Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Welcome to the real world

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IT'S 8:52 a.m. and the first bell of the year is ringing at Windsor School. Outside the east entrance, organized chaos ensues amid a flurry of emotional exchanges that could rival an airport departure lounge. The parental paparazzi edge in for last-minute photo ops as a sneaker-clad procession of backpacks and lunch bags winds its way towards the door and Mrs. Brown's welcoming smile.

At 8:57 a.m., having hung their backpacks on designated hooks and put on their indoor shoes, the 20 youngsters inside Room No. 4 are learning how Windsor students stand to sing O Canada -- beside our chairs, arms at our sides.

A mundane moment in other realms, on the first day of Grade 1, it's one of the first signs that you've entered an ordered universe where, from this day forward, every first can have a deep and lasting impact.

Heavy stuff when you've only just begun to cut your permanent teeth.

ARMED with a vocabulary of about 2,200 words, and the newfound ability to tie their shoes, these children will learn about rules, relationships, teamwork, homework, structured play and self-discipline this year -- all while making the transition from the world of home to the world of peers.

The gravity of the situation, however, is not exactly weighing on the minds of these 11 boys and nine girls.

Kids possess a gift lost to most grownups; they live in the moment.

And in this moment, Sydney is discovering one of the first laws of her unfolding universe: Mommy won't be there every step of the way.

Being the "new girl" -- her classmates know each other from kindergarten -- Sydney is double-majoring in separation anxiety and peer dynamics this first day.

But there's another universal law, perhaps the most important one, which is: Things change -- at this age, faster than you can say Wiggle & Jiggle.

It's 9:25 a.m. and the students have moved from their tables -- four per -- to the carpet, where Mrs. Brown teaches them an action poem.

They've already learned a lot. Always push your chair in when you leave it, carpet-seating protocol is the same as in kindergarten (criss-cross, apple sauce: legs crossed, hands in lap), washroom breaks are taken as a class but one student goes in at a time, gym is now called phys-ed, and you have to come back after lunch.

One of the girls has agreed to be lunch partners with Sydney, who -- surprise, surprise -- seems unaware that her mom slipped out of the classroom 10 minutes ago.

It's storytime and Mrs. Brown is reading Franklin Goes to School and polling the class to see who shared the titular turtle's bout of first-day butterflies. Mason's hand shoots up: "I had them last night."

Noah raises his hand. (The footloose days of freely interjecting one's thoughts are clearly over.) "When's Choice Time?" he asks. (A kindergarten carryover where students get free time to play with toys, books, etc. at their chosen activity station.)

It's an interesting -- and perhaps, ironic -- question.

The Class of 2017, as we have dubbed Noah's class, has just crossed a developmental threshold where each passing year -- heck, day -- will bring new opportunities for independence. At the same time, there will be more rules, restrictions and responsibilities.

You wanna talk choice time?

Now is the time these youngsters will begin making some big ones -- who to let into their inner circle, how to deal with interpersonal conflicts, how to interact with the OTHER sex.

What to think of themselves.

"The first time children are really challenged about their competence is when they begin school," says Dr. Ken Wiebe, psychologist for the Winnipeg School Division.

"That's when you start to see them comparing themselves to others. How did my friends do? How did everybody else do? Did I do as well as they did? Am I stupid? Am I smart?"

As for that boy-girl thing, Wiebe says gender identity is usually firmly established by Grade 1. "They have some understanding of the differences between maleness and femaleness, but one of the things that children learn, and not always through direct instruction, but through observation, is sexual stereotypes." Garret would prefer his class were all boys, he says, because "it's kind of boring with girls. They annoy you." He "hated" their spontaneous hugs back in kindergarten.

As for that boy-girl thing, Wiebe says gender identity is usually firmly established by Grade 1. "They have some understanding of the differences between maleness and femaleness, but one of the things that children learn, and not always through direct instruction, but through observation, is sexual stereotypes." Garret would prefer his class were all boys, he says, because "it's kind of boring with girls. They annoy you." He "hated" their spontaneous hugs back in kindergarten.

