wRog (wrog) wrote,


Maybe this happens with everybody who's a parent who has their first kid reach the proper age, and so they set foot inside an elementary school for the first time in 30 years, and, well... something is a bit odd, you can't quite put your finger on it.

And it's a lot more significant than the fact that all of the desks and chairs are way smaller than you remember them to be. It's something deep down that says "This is not actually a school; this is some weird-ass Hollywood Conception of a school," and of course, being Hollywood, they got it wrong, as usual.

But then you see actual kids running up and down the halls, the place indeed appears to be functioning as a school, and nobody else has any problem with it. Which then means you have to fall back on the old standby, "I am in an alternate universe." (cow-faces are the standard for beauty, "dinosaur" means "lunch," s/Federation/Empire/g, s/Cat/Dog/g ... you know the drill).

I had this gnawing at me as we went around visiting the various Mercer Island kindergardens for Philip, but the feeling was particularly striking when, in the course of scouting out caucus sites, we visited Hazelwood Elementary in Newcastle. Hazelwood was built just last year and as far as tech goes, it's state of the art; internet and DVD players in every room, and more computers than you can shake a stick at.

Which you might think is the issue since, in my day, "school computer" meant a 100-baud teletype hooked up via special phone line to the mainframe 20 miles away, or a programmable calculater with a punchcard reader or whatever.

But that's not it. PCs and Internet and URLs being part of the landscape, I'm now used to seeing them in all sorts of weird places I'd never have imagined even as recently as 10 years ago; PCs in schools, printers in restaurants, URLs on freeway billboards, it's all of a piece, and not a problem. I may be a curmudgeon in some ways, but it's a rather specialized and weird form of curmudgeonry.

Well, okay,... it's the digital clocks on the wall.

Not the presence of digital displays per se, but rather the use of a digital display as The School Clock. The devil is in the details, as they say, and that's the crucial one that completely undermines the illusion that this is a school, let alone a high-tech school, rather than some kind of front job being run by aliens. They've made their mistake and I've caught them red-handed.

See, I know about this stuff because I myself went to a real high-tech school.

The key point is that clocks are important, downright critical once you have a place that follows a rigid schedule dividing the day up into 40-minute periods. Students and teachers both need to know how much time is left. The bell, when it rings, has to ring at the same time everywhere. Get any of this wrong and you have chaos.

People may not appreciate how hard a problem this might have been in the days before Ethernet and NTP, but by 1972 they had it solved. And Mendham Township Middle School was at the technological forefront when it opened that year. Picture a two-storey building with 20-some-odd classrooms, each with its own clock, electrically synchronized with the master clock in the main office (that looked like something straight out of the Naval Observatory). Every so often an individual clock would get out of sync and you'd see it correct itself, the minute hand jumping forward or back a minute or so, or the second hand pausing in its travels for a moment, all without human intervention. (I got into lots of fights when I was in 6th & 7th grade, so I had many hours in the principal's office to observe the master clock in operation...)

As for the bell, that was a state-of-the-art sine wave played through the loudspeaker. None of this outdated electromechanical clapper stuff for us.

So anyway, this is the definition of a high-tech school, just in case you were wondering.

And for god's sake, you can't use digital displays for that since those weren't out until something like 1974... Unless you're talking about the freakishly expensive digit vacuum tubes or the wonky mechanical clocks with the card flap displays, but let's not go there.
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