Laboratory School (Rat on the Wheel)

Lab school is a creepy concept. No one should be on display that early.


The first couple of years I went to a Laboratory School. We weren’t given chemistry sets and crystal radios. We were the experiment. I realize this now only in hindsight, as there really was no other reason to have thirty foot (9m) high ceilings than to line the upper half of the walls with one-way glass and set graduate (education majors) students on the observation decks. We would see them, occasionally, behind the glass, and we’d wave to them blithely unaware of ourselves.

Does the rat ever look down and wonder what the hell am I doing? As long as there’s ready food and water, maybe the life isn’t so bad, right? And when one day the rat ascends to a just rest, what has it accomplished? Maybe not so much for Mr. Rat, but for the observer, all kinds of warm and fuzzy results might happen, never mind that the rat’s dignity and pride is laid bare for all to follow.

I remember being vaguely proud of the fact that we were one of only twelve or twenty laboratory schools in the nation. (every move watched) After all, we were special kids; got lots of attention from teachers — regular, student; we had an abundance: it seemed like we were forever splitting into smaller task groups, milling about the classroom floor, industrial warm grey carpet, variously assigned to different and new people, steady streams spilling through the doorways. But what did it mean to me?

I’m special (strains of The Pretenders in the background) because we get to go on lots of field trips: the museum, the parks, the arboretum; I’m special because we get storytellers telling us tall tales and yarns spun so tightly that the characters dance deftly, no flopping; I’m special because we get guest lectures and plenty of information. We the kids are having fun, and that’s what school should be all about, after all. If you’re doing serious, reserved learning in kindergarten, there’s a special hell reserved for your teacher. Rote drills are something reserved for the later grades, to crush spirits into efficiently cruel junior high mode. I’d much rather see what sort of hijinks Jim and Jane get into while riding a bike, thanks, rather than estimate the velocity required to keep up with Rex.

I think that everyone knew by the end of the first day what the windows were for — if you didn’t have an older sibling in school, someone else did, and besides, you’d be blind to miss the movement behind the mirror-glass. No one knew that they were perhaps part of an elaborate show, the school of the future, this ideal school; acting the part of a hat vendor outraged by larcenous monkeys bent on exacting every entertainment dollar they could from me in front of the parents was far more nerve-wracking than daily coming in and going about the motions of Jonny Regular Kindergarten in front of strangers. But it wasn’t acting; we were too disingenuous to know the pageant we put on and that every action could be act or fact.

We can’t all be saints. It’s almost foolish to try and even more haughty to succeed — who are we to compare ourselves to paragons of years past? Sainthood isn’t for the living, at any rate; you’re not even officially considered until after you’ve passed away, no matter the press, no matter the accolades. So keep on dashing anyways, try to please the teacher, try to please your friends, try to please all those around you. This is no time for bitterness to seep in. This is your childhood.

My education didn’t suffer for the act, though. I learned cursive sometime in the first grade and ended up being sent to the fourth grade classroom during their math periods. I think that the teachers genuinely cared for the students, but having to perform in front of a paying audience must have taken some toll on confidence; eventually, they stopped offering some of the older (fifth and sixth) grades, ostensibly because of retiring teachers, but perhaps the older students began to have a dawning understanding of our relationship to the faceless many above.

I walked into the classroom one day to find someone — large and adult — sitting in my chair; the teacher nodded at her and she began to talk to me. “Hello, Michael (I was Michael for seventeen years; no matter how normal it sounds today, after rowing the boat ashore too many times, I needed to change it a bit).”
“Michael, I’m from a small private school near here. We saw your test scores and was wondering if you’d like to join us.”
(test scores?)“How are you?”
“I think that you would like it there. We have a stream running through the campus.”
(campus stream test?)“uh –”
“One time, I was looking out the window and I saw a rabbit run across the ground. You do like rabbits, don’t you?”
(testing rabbits?)“Yes, rabbits are cute.”
“Well, I don’t want to pressure you into making a decision right now but I want you to tell your parents about me and be sure to mention the school — here’s a brochure in case you forget.”
(rabbits can cross streams!)“Oh.”
Knowing how hard it is for me to make up my mind today, those test scores must have gotten switched with my friend Tony’s for her to forge so fearlessly onwards.

