Education Memoir Parenting

School Is Not the Time To Make Friends

When I was a student at Genesee Hills Elementary School in the 1970s, we had quite a bit of free time during which we actually interacted with our peers: during lunch, recess, specials, sure. But also during class. In 3rd grade with Mrs. Marmillo and Mr. Barnello, we enjoyed an amazing invention called “Boy, Girl and Group of the Week.” A concept that would never fly now, I feel fortunate to have been part of this fabulous, classroom environment, and I know dozens of people who likely feel the same way.

Before I tell you about Boy, Girl & Group of the Week, keep in mind, this classroom phenomenon happened in 1976 — more than 30 years ago — so I could be wrong on some of the basics (so for those who may remember, feel free to chime in).

I want to say that on Friday afternoons, students from our two 3rd grade classrooms gathered together to nominate students as Boy and Girl of the Week. Students who went out of their way to do something nice for their peers were considered, so we said things like:

I want to nominate Jeff F. as Boy of the Week because he lent me a pencil when I didn’t have one.


I want to nominate Siobhan E. because she got me a tissue when I had a bloody nose, and then she helped me to the nurse’s office.

Meanwhile, our teachers sat quietly and made hash marks (or something) on a clipboard. Unless, we gave too many nominations to the same kid — in which case they would encourage us to look around the room and notice people who had possibly never been nominated, they were pretty silent.

When we finished, our teachers determined and announced the Boy, Girl and Group of the Week. (Maybe it was predetermined. It probably was.) The prize? Winners got the privilege of walking from our elementary school to Burger King, a little less than a mile away, sometime the following week along with our teachers. To get to BK, we walked on roads – not sidewalks. Yes, there were a few cars, but we walked – single-file in sun and in slush – to get to a hamburger, small fries and a soft-drink. It was heaven.

Imagine teachers pulling off this weekly field trip in 2010. It’s practically impossible.

First off, I have a feeling 90% of today’s parents would say they don’t like the idea because Burger King is fattening, and (in case you hadn’t heard), we have an obesity epidemic in our country. Okay, this may be the case when you are eating BK every day. But we weren’t back then. And we used our lunch and recess periods (both of which were longer than they are now) to walk to and from Burger King. The trek was just under 1.5 miles, but we walked briskly, so it was a good healthy walk.

We used our best manners while waiting in line. I remember standing in the BK queue, preparing to place my order — using my own voice to speak to an adult, “One hamburger, please,” I would say, careful to add, “Thank you.” Eating with my teachers and friends was a most amazing reward! We learned so much about each other during our walks to and from school and while sitting in the big booths together. We learned about our teachers’ families, their children. We learned if our classmates had siblings, what color our classmates’ rooms were painted, and if we liked to play the same games. We learned whose parents were divorced. Hell, we learned what the word divorce meant! We learned to speak, and we learned to listen.

I imagine, these days, most parents wouldn’t like the idea of children walking on main roads with traffic. Because people worry about things like that these days. Because someone could get hit by a car! Or get abducted! Or fall into a ditch and twist an ankle! (The last scenario was probably the most likely.)

As far as I know, my parents signed one skinny permission slip to allow me to go on the aforementioned trip off campus to BK and provided me with the requisite dollar or so to purchase my meal. These days, I imagine there would be a 12-page document that would have to be signed by parents, promising to waive their rights to this, that and the other thing. Back then, nobody worried that we were going to get hit by cars or fall in gulches or get kidnapped. Everyone just kind of assumed giving children additional privileges came with giving us additional responsibilities. People sought to broaden our world experience rather than limit our boundaries.

We had so many opportunities to practice civility in elementary school. It was okay to have a little idle chatter time built into our day. The classroom was the place where we learned our academics, but we also practiced our social skills. Today, I would imagine that most administrators would tell parents that there is simply not time for idle chitter-chatter. A few years ago a school administrator told me that “school is not the place for children to make friends.” She argued that kids needed to get involved in extra-curricular activities if they were interested in making friendships. She explained teachers needed to make the most of classroom time to prepare students for standardized tests, that teachers have more to teach than ever.

