The Hidden Curriculum

She looked at the papers in her lap and said that our son’s homework record was—and she paused here—spotty. She said the word as though it were profane. We waited for her to explain what it was she meant. She said that our son had completed very little homework over the course of the school year up to this point. She continued to flip through pages. She reached the final page in her stack and then looked at us. It’s possible that my records are wrong, she said, but it appears that your son hasn’t completed anything. Not that I can see, she said.

We looked at each other briefly, quizzically. Nothing at all? we asked.

She took from our reaction, she said, that our son was completing his homework but that he simply wasn’t turning it in. Was this correct?

It’s possible, we said.

You don’t know? she said.

We don’t really believe in homework, we said.

She nodded slowly, deliberately. I see, she said. Homework is an important part of what we do, she said. There is clear evidence in numerous studies to show that homework done correctly and in the presence of a supervising parent is perhaps the single most important site of early cognitive development. It’s crucial, she said. It’s absolutely crucial that you help your son with his homework.

We nodded and smiled.

She began to say something, but thought better of it. Then, as though it were a new idea altogether, she asked about reading. Your son reads well, she said. He’s meeting his goals. He’s on track to achieve his end-of-year targets, those established by the board of education. I take it you read with your son every day.

Sure, we said.

Do you? she asked, as though our first answer had been somehow insufficient. Sure, we said, but with feeling this time.

She knew we meant well, she told us, but we needed to rethink our approach to our son’s education. We needed to consider his long-term health and wellbeing. It was difficult, she told us, but with a little work it would begin to feel natural and normal. Second nature, she said.

We agreed with her, saying that yes, our son’s long-term wellbeing was, without question, without doubt, the most important thing. We said that we were prepared to do what we needed to do, that as his parents we were prepared to make any sacrifice to help our son achieve the kind of balance and happiness in his life that any parent would want for a child. But before we went further, we did have one question. We wanted to know if what our son had told us was true. Was it true, we asked, that our son was forced to stand in the corner through long portions of the day, staring at the bricks there. Was this true?

Not wholly true, she said. Although yes, she did sometimes ask children to stand in the corner for very brief periods of time. We needed to understand that this was an important part of her system of order, a carefully planned and well-studied code of rules and repercussions.

We told her we didn’t like it.

She said, We separate the child from the enjoyable experience of being with classmates, doing what classmates are doing. It’s punishment by the removal of reward, she said. It’s very effective at teaching children the natural consequences of their decisions, she said.

We said again that we didn’t like it, and she said she understood, but that it was for the best, that it was all supported by the latest research. Our son, she said, had probably done certain things, had probably made certain decisions, had taken certain actions that qualified as minor infractions of the system of order, the repercussions of which were a specified though very limited number of minutes spent in the corner.

Probably? we asked. What did she mean when she said that our son had probably done things to get himself punished in this way?

Well, she said, I don’t keep records of that kind of thing.

You should, we said.

Yes, she said, but she didn’t seem to mean it.

He’s only six years old, we said.

Yes, she said, I’m well aware.

And what about recess? we said.

What about it? she said.

We understand that you sometimes withhold recess as a punishment.

Only very rarely, she said.

We don’t like, we said.

I understand, she said.

Our son loves recess, we said. He loves nothing so much. In fact, we said, if it weren’t for recess, we aren’t sure public education would have anything of value to offer him.

Yes, she said, physical education is an important part of what we do.

But you withhold it, we said.

Only very rarely, she said.

We’d like you to stop that, we said.

I understand, she said.

It’s the running, we said. Have you seen our son run?

Yes, I believe I have, she said.

It’s his favorite thing, we said. He’s very good at it.

She said she wanted to ask about the food our son brought for lunch. As you know, she said, we discourage home lunch and would like very much for your son eat the food provided by the school and approved by the board of education. It would make things so much easier, she said, and it would do so much to improve your son’s situation, his relationship with peers, his wellbeing, were you to allow him to eat the lunch the other children eat. It would do so much, she said.

We said that we did not like the options provided in the cafeteria, that we had made a careful study of the menu and had found it lacking.

No, she said, it’s very healthy.

Healthful, we corrected, and no it’s not.

Yes, she said. The board of education has made it a top priority to guarantee that the food in our cafeteria is appropriate to the needs of our youngest learners. I can show you the report, she said.

We don’t need to see the report, we said.

She watched us for a moment and then asked if this meant we were prepared to allow our son access to the same healthy or healthful menu of food options his peers were enjoying. Other parents, she said, were all too glad to have these meals provided for their children at a very reasonable cost.

We said that we intended to make no such change. There are hot dogs in the cafeteria, we said, and we can’t approve of hot dogs.

Is that it? she said.

And pizza, we said.

She watched us and waited.

And cake, we said, and cookies.

I see, she said. She looked at her lap, at the papers lying there. She said, And you would prefer your son to eat, am I saying this right, bulgur?

