I may be an artist, but I also fancy myself a bit of a scientist. When scientists want to learn about an animal, they have two methods at their disposal: kill it and take it apart, or observe the creature in its natural habitat. In other words, you can either study what it’s made of, or what it’s like. As part of my quest for scientific discovery, I have repeatedly embedded myself for an entire day in the natural habitat of perhaps the most bizarre and fascinating creatures on the planet: Schoolchildren.
What gives me the opportunity to do this is an awesome program known as Watch D.O.G.S. (Dads Of Great Students), which is affiliated with the National Center for Fathering at www.fathers.com. The purpose of the program is to give your school a little extra shot of testosterone, to give your school an extra set of eyes inside and outside the building, and to give dads the opportunity to invest in their kids and greater community during the school day. Being a self-employed artist and designer, I am blessed to have a flexible enough schedule that I can commit to serving as the Watchdog once a month. On my last Watchdog day of the year, I worked on math with some kindergarteners, read aloud to first graders (redeeming myself from my last nightmarish experience with this — documented in this older post), played basketball with third graders, rode swings with a couple of fourth graders, worked on math with a small group of third graders, and ate lunch with first, third and sixth graders. For scientific purposes, I will share some of my observations as Watchdog with you, my valued readers (all eight of you).
1) “So yeah” is a popular way to end a thought.
Seriously. I have lost count of how many times I’ve heard this. The typical story shared by an older elementary student now sounds something like this:
Like, Kiki was at the mall with her mom? Looking for new sandals? They went to like seven different stores. It took like three hours, but they finally found a pair like Erica’s, only in green… So, yeah.
As annoying as the extra “likes” and the weird inflection that makes statements sound like questions may be, I just cannot wrap my head around finishing a story with “so yeah.” That has to be the laziest excuse for a conclusion I’ve ever heard. What is it even supposed to communicate? As far as I can tell, it’s a nice, shorter way of saying that you don’t have a clue how to finish your thought in any sort of meaningful way. It’s a way of telling your audience, “What I just told you is barely more important than the Best By date on the box of Saltines in your pantry.” Whatever its meaning is supposed to be, it’s safe to say that the way it sounds is the exact opposite of profound. Can you imagine great speeches ending this way?
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
2) Elementary School jokes have not changed in the last 25 years.
I’ll admit that this one surprised me. Knock-knock jokes are still very popular with the younger grades, and they are the exact same jokes that existed a generation ago. Perhaps knock-knock joke technology plateaued long ago, and there hasn’t been any major development in the last century.
Bonus tip: If you’ve ever wanted to stop a Knock-knock joke in its tracks and horribly frustrate the teller, just say “Come in!” or “It’s open!” after the joke teller says “Knock-knock.”
Middle elementary boys still find jokes about bodily functions to be hysterical, and to be honest, this trait holds true for some men well into their fifties. Perhaps you know some. Anyway, classic jokes like “Spell I-cup” are still big hits, as are anything involving the words “fart”, “balls”, “puke”, and “diarrhea”, but to me, those last two cease to be funny once you’ve had to clean up after the real deal. I would love to know who composed the classic “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells,” because that work of art still gets plenty of love around the holidays at our elementary school, and I’m willing to bet, at schools around the entire world. Older kids have moved on to Blond Jokes and even Your Mama Jokes , but honestly, I have yet to hear any groundbreaking comedy while at school.
3) Some kids are dying for a father figure.
At first this fact can be flattering, and a big ego boost. But then reality sets in. Because behind every inappropriate hug you get from a kid you don’t know, every compliment you receive from a student, and every demand from kids that you play with them at recess, are kids without the proper amount of involvement from Dad at home. Students have told me, “Mr. Hernandez, you’re the best dad,” and “You’re the funnest dad,” and while that may feel good to hear, in the end it just depresses me because their fathers are the ones that should be those things, not me. And dads, how would it make you feel if it were your child saying those things to someone other than you? Anybody who would claim that not having a father around doesn’t impact kids needs to witness firsthand these male-starved kids interact with the Watchdogs in their school. What that means is spending the day as the Watchdog is not just a great treat for your kids, but also a big benefit to plenty of other kids as well — kids that may well be the most at risk in your community due to their lack of an adequate male role model in their lives.
4) I don’t know what the hell “T” is, but I don’t like it.
