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Friday, October 23, 2015

Teaching Social Skills

Alan Rewines sighed mentally, facing his class. It was the 6th and final grade of his primary school. 28 pupils who formed quite a manageable class, the usual mixture of popular kids, easy going boys and girls and the few odd ones. 28 pairs of eyes were looking at him expectantly, some were even bursting with tension. No wonder, two days ago over half of the kids stayed after school to do a test for joining the team that would represent the school in the game show “Runaround”. A large number of multiple choice questions and the 5 pupils with the highest score would form the team.

“Runaround” was a TV show in which two schools would compete by answering multiple choice questions. There were things to be won for the school and each team member could take his personal Runaround T-shirt home as a trophy. There would be the returning guests: a magician and the curator of mammals of “Animal park Wassenaar”, bringing in one of the zoo's animals and interesting special guests. The show was immensely popular. Alan's class of two years ago had applied and finally the school was number one on the waiting list.

Alan had checked all the test results and was now going to announce who would be in the team.
He had memorized how he would tell the news, because it meant a slight change of the rules. It involved Hannah, the daughter of a military officer whom he had moved away from the left row of seats, along the windows on the right, to the middle row. She was sitting somewhere at the back of the room, just in front of Jack the class' artist while John, the class clown and close friend of Jack, was seated at the end of the row along the left wall with windows. This way Alan could check on this year's odd one's in one glance.
Hannah was taken away from her window seat because … because she was staring out too much, day dreaming no doubt. Not that it affected her work, she had the best grades of her class. But she had been making drawings of the sunset she had obviously watched too often during the first hour in school during the past winter months. And of a dog named Max, who appeared several times per day at the small window of the apartment right across the street, as she had explained. Not to mention -here Alan's nostril's flared with anger again - the wanted poster she had drawn. It read “Wanted, rather dead than alive. Teaches kids all kinds of mistakes.” Between those lines was his head. She had drawn his profile, but the likeness was clear. Too clear. Odd, how could it have escaped him while she had been working on it? It was her father, laughing over it, who had drawn his attention to the wanted poster during an “open night” where all parents were present to look at their children's work. Alan remembered the sting of this moment of public humiliation.
Hannah's father should instead have been displeased with his daughter's lack of respect. The teacher shrugged away the idea. That would never happen because it was the father who was behind the disrespect. At the first parent-teacher conference of this year the man had kept nagging about something that had to do with his, Alan's, geography lessons. Oh yes... Alan teaches his pupils that the inhabitants of Libya are called Libyan or Lebanese. What had aggravated Hannah's father most, was that he had made Alan aware of this mistake two years earlier, when Hannah's brother was in the 6th grade. And the teacher had obviously refused to correct this. As if teachers were to obey every hint of the parents...
So the Wanted Poster was actually the result of what went on at home. Not only was the girl being taught to be disrespectful to her teacher, the headmaster, she also had a violent streak in her... rather dead than alive! Maybe military men should not raise children.

As the teacher's eyes came to the one-before-last desk of the middle row, he adjusted his calculation. 27 pairs of eyes were at him... Hannah, though clearly as tense as the other contestants, had her eyes on her empty desk. Weak in social skills, and he, Alan, knew the root of the problem.
He moved his eyes to the other Hannah. Such a difference.
She came to this school in 4th grade and quickly became popular. Whereas the first Hannah had never been able to replace her friend who left school halfway second grade, due to a move to the east of the country. Now she was chummy with Jack and John. They even made homework together, Alan guessed. The boys showed an unexpected improvement in their homework and he knew they were not being tutored by an official teacher.
The other Hannah, Hannah 2, was on the list of children who were to represent the school in Runaround. Because of her spontaneity and pleasant manners. A pleasant popular pupil, like the other four he had selected. Of course they were, they all came from nice families who taught their children about community involvement by setting an example. The 2nd Hannah's mother was a member of the PTA, together with Angela's mother, who replaced the father of Daniel, a loyal member for 3 years, while his wife was still active for the school in other areas. Of course one didn't have to be a PTA member to teach one's children about commitment and loyalty. One could volunteer for events for instance. Like the parents of Michael, who were around whenever sports events took place and parents were needed as team captains. Or one could help out with the less exciting jobs, like covering the new school books or repairing desks and chairs. Robin's parents managed to turn such an evening into a great get together. Alas, it was a small circle of parents who did this regularly and it was important to reward them. They were like a circle of friends by now and it would be bad for the school to waste such loyalty.

OK kids, I know you are all anxious to hear who will be on our Runaround team. So be quiet and I will read the names.” Mouths tightened in response.
Daniel. Angela. Michael... Robin and … Hannah 2.” Chatter, congratulations and five proud faces, glancing round to classmates.
“Sir, we want to know the outcome of the test. Who was best?” John had permitted himself to raise his voice without even raising his finger. Why John? The boy who would certainly not be high on the list and who only joined in for fun. The curiosity of the class was roused, they all wanted to know who of the team members had the highest score. Alan Rewines cleared his throat. “Ahum. The highest score is Hannah's.” Hannah 2 straightened herself in her seat and admiring looks went her way. “Not Hannah 2. It was Hannah 1.”

Now the girl in question did look at her teacher. In her eyes a mixture of pride, reproach and disappointment. Her mouth opened slightly but she couldn't speak. It was John who did it for her. “Master, that's not fair. You said the best would be on the team.”
“That's true” Jack pitched in. “Hannah 1 should be on the team.” The entire class became noisy, not all of them taking to the view of Jack and John, but they did want an explanation.
Alan decided to speak to the first Hannah directly. “I am sorry, Hannah. I know I said the people with the highest score would be in. But you are lacking the spontaneity the other children have. It just wouldn't look good for the school, you see? So I selected children who scored highly and are open and spontaneous as well.”

Hannah 1 didn't protest, she just grew pale and took her away from him. As she didn't seem to object, the class grew quiet again except for some suppressed protests from John. Ignoring those, Alan went on explaining the procedures sent to him by the makers of Runaround...

Alan congratulated himself in silence. This was over and done with much easier than he expected. Since this was not about learning material, Hannah's father was not likely to protest and everybody else, including the PTA, was happy over this selection.
As for the lesson Hannah learned today? Well, that was her problem, not his.