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Heads Up

With today’s breakneck primary curriculum, focused more on getting students to fill in the correct ovals than on actually learning and applying anything, I doubt that young students have any sort of “down time” during the class day. This was not the case when I was a child. Our teachers were at times desperate, having fulfilled the day’s schedule, to figure out how to fill in five or ten minutes in the course day.

One of the most effective ways my teachers would fill in the gap was with a game called Heads Up Seven Up. In the game, the teacher would call seven students at random to the front of the class. Then the rest of the class was to put their heads down on their desks and close their eyes. The seven selected students were to each go about the classroom and tap one child on the shoulder. After seven seated children had been tapped, the tappers returned to the front of the classroom, whereupon the teacher asked the seated students to open their eyes, raise their heads, and indicate who amongst them had been tapped. Then each of those children was to guess who had tapped them.

It sounds like a simple guessing game, but in the world of the elementary-school student, it is fraught with sociopolitical implications. You knew there was nothing random about who was tapped. People tapped their friends, and didn’t tap their enemies, and a socially well-adjusted child supposedly had both.

I was not a socially well-adjusted child.

One day in third grade, my teacher Mrs. Benson rounded out the last fifteen minutes of the day with Heads Up Seven Up. She called forward seven children, whilst I joined the rest of the class in putting down our heads. It was a stressful moment.  Would I be tapped? Would a child deign to call me friend? Would I accidentally put my head up when tapped and get disqualified like that one time in second grade?

And then, I was tapped! I had a friend! That day, anyway. As any schoolteacher will tell you, the social landscape of children evolves constantly. Some days I had a friend and some days I didn’t. But that day I had a friend.

Mrs. Benson called us to rise. I looked across the seven students before me, and that is where my troubles began. On the positive side, there was not a one of them I would consider an enemy. But neither did I think any of them was my friend, even for that day. They all resided in this grey area. How on earth was I to pick?

I hoped that I would be the last to select my tapper, which, by process of elimination, meant I would not have to pick anyone. That is not what happened. I was the very first.

I stood up, as I was supposed to, to select my tapper. I looked across their faces for some hint of guilt to no avail. No-one tipped their hand. I flushed as I struggled to come up with the name of the guilty party. I used every deductive tool available to my eight-year-old mind, but came up fruitless.

As I went two minutes without saying anything, I invoked the grumbles of my classmates. Three minutes. Four, and then the grumbles turned into calls: “Just pick someone!” But I thought the goal was to guess correctly, and to “just pick someone” risked guessing incorrectly.

Five minutes. Six. The uproar grew, and even Mrs. Benson urged me to just pick anyone, it didn’t matter. My hands trembled. I nearly cried.

Seven minutes and I had no answer. And then the 2:30 bell rang and it was time for us to go home. As I shuffled to my coat hook, the eyes of all glared upon me. I had ruined the game.

I wish I could say that I have escaped that mentality. Though I’ve worked on it mightily as an adult, the urge to do something perfectly, even when that urge invokes the ire of my peers, still plagues me. The inability to “just pick something” when I have myriad options before me can shut me down. One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn in life is that there is often no one right answer, that choices are often value-neutral, and that if I do perchance make the wrong choice, I can recover from and learn from the consequences. Day by day, I’m learning how to defeat my “analysis paralysis”.

And now you know why I don’t post on this blog every day. Often, it’s not because I don’t have anything to say, but because I have so many things to say, and I’m afraid of not choosing the right one.

 

Learning

This is my final “I’m From Driftwood” story, originally published in May 2009.

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One fine morning in third grade, I awoke in a very good mood. As a pretentious eight-year-old addicted to public broadcasting, I planned to spend the day, as sometimes I would, speaking in an English accent. Befuddling classmates and fooling strangers as to my origin, I was just quirky me expressing my happiness. Halfway through that morning, my mood would get even better.

We had times when we were allowed to wander the classroom in order to investigate different “learning stations.” It was a good idea in theory, but I dreaded the “listening” station. It consisted of a record player with eight bulky headphone sets slinking from it like an octopus. The rule was that the first child to arrive at the listening station could pick the record. We had a collection of perhaps a couple dozen records, but you’d never know it from the class’s listening habits. Every time, I arrived late, and every time the first arrival had pulled out the “101 Dalmatians” record. Not only that, but every time they selected the same track–the “K9 Krunchies” dog food commercial. They would play the track to the end, lift the needle, and play it again. It drove me absolutely mad to hear that inanity over and over. And there was no convincing my classmates to play anything else, even from the same record.

But this time would be different. Finally, I was the one to reach the listening station first. And this meant…a different record! This time I could play anything I wanted–anything other than those simpering puppies and their corny commercial! So I pulled out a different record, some sad Russian tale of a little boy who had to eat lentils all the time, and placed it on the turntable. “No, we don’t want that!” cried out the other children. “Play something else! Play ‘101 Dalmatians’!”

“But I’m the first one here,” I retorted in my approximation of British schoolboy English, “that means I get to pick the record.”

Quite the brouhaha ensued, enough to bring the teacher over. “What’s the matter?”

“Mrs. Benson, he won’t let us play the record we all want!”

“But I was the first one here, that means that I get to pick out the record, that’s the rules.”

“But,” Mrs. Benson replied, “no one else wants to listen to the record you chose, and we need to pick what’s best for everybody.”  Angry and broken-hearted, I sat back as the poor little Russian boy gave way to that damn dog food commercial.

My voice was noticeably Midwestern the rest of the day.

There was a lot for that eight-year-old boy to absorb that day. “The rules” are fluid and unpredictable, and cannot be called upon to determine order. “The one in charge” can be put down with a revolt. And most importantly, the rights of the minority must cede to the caprice of the majority–individuality must yield to mob rule.