As I’ve mentioned before I like serendipity. I love exploring elements introduced by chance into everyday life. As a book-oriented person a lot of those elements are books and publications that I come across by chance.
One of my recent chance encounters was with a little book I picked up in a used bookstore, The Good Citizen’s Handbook: A Guide to Proper Behavior. This is a collection and reproduction of materials from the 1920s to the 1960s on how to be a good citizen. Here’s a link to it. On the front cover is a drawing of a handsome young boy in overalls with his hand on his heart. The back cover describes some of ways in which readers can perform their “duty.” It mentions topics like these: Penmanship; Proper respect for authority; Cleanliness; The dangers of delinquency; The importance of a meat dish; The benefits of cheerfulness; Why it’s never right to poison the neighbor’s dog.
The book’s decidedly quaint and old-fashioned – and more than slightly ridiculous – aspects notwithstanding, it’s full of a lot of common sense and good advice. Look at these definitions for example: “Sin An act contrary to a person’s conscience; Vice An act harmful to a person’s or morals; Crime An act that breaks the law.” I like this advice: “Remember that the best way to reduce crime is to prevent it by proper methods of training at home and at school; and that the best way to deal with criminals is to make good citizens of them.” Good common sense, and fair enough.
I decided to read some of the book with Jack and get his reaction. The “good behavior” in the subtitle and the pictures of extremely clean-cut white, suburban people of course brings out a sneer in any “cool” kid nowadays. But I persisted. Here are some the conversations, and revelations, that ensued.
“I know all this stuff,” Jack said when I introduced the book as a subject of our lesson of the day. “Be a good boy blah blah blah…” Upon my insistence that we look at some of the advice in the book Jack said: “Look, one of the reasons I was bullied in school was because everyone saw me as a goody goody. I was on time, I didn’t miss class, I didn’t make of fun of weird teachers. I was only popular when I came up with awesome excuses for not doing my homework. Everyone came to me for excuses.”
This was a strange comment for me to hear because Jack did do his homework. And he must have turned them in because in his report cards teachers always commented that his homework was done. So could it be that he was embarrassed about being “goody goody” in doing homework and lied to his fellow students that he didn’t do his homework? I also wondered whether he was perceived as “goody goody” because of my being active in the school, the PTA, etc. But I’ll probably never know. Children are constantly reinventing their past.
The book is organized into seven sections: “Starts with You,” “In the Family,” “At school and Work,” “In the Neighborhood,” “In the Community,” “In Your Country,” and “In the World.” To go over some specific instructions we read from “The Good Citizen at School.” The first advice was: “Obey School Rules.” Jack had trouble with this at the first word!
“Obey school rules…” he sneered. “Kids know the rules. If they break them it’s because they want to have fun. Like the stupid rule ‘Don’t run on the black mat’ [the mat under and around the play structure]. Running is one of the things of fun. Every game I know involves running: hide and go seek, tag, cops and robbers, zombie… It’s no fun if you walk on the play structure. And if you run into someone, well, they should look out for themselves.”
Common sense from the children’s side, isn’t it? To make a rule that kids should not run in the playground is ridiculous. So naturally, kids won’t “obey” it and will not think much of rules either.
What Jack did agree with were “The Laws of Clean Play.” “In playing you should follow every rule,” he said. We went over these “laws” one by one. I’ve put Jack’s comments in quotation marks:
1. Don’t cheat. “Or admit it if you’re cheating.”
2. Treat your opponent with respect. “Unless you’re playing football.”
3. Play for the success of the team and fun of the game. “Yes yes yes…”
4. Be a good loser or a generous winner. "You'll never have friends otherwise. You'll be a jerk in everyone's eyes.
It was interesting to me that when it came to games rules were OK in Jack’s eyes. He did not sneer. There’s surely a lesson in that for adults setting rules for children.
By the way, I have to add an interesting thing parenthetically here. This book has very few pictures of anybody with dark skin. But in the picture accompanying the section on the “laws of clean play” there is an illustration of some kids playing basketball, and sure enough there is the black boy shooting hoops!
It was not easy or pleasant going over “rules” or any discussion of “good behavior” with Jack. But it did lead to these revelations from him:
“The kids who do not do the rights things at school get a lot of attention. The reason I was such a bad boy is because I got a lot of attention. I would even do stuff like steal an extra spork just to get attention from my friends. I had fun with grownups getting mad. When everyone picked on me I let all the bad behavior out. I didn’t keep anything in. What pleased me about getting into trouble was that teachers were afraid of being fired for being bad teachers. When we got into trouble the principal thought they were bad teachers.”
Lots to think about, but I won’t go into it…
It never fails to amaze me that if you give kids a chance they will tell you what they think. And what they think is definitely what we need to know if we want to get anywhere with them.