“Hey, Mrs. Palecanda, namaste!” A gap-toothed six-year-old wished me as she ran out of the classroom for recess, without even waiting for a reply. As I watched her go, I thought back on what had brought me to Emily Dickinson elementary school in Bozeman, Montana.

I came to the United States as a student, met and married my husband, had a career in science, and also became the mother of two girls. In essence, I have lived here the whole of my adult life. Through it all, however, a feeling of not belonging has persisted, a feeling of not being a real part of the community. After quitting my job as a research associate in cell biology to become a full-time writer, I took up a part-time position at a local elementary school to defray health insurance costs.

A whole new world opened up. Now, I have more friends than ever. I am hailed at supermarkets and stores by children and their families. And just the other day, a little girl whom I had been helping to learn to read stopped me. She thrust a brightly colored picture into my hand as she whispered, “For you!” Finally, I belonged!

My work at the elementary school involves being a kindergarten aide and a noon aide, a glorified “lunch lady.” Basically, my position is a cross between housemother and petty despot, as I have to monitor the children during recess and the lunch hour. Thanks to this job, I have learned a number of lessons, some that are universal and some that are more specific to immigrants. I present a few to you here.554e6d38482020ff40e6234d66bb72d5-2

1. Kids are the same everywhere

During my schooling (in the years before the wheel was invented), I remember bossy Chithra, timid Mani, tag-along Priya, and beauty queen Sheela. They are all present in the playground here, too, thousands of miles away and eons later. Only their names are different: the bossy one is Lauren, her side-kick is Bailey, Mac is timid, Matthew is the rough one, and Scott is his tag-along. Realizing this has made it easier for me to develop a sense of belonging, of knowing that we all start out the same.

2. Kids here are so different!

Yeah, I know I’m contradicting myself, but it’s true. The children here are practically born with the Bill of Rights clutched in their tiny fists, with Freedom of Speech and Action highlighted in fluorescent colors. That means disciplining them is worse than taking a walk while blindfolded in an abandoned minefield. You can tell them to do something, but you cannot enforce it; it is up to the children themselves. All that stands between order and chaos in school is the threat that they may be sent to the principal’s office, or their parents may be called. And it works (at least, most of the time). Used to corporal punishment as the norm, I am constantly amazed when I see freedom and responsibility in action.

3. “Can do” philosophy

The most impressive thing that is learned at American schools is the “can do” philosophy. Students are allowed to learn at their own paces, and given plenty of room to experiment with ideas. No excessive pressure is put on a child to perform, and this enables the child to learn to think for himself. For example, in a kindergarten class, there is a child who is a phenomenal reader, and another who doesn’t know half the English alphabet. But nobody makes too much of the smart one, giving her a unrealistic expectation of herself, and nobody takes a stick to the less-talented child or humiliates him into trying to do something that he just can’t at this time. Both are treated equally, and I’m glad to report that the latter is finally getting the hang of it.

In our school, they also try to integrate physically and mentally disabled children into the normal curriculum. This way, the disabled kids grow up in a “normal” environment, and the “normal” children come to respect and appreciate the other kids’ ability to transcend their disabilities. To my mind, this is a valuable learning experience, and not just for children.

4. Clint Eastwood, desi ishtyle

Being the noon aide, I get to take part in the most chaotic part of the school day: lunch. For kids, it is the most enjoyable part of school, but, from the other side, it is sheer Survivor material. For some reason, in the lunchroom, even the mildest child becomes a milk-chugalugging, ketchup squirting, burp champion-wannabe, and trying to keep a lid on things can get mighty challenging. Initially, I was a little timid (it is easy to be intimidated by 60- and 70-pound bundles of energy dressed in t-shirts that say “Wild Thing!” and “Fashion Diva”), but, one day, I underwent a transformation. I was patrolling the 3rd grade table, when I saw a boy poised to squirt an unsuspecting girl with his water bottle. Sheer fright over the chaos that would follow made me snap, “Don’t even think about it!”

Super Lunch Lady was born! These days, as I walk the lunch hall, dropping phrases like “Knock it off” and “No way you’re doing that in here, buster” in my pukka Indian accent, I’m thinking, “Go ahead! Make my day!” In this land of Hollywood icons, I’m Dirty Harry and the Terminator rolled in one. Belong here? Heck, yes, I do.

5. What’s cool and what’s hot

Actually, this is something I’m still puzzling over. Here are two words that are opposite in meaning, but mean exactly the same thing. But I have also learned a word, thanks to my juvenile buddies, that means two different things at the same time! The word “gross” is very tricky: “Yew, gross!” means something is horrid when it refers to food that the little one doesn’t want to eat, but it can also mean “way cool” when it describes a burp that was clocked at ten seconds. Of course, since it is cool, the guy that does it is way hot. (I hope I’m at least warm with regards to this game!)

6. More fun than a barrel of monkeys

While my job is to be a cross between drill sergeant and spymaster, it is not without its light moments. I’m proud to say that I’ve won myself a reputation as the queen of staring contests with the 4th grade class. Now, I’m just waiting for staring to be recognized as an Olympic event. And I’ve added to my repertoire of “Yo mama” and knock-knock jokes. (Sample: “Yo so ugly, when your Mom dropped you off at school, she was ticketed for littering!”)

I’m also in on a couple of affairs of the heart in the 1st and 2nd grades. These are tots that have problems noticing that one of their shoes is missing, but have plighted their troth for a lifetime. All I say is, “Way cool! Go for it!”

7. Wasteful ways

But not all is hunky-dory in elementary school, and I’m not just talking about drugs or bullying. The sheer waste of useful material in schools boggles my mind, and nowhere is the waste more visible than at lunchtime. The children throw away more than 20 gallons of milk every day, and that is just from 500 children! As for their food, it is the norm for a child to take a single bite out of a sandwich or a roll and then dump it in the trash. Having no concept of real need, they just don’t understand the concept of waste. The reason why it continues to happen is that parents are totally unaware. I myself didn’t know that my own child wasted until I went to work at the school. Once a parent knows how hard-earned money is disappearing down the drain, and little darling is just eating the dessert, I am sure things will change.

Someone once said, “A school is a place with four walls and the future inside it.” I quake when I see some of what the future holds, but how I also laugh at times! As I watch the doctors, lawyers, sports stars, scientists, senators, and presidents of tomorrow whoop it up at recess, I am thankful for this close-up look at young America, and the chance to relearn that all-pervading truth: kids will be kids.

Elementary, isn’t it?

Lakshmi Palecanda is a biology research technician turned freelance writer in Bozeman, Montana. Email: palecanda [at] msn [dot] com

 

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