The Radical Notion that Children are People, and that School isn’t Jail…

Students at Bala Cynwyd Middle School during an “I Am” Workshop, 2015

“Can I go to the bathroom?”

As a member of the Hebraic Studies staff at the school in which I am currently teaching, I am somewhat unofficially expected to quizzically send an eyebrow up, and reply,

“Ma? Ani lo mevina.” (What? I don’t understand)

I am to repeat this sentence until the student in question realizes that he or she is supposed to ask me in Hebrew, and once they do so, allow them to use the facilities.

I have to be honest — sometimes, I forget to switch into Hebrew teacher mode —

Of course you can go to the bathroom…

Sometimes, I choose to forgo this dance altogether because the look on the student’s face is enough to tell me that whether they need to use the restroom or not, they definitely need a moment to breathe.

This question - Can I go to the bathroom? — and its not too distant cousin, Can I go get a drink of water? are some of the great bewildering forces facing teachers today. They seem simple enough — the student is asking to use the school’s facilities. Yet, herein lies a dilemma — As teacher, it is my duty to maintain order and a safe working environment in my classroom. Yet, who am I to decide whether my student should or should not listen to what their body is saying? Who am I to decide whether they are genuinely allowed to take a moment for themselves — bathroom, or not?

Over the course of 12+ years, students in America are slowly and systematically programmed to conform, stay in line, and at times — forgo their own needs and self care for the sake of their place in society. The one thing parents are not told during orientation is — this is where your child will learn about societal and professional hierarchy, it is where they will face their first instances of bullying, isolation, classism, ableism, bigotry…etc. It is here, in their classrooms, where they will be tested, challenged, and questioned — but not only in the academic sense.

Here, in school, each child’s identity is put on display, and on trial, every single day. This is where they will learn about decorum, about feeling less than worthy, it is where they will encounter for the first time competitiveness, jealousy, social clashes, intensity in relationships, physical disagreements…I’m going to say it — school can be a stressful place. I have spent most of my adult life recovering from stress that was built up and bottled up throughout my years in school — years where be yourself really means be nice, be good, be like everyone else.

Although there are no bars on (most school) windows , it is a place that children must legally go to until the age of 16, and now under “No Child Left Behind” — can be in through age 21. Every day, children in schools are told what to do, what to read, how to sit, when to speak, who to sit with or away from, when to eat, when to run, how to dress, how good/not good they are, and to just be quiet already.

Every day, children in schools look to the teachers to be leaders, mediators, peacekeepers, nurturers — students want teachers to be fair, impartial, and interesting. Teachers want students to be quiet- yet vocal, obedient — yet unique, and bright — yet humble….but we can’t whitewash our students, or our teachers. Teachers and students — also known as, people — come in a wide array of characteristics, personalities, effervescence, cautiousness, sensitivity, intelligence, and so on…

We, as teachers, have to be careful that our work does not become too scripted. We have a certain amount of material to cover each day — and yet, it is important to remember that our students are not just brains being held up by body sticks. Our students are human beings, with feelings, and needs, and entire lives outside of the time they spend in school. We spend a lot of time teaching the what of our subjects, and we find ourselves lacking the time to connect to the who that is being taught.

Can I go to the bathroom?

As I reflect on it now, each of the dozen or so schools that I have taught in has had their own system of allowing students to leave the classroom. While some did not allow it at all, others implemented a sign out system based on trust and honor. Some teachers had iron-clad control over their classrooms, and others less so. I have seen all sorts of hall passes, bathroom keys, quiet signals, and — only in the language classes — insistence upon asking in the respective language being taught.

I rarely will tell a student that they cannot leave the classroom to go to the the bathroom. I have taught over a thousand students to date and I can still remember instances where students asked to go to the bathroom or for water, but were actually leaving the classroom to check back in with themselves, to leave a stressful situation with a classmate, or simply to get a needed change of scenery. Depending on the school, class periods can stretch into several hours. I, as an adult, cannot be still for more than a few minutes. Even when I meditate, I sway, or hum, or move with my breathing. In fact, being told to sit still and be quiet produces anxiety for me — it evokes old feelings of being trapped, scared, and in danger. At this point in my life, I have learned many tools to work with this affect…but kids? Many of them have surges of energy that they simply haven’t learned how to channel….yet.

The way I see it, if a student is asking me, “Can I go to the bathroom?” —they are asking me out of respect for a system in place, and for my position in this system. Out of the same respect, I need to allow them that space to tend to their needs.

Meditation in the classroom, 2014

Have you every seen the look in a student’s eye when they are told, “no, sit down and wait for the bell?” or “learn to go to the bathroom at the appropriate time.” or “you’re almost adults now, you should learn to hold it in…? In effect, these answers are telling kids: what your body is telling you that you need is wrong, and I know better than your own body what is right for you.

They are not our prisoners- they are our students. Don’t tell them this — but actually, nothing, beyond propriety, is stopping them from getting up and leaving. We have the honor, the privilege, the blessing to be able to teach them day in and day out, to play a small — and perhaps not so small — role in their formation. We are gifted with the opportunity to impart upon them what we know and to guide them forth through their interests. Let me backtrack — I can only speak for myself — and what I just said in “we” form, is actually how I feel about teaching — that each and every day I spend with my students is a gift, and that learning occurs just as much within the subject matter as it does on the periphery. And…that I learn from them just as much as they learn from me.

Classrooms that are left in my charge are known to — by the end of a class period — have students sitting on their desks, standing, walking, acting out stories, connecting movement to memorization, laying down and breathing…and I’m just talking about Hebrew, not The “I Am” Project. Right now, I have a very lucky position in the classroom — being an assistant allows me to move about the classroom, observe dynamics, hear whispered conversations, see hidden phones and toys, notice the subtleties in behavior. I can tell you about each student’s emotional state, just by observing them in the class. I can tell you exactly when many of them will need a moment to breathe. I imagine my own daughter sitting at one of those desks one day, facing the very real struggle to practice self-care in busy, cramped, loud, and exuberant day at school.

One last thought for tonight, and then I must recharge for another day of school. — when a student asks, Can I go to the bathroom? — look at them directly — eye to eye — when you answer. You will learn a great deal about them by just observing and noting what they project forth in their energy.

So, Can I go to the bathroom?

Sure, go ahead.