As little ones gather up their school supplies and head off to school this September, what are the attitudes about school that they bring along with their backpacks? In meeting kids during research, I have heard plenty of young ones say that they only like two things about school: gym and recess. It’s disarming for a college professor to consider this; we don’t have either gym or recess in college.
Still, graduates of college often feel positive nostalgia about their alma mater. They sing songs for the glory of old state (or wherever) and dip into their pockets to donate. They wear their college colors.
That’s not the kind of sentiment a lot of kids display for their elementary school as they gather to share songs about it. A common song about school heard on playgrounds in the United States actually embodies a kind of school death wish. Here’s one version of the song, recorded by child folklorists across regions and generations. It’s sung to the tune of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the burning of the school
We have tortured all the teachers, we have broken all the rules
We plan to hang the principle and secretary too
Our troops are marching on!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Teacher hit me with a ruler
I met her at the door,
With a loaded .44,
And she bothered me no more.
Children sing this song as a protest anthem, a broadside against authoritarian control. The singing is not the only clue that children resent and sometimes suffer under what feels to kids to be a tyranny of the older generation. In inner-city schools a common nickname for the outdoor area where children spend recess is “the yard,” a term directly imported from prison jargon. Children often find the initial adjustment to kindergarten to be difficult because learning to subjugate themselves so thoroughly to adult dictates is onerous. A bright boy I once interviewed at home the week he started kindergarten met me at the door with his toy Ghostbusters gun pointed directly at me, having had enough of nonfamilial adults that week.
In short, I often sense from children that school is, to them, a place where grown-ups wield dominating control and kids feel relatively powerless. It’s not unexpected that children have ways of coping with the perceived subjugation. One way is resistance: passing notes, drawing cartoons of the teacher, disregarding rules, chewing gum, not paying attention, not participating, or acting out.
Another way of coping is through pretend play outside of school. Kids, especially girls, like to restage school scenarios via “playing teacher.” Pretending about school is playing for power. The most coveted role is that of the teacher, and playing teacher is what psychiatrists have called a “compensatory mechanism” for it involves a person usually without power pretending to have power. Like playing doctor, kids find it reassuring to pretend to be the authority figure (under whose dominion they are subject). In a set of online instructions for “how to play teacher” (by Wikihow), the suggestion is emphasized to take turns being the teacher since “you shouldn’t get to be in charge all the time. “
A common difficulty in school for young children is precisely the fact that someone else is in charge all the time. Those who go on to college (where I teach them) many times have to be coaxed by professors to freely voice their own opinions in class discussion, as if they associate education with blending in and staying out of trouble.
I was lucky to have a school principal in grammar school who understood well that “taking turns at being in charge” could be a viable educational strategy. She encouraged our teachers to build choices into their lessons. She let the eighth- graders tutor the first-graders. One year, she let two of us write and direct a school play with almost no adult supervision. Students were in charge of selling school supplies to other students. I am grateful to her approach, for I recall those years fondly and still love learning. I might even sing the school’s alma mater, had there been one.
Cindy Dell Clark is a founding member of Child’s World America and an anthropologist who studies American children and families. Her most recent book is In a Younger Voice, a guide and toolkit for researchers who want to do children’s qualitative inquiry.