One morning as I drove to work, I saw a teenage girl waiting for a bus. In her right hand, she held a baby upside down by one leg while swinging it back and forth.
As I passed by, my eyes stayed glued to the girl. She gave me a mischievous grin, and I realized that was the reaction she wanted. Her other hand held schoolbooks. Obviously, the baby was one of the dolls the schools are using to teach students how much trouble a baby can be. The teachers hope the students will postpone pregnancy if they realize babies are not always cute and loveable.
During my thirty years of teaching, I saw the beginnings of this educational concept. Back in the eighties, when high school girls took a course called Home Economics, they started coming to my English classes holding tiny little wicker baskets that contained boiled eggs with smiling faces drawn on with markers. The eggs even had tiny little blankets and tiny little bonnets made out of scraps of cloth.
“What are you doing with that egg?” I asked a student.
“Our Home Economics teacher decided that it would help us learn that babies aren’t just cute playthings, they’re actually a lot of trouble. If we have to leave our baby for any reason, we have to find a ‘sitter’ to watch over it. They have to agree to keep the baby in sight the whole time we’re gone. I’m really mad at my mother, though, because when I got home after a date, the shell was cracked and she insisted she didn’t know anything about it.”
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I boiled a new egg and drew a face on it so the teacher couldn’t tell the difference. I didn’t want to fail, especially since it wasn’t my fault.”
I did not think the lesson was very effective for the students. They should have been sitting next to a poor mother on my ten-hour flight back from Hawaii. The woman tried to soothe her baby while it screamed for hours. By the time the baby stopped crying, the mother started, and she cried the rest of the way home. Carrying around a boiled egg in a tiny little basket could not compete with that reality. I had to do something.
Before school the next day, I went to the Home Economics teacher, who was a friend of mine, and told her I thought it was not a very effective teaching tactic. I explained what the student told me about her cracked egg – excuse me, cracked baby.
“Tell me who it was,” she said. “I’ll give her a failing grade anyway.”
“No,” I said. “I’m not here to be a narc. It’s not like we need to report her to Child Protective Services. I just want to make a suggestion for next year. How inconvenient can it be to carry around a tiny little basket with a tiny little egg that can be easily replaced when dropped? Why don’t you have them carry around a ten-pound bag of flour? Then, they’ll have the experience of lugging something around all day that weighs about as much as a baby. In addition, there will be consequences if the baby gets dropped. It’s not as easy to clean up a bag of flour that has split open as it is to boil another egg. If you sign the bag of flour, the students won’t be able to replace it with another one if they drop it.”
The next year the students came into class carrying ten-pound bags of flour, covered with regular-sized baby blankets and signed by the teacher. If the “baby” hit the floor, the flour sack was busted, and so was the student.
When a bag of flour rolled off a desk in my class one day, it made quite a mess, sort of like a powdery nuclear explosion. The janitor brought the student a broom and dustpan and left the room as he said, “Third one this week.” We could hear him chuckling all the way down the hall.
That lesson went on for several years. The janitor soon realized he needed to warn the students not to use water when cleaning up the mess. If they did, they ended up with paste.
Then one year, there was a new development in the attempt to teach students about the inconveniences of parenthood. The students began carrying around life-sized battery-powered dolls. An entrepreneur had figured out a way to improve the lesson. Not only did the dolls look realistic, but they would also cry at odd moments—often during my English classes.
Picking up and rocking the doll would sometimes quiet it down, but often – just like a real baby – the cries would go on and on, no matter how much the student rocked and patted. Students wanted to use the wails as an excuse to leave the room, but I made them stay. Let them really find out how embarrassing and annoying a baby’s cries can be when it’s yours and you can’t calm it down. They could just take notes one-handed while they endured the sighs and eyerolls of the other students. At least it would not go on for hours. They had to leave when the bell rang.
One day, I asked a student, “Don’t you hate being awakened at night and not being able to get the doll to stop crying?” That was when I learned how devious students could be.
The next day I went to my friend the Home Ec teacher and asked, “Have you noticed that the dolls have lots of blankets this year?”
“Yes, I have,” she said. “It’s so odd. It never happened with the sacks of flour.”
“Your students have started putting the babies in the freezer at bedtime. The teenagers can sleep through the night because they don’t hear a thing. The dolls are so cold in the mornings that the students have to put extra blankets on them so they can stand to hold them.”
Neither one of us could figure out how to prevent that tactic. The ingenuity of the American teenager won that round.
A few years later, boys and girls were taking a Life Strategies class, and along came a newer version of the teaching technique. This time, when the baby would cry, the student had to turn a key to shut it off. The doll had a computer chip that recorded how many times the students ignored its attempts to be soothed and comforted. Their grades depended on whether they responded all of the time or just part of the time. Gone were the days when they could just leave the doll in the freezer overnight and still get a decent grade. If they did not turn the key every time the doll cried, they could fail.
I heard about one school that gave students a live chick to take home for the weekend. If the chick died, the students failed. I can see lots of problems with that practice, such as the Association of the Society for the Protection of Animals.
After seeing the girl holding the doll by one leg, I have to say they need another improvement in the design. Someone should invent a computer chip to record how many times a student dangles the doll upside down.
Update: After my brother read this, he wrote, “We just need to add an accelerometer and an inclinometer to the baby and log the data. You could then tell how many times the baby was dropped and how many times the baby was dangled by the feet.”
Me: I guess we just need to stay one step ahead of the American teenager. Does anyone know if the fake baby is still being used in schools?”
Update: One of my fellow teachers made a comment in which she said that a student left a “baby” behind in the classroom, so she put the baby in the Home Ec display window with a ransom note for chocolate chip cookies. Even the teachers had fun with the flour sack babies.
Another update: I have learned that schools now use an app that sounds like a baby crying. The student has to turn off the sound. Bring back the flour sack babies! A phone does not weigh 10 pounds.
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