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Monday, November 11, 2013


Okay, kids. Settle down. Hey, everybody! Quiet. While Carol is taking the attendance  and Billy is adjusting the window shades and Norman is erasing the board I want to talk to you about the assignment I wrote at the top of this blog. I gave specific instructions that you were to scroll to the bottom of the page - that the blog on the bottom should be read first. Some of you in your zeal to please me are reading from top to bottom.


Let's spend a few moments today talking about the exploitation of children - specifically, the voluntary exploitation of school children by those entrusted with their education.

In the twelve years I spent as a student in the Brooklyn public schools and the five as a teacher in the same system, not once did I hear a parent complain that the in-class assignment his or her child was doing - for free - was demeaning, dangerous or degrading. In all those years I did not know of any case - real or imaged - of any illness or injury - physical or mental - associated with any in-class 'job.'

And there was never a shortage of volunteers, even for the most menial of 'jobs.'

The reason: every job had its perks.

What future career opportunity was washing the blackboard or cleaning the erasers going to provide for Norman when he 'got out'? OK, walking up and down the aisles with the waste basket might lead to a lucrative civil servant position, but the others?

It starts in grade school, probably around the fourth or fifth grade.

Anything is better than sitting a whole day in Miss O'Neill's class - even cleaning the erasers would be a welcome respite.

Take it from someone who knows.  I was senior eraser monitor in the fifth grade - a promotion no doubt based on recommendations from my fourth grade teacher who saw it as a great way of getting rid of the kid who kept asking questions and from the school custodian who recognized talent when he saw it.


There were two ways to clean erasers: The purists would take them outside and clap them against the wall.

It was a cushy job in September.  Go outside near the auditorium, clap them erasers silly against the wall for maybe an hour until Miss O'Neill sent a search party out looking for me.

Three rules for outside eraser clapping:
1. Stand upwind of the clapping or resign yourself to a coughing fit like you wouldn't believe.  You're gonna feel like your eyeballs are falling out. 
2. This is no time to show your literary creativity by clapping the eraser in the form of certain words you've recently learned from that sixth grader who lived on the other side of the hospital who spelled everything phonetically (This invariably would lead to some second grader's mother coming up to school and registering a complaint.  It didn't take a Sherlock Holmes to figure out who the miscreant was.)
3. pick a wall that can't be seen from your classroom.

The avant garde eraser cleaners embraced modern science and used 'the vacuum.'

Regardless of your philosophical leanings, when it got colder it meant using the eraser vacuum in the basement which shared space with three of the largest pieces of machinery I had ever seen.  The Indian Head nuclear reactor was based on the same design, but because of space limitations it could not match in size or output what was residing in the school basement and in cold weather those babies worked overtime making those weird sounds, like what you'd imagine a boiler would sound like just before it explodes. I seemed to be the only one concerned about all those needles on the gauges pointing in the red zone. They'd find parts of you scattered in a three-block radius down to Albany Avenue.

But, the most miraculous thing is that when they found your hand it would still be clutching a clean chalkboard eraser. For years afterward, old neighborhood people would still be talking how 'dat kid what got hisself blown up could clean an eraser' and they'd shake their heads muttering that kids nowadays don't know the meaning of clean erasers.

The two groups never saw eye-to-eye on the best method. The chance to be outside usually ended the discussion in favor of the purists. However, being downwind of the eraser and engulfed in a cloud of chalk dust did convert some purists. I imagine the discussion and the job died a natural death with the advent of whiteboards and dry markers.

In any case, eraser cleaning was probably close to the bottom of the in-class job hierarchy - until the first nice Spring day.

Years later I wondered how much critical learning I missed because of all the time spent outside the classroom.  No doubt it was the sole reason I did not get into Harvard.  At least the waste basket monitor did his job in the classroom.

Six years in the school - seven, if you count kindergarten - and that's all I remember about it!  (Well, come to think of it, I also remember the bench outside the principal's office, but that's another story.)

At the polar extreme was being in the color guard for assembly. Because of the wider visability, this job trumped class president. Remember, we're talking grades 4-6 It's like the difference between being a governor and a US Senator. (Do kids still go to assembly? Do schools still have auditoriums? Do kids still own white shirts or blouses?)

Even that job had its hierarchy. Carrying the American flag trumped all other flags. If you had that assignment, you had it made; you were destined for great things. When you walked the halls, kids would stand aside and let you pass.

