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  • Writer's picturekatelyn russell

The Body Experience of School

I’m reading Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change by Angela Garbes. In it, she talks, in part, about how caregiving is so invisible because it deals with the messy nature of the body. This made me start thinking about the myriad ways we try to sanitize and deny the body in schools. I mean, we quite literally sanitized them during the height of Covid. But I am talking about the, “making something more acceptable by removing, hiding, or minimizing any unpleasant, undesirable, or unfavorable parts,” definition. The body is an inconvenience in school, not the seat of our experience, and something to celebrate.

I mean, we can start with start time. The research is clear - earlier start times are bad for high school students, and later start times are good. The end. You would think that the course of action, then, would be clear - school should start “later”. In our district, that meant pushing the start time back 30 minutes for high schoolers. So now we start at 8:15 instead of 7:45. The elementary school starts a bit later than that. You should have heard the opposition and the outcry, not one of them considering the body. They were all about logistics. Which, in schools, are always more important than the body.

In my school, we get 22 minutes for lunch. Which is not enough time to walk the body to the cafeteria, stand in line, retrieve lunch, find a place to sit, eat it mindfully, and then walk back to class. And what about if you have to go to the bathroom? What about if you need to visit the nurse for a bandaid or to get medication? Deduct that from your 22 minutes. Also, can we step back and for a moment consider the ridiculous number of 22 minutes? I swear, numbers like this made the school day so much worse. I am always looking at the clock for a weird time - 8:58, 11:31, and 1:11. The kids are, too, and we spend a lot of mental time and energy trying to figure out when classes end or begin. And then we become obsessive. “It’s 22 minutes, not 20!”

This is all to say we build an environment to deny and obstruct the body. It’s a vehicle for carrying around the all-important head so we can stuff it with facts so that it can pass the requisite exams necessary for graduation. I am guilty of this forgetting too, of course, and want to make it more central to my teaching. You don’t have a body, you are a body, and it’s not here to shuttle your mind from place to place. If you need to go to the bathroom, please go. If you need a snack or a drink of water, please have it. If you don’t feel good, please go to the nurse, or even better, go home and rest. How can we teach our children to be healthy if we don’t start there?

I was in training for Universal Design for Learning this summer and the speaker emphasized how crucial it is for the brain to feel safe and taken care of to learn. I couldn’t get past the basic needs part of the talk for a while. We assume that because we are in a wealthy district, our students come to school fed and taken care of so that we can stuff as much as possible into their brains. But I see exhausted, depleted bodies. Bodies that don’t sleep enough, might not eat enough because they are unhappy with their size, and don’t move enough during the day. Bodies that are whispering to their owner that they love art, please take an art class instead of AP whatever. And we scratch our heads and wring our hands and wonder why our students report such poor mental health.

I am not going anywhere concrete with this, I don’t have a neat and tidy solution. But to innovate, you need to get clear on the problem. And this is a problem.

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