First, Nicole, Savana and I went to Jacob's lunch. Jacob is in 6th grade. I remember my year in 6th grade as one where kids I had known for years suddenly starting swearing and fighting, teachers suddenly didn't want to take care of me anymore, and I suddenly became very aware of my own awkwardness. All things considered, it was not my favorite time.
In seventh grade, things started to improve. Teachers still didn't want to take care of me, but I didn't mind so much. I got to know Ms. Gottlieb, the GT resource teacher with curly bright red hair who loved me and let me visit her anytime I wanted throughout the day. I joined choir and drama and discovered that I could be a star on stage. I became more comfortable with the people I went to school with.
By the time I was in eighth grade, I loved everything about my life. I had so much fun with my friends in school. I knew how to get good grades and didn't worry so much about it. When I entered high school a few months later, I came into it with such good memories of middle school that I had completely forgotten how miserable I was my whole first year. In fact, I didn't remember my troubles until I went back over Thanksgiving break for lunch with Jacob.
Nicole, Bana and I went into the school and signed in in the front office, like good visitors. The secretaries told us that 6th grade was having their lunch, so we walked towards the cafeteria. It was strangely quiet and I wondered if their lunch hadn't yet started. But no, lunch was just beginning.
As we stepped into the cafeteria, hundreds of bowed heads turned their empty eyes to look at us questioningly. We looked around for Jacob and finally spotted him, sitting at a crowded table by the stage. I ran over and gave him a hug, and then we sat down with him. He smiled, happy to see us, but didn't say anything. Everyone just sat, with their heads down, quietly eating their food. No one spoke, expect Mr. Fairbanks on the microphone.
"The other teachers and I have been seeing some behavior, that we don't like!" he was saying. "We've been noticing behaviors that make us think, we. can't. take. you.....on a three-day field trip, later this year."
I was feeling increasingly uncomfortable as this speech went on. What could these students possibly have done? Outdoor Ed, the 3-day field trip Mr. Fairbanks was referring to, was a time-honored tradition! How could they just take it away from these kids?
"What did you guys do?" I whispered to Jacob. He shrugged and kept eating his sandwich, unconcerned.
Mr. Fairbanks said, "We just had an awards assembly yesterday. And a lot of you said that you like the new independence we give you here. You like that we don't walk you from class to class. You like that we don't try to babysit you all the time. A lot of you said, that you like these freedoms we give you."
(I actually went to this assembly with Kelly. We sat in the meager audience and cheered our hearts out. We danced along to the Jazz Band's songs, shouted our approval of the students' cute outfits, and applauded as their good grades were announced. I think we were more excited than the rest of the audience combined. At the assembly, Mr. Fairbanks read off a few fun facts about each of the students who got straight A's. One of the questions the students had been asked for this introduction was, "What is your favorite thing about middle school?" This is what Mr. Fairbanks was referring to.)
"But some of you are taking advantage of those freedoms!" Mr. Fairbanks continued, his voice rising in indignation. "I see you walking to class and....let me tell you something. You don't have time to be walking in the wrong direction! You have time to walk straight to class and if you're not, you're going to be late. You don't have time to be.....touchin' each other. Sayin' hi to your friends, you don't have that kind of time!"
At this point, I started to feel claustrophobic. And I felt like I was in trouble. And I felt a little bit like crying. But as I looked around, none of the students seemed flustered by this at all! They were acting like it was normal! The most I saw, by way of any emotion on their faces, was resignation.
Mr. Fairbanks prowled through the tables, stopping behind a round table and turning to face the rest of the students to share the following anecdote: "I saw someone today who was passin' around....some birthday thing for their friends to sign, I don't know. You can't be passing things around in between classes! This is middle school and you need to start exhibiting a little bit more responsibility and maturity."
I had to laugh a little at that story. Was Mr. Fairbanks being serious?? (He was.) Eventually, he had said his piece and concluded his speech with, "Alright. You guys have a few minutes left that you can talk QUIIIETTTTLYY!"
The cafeteria started to come alive with little conversations and I felt a lot better. I met some of Jacob's friends and asked them about some of my old teachers. I introduced myself to a kid who has been giving Jacob a hard time. I tried my best to ignore Mr. Fairbanks, who seemed to think that we had come to see him and that it was appropriate for him to put Nicole's hood over her head and laugh at her driver's license. (We did not agree.)
Lunch was over about five minutes after Mr. Fairbanks got off the microphone, so we said goodbye to Jacob and his friends and left. On our way out, we passed several kids who were marching in a circle around the flagpole under the careful supervision of three teachers, all standing menacingly with their arms folded and their whistles clenched in their teeth. We theorized that this was their recess.
Later in the afternoon, we went to the elementary school for Sarah's lunch. We walked in, chatted with the friendly secretaries, and made our way to the cafeteria. Thankfully, the atmosphere there could not have been more different than the one we experienced in the middle school.
The students were allowed to sit wherever, moved from table to table as they pleased. The air was alive with bubbly conversations. A few teachers and parent volunteers milled through the cafeteria, making friendly comments to the students.
When we walked in, Sarah ran up and gave us a hug, then led us back to her table. The teachers smiled over at us. Sarah's friends ran over to meet us and try to claim a seat near us. We were thrilled by this welcome. Sarah took me by the hand and walked me from table to table, introducing me to her friends who weren't sitting with us. When the teacher in charge reached for the microphone the first time, it was to announce that snack was served.
The next time she took the microphone, she said, "Okay, it's almost time to clean up! If everyone can be quiet and helpful, we'll get to listen to the music."
All the kids were acting really excited about this, so I wondered which nursery rhyme we would listen to and followed their example in putting up my quiet sign. Apparently this was a really dumb thought, because the first song that came on was "Just the Way You Are," by Bruno Mars.
The kids happily sang along and ran around, wiping down their tables and throwing away trash.
One little boy made his way up to the teacher with the microphone and asked her a question. She looked out at the rest of the students and said, "OK, I've had a request for Dynamite, is that what you guys want to hear?"
A cheer went up in the lunchroom. Then everyone threw up their quiet signs so they would be allowed to have music. In a few minutes, "Dynamite," by Taio Cruz, was playing, and lunchtime became dance time. One boy threw away his trash and then dropped to the ground to do the worm. Everyone threw his hands up in the air at the appropriate time. They sang and danced all the way back to their classrooms, where we said goodbye to Sarah and went back home.
I'm really glad I'm going to work at an elementary school, and not at a middle school.