In 2010, I would argue “the civility piece” has fallen out of the curriculum — along with the belief that there are benefits to idle time. In 1976, it seemed like there was an emphasis on these things, as well as the other things we learned as by-products: patience (eventually everyone got to be Boy or Girl of the Week), paying attention to the little things, actually making an effort to help out a fellow student in need, being a good citizen (not just because it could get you a trip to Burger King but because it felt good). And a million other things, too.

And in this age of technology, a little more emphasis on these seemingly insignificant niceties could go far to help kids plug into each other and their behaviors. I mean, a student might not bully the kid upon whose vote he depends to get some kind of special reward.

And I would argue that sometimes the greatest life-lessons occur when it doesn’t appear that one is learning at all.

But that’s probably a hard sell these days.

31 thoughts on “School Is Not the Time To Make Friends

  1. I remember, in third grade, walking 4 blocks with my entire class to the Dairy Queen one beautiful warm spring day and our teacher bought all of us a cone. WONDERFUL! In 5th grade, we walked about 2 miles to the local community pool/park for a field trip. WALKED. TWO MILES. OMG. Someone call the exercise police.

    What wonderful memories – really liking the picture of Burger King that you found, too!

    Our school does a “Doing the Right Thing” recognition every week – five kids whose names are drawn from the submitted slips, for doing just the things that you mentioned – loaning pencils, holding doors, helping someone else.

  2. Love this Renee. School is where the basic social skills that should be taught at home can be put into practice! I appreciate that teachers are under the gun to ‘teach the test’….but learning how to interact socially is more important now than it ever was. More and more children are losing the ability to interact on a genuine human level – away from a computer screen! Their social networks are based on technology more than real life experience!

  3. My two younger daughters went to a small elementary school (K-5) with about 300 students starting in 2000. The school is in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. The atmosphere at school was that of a small community – younger students were paired up with older mentors, and the Grade 5 kids would come in and read to the kindergarten and Grade 1 kids. There was zero tolerance for bullying, and respect for your peers and teachers was expected at all times. In the spring, children would walk with their class to a local park and plant marigolds that they had been growing in paper cups in their classroom. In winter, each class would go ice skating at least twice at the local arena. Healthy eating and exercise were part of the curriculum…each class had a half hour of gym every day, and kids were encouraged to bring healthy snacks/lunches. Each class had a “Star of the Week” who would be given a little gift from the dollar store: a pencil, or small toy. Student birthdays were acknowledged during morning announcements, and kids with summer birthdays celebrated theirs in June before school was over.

    The girls are in middle and high school now, but they still miss their elementary school!


  4. Interesting comments of time gone but still remembered. But I found most interesting that your Dad gave you permission to eat French Fries. He was ahead of his time in healthy diets!!!

  5. Love this. If you were preaching I’d be your choir. I went to a small school in the early 90s where we were able to do a lot of things that would probably violate every administrator’s hyper-paranoid sense of ethics. That is, they would wonder how many parents would sue. When I tell peeps about some of that stuff today they look at me like I’m a crazy person. Well, I get that look a lot anyway, but that’s beside the point.

    Another funny connection is that in 8th grade we had a Burger King right next to the school and would always walk over with teachers for various things. If I taught in high school today I would probably quit because I would get shut down by school boards for everything. Kudos on this piece.

  6. First off, let me say I look like a total tool in this picture! But I must agree, we had such a great time at GH! I have so many fond memories, of every grade. You’re right we learned a lot back then. There are no manners now days. Even when I walk in front of someone looking at something in an isle at the grocery store, I say excuse me. Please and thank you???? I rarely hear those words from people anymore, and when someone actually does say it, I’m surprised-sad! Hell you can’t even get a wave from someone when you let them into traffic!
    A lot of children have social skill deficits today because they were never allowed to take the initiative. Parents always speaking for them, “silent” classrooms, in your head activities. Don’t even get me started on lack of imagination. I once said to me kids, why don’t you go outside, we have that huge refrigerator box, you could make something really cool…They just looked at me as if I had grown a 3rd head and said, “Why would we want to do that?” Ugh, broke this artist’s heart. But back to manners. From a young age if we were in a store, and my kids had a question about merchandise I made them go and ask the sales clerk (prompting them to say please & thanks you) now they have no problem asking questions. They are pretty polite too, I might add. That’s one thing I demand…a clean room, sometimes, but manners always!

