Goodbye Nurturing Elementary School, Hello Terrifying Middle School

This week I attended my youngest son’s spring dance at his elementary school.   After 12 spring dances (counting my oldest son’s tenure), this was my final one.

Recognizing the significance of this milestone, I stayed for the whole program. The transition from 5-year-olds to 11-year-olds reflected in the song selections. I watched the younger kids dance to the Jackson Five’s “A,B,C” and the fifth graders dance to Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off.” As the kids got older, their music became newer and bolder.

The playground was packed with parents, some with the ubiquitous monopods, jockeying for position behind their child’s group of chairs to capture the memories.

I even remained for the finale where all the teachers performed a group dance. Usually by this time I’m already in my car headed toward work. But this was my last spring dance, my last elementary school event (not including the promotion ceremony), and I wanted to soak it all in.

Watching the joy on the children’s faces, I couldn’t help think about how different their academic lives will soon become.

With the end of elementary school vanishes all the support and protection and peace of mind that goes along with a small campus with comforting instructors and staff.

At middle school, the 20-minute recess gets cut in half, and the population nearly doubles.

How quickly the highly confident fifth graders will transform into terrified sixth graders as they attempt to navigate to six different classrooms, some located on opposite ends of campus, in breathless five-minute passing periods.

The one nurturing all-day teacher gives way to six one-hour teachers who hurriedly corral a fresh group into the classroom hour after hour after hour.

I have never understood why public schools long ago decided that the best thing for children right before they are about to enter puberty, the most dramatic change in their lives, is to be thrust into an environment that negates much of what they thrived in during the primary grades.

Middle school is the stage where many kids get lost educationally, some never getting back on track, struggling throughout high school.

The transition from elementary to middle school should be smoother, involving only three teachers: one in the humanities that teaches English and history, one in the math and science field, and one skilled in the arts.

Or, follow the lead of some preparatory schools by extending grammar school through the eighth grade.

Whenever I encounter a troubled student, I try to imagine him as a young child. He must have been cute once, respecting his elders, unafraid to dress in Spiderman pajamas out in public, still believing in Santa, preferring Disneyland’s Dumbo ride to Six Flags’ Goliath roller coaster.

If only we could freeze the innocence of our children, shielding them from growing up too fast.

At the conclusion of the dance, as I returned to work and walked to my classroom, a few male students passed by me spewing out filthy language about sexual acts, unconcerned that I was a teacher.   I wanted to stop and ask them, “What happened to you along the way?”

Atticus Finch tells his son Jem in To Kill a Mockingbird that “there’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep ’em all away from you.”

I may not be able to hold back the ugliness in the world, or the shock of middle school, but I can celebrate this upcoming summer by delighting in my son’s present view of the world before it disappears.

He will never be as carefree as he was that day on the playground dancing with his fifth grade classmates, overflowing with childhood. Per the title of the American Authors song also played that day, this was the “Best Day of My Life.”

Banning Of Mice and Men is Detrimental to Education

Full disclosure: I am an English teacher, I expose my students to the best literature, I consider John Steinbeck one of America’s greatest writers, and so I teach Of Mice and Men.”

There, I’ve admitted it. If I taught in northern Idaho, however, my job might be in jeopardy for the Coeur d’Alene School District on Monday decided to recommend that the Steinbeck’s classic novella no longer be taught in classrooms, a final decision to be rendered next month.

The Associated Press reported that a member of the district’s curriculum review committee said that he “thinks the language is too ‘dark’ for ninth-graders.”   Do these people have teenagers in their homes?

When one pauses to realize the bombardment of pervasive vulgarity everywhere today, it is astonishing that any school district official in 2015 would object to Steinbeck’s language that, quite frankly, can easily be heard on daytime television. There are worse words used on the Internet and in PG-13 movies not to mention music and video games.

This is not the first time such action has happened to Of Mice and Men.”

On the American Library Association’s website is a list of dozens of school districts who have either banned the book or seriously discussed such action. Among the reasons given is that the book contains “depressing themes” and “vulgar language,” and “does not represent traditional values.”   Sounds like a description of Amazon’s TV show “Transparent.”

“Of Mice and Men” is in good company with other books which have had the threat of banishment such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild,” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”   What parent would not be proud of a child who read these books during their high school years?

It wasn’t that long ago in 2011 that here in Glendale there was initial disapproval for having Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” used as a book for advanced 11th graders. While the novel eventually earned approval, it shows that there are certain matters in society that resurface from time to time despite the common thought that such issues are no longer prevalent.   Who would have thought riots over police brutality would revisit and haunt today’s times?

The one benefit of these proposed bans is that it calls more attention to the work in question and probably does more good than harm. If I was a teenager and told not to read something, that would be the first thing I would read. Maybe we should ban art museums, operas, vegetables, and charitable work.

I’ve been to Coeur d’Alene and there is a wonderful lunch counter called Hudson’s Hamburgers that has been in continuous operation since 1907. It has withstood the test of time, and the taste of generations.   You don’t have to eat meat to recognize that there must be something worthy about the place for it to last as long as it has.

And the same view should be taken of “Of Mice and Men.” Just because one person may not like Steinbeck and might be offended with a word or two doesn’t mean it shouldn’t remain in circulation in classrooms for students to decide for themselves whether it’s worth reading or not.

Lori Wood, Interim Co-Director of the National Steinbeck Center, said that “part of the wide appeal of Steinbeck’s work is that he told the stories of ordinary people and brought their voices to life.”

Studying fine literature is akin to studying human nature. Depriving students of such an experience is detrimental to their lifetime education.