Sunday, March 9, 2014

The 5th Grade Table

When my kids were in 4th and 5th grades, I would volunteer at their school for lunch and recess duty.

I worked alongside the two lunch aides and the Physical Education teacher. I helped the kids open their ketchup packets, started their oranges and got lots of napkins for the spills. I also walked around the cafeteria. I was an extra set of eyes.

Then at recess, I walked around again. During quieter times, I might use a variety of non-verbal skills like context and body language to try figure out what the aide and the gym teacher were talking about in Spanish. Then they would apologize and start speaking English again. I told them not to worry about it. I liked it.

I admired the school aide very much. She came to the United States as an eighteen year old, not knowing a word of English. By the time I met her she was fluent, with a very rich vocabulary. She learned by doggedly reading the dictionary every day.

When things got rough, or a kid was seriously out of control, she would send me to get security. I'm a fast runner, particularly when there's some adrenaline on board.

Sometimes specific and pervasive problems would surface. They would cycle in and out. There was one week when the 5th graders were having a behavior problem.

The kids were allowed to talk in polite volumes during lunch. But then when the aide or the gym teacher did the Signal - three claps - they were supposed to quiet down. But the kids kept talking and talking. The cafeteria staff were at their wits end.

Every once in a while, the principal would put in an appearance. This principal was not a yeller. She had a lot of equanimity.  The worst thing she would do or say when she came down there would be to compare the 5th graders unfavorably to the kindergartners. The little kids were apparently excellent at calming down as soon as they heard the Signal.

Then she would go back to the other building. The school was split in two, and her office was several blocks away. That is a very long story.

I could see what she meant. But to me, it was an unfair, like comparing apples and oranges. I don't think that kindergarteners want to converse as much as 5th graders do. 5th graders are getting ready to be adolescents. They have more of a social drive.

The school aides and the gym teacher came up with a plan. They gave the kids assigned seats for lunch. They made sure that best friends and cliques were separated. Normally, the boys still sat with the boys and the girls still sat with the girls. The staff did as much boy - girl alternating as they could. It was imperfect because for whatever reason, the girls always outnumbered the boys at this school.

My daughter and her best friend approached me to say that this new system was unfair. They felt that a grave injustice had been committed against them personally because they always quieted down when they heard the Signal.

This is true. But I told them that they needed to listen to the Lunch Teachers. I was trying to cultivate the idea that not everything could be fair when you are in school. Sometimes you have to go along to get along.

On the first day of the new system, the 5th grade table was very quiet. The kids, bereft of their friends and social ties, were extremely well behaved.  They were quiet even before the Signal. The experiment went so well, that the aides mixed things up socially again the next day.

What they weren't counting on was the adaptability of children. The children would have liked to sit with their friends. If given the choice, they would never be sitting in these seats, next to these people.

But this is where they were sitting. They accepted their lot. If they couldn't sit with their friends, so be it. Once they got over the shock of the first day, they made the best of it.

They spoke indiscriminately to whoever was sitting next to them. On the second day of lunch the table was just as noisy as it was previously because the children became conversationally promiscuous.  They ignored the Signal in favor of their interesting new partner.

It might have been stretching it to think that they made new friends. But they could sit quietly or they could converse with their neighbor. They chose to talk to whoever was sitting there.

It reminded me a lot of this song that I liked in the 1970’s. It went like this: If you can't be with the one you love, then love the one you're with. Of course, the song was about something else. But you get the idea.

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