After all, Tony was pure genius. I had friends for other purposes — Kurt wanted to talk about robots, Charlie wanted to demonstrate how the Millenium Falcon took off, Eric could spin dragon tales with a few chosen words, and Amy just wanted to tickle me — but I had Tony to keep me paranoid. He was taller, older, wiser; gaunt almost in his deeply black Oakland Raiders parka, which he wore even in the heat of early September. I was easily convinced that by standing in the same sun as a bloodstone, before much longer, I’d have involutarily donated enough to make me too weak to be among the quick. The drawing he found later, of a Native American myth (regarding a malevolent spirit who would cut out a piece of a warrior’s gut and eat it; the warrior would then waste away, missing the vital bit — I slept on my stomach for weeks afterwards) sealed the paranoia. It didn’t help that our playground was mostly gravel, and who knew what sort of evil rocks it might have concealed?

Tony was also the one with the monstrous Radio Shack 150-in-1 electronics application kit; it had a relay and a speaker and once he got it to amplify his voice, I found a small and dreading thing inside me saying that I’d never be as good as he in electronics (after all, I’m a mechanical engineer now; who says that childhood is all bliss?). These sorts of things never inspired me into direct competition; this was the nuclear bomb of childhood, for someone to demonstrate such dazzling competence when the rest of us were trying to stay out of the paste (tempting) or at least get it on the right spot (Yes, Michael, behind your knee is nice, but we were trying to glue Humpty Dumpty together).

If it means kissing up, that’s what ya does; when you look back and realize that to be successful, you have to define success in terms of others’ perceptions, the wire is almost palpable beneath your feet. All the time — run here to make sure that this deadline doesn’t pass, run there to bring along the next one. Why not question? Why not dream? Why not remember, just once, that the world revolves around big people who tell you what to do without asking why, without knowing why? Strike the drum and let loose the hounds; it’s too easy to wallow in infancy, hoping that your next parent/teacher/owner will come along before you make too big a botch of this one. So go ahead and run along, run to nowhere faster than you hope.

I demonstrated a talent for almost writing. In my final year in lab school, I parlayed a plagarized story into a ticket to the Young Writer’s Conference, an all-Saturday affair where we got to read our stories to our peers; I would later return to the YWC in succeeding years, but never with such a classic as The Lambton Worm. My brother didn’t need any convincing that I’d lied my way in; after all, he’d written the stunningly Nordic Adventure with the Gods, a bit racy because he could use words like Hel without getting into trouble. His story was completely his own (I still enjoy reading it to this day) and so he could afford to peer down disapprovingly at a thief like me. The motto at the YWC that year was “Write on … Right on!” (hey, the early 80’s weren’t all that bad!) and maybe now that I’m realizing that my engineering skill will never be good enough to earn my keep, I can take the message to heart (starving artistry isn’t my greatest desire, either, though).

So we all competed for approval. I wanted so desperately to beat the pants off of Seth at art; after our art teacher held up Seth’s woven-paper collage as the shining exemplar of our class, I was consumed with Seth-envy. I reproduced the Loch Ness monster in clay so accurately that had it been enlarged and sailed in the Loch, I’ve no doubt that we’d have seen an amorous or at least curious Nessie. My brother later told me that he’d seen the art teacher muttering under her breath, something about idiot kids, as she poked holes in the bottom of my Monster (lest it explde in the kiln). When I perfectly duplicated Seth’s effort, I was chastised as derivative and uncreative. I think that I got a good grade on the paper mache mask we made later … in high school …

The favorite hangout during recess was the fire escape, which led to uncharted territory (roof). Sometimes it was so close, just within our reaches if you would stretch a bit and maybe clamber on your fellow student. If we’d been able to get on, we’d be out of there in a flash, wouldn’t we?

Even in the end, you can’t keep on running forever, right? But even in the end, someone has to ask you to get off the wheel and you thought that your running days were over forever, that you had all the time in the world to realize the waking dreams you had while running. Without the structure of running in your life, time weighs too heavily, and your dreams progressively wither without support. You are your own boss now, and have been, so you realize, even when you ran your best. You could have stepped off the wheel without any prompting, you could have forged your own life and your glory days need not have been spent in toil. So you go around and think so and gradually convince yourself that the cage bars aren’t real, never were, there’s big sky country out there for the taking.


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