Quietly, ever so quietly, walk single file down the hall. Don’t marvel at the colorful artwork on the walls. Put your hands behind your back, and please, do not get excited by the electricity of the other 8-year-olds standing near you. Do not give in to the desire to be silly – to smile brightly – to ask the question tickling your tongue. Put a bubble in your mouth, and maintain level zero. Absolute silence, demands the gentle teacher, the one you’ve been asked to trust – the one with the gentle voice – the one who taught you how to unlock the magic of letters and words. And so, you bite your tongue and choke back the questions about the posters on the walls – or the poem hanging outside the library door, or the maintenance happening on the water fountain. You lock your eyes on the back of the head just in front of you, and you do as you are asked. You walk silently down the hallway.
Regardless of their backgrounds, children enter schools with decades-long, well-constructed parameters or rules for acceptable behavior. Children, sometimes still sucking their thumbs and needing naps, quickly learn to abide by these deeply rules. If they desire to please the adults with whom they spend six – seven hours with every day, they become fluent in the language of compliance. From their first introduction to school, children learn the importance of rules – of not rocking the boat – of maintaining the status quo. As long as they do their work, sit quietly in their seats, raise their hands and wait to be acknowledged, they find success; their “good” behavior is affirmed time and time again. They learn not to question authority, for if they do – even for a good cause – they face consequences – they are branded with a label that follows them from grade-level to grade-level.
Is it any wonder, then, that so many people find themselves silent, even when the burgeoning sound of revolution pounds at their doors? To speak out, even when they are sickened by the systemic shackles placed on their friends, elicits the shame they felt early in childhood when they chose to follow their childlike instinct and laughed out loud – swayed back and forth while standing in line – or whispered excitedly to a friend. From the earliest moments in most American schools, children are indoctrinated into compliance. As institutions, schools silences children and demand they not question authority; after all, the rules have always been in place, and after all, the rules are there to protect children.
This country is screaming – begging – urging- even shaming its people to find their voices – to rock the boat – to say loudly to those who create the systems “enough is enough.” And they are. Despite the childhood immersion into silent compliance, young Americans are finding the courage to use their voices. Many are still caught in the grips of knowing their voice matter and the years of conditioning to comply. Challenging their parents’ beliefs – or questioning their friend’s racist nuances – or asking institutions why they have antiquated policies – takes courage – takes a deep sense of self.
Is it any wonder, then, that it is time to nurture the inquisitive, excited, collaborative nature of children – to teach them the joys of discussion – the benefit of asking why? If schools desire to fully educate critically thinking citizen who will shatter and reconstruct systems, then they must begin with a close inspection of their own practices – of their own immersion into compliance. Now is not the time for level zero. Now is not the time for silence and straight lines. Now is not the time to wait for the nod of the teacher’s head before uniformly stepping forward through the hall. Now is the time for action. Now is the time for hard questions. Now is the time for voice.