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Whiteboard Jungle

November 10, 2009

I’m still picking up my six and eight year old nephews after school and continuing to learn things.  Today’s lesson provided insights into social structures in place in modern elementary schools.

Every day, the first thing I say is “So what interesting things happened today.”

They always reply:  “Nothing.”

I then ask the follow up question:  “Really?”

They think for a while, and then invariably describe some fairly momentous event.  Today it was from the older boy.  “I got sent to the Chances room.”

What the hell is the Chances room?  I actually phrased it as, “Oh.  What’s that?”

It turns out that the Chances room is not a place where kids learn how to shoot craps (that happens on the playground).  It is a physical room, and being sent there is the most extreme and feared form of disciplinary action that can be inflicted by the school authorities.  But fear not!  The Chances room is about as far from the Black Hole of Calcutta as it is from the concept of effective discipline. 

The way it works is that during the recess period, instead of running around burning off excess sugar fuelled energy, the miscreant goes to a quiet room to contemplate (mostly likely) his sins.  The room is called the “Chances Room” because the child is supposed to realize that he is getting a second chance.  The quiet contemplation is also supposed to create an environment for the child to conclude that they will avoid transgressive behaviour in the future.  The idea is that they will think and say “Oh my God, there is nothing more horrible than going to the Chances room.  I most surely will never do anything wrong again.” 

Who thinks these things up?

I found out that my nephews had pretty much the same opinion about the punitive value of the Chances room as I did.  The culprit frankly admitted that he didn’t mind the punishment—he was upset because he felt he hadn’t done anything wrong.  As we talked, and remember, I’m totally impartial, I decided he may have a point. 

The facts of the case are as follows.  On the day in question, they were told that they were supposed to do something nice for a person they didn’t know.  So my nephew and his friend decided that they would offer fellow students the opportunity to get a ball point pen tattoo from them. 

I’m sure you can already see trouble on the horizon. 

During recess they asked the other kids if they would like tattoos and got a few takers.  A teacher saw what was going on and decided that the ‘clients’ were having their personal space violated or something and my nephew and his friend were ‘arrested.’  Among the many points my nephew raised in his defense was “We didn’t ask them for money.”  Although he did admit that his friend initially wanted to charge ten cents.

He claims, with some justification, that the kids asked to get the tattoos and no coercion was involved.  Further, he is unaware of any school rule prohibiting the tattooing of fellow students, voluntary or otherwise.  I personally think it’s a grey area—but let’s face it, they could probably have thought of better nice things to do.

Further questioning revealed that the teachers are highly sensitive to the issue of students abusing each other and that is why guilt was presumed in this case.  I opined that it was probably overzealous of the teachers to be so worried about that.  But then, with amazing equanimity, they explained that the teachers probably were justified to worry considering how things really operate in the school social structure.  

The bottom line?  Be afraid.  Be very afraid.   

First remember we are talking about kids under the age of 10.  Among other things, you gain stature (and friends) by getting into trouble.  (That’s another reason my nephew wasn’t that fussed about being sent to the Chances Room—he got bragging rights). It’s not quite like the Mafia, where you aren’t a full member until you’ve killed someone, but being punished definitely earns you cache. 

There is also a hierarchy of coolness with the more cool exercising power over the less cool.  (I haven’t yet elicited a definition of “cool”–watch this space).  That aspect sounds more like prison.  My nephew said that a lot of cool people have lackeys who are expected to do personal favors for them, like get them a Coke or give them choice morsels (as long as it’s not a peanut butter sandwich) from their lunches; or to broker advantageous playground trades of Lego and Transformer figurines.  There is even a form of omerta and the absolute worst crime that anyone can commit is ‘telling.’

The fear of being caught and ‘punished’ is still strong in modern kids.  But because of the relatively benign forms of punishments (teachers can’t even force a kid to clean the whiteboards because it is a violation of their human rights and potentially damaging to their self-esteem), there is more angst about getting caught than being punished.  You have to break the rules in order to be a player, but getting caught shows a lack of skill and style.  (Incidentally, this is probably good training for a career in politics where getting caught is the worst thing that can happen and punishment for wrongdoing is usually limited to a heartfelt apology.)

The example I was given related to tree climbing on the school grounds.  In today’s schools, climbing trees is acceptable as long as it doesn’t present too serious a risk.  So some trees on the school grounds have been marked with red dots which indicate that they are too dangerous to climb and are therefore off limits.

Now I’m no child psychologist, but I theorize that these red dots are the equivalent of a big sign that says “if you are cool you will climb me” in the kids’ minds.  My nephew described a complicated social ritual that occurs with respect to red dot trees.  Of course, everyone tries to climb them.  And equally certainly, the teachers will insist that the child in question immediately stop.  There is no punishment other than being made to get down.  So the finesse that separates the cool from the uncool is how slowly you climb down.  The idea is to show how bad you are by contemptuously complying with the teacher’s demand. 

In response to my observation that the whole thing was idiotic, my nephew protested that no, it is very challenging because no one knows exactly what constitutes a sufficiently slow descent. So you have to wait until the audience assesses your panache; and your ranking in the social hierarchy is as volatile as the stock market.

Life is hard.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Gail permalink
    November 15, 2009 6:59 pm

    Oh, Tom, silly me. I thought it was only in Australia that we have become so very politically correct. We have a child care centre close to where i live and one of the little darlings bellows constantly – especially when he can’t get his own way. Unfortunately for me, the care workers aren’t permitted to even chastise or ask him to stop, they just TRY to pacify him which rarely works. Please let’s bring back some common sense to the punishment metered out to kids being kids.

  2. November 24, 2009 8:44 am

    Fascinating. If the little darling is bellowing like a behemoth because he fancies a Turkish delight, we have to let him bellow.

    But if he bellows like a behemoth because Nurse Fidgett tapped him for stealing his neighbor’s tarts, the Social Workers would descend in droves and carry everyone away. Bellower to another center, Nurse to a dungeon.

    ” So some trees on the school grounds have been marked with red dots …”.

    Most likely, the other trees have attached steps and a railing.

    “On the day in question, they were told that they were supposed to do something nice for a person they didn’t know. ”

    What sort of nonsense is that? What advance in Reading, Writing, or Advanced Mathematics is to be gained from random acts of kindness?

    The staff’s reaction was hardly postmodern-multicultural. After all, are not everyone’s ideas of “nice” equally valid?

    “So the finesse that separates the cool from the uncool is how slowly you climb down. The idea is to show how bad you are by contemptuously complying with the teacher’s demand. ”

    Wearing dark sunglasses adds inestimably to the coolness.

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