The silence, pt. 1

During my second year at a charter school, I was assigned the responsibility of monitoring the cafeteria during breakfast every morning. I, honestly, was so thrilled, knowing the other morning duty options – standing at the door and shaking students’ hands, monitoring the bathrooms, standing in the hallway. I viewed this as a leadership position of sorts, and took it upon myself to make sure that breakfast, the most important meal of the day, set a positive tone to our students’ school day.

And so, on the first day of school, I had a plan. As the students gradually trickled in that morning, I played soft, calm, piano music from a specially-curated Pandora station in the background. I encouraged the students to pick any seat in the room, regardless of who else was at the table, and I purposefully engaged students in conversations not only with myself, but with each other. Taking this as the first real opportunity of the day to build community, I created an atmosphere of hushed, whispering excitement. Students from multiple grade levels were asking each other about their summers, speculating about their new teachers, showing off new shoes and backpacks, and genuinely enjoying being in each others’ company. For that whole first week of school, breakfast duty was my favorite part of the day.

And then I was called into the principal’s office.

“We’ve had some complaints about breakfast,” they told me. “It’s causing problems.”

Unsure of what they meant, I didn’t respond.

“We need you to do a better job of managing breakfast. The kids are coming back to class too… excited. Their homeroom teachers are having trouble getting their classes started because the kids won’t stop talking when they get to class. Also, the kids are staying in the cafeteria too long just so that they can talk to their friends. We need them to come in, eat breakfast, and then head directly to class so that they can start on classwork.”

The principal told me that they were having this conversation on behalf of the upper-level administration, and that they didn’t want to “relieve me of breakfast duties,” but if the problems continued, they would be forced to. The proposed breakfast management solution?

“We’d like you to try silent breakfast.”

Now, if you’ve ever met a child, you’ve probably noticed that children tend to be very noisy, and often struggle to sit still. This is not a defect, this is part of their design. Children, due to their inexperience in the world, are constantly exploring, learning, interacting, questioning. This tends to be a rather noisy, social, non-linear experience. To expect anything other than noise and exploration, I think, would be ludicrous. And yet, this was exactly what I was being expected to do.

Feeling as though I had no other option, and desperately not wanting to be “relieved of my breakfast duties” (Though I wasn’t even sure what that meant, and I was too afraid to ask.), the next morning’s breakfast did not feature soft piano music. I welcomed each student to the cafeteria, and explained that we were trying something new today at the request of the principal. Breakfast that morning featured no conversation starters, no hushed excitement. I wandered around the cafeteria silently, as the children ate their breakfasts silently, and I silently reminded the occasional student that we weren’t allowed to talk during breakfast today. Several upper-level administrators visited the cafeteria that morning (and several subsequent mornings), satisfied grins on their faces. The students weren’t speaking. I wasn’t speaking. The silence felt oppressive. 

“What happened to the music?” my students asked.

“Why can’t we talk to each other?”

“Why aren’t you sitting and talking with us?”

“I liked the old way better.”

I liked the old way better, too. I liked greeting my students in the morning, and wishing them well as they skipped off to class. I liked intentionally fostering relationships among students, and letting them practice socializing in a safe environment. The silence felt wrong – it flew in the face of developmentally appropriate practice, and it ignored a, frankly, beautiful opportunity to build a school community. But in this school, compliance is more valuable than community. In this school, silence is more valuable than socialization. 

Later that day, the principal stopped me in the hall. “Breakfast was so much better today,” they said flatly. “Keep up the good work.”

The “good work?” What good is there in promoting developmentally inappropriate practices? What good is there in forbidding children from engaging in their nature? What good is there in ignoring a beautiful opportunity to build school community? What good is there in literally silencing a generation of African-American students? The “good work?” No, Principal. There was no “good” in this at all.

Breakfast became my most dreaded part of the day. I hated having to wander around the silent, brightly lit cafeteria for 45 minutes. I hated being threatened to enforce a rule I knew was morally wrong. I hated having upper-level management breathing down my back, just waiting, it felt, for me to turn the music back on. Just waiting for me to encourage the children to be themselves. Just waiting for me to “mess up” again, so that further disciplinary action could be taken. I became paranoid that someone would walk into the cafeteria and see a student talking.

I found out later that the principal had been coerced by upper-level management (much like I had been coerced by the principal) to have a conversation with me about initiating silent breakfast. The principal left their position a few months later, in the middle of the year, and I resigned during the summer before the following school year to work for another charter that had recruited me.

I think we ultimately left because of the silence.

To a charter leader, there is nothing more valuable than silence. Silent children, who eat their breakfasts and do their classwork without question. Silent teachers, who don’t challenge authority, who follow the scripted curriculum, and come to staff meetings when summoned. Silent principals, who act as the unfailing handmaids of the executive board, and who don’t look too closely into the budget or the “business” of running a school. Noise, excitement, curiosity, and questioning are the enemy – they threaten to topple the house of cards created by backroom dealings, secret board meetings, “creative” financing, and closed-door, “deep state”-style politicking. Charter leaders know that words are dangerous.

And so we eat breakfast in silence.

3 thoughts on “The silence, pt. 1

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