It started raining this morning and the air smelled like compost – slightly acrid with a promise of outrageous fertility. I felt like I was in the children’s book, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs as weather is not just rain or snow in this part of the world, it seems to frame everything from airplane flights to conversations. Regardless, there was a surprising lack of umbrellas as people walked to work or kids to school seemingly oblivious that anything much had changed except the level of run- off in the endless system of storm drains. I had another school visit planned and was prepared for a similar travel experience as yesterday. In fact, with the exception of my driver going backwards down a one way for about 5 minutes at 50 miles an hour weaving in and out of the on- coming traffic, it was a rather uneventful .
This school had been recently renovated and reportedly had an exceptional staff. My observations once again were to be in primary as it is easier to compare along at least one set of grade levels rather than hopping around from level to level. The children were dressed like the ones from yesterday – little girls in blue uniforms with bows in their hair and little boys in suits. Older children were more in evidence and quick to give the traditional greeting of putting your hand over your heart to say good morning. In any case an obvious American with a brief case and a camera was cause for curiosity.
Bouyed up from the day before, I was ready to observe and participate as needed. My first stop was a math class. The room was small and literally dark as though there were light fixtures there no light bulbs, and the one window faced an outside wall and due to the gloomy day there was hardly any light. The children sat silently at their desks in rows waiting for someone to come and teach them. Their teacher had left unexpectedly for the day and they were simply waiting to see what would happen next. It was a unnerving sight , these small ones quite as mice, all lined up at their blue wooden desks that were bolted to the floor waiting patiently. In fact they sat there for about 20 minutes while teachers zipped in and out of the room. When one appeared they all stood up said greeted her in unison and when she left they all sat down to return to waiting.
Totally taken aback I went to another room, this one had a teacher. She was a far cry from the hummingbird but at least she was a teacher and she was there. The lesson was well underway and her small charges were copying from the board to the copy book. It was here that I met the boy with the blue ruler.
The teacher had drawn a picture on the board that was theoretically meant to practice geometric shapes. Thus the entire picture was made up of triangles, squares and various other shapes. There was a sun in the corner with exactly 4 triangles as rays, a house with a triangle for a roof and a square for the walls and various other shapes to complete the picture. The only non geometrical shape, and a touch of whimsy, was the smoke squiggles out the chimney. The object of the lesson was to replicate this picture exactly as it was on the board. Regardless of my own lack of Tajik, it was obvious that this was not about the geometric shapes as it was about reproducing the drawing.
There was not a sound in the room. One little boy couldn’t figure out how to reorient his paper so he reoriented himself until he was unceremoniously plunked down in his chair. Meanwhile the boy with the blue ruler set about with the precision of a budding draftsman to reproduce this drawing with perfect accuracy. His main stumbling block was that his pencils were broken and he had no sharpener but that could be overcome if he pressed harder and made the lines several times. He studied the blackboard, squinting slightly as if taking a bead on a target. He searched his little stash of possessions and took out his triangle and his ruler. He figured out how to make the sun and make the four triangles perfectly the same. He oriented the sun within an inch of where it was to be in the corner of his paper. Then he set about to do the house, measuring each piece carefully to ensure that the square was indeed a square and the chimney was indeed a rectangle. He worked in total silence as did the others but his was a special and more intense effort. He was the only one who thought to use a ruler and a triangle. He was the only one, who for some totally unexplained reason could measure accurately at the age of six. He was the only one to try to make sure the sun was exactly where it was to be and that the windows of the house were squares of identical size. I sat next to him as he worked. I nodded from time to time in admiration but he didn’t so much as smile. Rather he bent over his task as if the world depended on his getting it right. For all I know maybe it does.
I spent the rest of the day going to other classes, most of them quiet, dark and on occasion over crowded. My driver came on time and today I begged off lunch. On the way back to the city, I flipped through my photos and the boy with the blue ruler materialized. For just a flash I dreamed up a nice ending to this story that he would grow up to build bridges and magnificent buildings. He would be a famous draftsman or architect. I also wondered what if things were different for him at school.
What is our responsibility as teachers to bring some light to the task of learning? If you asked his teacher she would say she was doing the best she can and in all probability she is. The obvious response is .. is that good enough?