She stood framed in the double doors, almost inside the school, and without a fog horn her voice carried across the prairie cold exhorting all of us to think – only those weren’t the words spoken. No, it was a routine fire drill, and we were being reminded about how important filing quietly out the prescribed doors and lining up with our classmates was to our personal health and safety. A lesson we were to practice several times throughout elementary school, and it seemed more often during the cold winter months. This was old school; no preparation, no jackets, no boots and scarves in advance of a drill, just the sudden ringing, and the ensuing hush as we silently filed into the cold. And it was cold.
We were a very receptive audience even if we were prone to muttering under our breath that she, the principal, may be warm, while we were expected to shiver silently and endure the upcoming speech. Some principals may have considered the school auditorium the best place for lectures. Not this one. The school auditorium was where we as children performed, reciting poems, acting in skits, participating in Spelling Bees; the school auditorium doubled as a gym, our place to dodge balls, our place to challenge each other in a friendly game, our place to learn to become a little bit better coordinated physically when attempting to dance to a rhythm, or move across a balance beam. But the Fire Drills belonged to our principal. Here straddling the doors her words carried weight- no one would act up and risk spending an extra few minutes of time in the chill. One practice was discovered quickly- if we interrupted the lecture, she began at the beginning- our choice then to listen, truly listen to why the message was so important.
And what we discovered over time, was a little bit of the personal history of the speaker. Convinced that children could learn to question the world around them, she posed questions to us. She had personal family who had gone off to fight in WW11, and she believed passionately that not only were we the future, but that we would have to tackle an enemy at one point or another, and be prepared. So she taught us to practice patience, to think about actions that might be hurtful, to above all attempt to make sense of things that at times might not make sense. And to care.
While we continued to mutter under our breath we did absorb the lectures, and began to recognize a pattern to the readings and plays and work we were expected to memorize- that’s right – memorize- not to be shared once and then forgotten, but to form a space somewhere inside our heads, to be recalled as needed into our future lives, to supply some type of meaning as we changed and grew and were better able to understand the depth of the words; to have experiences and to be startled to discover that we had already been advised that such experiences might happen. Nowadays, and as an adult I am able to label the school “progressive”, to recognize within the practice a unique combination of humanistic principles; a public school with a principal who took to heart the planning of curriculum around a simple theme- whole school, whole child- literacy having at its heart the means to create change.
We learned that a war, any war, is devastating.
We learned that people came in all shapes and sizes, all backgrounds and colours.
We learned that people had a variety of abilities, and if we were blessed with strength in one area, it was our duty to share this strength, and help another, while learning what another could bring to balance us. And we learned this while standing in the very cold.
No one was ever harshly disciplined; no cruel and unusual punishments were meted out.
There was no strap, no corner to be placed in, no writing lines or detentions. But always, there was a question- simple, straight forward and not done up in fancy script or cutesy style adorning a classroom or the halls. “Does it make sense?” “Does it make sense?”
A wonderfully broad question, capable of encompassing almost any action-
“Does it make sense to run in the hall and possibly trip, fall and get hurt?”
“Does it make sense to not ask for help if the teacher is in the room to provide just this service?”
“Does it make sense to be mean to a classmate when you don’t know what tomorrow may bring and whose help you may require?”
“Does it make sense to cheat on a test rather than finding out what you are capable of doing?”
“Does it make sense to laugh if a classmate doesn’t know the answer- to pretend to be perfect when no one could be?”
“Does it make sense?”
And yet…so much of life doesn’t make sense. What then was she so earnest about teaching all of us? We would suggest to one another that standing in the chilly weather wasn’t making sense, and having to endure another lecture was making no sense at all. But we listened. And with each story we learned to question a little more deeply what our roles could be and how we might improve the general atmosphere of the school; we were the school- this much was drilled home. It wasn’t the playground or the gym, the classrooms or even the teachers; it was us. “You get out of it what you put into it”- she never said that- she said “ask why?”; “ask if anyone will or could be hurt”: state “why not” then review your thinking. And if necessary, “do nothing at all”. Imagine – an instruction to “do nothing”- but the real key to that last injunction was ‘if necessary”.
As an educator I think how difficult it can be to truly learn the value of the last instruction- and recognize that not only were we as children receiving advice, so were the teachers who stood in the cold with us. Sometimes the best way we can help a student is to let the student attempt an action without interference- the student must come to own the experience, to evaluate it, to make “sense” of it, to change and grow. We educators are like the training wheels on a bike; there to help our students acquire their own ability to balance, but once steady and moving forward, to be removed, and stand aside, and cheer.