  7. I went to the same school just a few years earlier. I also had Jim Barnello and Carol Marmillo. At that time they taught in what was called the “Multi-age Class”. There was one class of 3rd, one class of 4th and one class of 5th that were combined into one large class. Some walls were knocked down and the the spaced was designed to have a comfortable reading area, a small store to make money for field trips as math and science. The desks were grouped into groups of 3 of 4 combining the different grades. The older kids would help the younger kids whenever possible. There was the annual camping trip that was always fun.

    I still remember when I won girl of the week and group of the week and got to pick a piece of candy out of the container. Everyone would sit in a big circle and the person who won would stand up and talk about something. This class was the best school experience. I don’t know if I would have made it through elementary school without the Multi-age class. I was in it for 3rd, 4th and 5th.

    1. Marcia, I remember hearing about the multi-age rooms. I wonder what happened at the school that made them change from multi-age back to one single grade. Hmmmmm. It sounds like it was an amazing experience for you.

      All I know is that Mrs. M & Mr. B. made magic in their classrooms.

      Magic. They were quite a team.

      And we were pretty lucky, huh.

  8. Fantastic!

    Just a couple of years ago the school board cancelled recess…yup, they really did.

    Instead it was replaced by a physical education lesson – which meant it had to be ‘taught’ and so “idle chit chat” was not allowed.

    Myself, and a few other concerned parents, stood before the board of ed meeting and explained the same points you make – that school is where social skills are learned; that free time is when kids learn teamwork, and negotiation, and diplomacy and a host of other things that the schools don’t teach but which are important in life. A 1,200 name petition and a year later – recess is back and a little sanity is restored.

    Thanks for a great post.

    1. It’s rather sad that the school board lost its way, but I’m glad you had the courage to stand up and fight for your children’s recess time. I’m glad you took up the cause. I’m sure that some people think losing recess is no big deal and that yours was a frivolous fight, but I’m positive that there is value to “idle time.”

        1. Just got off the phone with a person from my district. Head of instructional curriculum something or other. It is soooooo about testing. The colleges want better prepared students so they want the high schools to work harder. The high schools want better prepared students, so they blame the middle school teachers. The middle schools blame the elementary schools. We are doing a lot of things that are fundamentally wrong. Big time.

          Einstein said insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” We need major reform. Major.

          My question is if so many people are dissatisfied with public education, why do we (the members of the public) keep doing the same things?

      1. Ahh yes. I have a blog post that is 80% written on the subject of why we put up with the status quo in education. It will go out as soon as I find time to finish it – which might not be until the weekend at this rate.

  9. I remember in elementary school taking the lunch trays and sliding down the hills on them! Since they don’t use those hard plastic ones anymore that is not happening!

    I remember sitting with who I wanted and when I was done eating just going out to recess! None of this you have to walk silent down the hall or you are losing recess crappolla! We were responsible enough to walk outside!

    I remember having homework, but not a ton; I still could go outside and play! I remember more one-on-one time with teachers because the state didn’t mandate so much crap that you had to fit in that the teachers could have fun with the kids and yet we learned! I could go on and on!

  10. Let me begin by saying that there is more grease in my hair (in this picture) than any food items offered at Burger King! Great blog, Renee! I so fondly remember this year in school, and I completely agree with you.

    As I visit lots of elementary schools to observe my student teachers, I have been a little alarmed to hear that many lunch rooms now have assigned seats! Lunch should absolutely be a time to socialize, and keeping the children in the same seats every day inhibits their ability to have conversations with anyone not at their assigned table.

    I remember that lunch was the one time that I could count on spending time with friends in another class in my grade. Now, forget about that, students could find themselves eating with the same five or six kids all year long!

