Friday, November 20, 2009

Full-immersion training in the fourth grade culture

I took the day off work today to perform every parent's civic duty—I accompanied a gaggle of fourth graders on a day-long field trip to the Pacific Science Center.

I consider myself quite familiar with one particular fourth grader, but we're talking about an entire grade four culture here, a synergy not present within the confines of the home. As I entered Room 21, I immersed myself in the sensory stimuli: the smell of chalk, disinfectant and Eau de Nine-Year-old; the economy of space, with every square inch occupied by artwork or bulletin board exhibits or well-hacked computer keyboards; the chair and desk legs, which wore sound-absorbing tennis ball slippers.

As the kids got themselves organized for the day, the teacher walked over to me and explained that, since many of the students had never been to the Science Center, they believed it would be boring. She pointed out that "boring" to a nine-year-old encompasses anything they don't yet know or understand. "Now that make sense," I thought. "I think she might know a little something about this strange culture."

The teacher quickly took the attendance, and then asked the kids if they had any questions about what they'd be doing.
"Can we go to the French bakery for our next field trip?" asked someone named Katie. "Because we went there on Saturday, and it's really good."
"That's not on our schedule for this year," the instructor replied. I could have sworn her lips said, "Hah, what a ridiculous question. Hell, no," just prior to her seasoned-teacher answer.

We filed out of the room and lined up for the "chartered" school bus. I noted that a glaring trait common to this odd nine-year-old culture is an inability to keep their hands off of each other. The boys head locked, punched, slapped and rammed into each other. The girls picked each other up, hugged and put each other down.

After we boarded the bus and took our seats, the driver stood and forcefully asked for everyone's undivided attention. He laid out the basic rules—no standing up in case of sudden braking, keep your voices to a reasonable volume, pay attention to the emergency exits. And then, he spelled out the last directive as follows:
"Parents, teachers and staff, please notice that the bus is equipped with a hand-controlled air brake right here next to me. Please don't hesitate to use it if I pass out or something. Okay, let's have a good time."
Pass out or something? Or something? A dull murmur arose among the crowd of children and adults, but it didn't take long for the kid faction to notice something shiny and move on. We adults chewed on the driver's disquieting statement for a while, but eventually we too began to "have a good time."

We arrived at the Pacific Science Center uneventfully—meaning, no major medical event for our chauffeur. I was assigned a group of four girls, including my daughter, and we embarked on our own journey of discovery through an animation exhibit and an amazing art display by a man named Chris Jordan , who uses tiny, photographic imagery to create large art pieces critiquing American consumerism. The kids and I spent a lot of time scrutinizing his work, and left the exhibit feeling moved.

Over the course of the day, I gained quite an appreciation for:
-the intelligence and insight of fourth graders.
-the dedication (and insight) of teachers.
-the fact that "or something" never happened while going fifty miles per hour over the Alaskan Way Viaduct in a school bus.

And since tomorrow is Saturday, its time for a little field trip to the French bakery.

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