Symphony 22

Since physical punishment had been outlawed, Kiernan, like most school, had gone to a step system. First came verbal warnings, then more formal verbal warnings, and finally, if a student persisted in rule breaking, a detention. If a child got so many detentions, a letter went home to his parents. So many more detentions and the parents had to come in for a conference. So many more and he would be suspended. So many more and he would be suspended for a longer time. So many more and he was expelled from school for the remainder of the year.

It was a fairly effective system. Most students never got to step one, and very few were ever suspended. But every year there were a few who moved through the system to the bitter end, not caring, or pretending not to care.

Explaining the discipline system was easy. The hard part was teaching the children the rules.

One would think that a few general rules like, be kind, don’t take anything that isn’t yours, and do your own work, would be enough.  For children, it never is. Rules for eleven year olds have to be numerous and specific.

Can you chew gum? (On the playground, yes; in class, no.)

Can you go to the bathroom? (Go during the breaks unless you have an emergency. Then ask.)

Do you have to raise your hand to talk? (Yes.)

Can I get out of my seat? (To get a kleenex or a drink of water, get up quietly and don’t bother me with asking. If I am talking to the class, don’t get up. If you are working at your seats, you may get up for books or paper or to sharpen your pencil. But not to visit.)

And so forth.

The rules had to be taught over time. Within a week, the children would know most of them, but they would forget, and Neil would still be reminding them of some of the rules in June.

By the time Neil had added the names of the new students to his roll and talked about discipline and rules, the second hour was over. The children headed for recess and Neil headed for the teacher’s  lounge.

# # #

Twenty minutes later, they were together again. All of the eagerness had gone out of the students’ faces. The housekeeping chores had been no fun. He distributed the language, spelling, and reading textbooks and gave them some time to look them over. It gave him a chance to observe them. Within five minutes he had moved Duarte Zavala into an empty seat far away from Sean Kelly. Their dislike for one another was plain to see. No other deadly combinations were immediately apparent.

After ten minutes about a third of the class was still content to explore the books, another third had settled down to read, and the others had become restless. Neil did not want his non-readers to be embarrassed on the first day of school, so he had quietly noted the names of those who read by choice. When the class read a short story together, he only called on them. That made things go smoothly.

Then he distributed paper and told the class, “I want two things now. I want to see how well you write, and I want to begin to get to know you individually, so write a paragraph or two telling me who you are.”

Four hands went up. He chose one. “I don’t understand,” Dixie Margaret Trujillo said. more tomorrow

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