    1. It is strange, right? We had so much freedom to “mingle” with other kids. What is everyone so afraid of now? Do they think kids are going to have a giant food fight? So much control. Didn’t Michel Foucault say, “Where there is power, there is always resistance?” I hate to say it, but lots of schools run things like little prisons.

      So how do we get schools to let kids socialize a bit more freely? Or are those gone?

  11. Thanks for stirring up some old, wonderful memories of our youth. I agree, it was such a highlight and an honor to be the boy or girl of the week. And Mr. B. and Mrs. C. were some of the best teachers we ever had!

  12. Hi Steve!

    Look at you ‘fessing up to your whereabouts in that picture! We were fortunate to have had Mr. Barnello and Mrs. Marmillo. I remember thinking they were married because their names rhymed. Duh!

    I guess those were the days, huh?

    (I will never admit to being the girl in the far left corner in the Mickey t-shirt.) 😉

  13. I just counted 39 kids, and 4 adults, that’s an adult to student ratio of 1:10 unheard of now. Having taught in both UK and NZ its normally a 1:25-30 ratio though some classes get a TA which brings it down by half. TA’s are common in UK but are often shared between a class or are out taking small groups half the time and in NZ they are usually only for special needs.
    No wonder they could relax the rules more back then, along with less parents kicking up a fuss at the smallest things (I had a parent yell at me yesterday for keeping the class in for a few extra minutes so we could finish the picture book we were reading).
    Love the pic 🙂

  14. In 1989, we went on a trip and walked to Dairy Queen (it was the only restaurant we had in Crosbyton, TX) once. It wasn’t a regular thing, but I remember being really excited about it. We walked by my house to get there. We also walked to and from school when we were kids. We moved to the city (Lubbock, TX) when I was ten. Then I got to ride my bike (even places without side walks) to and from school with my friend. It was about a 30- 45 min bike ride for us and across one major street.

    Why have class sizes changed so much? Are there more kids now or just less funding for schools?

  15. These were lovely times which most of us would love to see return. We have sat back and allowed all the changes to happen.

    We are all too busy, often working to earn money to buy stuff we don’t need, and then throw away long before its life is over.

    In England, we had Margaret Thatcher. “There’s no such thing as Society.” She encouraged people to be selfish and greedy and to get something for nothing, selling shares in the state industries cheaply for people to sell on at a quick profit: Greed.

    We have the “No Win- No Fee” legal people encouraging us to make some money for nothing. Sheer greed.

    We have the Bankers lending money, often irresponsibly, to finance people to buy things they don’t really need. Greed. They only want the interest.

    We have the Credit Card People. “Why save and wait for that thing you don’t really need? Buy it now and pay us lots of interest.” Greed.

    We fall for all the advertisers claims, not seeming to realise their self interest. We blindly follow fashion, which again is really people trying to get you to throw away something which is perfectly good and replace it with something you don’t really need.

    Women stayed at home and looked after their children. They did not go out to work to earn money to buy things that they don’t really need.

    The Teacher was a figure of authority, who was respected by all. Parents and children alike. Discipline taken for granted. Now we have “I know my rights. You cant do that to me or my children.” Enough.

    1. Yes, well, you may be on the “other side of the pond,” but clearly, we are in the same mess. If we could change once, is it too optimistic to think we could change again, back to these more simple values? Honestly, in many ways, the health of our planet depends on us losing our narcissistic, materialistic ways.

  16. I cannot believe just how horrible I look in that picture. What on earth was my mother thinking with that outfit! I sure hope in 30 years my daughter doesn’t say the same thing lol. Reading this and seeing the picture has brought back so many wonderful memories from my GH days. I was so sad when I found out we had to move away from everyone I had grown up with the end of fifth grade 🙁

    Not only did that trip teach us responsiblity, we were kind to our friends, we used our manners, we budgeted our money for our meal, and we sure worked off that burger and fries walking up the hill back to our little school. I now have three children, 23, 19 and 10. There has been nothing as complete a lesson in their educational lives than this was for me. I try daily to instill these values on my children. I hope I have.

    Thank you so much for sharing this and for connecting with me again !!!!

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