The boys in veteran teacher Aba Wallace’s first grade class at South Kilbourne Elementary in Columbia, South Carolina, are learning to spell the word ‘air.’
“Let me hear you say it,” she says. Wallace speaks in an authoritative, loud voice, a marked contrast to her delicate frame, as she walks among the desks in the chilly room on a clear day last December. Though some limbs flail about for no obvious reason, every six-year-old’s eyes are glued to her.
“I didn’t hear you.” Her voice rises. “Use those books!”
All fifteen boys pick up their textbooks and thump their diminutive desks as they yell out each letter in unison.
The volume is startling.
“Get up and stand behind those chairs,” she commands, finger pointed upward. “Now, stomp it!” The boys stamp their feet, one time for each letter.
“Now, clap it!” They comply.
“Run it!” She demonstrates by jogging in place. The boys jog and spell at the same time.
“Gentlemen, take your seats. Well done.” They scramble to their seats. Saxophone music from a computer in the classroom, drowned out a moment ago by this call-and-response, suddenly seems loud.
Down the hall, the girls in Carol Anderson’s second grade classroom are sitting in groups of three and four. The lights are lower, the thermostat toasty. Only quiet whispers permeate the calm. Anderson perches in a chair at the head of the class, writing sentences on an LCD projector with a blank in the middle for the girls to fill in from a list of vocabulary words. Her students push their colorful pencils topped with thick, spongy erasers across their tablets.
“Raise your hands when you have the answer,” she says, nearly monotone. All students thrust their hands in the air at once.
“Give me a sentence using the word ‘source’.” Hands wave, eager for recognition.
“Where did you get your source for your project,” says a pigtailed girl, quietly confident.
“Very good.” Calmly, almost melodically, Anderson announces that it’s time to leave for extra help with reading. A small group of girls stand and shuffle from the room. Aside from the scrapping of the chairs, they make little noise filing out into the hall. The others resume the vocabulary lesson without missing a beat. Anderson’s voice never fluctuates more than a few decibels. The sound of pages turning in a reporter’s notebook seems a violation of the serenity.