Something Was Wrong

Previously (elsewhere): The Order of the Soul (Compass Rose)

Last week we went to see a classroom for our son.

The school in question had quite a good reputation. This was a place people wanted their kids to go, and when we had been there previously to see a different type of classroom, we understood why, or thought we did. It was doing the thing it was doing and hitting all the bases.

We had just been to a place with a less good reputation, and seen a run-down, not-well-equipped, kids-not-under-control version of this classroom, and were hoping that this version would be better.

We walked in and it looked nice. It had the things such places have. There were things to play with and kids were scattered around playing quietly. Our son walked towards one of the things. One of the kids already there said hi to him. We and the school’s people watched. I surveyed the room.

Everything looked like it was supposed to look. This was a nice classroom. Kids were playing.

Something was wrong.

I told myself it was nothing. We kept watching. We hoped our son would make a good impression. This was a place people wanted their kids to go. We wanted him to be allowed to go here.

Our son did not want to play much with the other children. We knew this was bad. They would not like it. They would think it meant something was wrong; that he was not ready. He was supposed to want to play with them. We were told he needed to play with them. We felt like we were failing somehow. We hoped he would reconsider.

One of the two school employees that went in with us tested our son, seeing if he knew his numbers and his colors and his shapes. He did ace the numbers and colors and shapes. That felt good. Why was the test even there? I wondered why the older kids needed to be learning single digit numbers.

The employee finished the quizzing and started furiously writing things in boxes on a piece of paper. I hoped they were good, positive things.

I looked around the room more. There were things in corners, things in boxes. The things were trying too hard, somehow. You could smell the educational plan, the committee meeting, the boxes being checked off in a distant room.

There was a sign that said “Manipulative Phrases.” It was about how to get conversations started by asking how things work. Not what I think of when I see ‘manipulative phrases.’ Refreshing!

Also not how any human voluntarily interacts with any other. It was off. Alien.

Something was wrong.

I looked around at all the things in boxes. Lots of things to do. Nice things.

I recognized a lot of the other things from other classrooms. Must be common core. All hail common core. Common core killed outside play. Common core killed nap time.

I saw the wheel with what the weather is today. I saw the sign with the day of the week it is, was yesterday, and will be tomorrow. Same everywhere. A checkmark in a distant room.

Something was wrong.

I told myself it was nothing.

There was something called ‘the cleanup song’ queued up on YouTube. There were four minutes left to play, the children were told. They did not react. Then there were two. Again they were told. Again they did not react. Then there were none. I assume a button was pressed. The song played. The children put their things away, silently, expressionless. A young boy gathered up pattered tiles off the floor and stacked them in his hands. The teachers must be happy.

Something was wrong. These kids are four and five. Kids this age aren’t like that.

But wasn’t that the goal? To get kids to understand. To help them cooperate, to be ready for school. Hence the name, preschool. Wasn’t it nice that they had order and all the kids were well-behaved?

It was nothing. A powerful mantra. It was a good thing.

It was circle time. The kids gathered in a circle.

Our son did not join the circle. We tried to get our son to join the circle.

He did not want to join the circle.

We kept trying. He kept not wanting to.

He wasn’t wrong. The circle was lame. Super lame.

All the other kids were smiling. They liked the circle. Why did they like the circle? Where did they get this level of buy in?

A full four adults, myself included, were trying to get my son to join this circle. He was failing the test. We were failing the test. He needed to join! Or else! Things! His future! The alpha quadrant!

I heard myself talking. I said “Join the circle. Don’t you want to bow to social pressure?”

Out loud. I said that out loud. The other adults did not react. They somehow seemed amused. No funny looks. The other kids didn’t notice. They weren’t listening. No curiosity. There were lots of strange people there and they didn’t notice. In order to sit in a circle.

I kept going. “Don’t you want to conform? Everyone wants you to join the circle.” I had one or two more. It felt right. It fit. I was sure, somehow.

How was I so sure? I didn’t know. I decided I must have picked up on something I hadn’t consciously processed. We went outside, they talked a bit among themselves, then talked to us.  They said they’d think about whether they had a place for him that met his needs.

We asked a bunch of questions. The answer to all of them was “it varies.”

We left and started walking back towards the subway. We would discuss our findings. What did I think?

What did I think? Something is wrong. 