Unless, you trip on the stairs leading to the stage, or sneeze, or... once you make it to center stage holding the flag with both hands and there you are in front of the entire school, and I mean everyone, and right in the middle of the Pledge of Allegiance, right at that point where everyone is saying that stuff for Richard Stanz you realize that your fly is open. The snickering starts with the boys in your own class and then quickly engulfs the girls sitting in Row F.

It's the little kids who are the least cool. They have to point. It's the pointing that really gets to you.

And, all of a sudden, clapping erasers against the side of the building in twenty degree weather does not sound like such a bad job - when you finally return to school.

(My wife was an elementary school teacher - in the same school I attended as a student. She keeps in touch with a class she had more than forty years ago and two of them remember being in the color guard - that it was the single best thing that happened to them in elementary school.)

I was never in the color guard. No, really! It wasn't me. I swear!

I was a crossing guard. Yup, with the white belt and the AAA badge. Even then, I was into the 'power thing.' Hey, there are limited options open to an eleven-year old to impress the chicks. (Do they still have student crossing guards? Like today I would really tell some fifteen year old sixth grader that he had to wait for me to say it's ok to cross the street.)

I was also an AV monitor - before it became a dorky thing. We would set up film strip projectors. (Explain that to your kids!).

There were other neat jobs in the classroom. Being the window shade monitor took somewhat of an anal retentive personality. Who else would be so exacting in their lives to line up all the shades?

Howard Newman was. I swear that if the shades were off by more than a quarter inch it was a lot. Those shades were the envy of every teacher in the school. They would stand across Lenox Road and stare up at Howard's work. It was a cool job and often required team cooperation with... the window monitor. 

Now, that job was way cool - other than the aforementioned color guard and maybe being class president!

Settle down, Buckeroos.  I know, I know.  Board of Education (now Department of Education) policy forbade anyone other than a teacher from opening or closing windows. Let's get real. Hey, I'm talking about my school where the average age of teachers hovered around 60.  The new 'girl' was at least 50. Which one of them could look up to the top of the pole without falling over, if she could even see to the top. Why risk the embarassment?  That's why you had Warren!

All class activity would stop while the window monitor carefully removed the twenty-foot pole from its brass mooring and carefully place the hook in the brass loop on the window. Well maybe not always so carefully. We would wait in anticipation for the gentle sound of the brass hook - some twenty feet in the air as it ever-so-gently penetrated the window glass. Sometimes we would be disappointed; but more often than not Warren would not disappoint.

And the response was always the same: Warren's same and unimaginative curse, Miss O' Neill's questioning his intelligence, the cheering from his fellow classmates and later on, the occasional transfer of cash from one unhappy student-bettor to a happier one. You would think Warren would have given up the pole - or handed it down or whatever. He made it through the entire fifth grade with that job and the next year when Miss Reilly asked who wanted the job he got it based on prior work experience - with the same results.

Come on! You all have seen those little holes or cracks in the center panes of those big glass windows. How do you think they got there?

Knowing Warren's shortcomings in the spatial relationship area, I obsessed over that pole not being firmly engaged on its hook and it coming crashing down on some hapless student - mainly me. I figured I could be in seat one in row one and still get whacked. Maybe it was better to sit in row six- near the windows. That way you wouldn't get the full force of the pole - and especially the hook. I thought I was alone in my fear until I noticed other kids - in fact the whole class would be mentally figuring the trajectory of that flying pole. Even Miss O"Neill, who would get out of her high chair in the corner (Remember those?) put her rubber-tipped pointer down and walk toward the back and give a reassuring tug on the pole to verify that it was safe.

(Did you know that those wood poles have been replaced by aluminum and those old teachers have been replaced by young, even pretty, teachers?)

One step up from basket monitor was the wardrobe monitor whose job it was to close the wardrobe after all coats had been hung up. (This is for the folks who went to a '200 series' elementary school where all the sliding wardrobe doors were connected, so if you closed one door, all of them would slide closed at the same time.)

One of my tasks as a Director of Human Resources is to deal with job enrichment - how can management and employees make the job more interesting, thus keeping the employee more involved and, hopefully, more productive.

Hell, this ain't nothing new. Way back in the fifth grade Harold had learned to make the wardrobe monitor's job more interesting and enjoyable - much to the consternation of the girls he would periodically lock in the wardrobe. Midway through the year Harold learned a vital lesson about job security - a stigma that he no doubt carried with him throughout his work life. He was fired! But the job provided a future career opportunity - Harold became a conductor for the New York City Transit Authority

Oh, my! There's the bell. I can't believe the day is over already, class. Let's continue this tomorrow. Harold, let Marcia out of the closet. What do you mean she doesn't want to come out? Who's in there with her? Harold, open the doors NOW!

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