the administrators not see a contradiction between the two policies? How is subjecting children as young as four to lockdown drills conducive to creating a psychologically "safe" space? Have school boards ever performed a cost benefit analysis of the practice in terms of psychological harm versus physical security? (When kids get to high school, the "lockdown" effect is in many cases compounded by the presence of armed police officers enforcing "zero tolerance" policies. But that is a subject for another post.)
Today's schools are punitive and authoritarian in a subtler but arguably more harmful manner as well. Without much debate or any overt change in policy, schools have begun in recent years to exert more and more control over children in the most basic, bodily of ways. In the playground there are rules against running, against using the playground equipment in an unapproved manner, against play fighting or roughhousing of any kind. Within the school and classroom, access to the bathroom is even restricted. If a child asks to go to the toilet before or after recess, his or her request is likely to be denied. I witnessed this policy being enacted in a junior kindergarten class a few years ago while I was volunteering in the school library. A junior kindergartner (i.e., a four-year-old child!) had the audacity to ask the teacher if he could go to the bathroom soon after recess. I didn't hear everything the teacher said in response, but I did hear her when she began to yell loudly at the child who was slinking down the aisle toward the nearest bathroom, "No, it's not okay. You know you're supposed to go at recess. You know the rules. It's not okay!" When Michel Foucault wrote about the ways in which the state exerts it power at the micro level, including at the level of the human body, he probably did not have this scenario in mind. But for me, it is a perfect example of the early "disciplining and punishment" of the human soul.
A few more anecdotes to drive home the point, especially the under-acknowledged fact that schools have become more, not less, authoritarian in recent years:
My older brother recently told me that when he was in elementary school—this would have been in the late sixties—a teacher berated him in a manner that he felt was uncalled for and unfair. My brother's response? He simply left the school and walked home at recess. The school called my mother, who actually defended him!
Fast forward forty some-odd years. I picked my daughter up from school one day in fourth grade and upon seeing me, she immediately burst into tears. She'd been feeling physically ill for the final half hour or so of school, and upon arriving home she promptly threw up and took to her bed. I later asked her why she hadn't told the teacher she needed to call home. "It was close to dismissal time," she explained. "The teacher would have said I had to wait."
On another occasion, my daughter had a total breakdown after she accidentally dented her trombone. Even though my daughter considered the band instructor to be one of the "nice" teachers, she claimed he was nonetheless going to "murder" her for denting the instrument. I have rarely seen her so distraught. She cried for one hour straight, repeating over and over again "he's going to kill me." I asked her why she couldn't just tell him the truth: that someone had accidentally bumped into her and the trombone got dented. She looked at me as if I were stupid and said, "I can't just say that, because he's an adult and I'm not, and teachers don't believe kids." I went into the school the next day and talked to the teacher, who nonchalantly told me he'd send the trombone out to be repaired. He even provided another trombone for my daughter to use in the meantime. But I was left wondering whether he would have responded as casually had my daughter actually done the explaining herself. What is it about him, I wondered, or more generally, what is it about school that makes my daughter feel so utterly dis-empowered as a human being?
This, I believe, is the kind of question we, as parents and as citizens who pay for public education, need to be asking not just about specific schools, but about the current culture of public school in general.