Last fall, before many of us even knew how to make Zoom calls, let alone convert nearly our entire lives to virtual form, I worked as a paraprofessional in a kindergarten classroom, at one of Rohnert Park’s local elementary schools. There was a space on campus—a small room, maybe the size of a walk-in closet, with white walls, bright lights, and nothing more than a chair-less table in the corner. This confined, solitary space, referred to as The Boring Room, was reserved for disciplinary use, a place to take students when their behavior became too much, or the resources to handle it were too little, which was often. For the first month or so I was able to avoid the room, and, as I hadn’t yet seen it, wasn’t even entirely sure what it was. For the students and staff, The Boring Room had evolved over time, just as any punishment does, into something much more than an actual place or material consequence—it became an idea, a threat that could be used to curb any unwanted behavior. “If you don’t stop, you’re going to The Boring Room,” “Do you want to go to The Boring Room?”
As teachers and staff, we are educators as well as caregivers. Not unlike parents, we feel joy for our students’ achievements, concern for their well-being, and an invested pride and responsibility in their development. We also feel, at times, defeated, exhausted, and lost. In this particular case, not unlike many others across our district, our state, and our nation, we were stretched thin, paid very little, which, for assistive staff, meant minimum wage or not much more, and expected regularly to meet a standard which far exceeded our compensation and our resources.
My job as a paraprofessional, primarily, was to assist the students who had difficulty conforming to a standard classroom environment. For the majority of four and five year olds, school is a transition, something new, exciting, and also often confusing and frustrating. For some of the kids, these issues were compounded. Physical and verbal aggression, as well as property displacement and destruction were not unlikely events. Occasionally, this would result in the child being temporarily removed from the classroom for their own and other's safety. My approach, typically, was to take them for a calm down walk around the school or to the garden, or take them to the learning center, where they could quietly play with Playdoh and some toys I brought from home. I had never used The Boring Room, except once under pressure, on a day when one of our students was having a particularly rough time and having them outdoors or around peers posed a safety threat. To say the least, I hated it. I felt wrong for taking them there, heartbroken as they kicked and punched the walls, tears streaming down their face. This was the calm down room, The Boring Room, fluorescent lights glaring down at us, reflecting off the white walls. Grey office carpet scratched at their bare knees as they shuffled around the room, trying to rip out the already exposed wiring on the opposite wall. “Let me out, I’ll be good, please!” They shouted to the voices on the other side of the conjoining door that led to the staff break room, attempting to peel away the paper covering the tiny window at its center. I never wanted to do that again. There needs to be a safe space for these children to go, a place to decompress and reflect, but neither them or myself felt safe or calm in that room. As I sat in a corner of the room, patting this student’s back, who I had grown to care for, not unlike many of the other students, speaking to them quietly as I attempted to calm them, I thought of my own daughter, who also had trouble with self-regulation and sensory overload. Had she ever been sent to the Boring Room? Were there other Boring Rooms on other campuses?
As we prepare our classrooms, our businesses, our homes, for the eventual return to a more tangible life, I am reminded of this and other things that may await our kids, our educators, and our community as we return to normalcy. My younger daughter will have the chance to meet, in person, her teachers and classroom aides; she’ll be able to meet her new classmate, the girl “who likes Minecraft and anime as much as [she] does,” the new friend she has “so much in common with.” My older daughter will spend her last months of middle school alongside her friends, many of whom, before now, she hadn’t been apart from for more than summer break since first grade. We’ll all, once again, be able to go to the grocery store for no apparent reason. We’ll have the freedom to take a walk with no set destination, be bombarded with so much social activity that we can once again find luxury in solitude and have the opportunity to embarrass our children in public. We will also, many of us, be confronted with the same disparities in our community and school district that were there pre-pandemic, remained throughout, and will only be amplified as we return to an already strained system. Lately, the nostalgia of normalcy has been at the forefront in our minds, but do we really want normal, when normal has never been good enough?