As many of you know, I work in education. During the school year, I’m a substitute teacher; over the summer, I’ve been working at a school-sponsored summer camp.
I love my job. I love coming home from a long day smelling like nail polish and pond water, I love tying shoelaces, I love ironing perler-bead art. As a kid I was pretty self-aware of the differences between being an adult and being a kid: it’s amazing to see those experiences from the other side of the looking glass. My day job is a constant roller coaster between exasperation and observation, and no one can say I’m not using my anthropology degree.
My favorite part of the job, though, is talking with the kids.
They tell you everything. I mean, everything. If your kid knows something about your home life, chances are their teachers know it too. And most kids aren’t used to someone actually listening to them, so if you ask a few questions they’ll just go on forever. So at the end of the day, while the kids are coloring or making art or riding the bus back from a trip, I’ll sit and listen.
The result is that you get these amazing conversational snapshots of their everyday lives.
Sometimes they’re heartbreaking, sometimes they’re funny, sometimes the full meaning of what they’re saying goes completely over the kid’s head, but they’re always beautiful in a way the kids themselves don’t understand at the moment. We have a habit of idealizing childhood, and I think that’s because we forget it. Our mementos of childhood are often scrawled assignments or badly-drawn pictures.
We forget that we were human back then, too.
The Importance of Being Human
I’ve been a staunch equal-rights activist since I was old enough to understand the concept: at somewhere around six, seven years old I taped a bunch of slogans to the family dogs and paraded around the block shouting about animal equality. Looking back, my insistence that “dogs were people too” probably somewhat softened what I had to say when I entered grade school, but at least I had practice.
Kids are second-class citizens.
Part of this is practical: kids don’t drive because they’re too short to reach the wheel, and they can’t make major financial decisions because we’d all be bankrupt on game consoles and cotton-candy-makers by the age of seven. They just don’t have the experience, which is okay. They’re learning. But part of it isn’t practical. Part of it is this weird struggle for control, a war of frustrated teachers and parents against kids just dying for a little control over their lives.
It’s most evident in high school. I don’t know about you, but I can’t watch Orange is the New Black without prison life looking a throwback to my high school experience: the power struggles between people in control and people with no agency, the rigging of “allowed” objects to serve the purpose of things you weren’t allowed to have (anyone else ever cut their pizza with a ruler when the flimsy school knives broke? Just me?), the downright arbitrary enforcing of rules, the dead-eyed brick buildings. The cell phone restrictions. Kids and inmates both live their lives on a schedule of bells and meals. It’s less-prevalent the younger they get, but even in elementary school it’s there. How many six-year-olds get to pick out their own outfits for the day?
And why should it matter if your kid goes to school in a tutu and jeans?
When I was a kid I was a little afraid that I’d turn eighteen and forget how demeaning it all was. Well, I’m a teacher now, sort of. My opinions have not changed. In fact, they’re even more solidified now that I can see it from the other side.
Let’s get back to those snapshots of life I was talking about.
Kids tell me about their home lives. About their parents’ divorces, how much they hate homework, how they feel babied at school, how bored they can get. They tell me all the ways they feel marginalized. All the ways they’re taught that inexperience is the same as stupidity. Even the trivial stuff usually has an underlying conflict of agency: bedtimes, for example, or huge amounts of homework.
I’ve never once heard someone complain about broccoli.
I’m not making a statement here on how to raise your kids or how to teach your class. I swear. Just writing a reminder that kids aren’t, in fact, weird little creatures that turn into people eventually. They’re already people, they’re just new at it.
Give ’em time to learn.