If you’ve played any form of tag in the last decade, I’m sure you’ve encountered this abomination. Right when you’re about to tag a kid, they are likely to shout out “T!” or “I’m on T!”
“What the heck does that mean?” I ask.
Most look unsure, like they have no idea why they even said what they said, but those in the know will respond, “Time-out.”
Are you freaking kidding me? How the hell can one be on Time-Out? Time-Out is not a place. When I was young, Time-Out got called to stop all action, like after somebody got nailed in the face with a football, or there was some debate over something that just happened in a game. Most games of tag had something called “base,” where the Nervous Nellies hung out, or where you could go for a few seconds to safely catch your breath. But now, evidently base perpetually follows you around for you to invoke any time you feel threatened. I hate this so much, I can actually feel my ire rising just writing this paragraph. What kind of cowards are we raising now that they try to scream “Pause!” when the inevitability of their failure is staring them in the face, as though life is a video game at the control of their fingertips? How can we as parents stand for it? And more importantly, if we do stand for it, can we use it?
“I didn’t miss the deadline, I called ‘T’!”
“I’m going to need you to remove the late charge on my mortgage payment; I was on T.”
5) You can gain a lot of insight.
Do you want some insight on what goes on at school? Want to know what kids are really like? Spend all day there and you’ll find out. Even the best of child actors can’t keep it up all day. So while they may do their best in front of their teachers, rest assured that kids will slip and show their true colors at some point during the day. I’ve seen angels in the classroom turn into the biggest jerks at recess or in the lunch room. Who’s popular, who’s sweet, who’s mean, who’s a smartass, who’s smart, who’s humble, who’s cocky, who’s kind, who’s athletic, who’s emotional, who’s funny, who’s trouble — after a couple of days you’ll have the scoop. Only as the Watchdog can you witness the kids in all of the different settings at school: before school, in the class, in the library, walking through the halls, at recess, at lunch, at P.E., in art, in music. You have a front row seat for all of it, and in no time you get a pretty good handle on who’s who personality-wise at the school.
Not only do you get behind-the-scenes access to the student body as a whole, but you also get to see your kids in a different light. We all have a slightly different public persona from who we are in the comforts of family and home, and being the Watchdog gives you a glimpse into how your kids behave in their world. Are they afraid to speak up? How do they interact with their friends? Are they kind to everybody? Are they well liked? The knowledge you gain about your own kids while they are at school is priceless. If you’re tired of asking your kids how school was today, and getting the same old “Good” for a reply, spending a day at the school provides a great launching pad for many quality conversations, because you witnessed the same things they did. And instead of asking the generic “How was school today?,” you can create a discussion with specifics, like “Remember when Jacqueline told Christina she couldn’t sit next to them at lunch? What did you think of that? Do you know why it was good that we asked Christina to sit with us?”
6) A little goes a long way.
One little truth about life that I’ve realized over the years is that it doesn’t take a lot to make somebody’s day. When I’m the Watchdog, I make every effort to learn a few new names that I didn’t know before. Kids’ faces never fail to light up when you say “hi” to them by name in the hall. Once I had a boy ask me in amazement, “How did you know my name?” I swear I could actually see his self-esteem rise when I replied, “I remember you from last time I was the Watchdog.” When working with them in class, a little praise does wonders as well; a simple “nice job, Angie” or “good work, Martin,” never fails to build them up, unless their names aren’t Angie or Martin, so please remember my earlier point about learning names. Getting the painfully shy kids to crack a smile, or getting the wallflowers to play at recess are other things that make these kids grow a little bit right in front of you. Every class has one or two odd-balls that tend to get shunned by the cruel life of elementary school, so I make every effort to seek them out and sit with them at lunch, play some crazy make-believe game at recess with them, or just chat with them for a few minutes during the day about their favorite movie or superhero. Something as minor as throwing a pass to the kid nobody throws to in football at recess can make a lasting mark on all of the kids, so make sure to keep an eye out for those little words and gestures that can mean so much more to the hearts of these kids.
So, if your kids’ school has the Watch D.O.G.S. program in place, I’d strongly encourage you to spend a day or two with your kids and their peers during the next school year. And if your school doesn’t have Watch D.O.G.S., suggest it to the principal or to the PTA. I’ve certainly found that the rewards of investing your time as a Watchdog extend far beyond quality time with your own kids, and actually reach your local community as a whole.