When I was a teacher at the Juvie Prison in Swannanoa, the boys would tease me that even though the length of time they had to serve there was long, the length of time I would serve there was way longer. They would be waving good-bye to me as they were driven through those squealing gates on their way home as I drove in to serve another long day behind bars. They were amazed that anyone would choose to spend time in a juvie lock-up, and even more astonished that I would do it for the eight years I spent there. Even more surprising to them was that I would show up every day. They had no reference of someone close to them who reported to work every day, as almost all of them grew up in poverty in the projects of larger towns and cities in North Carolina. A work ethic had not been instilled in them. Every day as I proposed to them an assignment of ridiculously light work for them to achieve that day, they would say, “What?? we did work yesterday! You’re killing us with all this work!!”
These boys were masters of avoiding doing any kind of work. They preferred to sit in their seats repeating the same meaningless conversations with the guys they were locked-up with than doing any kind of schoolwork. I discovered that I had to dream up fun and exciting projects for them to do or they flat out wouldn’t even try them. Even then I had to bribe them with forbidden treats. We were not supposed to bring in any kind of food for them, a rule I broke every day. They were so hungry and would do just about anything for a cookie. I gave out a Student of the Week award in each section for the kid who was most cooperative, and gave them a meal from Burger King or McDonalds depending on whether the recipient was a Crip or a Blood (yes, even fast food has gang implications). It was a prize that motivated them more than gold.
I am thinking more about them and, of course, of the sweet, cooperative kids I taught at Charlotte Country Day School, this week as we roll around once again to the opening of the school year. Even though education has changed and kids are on computers from the time they are in strollers, the period leading up to the start of school is the same as it was when I was in grade school. There are the back to school sales of course, but do kids really wear those plaid outfits I see in the ads? Those leather shoes? Those hard lunch boxes? Do kids use pencils? Loose-leaf notebooks? Reams of paper?
School lunches. I still have nightmares about preparing those lunches for my kids to take to school: Organic peanut butter slapped on whole wheat bread, fruit, healthy snacks. I still wonder if they even opened those paper sacks, but probably threw them away or traded with someone for a Ring-Ding. (When Seth was in kindergarten i was still making all our bread: heavy wheat bread the texture of sand paper. Seth came home one day and asked why all the other kids had soft white bread and something called bologna. I said it was because their mothers didn’t love them as much as I loved him. He bought it for less than a week and began demanding what the other kids had. I caved.)
My friend Sean O’Neill’s kids are younger than mine and went to Country Day when the craze for Lunchables arrived. These are brightly-colored packages containing slices of cold cuts or something else full of preservatives and food coloring, sugary drinks, and candy. They are also quite expensive. They were all the rage with the other kids and Sean was pressured by his sons to pack Lunchables for them. He objected to them on many levels, but he came up with a smart solution. He bought one set of Lunchables, threw out the contents, and packed the empty Lunchable boxes each day with something healthy. The boys thought they had Lunchables, the other kids thought Sean’s boys were cool, yet the boys weren’t eating crap.
Even though I haven’t taught in years and my kids haven’t been in school in decades, I still get the back-to-school blues. I hate to see the end of summer with its long open days, days when parents don’t have to prod their kids to get out of bed and get ready for school. I love the warm (even hot) weather and the light until 9:00. I love the lush green of the mountains and the profusion of flowers, Rose of Sharon shrubs, and Crepe Myrtles. I love the peaches and tomatoes at the tailgate market, and I love the sweetness of cantaloupe and watermelon. And did I mention the fresh corn that has been extra sweet this year?
Since I stopped teaching, though, I live in an eternal summer in a way. My life is full of play and fun. I am not forced to do anything I don’t want to do. And if I want to sleep late and open the shop late? Guess what? I do it. The down side is I hardly ever know the day or date, as every day seems like Saturday. My condolences to those of you who are facing the start of school. Just know that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Endless summer awaits.