Odd memories, part 13

I am a big fan of decent education, which is funny perhaps, because I don’t consider that I received one myself. I attended school in a rural farming community with fairly small populations, which many might tell you is much better than overcrowded city classrooms. But the tax base also plays a role, and the classrooms I was in hovered around 30 students, a number now considered more than optimal. Worse, however, was the poor budget for new materials, and the inadequate payroll to attract better teachers (a problem throughout most of the US,) and even the lack of a drive to find or follow the more productive methods of teaching. In short, the schools were stagnating, and some of the approaches to which I was exposed were old, and based more on what someone thought might be useful than on proven effectiveness. Nothing exemplified this more than their approach to teaching social skills, that we endured for two years within our phys ed curriculum. I’m talking about square dancing.

Yes, that’s right – clapping and stomping and banjos and some drawling idiot calling out the moves. If you haven’t had any exposure to this, you should probably cherish your ignorance – I’m here to tell you that’s the best course of action, as your friend – but if you want to know just how horrifying it really is, there are videos to be found. I refuse to provide any examples myself, and I’m picking at mental scabs even making this post.

I can’t quite remember what grades this occurred in, but it was elementary school – fourth and fifth, maybe? Suffice to say, we were less than twelve years old. It’s not exactly true that kids of that age all find the opposite sex icky; usually, anyone can find a few individuals that are rather intriguing – but all the rest are icky. Moreover, admitting to finding anyone intriguing is a recipe for rumors and teasing and graffiti. And even if you have the extremely rare opportunity to speak to the object of your interest in total privacy, there is always the good chance that they don’t requite, as it were, and you not only get crushed, or uncrushed or something, you also open up the same potential for rumors and teasing and graffiti – tact and decorum are something that develops much later in life, if it does at all.

Into this morass of social clumsiness we introduce (the version of that word that means ‘force’) dancing, close contact, exchanging partners constantly, and really shitass music, not to mention the attempt to keep time and not trip over one’s own feet. I extend the barest credit to the school faculty here, in that square dancing requires little agility and involves nothing too intricate, primarily skipping in time, and most kids have figured this out by that age. But it did involve synchronizing these actions with someone else – everyone else, actually. It also involves memorizing arcane terms and moves, like “do-si-do” and “allaman left” – these may not be the conventional spellings and I’m not going to introduce a web search for the correct ones into my browser history or through the NSA’s filters.

Square dance music is uptempo, certainly much more than a waltz or foxtrot, and it indicates just how badly your plans have gone awry when you see a gymful of kids attempting to maintain this tempo while every bit of body english they can emit is screaming rebellion and distaste. And despite the intentions of the teachers, the social outcasts got this stigma reinforced, even more than gym class always did. Instead of being the last picked for a team or never having the ball passed one’s way, you could now see the obvious reluctance of each partner to make contact, trashing both the timing and the rhythm of the moves, of which everyone else is depending as well. Need I say I was one of those outcasts? Hard as this may be to believe, it was true – I would not lie to you unless it made for a good story…

To this day, I cannot dance, nor do I have any desire to. I find all country and western music to be execrable, but square dance music makes my eye twitch and voices start in my head. Despite the clear benefits of forcing kids to do things they utterly despise and will never use later in life if the remainder of the educational process has had any effect at all, none of us showed any improvement in social skills for years afterward. There might have been some students who actually liked these sessions, only two weeks long if I remember correctly, but they never would have admitted it among the others, rumors and teasing and graffiti and all that.

I found myself, just once, with the opportunity to use any of those moves again after learning them in phys ed, but the barn mysteriously burned to the ground before the dance was over, sometime after I’d left. The only person injured was the guy who called out the moves; the hay in his teeth caught fire and set aflame his straw hat, which would have singed off his hair had he possessed any. So I was told, anyway – as I said, I wasn’t there.