Like Clockwork

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In terms of education and children, the present isn't all that different from the past.

In 1970, my wife and I moved into our first apartment. The place had previously been rented to what was known then as a "far-out hippie." During a three-day cleaning and purging of the various '60s paraphernalia left in the apartment, I heard my wife laughing hysterically after she opened the freezer to find an alarm clock leaning precariously against ice-encrusted orange juice containers.

As children of the '60s ourselves, we concluded that the former occupant must have been trying to freeze time.

Looking back over 30 years spent in educational pursuits, I can't help thinking that this hippie may have been onto something. Too often today, we think we are totally different from the folks of days gone by. Sure, big changes have occurred over two American centuries—in population growth, family structure, neighborhoods, technology, and just about everything else. But in terms of education and children, the present isn't all that different from the past. Much has remained (and should remain) the same.

For 20 years now, I have been fascinated by original school documents from the past two centuries. Acquiring memorabilia has become something of a hobby. My collection includes handwritten school contracts, teacher journals, student writings, merit awards, and other bits of educational ephemera. In reading and studying these documents, I am struck by the notion that, like the frozen alarm clock in my first apartment, time has not thawed all that much in 200 years. And I, for one, am thankful.

While the language is archaic in these old documents, many of the values, hopes, and dreams they contain remain the same as those we hold dear today. Here are a few examples:

‘It shall be the duty of the Instructor to impart on the minds of the scholars by precept and example the principles of virtue, piety, justice, humanity, and good order....’

School Regulations,
1799 handbook,
Braintree, Mass.

From the 1799 handbook School Regulations, Braintree, Massachusetts: "It shall be the duty of the Instructor to impart on the minds of the scholars by precept and example the principles of virtue, piety, justice, humanity, and good order and an aversion to all forms of vice and immorality." Today's schools could use a healthy dose of this old-fashioned morality.

An 1847 contract between F. Morrison and a commissioner for Hamilton County, Illinois: "Attend each day at a reasonable hour and impart instruction in spelling, reading, writing, and arithmetic, including the single rule of three according to Pike or Smiley's system," [while the commissioners agree to] "furnish a good and comfortable school house. . . . We also agree to pay said Morrison two dollars per scholar, one-fourth in money and the balance in corn, wheat, oats, or pork." I have sent this contract to our school's new business manager as a potential model.

An 1861 letter from a new teacher to his mother: "After talking with the Commissioner, I proceeded to the School house. . . . [T]he first day they behaved very well, but the next day they began to be noisy and bad. . . . I knew what was going on, and I put a stop to it immediately. Since then, I have got along nicely and I did them fair, they mind very well." Even today, new teachers go through these predictable stages.

Finally, on the majesty of teaching, from an 1863 book, Going to School: "I have some very precious memories of my early instructors, and I have often had reason to thank them for the kindly influences thrown around me. Ever strive, then, to render your teacher's labors pleasant, by a studious deportment and cheerful and prompt obedience. And may none of you, while spending such happy hours with your playmates, while striving to improve your minds with useful thoughts-may none of you forget the Great Teachers, to whom we all must render a solemn account." So reads a fitting tribute that we should offer our teachers now.

There must be a sort of Jungian collective unconscious that tells us what school should be like, for I find these tidbits of history ring true today—even for 4-year-olds. During my school's first assembly, I read the children's book David Goes to School, wherein David's teacher, time and again, tells him "No." "No yelling . . . no pushing, no running. . . . Sit down, David. Don't chew gum in class. Raise your hand . . . keep your hands to yourself." After I read the first few pages, all 290 kids in attendance, some of whom had never attended school before, began yelling out the words in unison before I could read them. I read "Pay"; they yelled "attention." I read "Wait," and in unison they hollered "your turn." "I don't care" was followed by shouts of "who started it."

We lose track of the fact that kids have the same needs throughout the ages.

After I read, "David, recess is . . . " the children immediately chanted, "over." And when I said, in my best stern teacher's voice, "That's it, mister, you're . . . " half of the kids in the auditorium exclaimed, "staying after school!" In my 23 years as a principal, not once have I kept a child after school. Where does this knowledge come from?

My oft-quoted Grandma Fanny had the answer. When I first started teaching in the Cleveland public schools, she told me, "Richie, dear, remember, the books will change, the theories will change, the ideas about teaching will change, but the kinder [meaning, the children] will remain the same."

Today, because changes are taking place so fast, we lose track of the fact that kids have had the same needs throughout the ages. These needs and associated values are timeless. Yet too many of us spend far less time than we should in helping our children sort them out. The New York Times recently reported that Juliet Schor, the Harvard professor who wrote the 1992 book The Overworked American, said that if she were to write a sequel, it might be called The Even More Overworked American. In a more recent work, Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, James Gleick details the rush and frenzy of our modern "time-saving culture." From instant breakfasts to one-minute bedtime stories, too many kids are not given the opportunity to be, well, just kids.

Kids need "focused" time to form close, supportive, and lasting relationships.

A study by the Families and Work Institute puts this in perspective. The institute asked children what they "really think about working parents" and concluded that youngsters today want "better communication and more 'focused' time, with parents being less strained and tired." Kids need that time to form close, supportive, and lasting relationships—more hugging and less hurrying. As the physician Edward Hallowell puts it in his book Connect, "As long as you have connection, the chances are good you will have moral and spiritual growth, as well as the best education possible."

As time flies, we need to navigate carefully. Looking toward the new millennium, we must remember that-to quote the great Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Dan Quisenberry-"the future is much like the present, only longer." Let us hope that in the future we use time wisely, connect with the past, and take the time to connect with our kids, at home and at school. That's the time we should freeze. ASAP.

Vol. 12, Issue 3, Pages 54-55

Published in Print: November 1, 2000, as Like Clockwork
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