Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Marching In A Line

Several years ago we took what was then our 3-5's class on a field trip to the Ballard post office. The woman showing us around greeted us in the lobby, introduced herself, then before inviting us behind the scenes, asked the children to form a line and follow her.

As our parent chaperones did what they could to coax and cajole the children into something resembling a line, I explained to her, "We've never walked in a line before." I could tell she was slightly appalled at this notion: after all, wasn't this one of the fundamental "school skills?" There were moments when we managed a half dozen kids in a row, but by the time we'd wrangled the rest into place the early adopters would grow restless and dart off to mess with the water fountain or peek into the little windows on the PO boxes. And, as I would have predicted, several of the children outright rebelled at the idea, crying and otherwise fighting any attempt to force them to stand in a certain place, facing a certain direction.

Our guide was growing frustrated, so I finally resorted to asking each chaperone to take the hands of two kids each, then for the adults themselves to form a queue. I said to our host apologetically, "This is the best we're going to do," and so that's how we started the field trip, a ridiculous, raggedy line of adults marching in line with kids in tow. It was a circumstance that lasted until we passed into the back room where the adults themselves lost their discipline and our host, resigned to working with savages, struggled to remain pleasant through her tight lips.

I understand that there might be circumstances in which my fellow teachers might find walking in a line is necessary. After all, they are often without all those extra adults in the form of parents that we enjoy in a cooperative school: it's a way to get kids to be responsible for their own safety when out in public, I suppose, but I have never found the need around the school. And indeed, when I ask myself why young children are routinely expected to queue up to march around their own school hallways, while transitioning from room-to-room, for instance, I can't think of a reason beyond "discipline."

Soldiers march about in lines, obeying the commands of superiors, but as a citizen in a democratic society, like the one we seek to create at Woodland Park, like the one we seek to create in our nation, learning to obey simply for the purpose of learning to obey, flies in the face of what self-governance is all about. And that's what this sort of line-walking discipline is all about: obedience, an anti-democratic stand-in for the important life-skill of self-discipline, and that comes from within, not without, always. There is no overlap.

I was secretly cheered by the fact that not even our Woodland Park parents could maintain the post office marching formation for more than a few minutes, just as I was proud of the children who refused to be told where to stand. Those are the kinds of citizens alongside whom I want to self-govern and those are the kinds of citizens into which I hope the children I teach grow.

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