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The Relaxed Homeschooler: A Day In The Cafeteria

by Dr. Mary Hood

Catherine Levison
Dr. Mary Hood

Ed note: Dr. Mary Hood, a popular speaker at our Link conferences, known to most of you as “The Relaxed Home Schooler”, did something a bit different this year. She signed up as a substitute teacher in the public school system in Georgia! The following is a preview from her new book, coming out this summer, based on those experiences.

The cafeteria was buzzing with muted talk, each child sitting at his or her designated spot. New classes were arriving, standing in line waiting to be served. The A’s lined up first, to get their pre-selected meal. Two thirds of the children, given their choice, had chosen a greasy hamburger and fries. The B’s came next, to get their slice of pizza. Finally, the few straggling C’s, clutching a note from their mothers, were forced to receive the salad plate. Most of the latter group came back to their chairs, immediately threw the salad down on the table and ran over to the ice cream stand in the back, where they traded a few quarters for what was to be their real lunch. Later, the salads would languish, uneaten, in the big garbage cans at the end of each table.

The teachers were grouped at the side of the room, hidden behind a curtain. They deserved a break, and I didn’t begrudge them a few moments alone. The cafeteria itself was run by lunch-room monitors...well-meaning twenty-somethings with, perhaps, a high school diploma. They were happy to have good jobs in an area where unemployment was running high for those without university degrees. They had been given a tiny bit of training for their jobs, similar to the course I had undergone to prepare for my job as a substitute teacher. The training had consisted of four hours one Friday morning, jammed, shoulder to shoulder, in the window-less conference room at the board of education building, where we had been taught how to manage behavior. Education was not ever mentioned. The monitors had been trained well. They knew the latest techniques of behavior modification. The only problem was that their charges were young children, not rats.

I chose to sit with my third grade class that day. There were about thirty of them in all. I was sitting at one table, with about fifteen of them. They were eager to tell me all about their lives. They were such bright, special little kids, every one of them. The other table, somewhat crestfallen that I had chosen to sit at the first, occasionally shot me comments that, by necessity, had to be a bit louder than the others. All of them were chewing away, working on either their greasy hamburgers and fries or the pizza. A few were slurping ice cream cones from the stand. One little girl was picking away at the tasteless-looking salad, methodically removing all the tomatoes and putting the black olives on her tongue, one at a time, balancing them briefly, before flipping them backwards into the dark recesses of her mouth.

There were no food fights. There was no poking, no prodding, no name-calling. They sat there talking animatedly among themselves, just a bunch of little children, eating lunch and looking forward to the one time of the day when they were allowed to go out onto the playground and act a little bit normal, the brief moment when they would see the sunshine, feel the grass under their feet, and be allowed to run around without marching in a line. Temporarily, all was well in their world. As a substitute teacher, I found the need to count noses every now and then. Up to that point in the day, I had always wound up with the required thirty. 28-29-30 at the door of their homeroom, ready to go to art. 28-29-30....at the door of the art room, ready to go to computer science. 28-29-30, lined up with their popsicle sticks in their hands, the A sticks, the B sticks, the C sticks....their lunch choices handy, in the proper order. “THIS IS A NO TALKING ZONE”.... “Can I go first???” “I’m supposed to be the leader today!” “Can I go first?” “Can I hold your hand?” “Johnny pushed me”.... “REMEMBER, NO TALKING!” 28-29-30. 28-29-30

This time, as I started the process of throwing away the remains of the lunches, in preparation for lining up for recess, I halted, momentarily frightened...28....29....

“Can anyone tell me why we only have twenty-nine children at the table?”

Twenty-nine voices replied, in unison. They were so eager to be the ones to have a real conversation with an adult who actually needed some information they had to give.... “Susie Q is sitting at the table over there, with her mother.”

Naturally, I had to check it out for myself. Walking over to the other side of the room, I sat down for a moment, joining the mom in question, and told her I was subbing for the day. I remember thinking to myself, “Now, this is more like it. Here’s a mom who really cares about her children’s education.” She introduced me to her two small children. One of them was already in my third grade class; the other somewhat younger. The mom told me that she came in twice a week to help in the reading program. At lunchtime, she always enjoyed having a few moments to spend with her daughters. . . The perfect family scene. I briefly mentioned that I had homeschooled my own children, and that I really appreciated her interest in participating in her own children’s education. Later, I hoped she would remember the conversation, and understand that she had other options, too.

I excused myself and re-joined my class. In my absence, one of the tables had gradually moved the decibel level up a notch. They were still behaving themselves. They weren’t having any food fights or serious disagreements, but they were talking a trifle louder. Before I could encourage them to calm down a little bit, one of the monitors approached, and the group suddenly became still. She took a red plastic cup and sat it upside down on the table in front of the group, without saying a word, and silently moved away. The group all looked up at me with the saddest eyes I’d seen all day. “What was that all about?”, I asked.
“We’ve been cupped,” they answered. One girl began sobbing quietly. “What does that mean?” I asked. “We can’t go outside to play.”

Publicly, to the children, I simply answered, “Don’t worry about that right now. Let’s just go ahead and finish lunch.” Privately, I remember thinking, “If these people think I’m making these kids stay inside for recess, the one time all day they have a little freedom, they can forget it!” The monitors were practicing a technique taken from behavior modification theory, known as “Put them all in the same boat”. Even if some of the children had been misbehaving, the entire table was not responsible. In this case, the only “misbehavior” was a little loud talking.

As we lined up to go out to recess anyway, I glanced to the side. The mom and her two children were still sitting, all by themselves, at the end of a table, strangely subdued. In front of the mother, silently undermining her parental authority, stood an upside-down red cup. M.H.

Note: To contact Mary, check out her website, www.archersforthelord.org, or email her at relaxedhomeschool@juno.com. Mary is starting to write a regular column for The Link newspaper. If you have any questions or issues you’d like her to address in this column, she would welcome your suggestions! ■