Monday, April 20, 2009

Mr. Shushy

Even as a classroom teacher I surprised myself early on, in a bad way, by becoming an expert shusher. I quickly mastered the kind of loud shush that combines the "sh" sound with a little bit of "pssssst" mixed in for extra oomph, like some of the TV judges do. Now that I've moved from the classroom to the library, wondering how I can break librarian stereotypes I'm alarmed to find myself slipping ever deeper into the embodiment of a stereotypical, prudish Mr. Shushy.

Spring break is over. It's the first day back in school after over a week off and my library customers are back and well rested. After teaching a quick morning ESL class I use my two preps to get into a good frame of mind for open access lunch time. It rained in New York today and I expected a bigger, more unruly crowd than I actually got. It was mostly my regulars, who I'm getting to know well, but I had a few students who haven't been in for a visit in a while, for months, actually, and they managed to behave passably. Beyond the behavior, however, there was a lot of dishonesty on the library passes today.

The library request form (basically an elaborate pass designed expressly for lunch-time open access) requires that students specify what kind of academic work they plan to do in the library during lunch time. After all, if they're going to spend recess cooped up in the library instead of running around, there should be a good reason why; something other than playing mindless and repetitive computer games. For this and many other reasons, lunch-time open access is limited to school work of some kind. Independent reading of books is one possible option given on the form as well.

Today, the majority of lunch-time customers did absolutely nothing related school work and hardly anyone cracked a book. By the end of lunch period, there were maybe five or six out of 2o or so students who were actually reading or doing class-related work. In fact the number was much lower until I finally put my "It Is Now Too Late to Come In" sign in the door, relinquishing doorman duty, and circulated around the library with my stack of completed forms to see what was going on. After confronting many of the students who said they were going to do class work but weren't, the number of those who did at least log into their web-based reading/writing sites increased.

On top of the preverication, some of my manga readers, longtime regulars, were disturbingly loud. I started shushing early on and it seemed like I was doing my broken steam pipe imitation pretty much as a replacement for normal exhalation for most of the period. In the afternoon, after teaching ESL at yet another school on campus, I came back to the library to get ready for after school open access.

During the after school period, from 3:30 to 5:00, I'm less strict about doing class work. When the kids come in, they just sign a sheet for statistics' sake. I got my usual crowd of middle school Yugio players (I have only the vaguest idea what this fantasy card game is really about, but seems to involve lots of reading about each character's special powers and tons of strategy, so I allow it), a couple of high-schoolers who quietly surfed the web for a while, and my crowd of young, boisterous middle school computer gamers.

The last group were in rare form. They are learning English at the moment, so I repeatedly ask them, in Spanish, to keep their voices down when they speak to each other in the library. I often model how, even speaking softly, we can all hear each other, but they simply go back to speaking at a yell immediately thereafter. I always need to a be a little shushy with the Yugio kids, who are slowly getting better at moderating their voices, but the gamers required constant attention this afternoon and I almost kicked them out once when L. let out a huge cry about something inconsequential.

Then, R. pulled me over to come see the games L. was playing on the computer, knowing I wouldn't approve, and L. was too slow to close out his browser window so I got to see one of the most obnoxious video games I've seen in a while: a naked, zaftig cartoon woman, bent over almost in two, shot a cannon ball of bodily waste out so that it flew straight up in the air. The objective of the game actually comes later, but it's too unseemly to describe here. Now, these charmers are part of the group that's responsible for my loading Windows Steady State to essentially lock down all the student PCs, yet they were still finding a way to use the computers for something I consider vile. And they're only about eleven years old.

I explained to L. that this kind of game was crude (grosero) and the school computers were not put at his disposition for such things. He defended the game as just a game and seemed truly dismayed by the idea that it was offensive. In fact, he showed me another game on the same site, hoping it would mollify me. A hail of cute little cartoon baby chicks rains down on an upturned rake with sharp tines. The player has to position the rake in order to skewer as many of the helpless earthbound chicks as possible. Cartoon baby chick blood was everywhere within seconds of launching play.

Another lecture to L. and the gang: I and many of the adults on campus agree that violence and killing are wrong, etc. I insisted the three gamers find another kind of game or leave. They told me they didn't know of a game I would approve of, so I steered them to Funbrain, which is really kind of hokey compared to the wild stuff they had been playing, but I was desperate. As it turned out, they were at least mildly amused by Funbrain, or so it seemed as they remained in place for about 30 more minutes.

So now, not only am I shushing more times in a single day than I ever thought I would in lifetime, but I'm the censor and arbiter of computer game taste to boot. What has happened??? These eleven-year-old types can be fun, but they test your limits and your outlook on life about two seconds after you get to know them. I'm bound as a teacher to make sure these kids don't get into materials that would be considered too violent and pornographic, and this crew has already displayed their talent for getting around the Department of Ed. firewall to find steamy, glistening closeup photos of sex acts, for which they were ejected from the library and reported to school administration.

And yet my pro-rights side asks why kids who have a natural curiosity about sex can't look at some pictures. My brothers and I once found a deck of scandalous playing cards in a back corner of a drawer in my dad's bedside stand. We spirited them out of the house long enough to get a few good gawks. And we lived. What's different about internet pornography? Aren't librarians to allow users access to all kinds of materials, whether they personally find them reprehensible or not? Of course we are. Yet the school system can't be a place for kids to look at dirty pictures without reports being made and parents being called; we'd be accused of being louche.

Just take a look a the Code of Ethics posted on the American Library Association's web site, and I quote:
II. We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.
VII. We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.
Meanwhile, the DOE has a firewall up that I once considered too restrictive and now see as too lax. I suppose the DOE firewall blocking violent and racy internet images is in keeping with the "aims of our institutions". But still, number II looms large.

I suppose it comes down to teaching kids what is considered "appropriate" in a public setting. I've never been the King of Good Judgment, but I'm pretty sure most of the stuff my gamers like to look at would be considered inappropriate behavior by most sentient adults. I sometimes tell them they'll have to wait until they get their own computers to play around at will. To some of them, that seems like a lifetime away, but it's plausible that they'll get their hands on small, cheap computing devices that are as powerful as good quality laptops were a couple of years ago by the time they get out of high school. For now, I'll just have to keep hovering, shushing and lecturing until I can think of a better way.


  1. Hey,
    No shushing allowed!
    It took me years to figure this one out...I tell the kids that if they talk during research time, then thier conversation MUST be work-related. And in soft voices, too.

  2. I like this. I tell them to use inside voices or to whisper like a secret.