Schools and Rules and Walls

Yesterday I walked to Emerson Elementary School to vote "yes" on the Owosso Public Schools millage. On the walk over I was chatting with an old friend and since we hadn't quite finished our conversation when I reached the school, I was lingering outside of the entry way - the one near the playground.  

Standing at the door, I looked over, and what did I see?


A low cement wall.


(kinda like this one)



The wall in question was a little different, though. It was a straight wall that separated the sidewalk from the playground. The width on top was about the same as this one and the height varied, moving up and down in a wave pattern. At its lowest it was maybe a foot high, at its highest maybe 4 ft high.


I'm standing outside of the school talking on the phone, staring at this wall, so what did I do?


I did what every other able bodied person in the world would have done.


Of course, I stepped up on the wall and started walking up and down the little wavy hills.


And the next sound I heard, of course, was an angry rap on the window.


And of course, the 3rd grader inside me knew exactly what was happening.


Of course I was being reprimanded for walking on this wall.


Of course it was against the rules.


Mortified, I immediately jumped off the wall. How could I be so stupid? I'm childish and silly and making a fool of myself. My immediate response to the rapping was apparently not sufficient compliance, though, because the window rapper also came outside to give me a stern look, a finger wag, and make a now totally obvious and totally unnecessary clarification of the rules:


"Don't you walk on that wall."


For the rest of the phone call, me and my 3rd-grade-self wallowed in the shame of having a broken a rule, of being a bad kid.


Luckily, when I hung up the phone, the 23-year-old me took back the reigns and realized: THIS IS A RIDICULOUS WALL.


Teachers must have to constantly pull kids off this wall. It's an awesome wall to walk on, designed perfectly for this activity. It's not difficult to walk on, but it's still fun. Walking on it is a great way to kill time when you're waiting for the bus, waiting to go inside from recess, or, you know, talking to an old friend on your way to the voting booth.


I can hear the chorus: "Johnny, get off the wall.", "Susie, get off the wall.", "Billy, get off the wall." And on and on it will echo into the future until the wall falls down, gets torn down, or, I don't know, human nature fundamentally changes and the wall becomes suddenly, miraculously, no longer extremely fun to walk on.


On one hand, this is just a simple design flaw: we've built a wall that is going to set up an eternal battle with the children who attend Emerson School. Something to chuckle at, making for a cute bit of commentary on interface design. "Oops, silly us, we built a wall that creates an annoying problem. Should have built a different one, oh well."


Except the wall doesn't have a design flaw. The wall is great. It's pretty, it separates the space of the sidewalk from the space of the playground. It serves all these functions and it's fun to walk on. What a freakin' amazing wall! The wall is not the problem, the problem is the chorus I heard echoing into the future. It's not alone, either. There are a lot of similar tunes hummed through the hallways of an average elementary school:


"Johnny, don't yell in the lunch room.", "Johnny, don't run in the hall." "Johnny, get back in line." "Johnny, sit down." "Johnny, don't speak without raising your hand." "Johnny, don't draw during Math class." "Johnny, sit up straight."


Ugh, exhaustion.


Is this really what we need? Is obedience really the most important value that we need to teach our children? Do we urgently need to raise up a generation of obedient adults?


In a country where the status quo is currently generating catastrophic climate change, ever increasing wealth disparity, crippling gun violence, and record levels of depression - in this country, is this really what we need - a generation of children that do what they're told?


I think we need a generation of kids that walk on walls. A generation that risks life and limb in the pursuit of an audacious goal. We need kids that are going to go to space - a pretty dangerous proposition.


We need kids that are going to become politicians, and if they're going into our current political system, I really hope that they decisively don't do what they're told. I hope they break a lot of rules.


We need researchers that ignore the rules, that invent new ways of approaching old problems. We need new solutions for health, energy, and transportation.



Everywhere I look, I see rules that need to be broken. Everywhere I look, I see walls that need to be walked on.