About School

Two girls in a little school room in New Zealand’s high country paint what is inside them in a study to get to “know thyself.”


He always wanted to say things but no one understood.
He always wanted to explain things but no one cared.

So he drew.

Sometimes he would just draw and it wasn’t anything.
He wanted to carve it in stone or write it in the sky.
He would lie out on the grass and look up at the sky and it
would be only him and the sky, and the things that needed saying.

And it was after that, that he drew the picture.
It was a beautiful picture.
He kept it under the pillow and would let no one see it.
He would look at it every night and think about it.
And when it was dark, and his eyes were closed, he could still see it.
It was all of him and he loved it.

When he started school he brought it with him.
Not to show anyone, but just to have like a friend.

It was funny about school.
He sat in a square brown desk, like all the other square
brown desks, and he thought it should be red.
And his room was a square brown room like all the other rooms.
It was tight and close, and stiff.

He hated to hold the pencil, and the chalk, with his arm stiff
and his feet flat on the floor, stiff with a teacher watching
and watching.
And then he had to write a numbers.
And they weren’t anything.
They were worse than the letters which could be something
if you put them together.
The numbers were tight and square and he hated the whole thing.

The teacher came and spoke to him.
She told him to wear a tie like all the other boys.
He said he didn’t like them and she said it didn’t matter.
After that they drew.
He drew all yellow and it was the way he felt about morning.
And it was beautiful.

The teacher came and smiled at him.
“What’s this?” she said.
“Why don’t you draw something like Ken’s drawing?
Isn’t that beautiful?”
It was all questions.

After that his mother bought him a tie and he always drew
aeroplanes and rocket ships like everyone else.
And he threw the old picture away.
And when he lay out alone looking at the sky it was big and blue.
And all of everything, but he wasn’t any more.

He was square inside and brown, and his hands were stiff,
and he was like anyone else.
And the thing inside him that needed saying didn’t need saying anymore.

It has stopped pushing.
It was crushed, stiff.
Like everything else.

* This poem was turned in to a teacher in Regina, Saskatchewan, by a senior in high school. Although it is not known if he actually wrote it himself, it is known that he committed suicide a few weeks later.

A lecturer in the Principals and Practices of Teaching at the Bendigo Campus of what is now known as La Trobe University, gave a copy of the poem to every one of his students in April, 1974. It had a lasting impact on the way I viewed children, teaching, and the teacher I would become. However, over the years since graduation, when primary schools placed an increasing focus on ‘performance and assessment’ within a ‘tight’ curriculum and largely disregarded children’s learning needs and readiness to learn, I too became square inside and stiff. Finally I had to get out of teaching altogether, as many creative teachers do.

The black box was no longer hidden away after the negative comments were burnt.

Schools focus so much on mistakes that too many children learn that they are a ‘mistake’. This was brought to my attention the day one of my students showed me a little black box she had kept in her desk for months. It contained negative comments from her previous teacher she had cut out of her books so her parents wouldn’t see them. We had a little ceremony and burnt them all. However it took a long time before she emerged from the shame of being a ‘mistake’ and learned to trust that my suggestions about how she could improve her work showed that I cared and wanted only to help her develop her confidence and self-esteem.

Another concern I had was that boys outnumber girls in remedial reading and Maths classes, and they were more likely to give up on their education before they even reached high school.  At high school I taught some of these boys who had given up, and they told me it was because a teacher, or a series of teachers, had continually put them down. Boys are expected to be sedentary like girls who like to write and draw, while they would prefer to be outside in a rough and tumble game for the sheer thrill and adrenalin excitement it all.

Schools still have a long way to go before they learn how to respect and meet the educational and developmental needs of children. In many ways we were far more enlightened in the seventies with ‘open-ended’ learning aimed at developing the ‘whole’ child. Unfortunately we then created an even smaller square brown box labelled ‘National Standards’, which thankfully, we have mostly let fall by the wayside in New Zealand.

So there went another slice off many children’s self-esteem. Added to the fear that they are a  ‘mistake’ is the fear they ‘won’t measure up’. These students mostly hide in the classroom in silence for fear they will be ‘found out’, while an increasing number (often as high as five or six or more in a class of thirty) become so disruptive they lower the achievement for the whole class because of the constant ‘discipline’ they require. Unfortunately for more than a few students, the money and time we invest in their education is wasted and to them, school will always “suck”.

It doesn’t have to be that way.


Boys can remain absorbed for hours painting.
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