I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. But did I have the right to say that? Isn’t this place doing everything it is supposed to? What could I actually point to? Who was I to say, no, run screaming for your life? 

This was what everyone official said was appropriate. This was what we were supposed to want. If we didn’t do it we would be hurting our son. We would be irresponsible. It would be just awful. We would be just awful. We’d certainly be to blame for what happened. There would be no end to the trouble. The city would try to punish us, deny us other things we needed; not everything they wanted for us was bad. If we just said yes we could be done with it. This is what people do. It must be all right, right?

I didn’t know what I was going to say.

My wife asked what I thought of the place.

I said “This is what a school is, right? This is what the thing is?”

I looked at her face. Something was wrong. The answer scared her. She wanted to disagree. Maybe she didn’t know how. Maybe she didn’t think she had a right to. Maybe she wanted to let me finish first so she wouldn’t anchor me. Hard to tell.

I said “It felt like… this is where children’s souls go to die.”

She said “yeah, it felt that way to me too.” The relief in her voice was palpable.

It wasn’t just me.

“It was like the Stepford Wives in there.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean.”

The light had gone out in those kids. They weren’t being creative or curious. They were following a routine, a series of prompts and triggers. They were inmates, worn down into submission.

They were four and five!

I had social confirmation now. I had permission. “We are not sending our son to prison.”

My wife wasn’t willing to endorse that metaphor, but shared the sentiment. We were in agreement. We would find another way.

It hit me what had almost happened. What we had almost done. To our son. To save some money on services, to bow to social pressure from an authority we knew did not even have our best interests at heart or much of a clue.

How many other parents knew but did not feel they had the right? Knew in their gut what was about to happen, but did not know how to say no, or could not afford to? Were too worn down by life, by work, by the bureaucracy, without the time or money to stop what inertia wanted? How many kids’ souls have to die, slowly, one day at a time?

Something is wrong. Really, really wrong.

Something bigger.




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29 Responses to Something Was Wrong

  1. Pingback: Thank you for listening | Compass Rose

  2. benquo says:

    Thank you for writing this. <3

  3. Romeo says:

    >“We are not sending our son to prison.”


    >What could I actually point to?

    THIS is how the ratchet clicks!

    This post brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for being awake in the critical moment, don’t go back to sleep.

  4. michealvassar says:

    So filled with love for you two!

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  7. Phambot says:

    Thanks for writing this, as someone who went through similar this really struck a note with me. The school system is still not compatible for so many people (I still struggle in it), though it’s hard for me to think of a solution. So glad to read this from you as a longtime fan of your Magic decks, your son will be immensely thankful as he grows up to have parents like this!

  8. joshuatfox says:

    Yay unschooling! Our kids seem to have come out alright.

    But it is expensive. It costs the labor value of one parent. (Some people manage to work and unschool, but it’s a stretch.)

    Talk by Louise Fox, LessWrong Israel

  9. Zvi's Wife says:

    Ok, so I think it is a bit disingenuous to make this post without saying what the type of classroom we were seeing was and then leave the readership to assume this is a stand-in for all school everywhere and a call to arms for unschooling… The classroom was a government sanctioned 12:2:1 for children with learning disabilities that they were trying to ‘catch up’ to be able to ‘function in a classroom setting with their peers.’ The class’s stated purpose was to get the children to be able to follow the routines of regular class rooms without the children being disruptive. It was by far the most intensive and restrictive classroom we saw of the whole lot and the only one that felt anywhere close to this oppressive. Granted I had misgivings months ago about sending him even to an integrated government class for other reasons (very large class size, long school day, lack of nap time, long bus ride there and back), but ahem, was told by the blog writer that he thought it was esssentially the same thing as the expensive private preschools I wanted to send him to, and if 4 hours of private preschool was a good thing, then it didn’t make sense that 7 hours of public school would be a bad thing…. I have seen 3 private preschools with slightly different flavors – a Jewish school, a music school, and a montesorri school, and all seemed nice and had happy children singing and playing – not soul-dead slow children being beaten into submission. Our son currently attends a summer program at the Jewish school for 2 hrs a day x 3 days a week, which he LOVES and gets very excited about going to. Now expensive private preschool is *expensive*, and we may decided NOT to pay for it anyway, but if it were free, I think it would be an actively positive thing for our son, especially given how much he already enjoys his summer program.

