Newsletter 105: The Disorientation of Being Back in an Elementary Classroom
I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one is from May 2018, about the weirdness of spending time in elementary schools again. With school finally getting started again — these children need to get out of this house SOON — it seemed like a good time to revisit it.
Whenever I get a chance, I try to meet my son William for lunch at his school. It’s just down the street from our house, I work out of home so getting out is no problem and he’s always happy and surprised to see me, a situation I know won’t last forever. I don’t get to do it nearly as often as I’d like, and it’ll be complicated next year when his little brother Wynn goes to the same school. They’re going to be two years apart in school, by the way, which means they’re going to be best friends and also of course totally hate each other. It’ll be fantastic.
The teacher always lets him take one of his friends with him to go eat with me in a special room, and I spend most of the time goofing off with them while teachers walk wondering what all that giggling is about. No matter how busy or exhausted I am, every time I can sneak in lunch over there, I’m in a terrific mood the rest of the day.
I’ve noticed, though, that every time I go, I always feel a little uneasy actually being in the school. This has nothing to do with the school itself, which is honestly the exact school I want my kids to be in: Welcoming, diverse, and with the nicest, most dedicated public servants working there you could possibly hope for. (And the playground is so much better than the rickety teeter-totter that Columbian Grade School in Mattoon back in 1982 that it legitimately embarrasses me just to think about it.) It is the platonic ideal of an elementary school.
But it still a school. I never went to graduate school — honestly, I barely got out of the U of I with my bachelor’s — which means I haven’t had anything to do with school since May 1997, 21 years ago. (Got a class reunion coming up this month, by the way. Expect to be burdened with stories of that in the coming weeks.) And every time I step on school grounds, whether it’s for lunch or just dropping William off in the morning, I’m reminded of that.
I was pretty bad at school. Oh, I got fine grades, at least until college when I stopped caring about anything other than getting that diploma. (I was one of those obnoxious kids who said things like, “oh, the college newspaper is my real education.”) But the physical act of sitting in a classroom, listening to someone talk to you and trying to remember everything they were saying, actively pained me. It wasn’t the teachers’ faults; it was mine. Every minute I was strapped in a desk trying to learn about things other people had done was a moment I didn’t get to do something myself. I didn’t mind learning. But I didn’t like having to sit there. I felt tied there … captured. I was the kid who couldn’t sit still, the one who never got in trouble but needed to be moving.
Just the thought of sitting in class gives me shivers still today; those you’re-still-in-school dreams you get every once in a while leave me waking up panting and deeply relieved that I was dreaming. There were some teachers I liked, and the process, the overall activity, of being in junior high, or high school, was not unpleasant. I liked all the things that came with school, friends, sports, activities, girls. I just didn’t like the class itself. I suffered through it, and I was smart enough to bluff my way through with good enough grades, but I couldn’t wait to be done with it.
My father was like this. Dad never went to college — though he did work his ass off for 40 years so his wife, son and daughter got to — and, from what I understand, had the same problem I did. Supposedly when he was based in Virginia during his time in the Air Force, he and some other recruits were given the opportunity to take college classes for free. He made it through half a day. I don’t blame him. If it’s not your thing, you cannot sit through a class unless you are explicitly required to.
This is not meant to be an indictment of class. Class is good! School is good! School is really important! I did learn things, and I’m a better person because of my education. But my personality just never meshed with school. Even when I knew it wasn’t a waste of time, it felt like one, to me. I knew I was wrong. I knew it was stupid to feel that way. But hey: I’m stupid about a lot of things. Probably all that education I missed out on.
These feelings all return to me at William’s school, and I find myself almost tiptoeing through the halls, like I need to sneak by undetected lest someone grab me and tell me I’m supposed to be in class. (I also find myself extremely focused on following every rule, and getting weirdly nervous when listening to the lunch ladies bark out instructions.) Education is the foundation of a functioning society, and just about the most important thing we can give to our kids. Watching my children learn and grow is one of my greatest joys, and school is the central reason, the primary organizing principle in their lives. But man: I am so glad mine is over. No wonder William keeps telling me every time I meet him that I’m eating my food too fast.