Yes, we said.

Every day? she said.

Yes, we said.

Plain? she said.

Sometimes, we said.

She looked at us and then at the papers in her lap. We anticipated her thought and explained that bulgur was a whole grain similar to cracked wheat and commonly used in middle eastern cuisines, particularly that of Turkey.

And you want your son to eat it without a spoon or fork? she said.

We find eating utensils wasteful, we said.

But we don’t throw them out, she said, we wash them.

And the water, we said? And the gas to heat that water? And the soap? And the equipment? And the labor?

She breathed deeply through her nose and said that it would be great if we would reconsider our insistence on home lunch. We smiled and nodded, indicating that we understood her obligation to say such things, and that we were willing to wait patiently as she did so.

We’ve been working on some basic life skills as a class, she said, and your son does well in some areas, but not as well in others.

What others? we said. Well, as an example, she said, he doesn’t seem to know how to tie a shoelace.

That makes sense, we said.

Right, she said, but what I meant was that we were practicing shoe-tying as a class, and he didn’t really seem to understand the concept.

Of course, we said. And there’s a reason for that, we said. Please understand, we see the knot of a shoelace, and really any knot for that matter, irrespective of the ease with which it might be undone or untied, as a metaphor.

A metaphor? she said.

Yes, we said. We oppose knots of all sorts, we said.

She tilted her head at this, waiting as though for some thought process to run its course.

It’s for his long-term wellbeing, we said.

She kept her head tilted as it had been. She licked her lips. She cleared her throat. She said, But he doesn’t wear shoes at all, not even slip-ons, or loafers, of flip-flops. You know, a great many students in my classes have trouble tying a shoelace because, like your son, they’ve never had to. And this is fine. But they do wear shoes, just of another sort, the kind with buckles or Velcro straps, for example. There are many shoes without laces, she said.

We understand, we said.

In fact, she said, we have reason to believe that your son may have a touch of frostbite on his toes.

His toe, we corrected, it’s just the one, and it’s not frostbite. It might look that way, we said, but it’s not frostbite. He’ll be fine, we said. In fact, we said, his feet will be stronger for it, more resistant. He’s building calluses now that will serve him well through his life. He has strong feet.

Her head was no longer tilted and she stared at us as tough we were obligated to say more.

There are people in Kenya, we said, and in Ghana, and really all through Africa, who never wear shoes. There are marathon runners who have never worn shoes. The human foot wasn’t meant to be shod, we said. It damages the structure of the foot tremendously, forcing a person to distribute his weight incorrectly. It’s bad for the foot, the leg, the back. And say goodbye to good posture, we said. His feet are strong, we said, and getting stronger. You should see how well he runs, we said, he’s a very fine runner.

Yes, she said, you mentioned that. But it really does look like frostbite, she said.

It isn’t, we said, and it’s really very minor.

Were there questions we wanted to ask? Did we have concerns? Because now was the time.

We wanted an end of crepe paper, we said, and finger paint too. The toxins, we said. We won’t have it, we said.

There are no toxins, she said.

We told her we begged to differ.

It’s state policy, she said. The board of education has given the mandate. Look, she said, and she pulled a box of crayons from a crate near her feet. See, she said, non-toxic, it’s printed right here.

Oh no, we said.

What? she said.

You don’t know? we said.

I don’t understand, she said. You were concerned about toxicity, and I’ve told you that there are no toxins in this classroom as per board of education mandate, and these crayons are one clear example.

We watched her say this. We waited for her to realize how foolish she sounded.

What? she said.

The talc? we said. The paraffin? Just think of the toll, we said. Just think of the long-term cost of that one box, we said.

The cost? she said.

Yes, we said, and we asked her to please include crayons on the list of things that she was to stop using immediately.

What’s left? she said. If we don’t have crepe paper and we don’t have paint and we don’t have crayons, what do you expect us to do all day?

There’s running, we said, he’s a very fine runner.

I believe you, she said. I’ll see about increasing the amount of running we do.

You don’t have to run, we said. It’s fine with us if you let him run alone. You don’t have to be with him.

Thank you, she said. She would consider all of our recommendations, she said.

We thanked her.

Was there anything else, she wanted to know.

No, we said, we didn’t think so. More recess, we said, just that.

Yes, she said, she had made a note.

We said we were pleased to know that our son was a priority for her.

She stood and reached to shake our hands. We said goodbye and walked across that hard and colorful carpet, past the letters of the alphabet displayed on the wall. We saw ourselves out of the room and walked down the tiled hallway. We nodded at the custodian with his floor-buffing machine, the ground dull and flat before him, shiny and smooth in the long stretch behind him. We walked past the nurse’s office, the music room, the library. We walked beneath the exit sign, through the double doors with their wire-reinforced glass. We walked outside where the grass needed mowing but felt so nice and so cool.  

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