    • Zvi's Wife says:

      There is another thing worth mentioning about the government schools we saw, and I’m just going to come out and say it – they were all somewhere between 75-95% minority students. Now I don’t think white children don’t have learning disabilities – I think white parents have money, and those with money decide NOT to send their children to those programs. So it’s not just us who looked at those class rooms and ran away. The socially appropriate thing to do within our socioeconomic class is NOT to send your child to free government preschool, it’s to send them to expensive private preschool.

    • sethburn says:

      I have no idea what a 12:2:1 is, but I can grasp the concept of a class designed to… reduce disruptiveness in children. It’s spooky how well they succeeded if that was their goal, especially given the presumed difficulties the children must have faced initially.

      The Jewish school sounds solid, and frankly, if it is the kind of thing he would look forward to, I think my initial bias would be to pay the cat.

    • benquo says:

      Thanks for adding information! It makes sense that many preschools are better in the relevant way.

      Curious if you shared Zvi’s sense that the thing that was wrong with this one was hard to think about, articulate, or talk openly with each other about. That’s what struck me the most about this post.

    • benquo says:

      My parents sent me to an alternative school that was relatively noncoercive all the way through 8th grade, and while it had its flaws, I was mostly a free human being at the end. Then they sent me to an ordinary public high school and I accumulated a huge amount of damage that I’m still recovering from. I don’t think they’d have done the latter if they’d had language to help them think about this sort of thing, and it seems like it would have easily been avoidable.

      I think this is basically how many supposedly totalitarian societies are – it’s not literally impossible to escape oppressive systems, it’s just hard to do so if you’re trying to hold onto your privileges, and very hard to coordinate openly about doing so.

      • Zvi's Wife says:

        Just to clarify – Zvi’s description is accurate. The place was creepy and felt *wrong* to me too. I had one very concrete thing I could point to and say it was not ok – the other children did not seem to be any more advanced than our son was now and they were 1-2 yrs older. I felt very frustrated leaving that there were not *more* concrete things I could say in an argument for why the school was inappropriate for him. It seemed to have *too much* adult attention, but that was supposed to be a good thing… Then when Zvi said ‘this is just what school is, right?’, I got upset, because I expected he was going to argue that the free version was the same in order to save some money, when it clearly was NOT, but it was hard to articulate why. I was greatly relieved when Zvi said he didn’t like the place. In the words of administrative language – it was too restrictive an environment – and that we can take to the bank.

      • Zvi's Wife says:

        I’ll also add that I realize this reflects poorly on the state of public schools, which I fear now might not be an option – and given the costs involved in private schools (they get more expensive after preschool), we might end up homeschooling anyway.

      • Zvi's Wife says:

        Also a clarifying point – our son receives several therapy services through the government EI program which have been tremendously helpful to him- once the school year starts he will no longer be able to receive these services unless he is enrolled in a school (public or private) or unless we pay for them – it is not clear that even with insurance we will save any money by not sending him to private preschool if we want him to continue his services. This is the main reason why the school issue has been such a big deal at the age of 3…

  10. Tetris says:

    My (otherwise healthy, neurotypical, able) kid had a weird virus last week. She was pretty tired, took long naps, and lost all initiative. Didn’t play. Didn’t show an interest in anything. Didn’t chatter. Did everything I asked her to without complaining, commenting, or getting sidetracked. It was spooky! I was glad when it was over and I got my usual, happy, inquisitive, disobedient child back…

    I think the bigger problem that you speak about may be related to Goodheart’s demon. The stated goal for these schools is to enable children with behavioral problems to function in ordinary schools. Are they happy? Are they creative? Are they everything they could be? Well, there’s nothing in the checklist about that. Only if they can follow directions and stick to a routine without being disruptive. So happiness falls by the wayside.

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  14. Aaron Miller says:

    Possibly of interest: John Taylor Gatto, “The Underground History of American Education”. (Yeah I know, but don’t let the title stop you; I first read the book at an age where the “underground” adjective constituted an enticement in its own right, and still happily recommend it at an age where the converse is true.)

    • TheZvi says:

      Thanks! For anyone seeing this, book recommendations are great even if I obviously end up not reading most of them (my to-read list gets longer each month rather than shorter).

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  16. Qiaochu Yuan says:

    Thank you for writing this.

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