Sunday, August 12, 2012

# 4 .... More Than Just A River In Egypt

    When you are fortunate enough stand at the base of grand structures like the pyramids of Giza,
it is difficult not to be captivated by their presence. Tourists stand next to them dwarfed with
expressions of awe. They are similar to all great structures which represent ideas, they intend to
intimidate the visitor.  Buildings which represent powerful religions, political ideologies and
business interests all have this in common. We read books, take photos and dream of standing
next to them in an effort to get close to the power they exude.

     However, hidden from the eyes of the visitor are the buildings which house the support
workers for these grand structures.   Your local high school is in this category.  They are the
buildings which house the workers who support our collective idea of education. The promotion
of the ideas are presented inside the great government designed structures far away from the schools.

     I have worked in a number of schools over the course of my career and none of them have
caused my eyes to widen with excitement. They are all so similar with their low maintenance
landscaping, industrial windows fitted into large boxes. The superstructures are usually
constructed of thrifty concrete block, steel I-beams and trusses covered with some non offensive
facade. Some of the really old schools maintain a little Victorian romance, but these are rare. Most
public schools are generally more about function than form.

     The unimaginative exterior design leads you into the interior where the visitor is greeted with
durable terrazzo floors, heavy steal doors with wired glass, plastered walls covered in pale blue,
beige and yellow paint.  The halls are lined with heavy sheet metal lockers, battered, but still
functioning. Fire hoses and extinguishers are strategically recessed  into walls at appropriate
intervals. In addition, heat sensors and swivel cameras pop through the acoustic ceiling tiles.
Classroom floors are concrete and are usually covered with an industrial vinyl tile, the walls a
continuation of the corridors.

    Classrooms have a wall of windows that never seem to keep out the draft. The heating system
is usually uneven; while one room of people shivers, the group across the hall sweats. Most of the
older schools are not well ventilated and do not employ air conditioning. As our climate changes,
summer and fall are plagued with humid heat waves, the classrooms become unbearable,
sometimes reaching into the mid 30s.  These are institutional buildings, built to hold thousands of
kids for a few decades, but lack even a nod toward the idea of comfort.

    The atmosphere in schools have become a place where a hyper fear of liability hangs like
the suspended ceilings. Doors are bolted shut at 9 am to protect students and staff from outside
intruders. Next to every exit is a fire alarm protected with a clear plastic box that lets out a loud
squeal in case pranksters want to clear the building.  Not much will burn in a school except the
books so the heat sensors pick up the scent of smoldering synthetic materials in garbage cans or
washrooms. Tinted shock resistant bubbles cover multidirectional cameras that scan doors and
hallways for potential acts of vandalism, drug dealers and other criminal assaults on the building or
inhabitants. Outside the city police patrol the grounds and neighbourhood as a message to the
community, everything is under control.

    One teacher will stand in the cafeteria at lunch with 700 kids to act as a deterrent to food
fights and potential confrontations between students. Two more teachers will be assigned the
task of patrolling the halls at lunch and during classes to fend off potential criminal behaviour.
Teachers use to carry communication devices to call for help, but they were discontinued . Only
the administrators carry communication devices when they briskly walk the halls in pairs. Schools
have become similar to many of our modern institutions, utilitarian in presentation and infected
an atmosphere of fear of liability.  

    Oddly enough, I don’t see or think of these qualities when I go into work each day. I
instinctively look beyond the cold structure, mundane decor, saturated with security measures. I
see and hear kids laughing, maybe discussing their social lives, boys jousting, colleagues moving
through the halls with purpose. I spend most of my day living inside my head, planning for the
day, thinking before I speak and write. There are always messages to be read, photocopies to be
made, meetings to attend. Like all institutional buildings, schools represent societies values. They
are just boxes where these values are delivered. I could never perform my duties if I let the
atmosphere of my physical surroundings enter me mind. After all, denial is more just a river in
Egypt ya know.