The Sorry State of our (Carceral) Public Educational Institutions

I’m a child of the public school system. I remember when I went to school I felt safe. Even though some of the teachers were grossly under-qualified, to the point a third grade history teacher of not knowing the answers to a third grade history test, most of the teachers were adequate, and the environment was one where a child could nourish his talents. My strengths were drawing and writing. My teachers knew this and they not only accepted but encouraged my writing random prose and poetry in the back of tests and doing chalk drawings on the board during lunch hour. Both the teachers and the administrators understood that school gates were for keeping strangers out, that security guards were for protecting the kids, and that unruly kids needed to be disciplined in a fair way.

I remember when I was in second grade there was a man who would walk by school every early afternoon, at about 12:30 or so, during lunch hour. He always wore a red piece of clothing, and so the kids (myself included) called him “Sangre” (Spanish for Blood). One day he got fed up and tried to force the school gate open. The guard, who was in the office dealing with a kid who tried to kill himself, heard the ruckuss of a bunch of elementary school kids trying to hold the gate against this gigantic beast called “Sangre” and he came to our rescue. He scared the dude off and told us that we shouldn’t call him Sangre. He gave us a lecture on how we shouldn’t provoke other people and told us to be off to play, and that next time he would send us to the principal’s office. The next morning Sangre walked by and we said “old man we’re sorry for calling you Sangre” and he said “just don’t do it again please it gets on my nerves”.

The play yard had some see-saws and monkey bars and other stuff kids could play with, and in the back of the school there was a small shack overrun with plants that was our “fort” where we would play medieval knights, and the tar in one of the parking lots was loose and we would sometimes have competitions on who could lift the heaviest piece.

Indeed, schools were places where, despite the boring lectures of some teachers, we learned things and had fun and were encouraged to dance and draw and write. When we got into fights we were sent to the principal’s office, and we wouldn’t fight for another school term. When a big group got into a group fight we were sent to the principal’s office until our parents showed up and we wouldn’t get in a fight for another entire school year.

But now things are different.

I went to visit several schools a few days ago as part of a recruitment campaign for a professional organization that I belong to and I saw ho everything has changed. All of the schools that felt like a safe haven for kids now felt like a prison. In one school I visited, the school where I went to Kinder and first grade, there were three gates, the school was half a mile away from the first gate, and the school building had metal fences around every open space. There were no monkey bards or any kind of recreational areas for kids, no ruined building, nothing. There was just grass. There were no guards outside the complex, but there were cameras. It felt like a maximum security prison. Another school I visited that I also attended as a kid, my second and third grade school, had barbed wire and guards patrolling the premises. The barbed wires were not pointed outward to keep strange people out, they were pointed inward to keep the kids in. Furthermore, to go in all I had to do was tell the gate sentry “I’m here to see the principal”, and without asking for any ID or information he let me through.

The third elementary school I visited is not one that I went to, but one that is located near the institution where I work. It had the same carceral aspect as the previous schools, but with one distinct difference: this school had two gates. This is a school I had visited a few years back to interview a professor. She told me then “the back gate is always open”. So I went to in through the back gate. It was lunch hour. The kids were running around and the volunteer parents and teachers were blissfully ignoring the world as it passed by. I walked in and no one challenged me. I stood there in the play yard surrounded by kids and I thought that if I could get in that easily, then so could anyone, and in the same easy manner anyone could leave, so there is really no point to all the gates and barbed wire. I went to the principal’s office where the secretary asked me to wait. Some kids came in with the guidance counselor and they began talking about how some other kid got into a small fight with another kid. I thought “ah yes the good old days”, but then the counselor proceeded to say “and now the cops are here and they’re going to take him to jail”. WHAT THE FUCK? Two 8 year old kids fighting does NOT warrant them being handcuffed and hauled off into some penitentiary institution as if they had murdered someone. A slap on the wrist and a stern talking to should be more than enough! Then again, given what I had seen so far on how kids are treated now – in a repressive manner where you lock them up in cells and march them to common halls and then take them out to a yard with no play ground seems remarkably similar to a prison. They are just taking that kid away from one penitentiary institution into another.

The other schools I visited were very much the same – a carceral environment with a repressive atmosphere.

The only notable exception was my old high school, Escuela Superior Gabriela Mistral. The year previous to when I graduated the school was ranked third worst school in the island, the year I graduated we went up to 18th worst. Still, the teachers in the school were excellent, and I owe a lot of my formation as a human and citizen to them. The environment was nourishing and kids were allowed, to some extent, to express their creativity. What made the school bad was not the guard who kept strangers out most of the time, the teachers who encouraged the development of music, science, and good citizenship behavior (I remember my final project for 11th grade Science was to go to the botanical garden, adopt 5 trees, and plant one in school and four around the community, and my final project for a social studies class was to visit a senior citizen’s center). What made the school “bad” was that it was located in an area where it got students from three different public housing projects that have a history of rivalry. That and that a lot of us didn’t really care about getting a 4.0 average. As long as we finished high school it was fine. And most of us did. I started in that school in 10th grade with a class of 170 students. Three years later the school graduated 178. Most of us went on to university, even if over 60% didn’t finish it. The school did its job. It gave us the necessary knowledge to think critically about various subjects, and even though none of us had absolutely any idea what “Log10 – e” meant, we all had the skills needed to get into a class and eventually understand what it meant. We didn’t know how to accurately spell “Shake Spear” (who does), but we knew he wrote Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and The Tempest, and we knew the plot and moral of each of those stories. We knew there was something the teacher wasn’t telling us about this curious poem Wild Nights Wild Nights were I with thee…, but we knew how to infer that it was the longing of a cheating woman. We didn’t know why he was “piping down the valley’s wild”, but we knew he was high off whatever he smoked on that pipe because he was seeing children floating in clouds. We knew about evolution and the big bang, and of how “nothing” (which is actually a micro particle of four atomic forces) exploded and the world formed, and we knew how we were somehow related to monkeys. Sure, we knew there was some sort of problem with the monkey thing and that thing they say in church about Adam and Eve, but we just assumed that Adam and Eve were somewhat like monkeys and then their kids were like humans. We didn’t loose our faith because we were taught evolution. We knew about the dinosaurs and how they were millions of years old because the “science people” had some carbon thing that told them the date of it. Essentially, we got an acceptable education in that high school.

And the students who go to that high school today still get the same education. Certainly, it’s not an ivy league school education. After all, the department of education is not willing to spend what a Ph.D. is worth to teach “mongrels” like us – the poor kids – but we get a level of education that is good enough for most of us to get into a university. An education where many of us graduate, and some go on to do graduate degrees. An education where even some students are invited by U.S. universities like Purdue to apply, and even to get some of the brighter students into Harvard and Stanford. All in all, Escuela Superior Gabriela Mistral offers a pretty good education to their students. I wish they realized it and took advantage of it.

 Still, Gabriela Mistral is a dying breed. From what I saw in my trip schools now are meant to indoctrinate, to teach children their place, to pummel them into submission and make them slaves to a broken system that runs a deeply sick society.

 And with what some educators are proposing, which I will talk about in my next post, it might just get worse…..


About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on February 18, 2010, in Education Commentary and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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