Wednesday, February 01, 2006

one very bad school

Yesterday I did my last presentation for the MS Read-a-Thon winter tour. Thank goodness it was the last and not the first. It almost was enough to scare me off public schools forever.

It had actually been slotted in for the 18th of January. But the presentation was cancelled - not once but twice - due to freezing rain. This was perhaps an omen I should have heeded.

I arrive about 15 minutes before the 1 o'clock scheduled time. The office receptionist tells me to go to Mrs. M's classroom - which is dark and empty. Luckily public school gyms are always easy to find, so I go in and set up my stuff.

After about 10 minutes a lady comes and introduces herself as a volunteer who is going to help with the Read-a-Thon. That's nice, I say. She asks what I'll be doing in the gym and I tell her about the assembly.

"You're brave," she says.

"Why?" I ask. So naively, so confidently, I tell her that I've done assemblies with up to 600 kids. I don't expect the 300 at this school to be a problem. Again, I am not heeding the warnings.

The volunteer then disappears and I do not see her again.

It is now one o'clock and the gym is empty. I go back to Mrs. M's classroom. She is just coming in from outside and suggests I tell the volunteer lady to get an announcement made that the assembly will start. But volunteer lady has disappeared. I wander around the school looking for her till I see teachers bringing students to the gym.

The classes trickle in. A teacher wearing sweats and a t-shirt thinks to take chairs out from beneath the stage for teachers to sit on - something which is usually done before I arrive. But he doesn't want to bother pulling out the whole rack of chairs. He tries to yank out just one chair, but it won't come. So he pulls the rack partly out and tries again. The chair still won't come. Cursing under his breath, he labourisouly bends down to pull the rack out.

I guess he realizes at this point it would be rude to take just one for himself, so he tosses a few others out. No one comes to help - so I take some from him. He does not acknowledge me except to push chairs toward me, scraping them along the gym floor like fingers on a chalk board.

By now the gym is filling up with children and their excited voices. Three little girls in the front row are lying on their bellies, kicking and squirming like frying bacon. Older students are slouched against the far wall.

Mrs. M and her grade-one class are among the last to arrive. It is now about 1:15. At last it seems everyone is here, so she stands in front of the rowdy assembly and without fully quieting them or getting their attention, she says something about Mrs. Grace from the MS Society here to talk to us about Multiple Sclerosis and Reading. She smiles at me and sits down.

I begin as I always do - 'Hello, my name is Anita Grace and I'm here to talk to you about 3 things: Multiple Sclerosis, Reading and how MS and Reading fit together.' Then I lead into my attention-grabbing intro: a rainstorm. "But first of all. It's kind of funny weather today isn't it. Sort of raining, sort of snowing. You know what I think...'

But before I can say that I think we could make a rainstorm inside which might stop it from raining outside, a boy shouts out, "It's foggy!" The rest of the assembly erupts into giggles, laughter and chatter. And they won't stop. I try again, "Well, you know what I think..." But instead of quieting down to hear me, they are getting louder. I try sshh-ing them. No go. I try raising my hand - the age-old quiet down sign. About half the kids raise theirs, the others are lost in conversation and laughter.

I look over to Mrs. M. She comes toward me. Without thinking I blurt out, "They are really bad!" Then I apologize; say I shouldn't have said that out loud.

"Boys and girls," she shouts and finally they hush. "This is not how we behave here. Now I expect you to sit quietly and listen to Mrs. Grace."

She hands them back to me with an apologetic smile. Trying not to let my frustration show, I tell the kids I'll start over and that I will give them one chance to make noise. They make the noisiest rainstorm I have yet heard.

But for the rest of the presentation, they remain inattentive and disruptive. It takes everything I have to keep a happy tone in my voice and a smile on my face. Many time I have to stop my talk just to quiet the worst of them. When I resume talking I can still hear a buzz of whispers. When I ask questions, some kids will raise their hands, but many others will simply shout out answers. I try to still pick the kids with raised hands to talk.

"But that's what I was going to say," a kid shouts at me.

Sometimes, to reward a quiet child with his or her hand up, I ask if there is a question. But these questions rarely have to do with my topic. One girl talks about her mom breaking her collarbone. One boy tells me he has a scar on his forehead. Another boy, with a comic expression and wild hand gestures, asks what's up with God if he is letting stuff like this happen.

"That's a hard question to answer," I say and for the hundredth time try to rein in their attention. By now I am just trying to get through this without entirely losing my cool. When I finally say all I need to, I ask if there are any last questions. But the kids are so loud I can't hear the quiet voice of whatever child I indicated. I give up. Shouting above their racket, I thank them for having me in to speak to them. "If you have any questions you can come and see me... Thank you and happy reading!" I do not say, as I usually would, that they had been a great audience.

Neither Mrs. M or any teacher gets up to thank me. I turn to get my materials together and find myself surrounded by children. The first little boy, with shy stammering and several false starts, tells me he has asthma before slipping away, replaced by 15 or more kids vying for my attention. They literally have me backed up against the stage.

"Are we all going to get prizes?"
"How do you get MS?"
"Someone in my class wants to know - do you have MS?"
"When do we get the prize posters?"
"I'm reading the 5th Harry Potter book."
"Is MS serious?"
"I have a scar on my tummy."
"Can I count a book I am already reading?"
"Your friend Tracy, is that her first name or her last name? Because there is a Tracy who is the author of Pokemon books."
"How many of your friends were born in the 20th century?"

No teacher comes to call the kids away. By the time I have heard from the last one and suggested he go back to class, the gym is empty. No volunteer. No Mrs. M. Again, I go to her classroom - taking the materials she had not yet collected or asked for.

"I'm so sorry about the kids!" she says. "I was so embarrassed. They aren't usually like that."

I'm sure. Anyway, here's your stuff. Thanks for nothing.

Ok - I don't say that, but I am thinking it. I give her the things and leave. As I am signing out in the office, another teacher apologizes for the students, saying they had been unusually bad.

Well thanks for stepping in and helping me out.

I had noticed, while up there like a clown on a dunk seat, that the teachers were mostly young and indifferent - as if they had long ago given up on trying to control these kids who could go to hell in a hand basket for all they cared. A few other teachers were older, middle-aged and large. One man, with pudgy hands clasped around a protruding belly, had old-fashioned coke-bottle thick glasses. He seemed as uninterested in his class as they were in him.

Oddly enough, as I am leaving I notice that on the other side of the playground is the Catholic school that had been one of my favourite schools this trip. There the principal drew her kids attention by holding a rainstick. The students had been attentive, eager and polite throughout my talk.

If I ever had to choose which of these two schools to send my kids to, I think I just found a good reason to convert.

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