Enjoying the delightful anarchy of children (as long as it’s not at my expense)
I had just finished a school show. Before I could turn off the microphones, a slightly officious administrator had taken the stage (I use that term loosely – there was no stage, it was the gym floor)
“Students!” she said in a voice that immediately quieted the audience. “I have an important announcement that you need to hear.”
Amazing how adults have that voice – I mean, this was really important! Kids can tell when an adult really has something to say.
“Starting today, we will have only two playground monitors on the playground at recess. Fourth graders, this means that you must stay on the nearside of the playground. No one may go past the gym door.”
No sooner had those words gotten out of her mouth than hands shot up. Just in case you didn’t think anyone was paying attention. Who knows the geography of the playground better than a fourth grader? Who can divine the ramifications of policy based on budget restraints better than an eight year old? She was trying to sneak something by them, and they knew it.
She held her hand up to stop the questions – she wasn’t done with the outline of the policy.
“You must go directly from the lunchroom to the playground. No students are allowed in the hall between lunch and recess. You will go directly to recess from lunch.”
She paused to catch her breath. Bad idea. Now there was a sea of hands up. Even if you have authority, that many hands up is hard to ignore – it’s enough to give even Dick Cheney pause. Well, okay, maybe not Dick, but…
“What about our coats?” a kid asked. “What if we need coats?” Everyone nodded as if they were all concerned about their coats. It was probably the first time they were worried about wearing their coats, but ignore that.
“Bring your coats to the cafeteria,” she answered. This was an improvised answer, and everyone knew it.
There was a slight stir in the crowd as the students imagined this process. Perplexed looks passed over the faces of the teachers, but the dogged administrator was still in charge.
“You will have to plan ahead,” she said.
Hmm. Good idea, I thought.
If she were going to maintain order and have any chance of her new policy surviving, she should have stopped the discussion right then, but she genuinely wanted to make this work. She made the mistake of calling on someone else.
Children smell the spawning of anarchy and are happy to aid in its growth. Another dozen hands went up. It looked like open season on the vice-principal, and the collective fourth grade mind was beginning to work with wild abandon.
“What about our lunch boxes?” a girl asked.
“What lunch boxes? What do you mean?” she answered, trying not be annoyed.
“What do we do with our lunchboxes after lunch?”
“Bring them to the playground.”
The students looked at each other.
“Can we bring them back to the room?” someone shouted.
“No – because there will be no students in the hallway. We can’t have any students in the hall because they won’t be supervised.”
More hands. She didn’t want to call on anyone.
“What if we have to go to the bathroom?” someone asked anyway.
The entire mass of humanity nodded as one. Now, the chaos was self-organizing. What if you had to go the bathroom? What then? Every teacher knows that the bathroom question is a student’s first method of sabotaging the system.
“Go before you go to lunch. You will have to think ahead.”
There was one boy in the front who had his hand up through this entire interaction – ever since the beginning. He held his right hand up straight and high. He would not be denied. She wanted to dismiss them, but he was so insistent – staring at her. Just waiting.
She pointed at him.
“Can we play basketball?”
It was silent. They all awaited her response. It was like walking into a trap in a chess game, and she knew it. Basketball had, to this point, been a God-given right of fourth graders at recess.
“You need to stay on this side of the gym door.” An evasive answer, as if they couldn’t extrapolate the consequences.
“The basketball court is on the other side!” someone shouted.
I was reminded of the townspeople in Frankenstein. I wondered how fast she could run.
“For the time being, you’ll have to do without basketball.”
There were gasps.
“We’ll get some courts up,” she offered. Sure, I thought. And so did they.
Now there was a sea of hands up. Teachers waded out into the mass of students, trying to reassert control at the local level. I shook my head.
Bathrooms, coats, lunch boxes, basketball courts. Who would have know that a simple budget cut could lead to this result? Who would have guessed that two hundred elementary school students could see the holes in a hastily-applied plan and the mayhem it would engender?
The poor woman.
It was a beautiful, beautiful thing.