Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

First-Graders Learn a Big Lesson in a Small and Secluded Classroom

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

First-Graders Learn a Big Lesson in a Small and Secluded Classroom

Article excerpt

I WENT TO SCHOOL with my first-grader one day last week.

To get there, we had to climb several steep flights of stairs to the attic of a downtown building.

Before we could enter the classroom, a menacing man carrying an iron truncheon came out of a nearby door. He warned us that our teacher would be fined or imprisoned if we broke any laws. The children retreated deeper into their winter coats. Their giggling subsided.

The classroom was a cold, brick-walled storage room. A few wooden benches and a blackboard were the only indications that this was an environment meant for learning. There weren't any desks.

There were only a few books for our class of 23; so groups of four or five children had to share.

But it didn't much matter that no one had their own books, since they could barely see the text anyway. There was no electricity, so we had to rely on a single candle for light.

"I can't see," children kept saying as the lesson proceeded. Each time, the teacher hurried over to illuminate the book.

Despite the conditions, the children were eager to learn, as children are. Until someone pounded on the door.

In came another uniformed man, looming larger than life over the frightened 6- and 7-year-olds. "What's going on in here today?" he said. "You guys wouldn't be learning to read and write, would you?"

The man went up and down the rows of children, forcing them out of their seats, one by one. "You wouldn't be hiding a book, would you?" he asked each of them.

"Take off that coat," he told one of the boys, and then searched him for a book. Four girls in the back row passed a book among themselves to avoid getting caught.

"I see a book back there," the man called out and stomped over to the second row. He lifted one of my son's friends, Jimmy Amerman, out of his seat and took him to the front of the room.

This is the point at which the role-playing stopped. To carry it further would have scared the children out of their wits.

"We're having fun with this, but in real life this would have been very serious," said Tony Gilpin, a National Park Service ranger who had played the menacing intruder. "At certain times in our country's history, certain people couldn't go to school. …

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