Two weeks before the end of school, Greene Elementary held its traditional Walk-a-Thon Fundraiser. Students went home with envelopes, asking for donations. We are entirely incapable of doing anything as sophisticated as having people sponsor kids at x cents per lap: supporters, guaranteed that walking will happen, gratify us by making money happen, at whatever level feels do-able to the person being asked.
There is, however, a bit of quantifying going on. Each classroom teacher slaps a gridded sticker on the back of each child. Parent volunteers wrap caution tape around the perimeter of the school, enveloping the sidewalks to form the track. Kids start by exiting the gate at one end of the playground, lap the school once, then enter the gate at the other end of the playground, where an army of parents with black Sharpie markers tick off one box at a time on the grid on kids’ backs. Several of us wander the premises with red Sharpie markers, to knock off one lap for anyone caught running, pushing, or otherwise engaging in Forbidden Shenanigans: I confess I always volunteer for this and very much enjoy waving my Sharpie menacingly in the air while muttering the theme from Jaws.
At the end of it all, the laps are tallied–this class did this many, here’s the kid from this grade who did the most with the fewest red Xs. The next day, we have an assembly, celebrating both athletic accomplishment and fundraising prowess. Every year, the principal sets out a goal and a promise: if the Walk-A-Thon makes ___dollars, one lucky child can pie her in the face.
The privilege was given, this year, to an extremely well behaved and demure first grade girl, who ended out deploying a surprising amount of force. As the assembly wound down, I grabbed Yosef and Juan Carlos, my fourth grade autism duo, to bring them to the bus.
As I walked them out of the auditorium and towards the pick up zone, Yosef wanted nothing more than to relive the experience as many times as possible, which for him involves forming his own opinion on something and then asking everyone around him to agree. “Was it funny when the principal got a pie in the face, Juan Carlos? How funny was it with the pie in the face?”
Juan Carlos furrowed his brow like a thoughtful old man. “I felt uncomfortable when that happened with the pie and the face.”
This was not the answer Yosef was looking for. “Juan Carlos, you should stop that. It was funny. Say it was funny. Don’t feel uncomfortable. Stop feeling that!” He started to get agitated, overwhelmed in the moment by both his friend’s negative feeling and the idea that someone disagreed. I stepped in.
“Yosef, it’s okay for two people to have two different feelings about the same thing. Yours is a good choice for you, and Juan Carlos can make his own choices. It’s better to understand, when our friends feel something we don’t, then it is to tell them to not feel that way. Juan Carlos, why did you feel uncomfortable?”
“I don’t think it’s nice to hit the principal with a pie. I don’t think Lily should do that. It’s not Expected for school.”
Ah yes, Expected and Unexpected and the flexibility of social norms in context. With thirty feet to go between my boys and the bus, we had to do a pretty quick breakdown of the situation at hand.
“Juan Carlos, you’re absolutely right that this would usually be very Unexpected. It isn’t right to hit someone, with anything, if they don’t ask you to throw it at them. Do you remember, though, how the principal walked over to the chair, and sat in it, and how she pulled her hair back first? Do you remember how she was smiling? It wouldn’t be okay to throw a pie at the principal, if she wasn’t okay with that. But Lily had permission. The principal said okay.”
Juan Carlos was placated, but he still didn’t think it was entirely that funny. And I was reminded, once again, of how incredibly difficult it is for my students to navigate the social world when so few of its cues are immediately salient to them.
Although, come to think of it, I don’t know if one really CAN explain Pie in the Face, to any of us. What exactly is it about attacking an authority figure with a dessert item that resonates so deeply with both five-year-olds and anarchists? Why did someone devote hours to compose a definitive Wikipedia article on the phenomenon, featuring such laboriously crafted statements as “Although this takes the element of chance out of the event, it allows the opportunity to smear pie more thoroughly in the victim’s face and potentially through their hair”? Why are other people maintaining a database “List of People Who Have Been Pied”, apologizing in advance that their “incomplete list…may never be able to satisfy particular standards for completeness” and inviting all to help out with “reliably sourced entries”? Why does Greene Elementary raise several thousand dollars by walking kids in circles around school during school hours?
People are weird. But we’re doing what we can.