One of the things that strikes me about public school is how self-referential it’s been so far. I know this is early days yet, and the school is doing this in the name of getting the kids to know each other. Still, it’s amazing how all of the projects are about me, me, ME! When I visited my daughter’s classroom the other night, every wall had projects in which the children drew themselves, described themselves, lauded themselves, and applauded themselves. The same in my son’s class. Not only are the kids required to bring in materials all about themselves, they are also required to fill out a giant chart in which each tells how wonderful he is.
Heck, both my kids are wonderful (sometimes). Still, I really don’t think either (a) that kids need all this teacher interference to get to know each other or (b) that it’s good for kids to have formal lessons in how wonderful they are. I’m hoping that this obsession with self diminishes as time goes by. This is a community in which parents love their children. Given that fact, my innocent, naive mind thinks the school is there to teach; the parents are there to do the loving.
Of course, this same self-love appears everywhere. I recently watched with my children a very sweet movie called High School Musical. The performances are decent, and the movie overall has a very Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland quality. The lead performers can all sing — sort of — and all of the performers can dance — sort of. It isn’t at all sleazy, which was what worried me and which is why I sat through it with my kids.
The basic plot is that the romantic leads are a brain and a jock who discover they can sing. However, when they attempt to break out of the brain/jock mold at school, their friends use peer pressure to try and deter them. The friends, of course, are soon brought to realize that people should be allowed to follow their interests, and the peer pressure stops. I like that message and, as I said, the movie wasn’t at all sleazy. What they movie was, though, was self-referential. Every good act was phrased in terms of “it feels like the right thing to do.” The movie didn’t stop to question, of course, that, when feelings are a guide, that’s an equally valid argument for bad acts.
Interestingly, at Montessori, children do not write materials celebrating themselves. Instead, they write materials celebrating the others in the class. I’ve always liked that, in part because it reminds me of a letter I read in Dear Abby long, long ago (mid-1970s, probably). I can’t find it, but I’ll summarize it.
A teacher wrote that, back in the 1960s, she was having a horrible time with her class. They were just grumpy and unresponsive. Finally, almost in despair, she had them put their books aside, and get out a blank sheet of paper. She told her students to write one sentence about every other student in the class, praising that student for something that made that student special and good. After some initial grumbling, the students complied, and rapidly became completely immersed in the task. That night, she took the sheets, cut them up, and sorted them by name. For each student, she took all the resulting compliments and pasted them on a sheet of paper. The next day, she handed each student his or her sheet of paper, complete with compliments from all the other students. They were delighted.
The story went beyond those two classroom days. Years later, this same teacher had students coming up to her and telling her that this project was one of the best they ever did. Many said that those compliments changed how they viewed themselves. The most moving moment was when she learned that one of her students, who died in combat in Vietnam, had his compliment sheet amongst his personal effects when he died.