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Subtle Lessons in Reading, Writing and Rigidity

Hope Edelman is author of "Motherless Daughters" (Delta, 1995).

The instructions were easy enough for even a 7-year-old to understand: “Choose a word from the box on the right to complete the sequence on the left.” I watched as my second-grade daughter, Maya, read “Bear, wolf, ____,” then carefully checked her options in the box before writing “fox” on the line.

She charged down the page, pausing only at No. 5: “Work, office, ____.” The answer the worksheet was going for was “job.” Maya chose “fun.” I let it slide. She’d already demonstrated that she understood the assignment. And secretly, I was pleased by her choice.

My husband and I like our jobs, and our office environments reflect that. His has beanbag chairs and employees who have known Maya since preschool. Mine has stacks of magazines, a stereo and a hallway of people to visit.

Offices are fun to this kid.

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But whoever marked Maya’s paper didn’t realize that. The homework came back with an “X” on No. 5. Even worse, she’d had to erase “fun” and replace it with “job” -- a bad workplace metaphor if I’ve ever seen one.

I don’t even know where to direct my frustration with this. Not at the teacher, whom I respect a great deal, and who wrote me a friendly and apologetic note when I brought up the issue, even agreeing with my point of view. And not at the classroom aide, who’s just earning her hourly wage. So should it be directed at a school that depends on parent volunteers to mark student homework? At a school district grappling with a multimillion-dollar deficit, where worksheets are used to reinforce concepts teachers might otherwise review with students themselves? Or at the worksheet publishers, whose products are so inferior that even children notice typos and mistakes?

No, I suspect my frustration is with something much larger: with whatever -- myself included -- has already trained my daughter to shrug her shoulders and erase her answer without question, complacently accepting someone else’s standard of right and wrong. Granted, in a second-grade classroom some answers have to be unequivocal. A quarter is 25 cents, not 10, and three plus two equals five. Although, as my daughter pointed out to me one night, three pairs plus two pairs equals five pairs, but it also equals 10 of something, right?

Well, no. Not on a worksheet, it doesn’t.

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I don’t expect a public school system that’s hustling for every dollar to teach my kid how to think outside the box. That’s my job, and I know it. What troubles me is when there isn’t room for creativity inside the box. Despite all the talk about different types of learning and multiple forms of intelligence, most of our kids are still being conditioned to think in limited, binary terms.

I’m the product of public schools. I believe in public schools. My daughter’s teachers are far more open-minded, her principal more involved and her elementary school better outfitted than mine ever was.

Still, in purely cognitive terms, she’s receiving the same second-grade education I received in 1972.

Maybe that’s not entirely a bad thing. After all, I’ve managed all right.

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But the world I stepped into when I graduated was significantly different from the world my daughter will inherit. In 1982, acts of terrorism were still confined to the Middle East, and the U.S. was exalted, rather than despised. We face far more uncertainty and ambiguity today, and we need new, creative solutions for managing this. Trying to eradicate it hasn’t been the answer.

At a time when innovative thinkers are desperately needed to solve our global problems, we shouldn’t let children default into polarized patterns of thought. Correct and incorrect, right and wrong -- from there it’s only a short step to forming rigid distinctions between order and disorder, good and evil.

A whole world -- their world -- exists between the extremes. Let them start learning that now.


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