Thursday, March 2, 2017

The dryness of boredom in school

I had a dentist appointment the other day, and they went hog wild with the sucker tool. My mouth was as dry as the Serengeti, and soon my tongue was nothing but a pendulous husk in my mouth.

I flashed back to my school days when I would deliberately leave my mouth slightly open for as long as I could stand so that my tongue would dry out. I'd try to wait until it was as dry as possible and then I'd close it and enjoy the strange sensation of cotton-ball tongue — a seemingly foreign object — then let it gradually wick up moisture again and return to its moist, plump self.

You see, I was bored. Really, really bored.

School was not unlike being at the dentist's, in fact, except more the waiting area and not the torture chamber. School wasn't onerous for me; it was just dull.

There was so much waiting in every day. Waiting for everyone to finish a worksheet. Waiting for the teacher to set up some fabulous technology like the overhead projector. Waiting for the teacher to finish talking. Waiting on other kids to answer. Waiting for an assembly to start. Waiting for the bell to ring.

I had methods for getting through. The tongue thing was one. Another was twirling individual hairs with my nails to see if I could make them into curlycues the way you do with ribbon. Doodling was always an option. I drew my hand a lot, and the backs of the people in front of me. In elementary school, I loved messing around with my supplies, covering my palm with Elmer's glue, letting it dry, and then peeling it off in a perfect palm shape with all the lines preserved. In high school, I got into biting split ends out of my hair. That was probably pretty gross in retrospect. I remember being so pleased in a giant college lecture class that I could sit toward the back with my knitting, because that really helped me concentrate. It was like listening to a podcast, if podcasts had been around then.

Whenever I couldn't figure out how else to pass the time, I'd stare at the white-and-black clock over the door. Tick tock. Tick tock. I'd will myself to turn away, convinced that a watched clock never moves forward. Tick tock. Tick tock. I'd keep my eyes turned down as long as I could stand, until I was sure five minutes had passed, maybe ten. What, one and a half? Seriously?

I was good at school, an A student and a kid who rarely got into trouble, and still I was bored stiff for so many years of my life.

Did this build character? I see memes floating around directing us to "let your kids be bored!" Boredom inspires creativity, they say. I'd say it depends what kind of boredom, unless you consider glue palms and hair ribbons usefully creative.

Boredom that comes from a quiet, directionless moment where a person can decide, "What's next for me?" is much different than institutionalized boredom where we tell people, "Sit there, do this, and don't move or speak until I say so."

This is why I'm glad my kids can be homeschooled — where they have ample opportunity for the first kind of creativity-spurring boredom but don't have to learn coping mechanisms for the latter kind. It's why I hope that schools change and adapt so that children can work at their own pace and in a more self-directed way.

Because being at the dentist reminded me that I've never once used my Amazing Dry Tongue Trick as an adult. I gave up boredom as a daily activity once I could make my own choices of what to do. I wish the same for children.


Becca @ The Earthling's Handbook said...

I don't mean to undermine your point--I do think school should be more engaging, and I'm pleased that my son reports less boredom and more varied classroom experiences than his dad and I endured--but I'm eternally grateful for a coping technique I was taught in the gifted program in 4th grade, which has shaped my whole career!

"Look around the room for some numbers. Think up a scheme in which numbers stand for things. It can be anything that interests you. What about a street--who lives in the first house? Maybe an even number means a female and odd means male, and then the next two digits are that person's age. How can you use numbers to decide who else is in the family? Or maybe you are more interested in what color the house is or how many trees in the yard and what kind."

...and I grew up to be a data manager working with thousands of variables. I still play games like this when I'm waiting for the bus, etc. Through practice I've extensively developed my ability to remember multiple probability trees, do mental arithmetic, keep my place in multiple mental lists and imaginary geographies at the same time, and generally build the skills I need for work.

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