Give him a few years.

Savanna, whose T-shirt bears the slogan I (heart) My Attitude, is quite comfortable informing everyone at her table -- Devon included -- that she has a crush on Devon.

Give her a few years.

Choices, of course, will change as new boundaries form and actions begin to carry deeper consequences.

At this stage, boundaries may be a bit blurry.

Why not plant a playground kiss on a classmate's cheek if you suddenly feel moved to do so?

Why not show the class how loudly you can belch?

Why not blurt out an interesting insight when one pops to mind?

In other words, why not march to the beat of your own drum?

Because, as Noah found out in Mrs. K's music class, when you play your hand drum out of turn, you lose it. And, as Mason discovered, if you disrupt the circle game, you have to leave the circle.

It's all there on the rules list posted on Mrs. K's walls. A student's job, it reads, is: "To learn, to listen, and to look after your own behaviour."

The Class of 2017 will, hopefully, emerge from their academic journeys as individuals fully in charge of their own behaviour AND their own unique drumbeat.

But before they can think outside the box, they have to learn what the boxes are.

And for that, there's a conformity phase that goes beyond forming lines and following school rules to making sure that we blend in with everyone else.

Grade 1, it seems, is a baby step in that direction.

Here, everyone has the same plastic pencil box filled with the same crayons, coloured pencils, glue and scissors. And when the first boy takes apart his glue stick to see how it works, another soon follows.

The row of runners in the hall, and the row of backpacks on the classroom wall look like ads for Nickelodeon TV. This is a generation that has grown up immersed in media. (In fact, according to a 2003 study by the California-based Kaiser Family Foundation, children six and under are now spending as much time in front of a screen -- computer or television -- as they do playing outside; an average of two hours a day.)

Out on the playground during lunch and recess, a couple of fellas start gathering gravel into makeshift sacks (the front of their T-shirts) until pretty soon the area around the jungle gym resembles an archeological dig.

Some of the girls collect leaves, while others play hopscotch or go down the slide four at a time, arms around each other's waists.

On the playground, Wiebe says, boys tend to be more physically active, while girls are more socially oriented. "For girls," he says, "it's all about 'how is this going to facilitate a relationship?' "

It's 12:45 p.m., lunch is over and it's time to return to class and Mrs. Moir, the afternoon Grade 1 teacher.

Back at the blue tables, Savanna likely speaks for many of her peers when she announces, to no one in particular, "I am soooo tired."

Afternoon in Grade 1, so far, is similar to the morning -- another phys-ed class, another recess, another washroom break.

"I keep it similar to kindergarten," says Lauranne Moir, who has been teaching for 27 years. "At the beginning of the year, they need to feel fairly successful and things need to be familiar.

"It's a long day for them."

The impact of switching from kindergartner to full-time student usually takes a week to hit, says Kelly Brown, who made her own switch from banking to teaching in 1998. This is her fourth year teaching Grade 1.

"It'll take until Christmas until they get used to the whole routine," she says. "Some will have trouble staying focused, some might start getting a little teary or they'll start to shut down and won't be able to finish an activity."

That said, Mrs. Brown says the Class of 2017's entry into their ordered universe was, well, orderly.

"That was the smoothest first day I've had in the four years."

OK, there was a minor incident in afternoon phys-ed class -- one that served as a reminder that while these students aren't babies, they've only taken a baby step on the 12-year academic journey that they, and this newspaper, are sharing with you.

Sydney and Garrett had a bit of a head-on collision during a rousing game of Duck-Duck, Goose-Goose, and ended up with matching goose eggs on their foreheads.

Which brings us to today's final lessons:

1. Keep your eyes open.
2. And you're never too old, or the wrong gender, for a hug.

carolin.vesely@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 18, 2005 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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