The future of America …. in the school cafeteria
By Sheryl McAlister, a writer based in SC.
If you want to see the future of this country, go have lunch in a public elementary school cafeteria.
In a sea of multiculturalism, you’ll see our best and brightest under development. All sizes and shapes from petite to super-sized, these kids don’t all look alike. They aren’t dressed alike. They don’t all think alike. There are no distinguishing characteristics between the haves and the have nots. Everybody gets a free lunch if they want one – not just the ones who rely on the school meal as their only meal of the day. Everybody shows respect – to each other and to the teachers.
There are rules of order. There is a system of doing things. There is a place to sit. There is a time to laugh and talk. There is a time to be quiet. Hundreds of kids. A handful of teachers. For nine months out of every year. Every single year. Day in and day out.
It’s fascinating. Not rocket science. But fascinating, nonetheless.
I’ve had the opportunity to eat lunch at school with my nieces and nephews off and on for six years at one of two elementary schools in the suburbs of Columbia, South Carolina. The only significant change that I have seen is the installment of the double locked doors and enclosed security sections, evidence of a world changed by circumstances and tragedies not caused by these children or known by most of them. A school resource officer (SRO) is ever present. SRO is a euphemism for armed police officer. Sadly, that’s the way it is these days.
I used to get to the cafeteria a little early and had a chance to sit and watch one class exit as another class entered. The teachers and principals reign supreme, as it should be, but not in a boastful way. A longtime beloved janitor seemed to have an equally critical position in the food chain and might arguably hold the most senior position of wisdom and influence. The teachers’ lunch table was sacred ground and the only one in the room with adult-sized furniture. (Yes, those of us visiting eat at the kids’ table.)
The teachers’ table, however, was the place where adult chatter and sarcasm were expected and the occasional student would approach ever so hesitantly. The teachers were hilarious. They were as attentive at lunch as they were, presumably, throughout the day. They laughed. They rolled their eyes at the most difficult student while simultaneously handling the issue of the moment. But they made the kids behave. The kids listened. Misbehavior was rewarded with the kid having to walk laps at recess. There was no sitting inside in an air-conditioned timeout. Exercise as a punishment – now there’s a concept.
One kid, I noticed, seemed to receive an overabundance of positive attention. He wasn’t misbehaving; rather he was moving around the room and visiting the teachers. Well behaved, he was laughing. The teachers obliged him. I noticed the extra attention, but said nothing. I learned later that the little boy had lost his mother tragically and suddenly.
And then there are the kids from the local children’s home or those who are homeless. I didn’t know who they were, but the teachers do. The teachers watch over them as a protective parent would do, ever vigilant that someone doesn’t mistreat them. They care about all of the students, naturally. But the teachers hold a special place for those kids who need someone extra in their corner because life has left them a little shorthanded.
These teachers – not all of them consider this work a calling. As an observer, I can tell you it has to be. God knows, they aren’t in it for the money.
I mean, if you think about it, where else do you go to work having to clear two security access points and spend the entire day with hundreds of kids who belong to someone else? Where else do you:
- Manage to help the kids who have parents that don’t care enough to feed them or do homework with them?
- Manage to guide the kids who haven’t been taught the fundamental life skills of consideration and respect?
- Manage to be accountable for classrooms, increasing standardized test scores, keeping the peace, and everything else that might just happen along?
- Manage to oh yeah …. teach the curriculum that will prepare them for advancement to the next grade?
When you think about it, with all the extra hours before and after class, the weekend work, the night meetings with parents and the teacher work days, those already low salaries calculate out to less than minimum wage when it gets right down to it. So, no, it’s not about the money.
The model for schools seems to be a good one in general. Some similar structure has been around since schools began. The rules, the teachers, the principals, the students are the four major categories at play here. What’s unfortunate is that there isn’t a system in place that allows equal funding for every public school across the board. As a taxpayer, I can tell you I can think of only a couple other areas where tax dollars could be equally well spent.
The current presidential election process has reported news of candidates favoring free college in this country. The problem with that idea is if we don’t get it right for the elementary school kids, whether college is free or not is a moot point. If we don’t get it right for them, they can’t compete on any meaningful level anyway and won’t qualify to get into college, technical school or vocational school.
What if every kid who graduated from the 5th grade could read and write on a 7th grade level at a minimum, had been introduced to the fundamentals of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), could speak two languages and could play one musical instrument? Add to that a basic appreciation and aptitude for the value of manners and kindness. What if?
It could happen. It would work.
As I said earlier, it’s been a privilege to visit two public elementary schools in my area over the past few years and also to watch year-end celebrations – graduations and awards presentations. I came away proud, encouraged and hopeful. Proud and encouraged because the group of kids I saw (not just the few I was there to support because I love them) were poised and smart and well-behaved. They opened the door for the grownups and used manners when answering questions. They shook hands and made eye-contact.
They were leaders. And I mean leaders in the purest sense of the word. The schools didn’t walk around handing out participation ribbons to every kid who showed up. Thank goodness. Presumably, those elected to student government roles earned the right to be there. For sure, those who earned the academic achievements did so as well.
One teacher said she was sad to see her students leave this year because they were – as a group – talented, smart and kind. She said her school usually has groups of kids who are either talented or smart or both. But, she said, the school didn’t always have an entire group that is all three.
That’s a powerful set of skills to have as a 5th or 6th grader – those in between students who are too old for elementary school but still too young for the complexities of middle school and beyond. It’s a testament to all who have a role in the students’ lives that they leave elementary school with their hopes and dreams intact.
This school year winds down in the next couple weeks. But next year, if you have a special kid in your life, go have lunch in a public elementary school cafeteria. Observe the kids and the teachers and marvel at how they all do it. Every single weekday. Nine months out of every year.
If we give these kids and their teachers what they deserve and invest in a future for them that is limitless in its possibility, they will embrace it with enthusiasm, intelligence, innovative thinking, courage and kindness. These public elementary school children are our best hope for a bright future. And I trust they will not let us down.
Copyright © 2016 Sheryl McAlister.
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