Grade school - where the challenge begins

IN the movie ''Annie Hall,'' there was a scene that took place in a New York City classroom. Children sat in even rows, hands clasped on the desk in front of them - maybe fourth- or fifth-graders. One by one, they told what they would accomplish as adults - and their accounts ranged from crime stories to tales of success or of just getting by in life.

The joke may be cynical, but it made a poignant point: It gave you the feeling that the whole world can turn in a grade-school classroom.

Here, at Public School 220 in Queens, the fourth-graders don't make such heavy pronouncements (in part, because local school rules forbid reporters from interviewing them). What's more apparent is the progress of one day into the next - getting assigned work done and learning to get along with the others.

Each child offers a different cameo. Melinda (her name, like that of other students in this article, has been changed) is busy inscribing a shaky diagram headed, ''Computer Thinking.'' Priscilla, who sits next to her, shoves a book into her overstuffed desk, until it finally mashes down enough paper to stay inside. Eugene carefully writes in his notebook, steadily going about his tasks in silence. His notebook is a specimen of organization.

The people who run PS 220 believe in independent learning. Most of the children here are working along individual lines to cover core material.

In a day of school here, students from the second through fifth grades carom off one another like balls on a pool table. They grind through the work and dodge it and sometimes even leap for it. They take strong or subtle cues from the world around them and react in the best ways they know how.

It is a world where an extra two inches and a few added pounds can make you a king - where you have to deal with those who like to throw their weight around and where you try to puzzle out the power of adults.

In a second-grade group-learning circle, Carlos can't manage to stop rubbing the teacher the wrong way. Eventually, her patience snaps, and she sends the boy back to his seat in disgrace. The teacher tells him he can come back when he's ready to do the right thing. He looks a bit bewildered.

And in a strange way, that's how they all look. Not completely undone, but trying to deal with an ever-changing world, one that makes different demands from the world of mother and family and friend on the street.

AT the Woodland School in Weston, Mass., an affluent Boston suburb, a fifth-grader named Gabriel says he's here ''to learn.'' Asked why, he answers, ''That's a hard question'' - one for which he doesn't have an answer. But a few minutes later he says that he's planning to go to MIT, ''because it looks like a good school, and they are good in computers.''

There is a mixture here of sophistication about the process of schooling and naivete about what it all means.

A gang of fourth-graders sits during lunch in a classroom drenched with spring sunshine, talking uproariously to a reporter about the range of school subjects and problems.

''I like reading and math. I hate social studies. It's boring. 'Blah, blah, blah.' ''

''I want to go to Dartmouth. Dartmouth is awesome!''

''UCLA looks apparently well run.''

Later, off in a corner, Kevin sits in the near-perfect solitude of a seven-year-old in his own world. And around the room, at various times, children stare off into space, enjoying the same young silence. Meditating on . . . what?

The question seems to hang in the morning air. This is their beginning at the game of school, and you wonder what they think about it.

They can't really tell you. They are too young. You can only watch and wonder. About David, for instance.

In Mrs. Ryan's fourth-grade class, David has been stuck in the hot seat behind her desk, where he will stay out of trouble. He passes the time by staring out the window, squeezing his fingers in front of his eyes to make the world change shape. He curls the edge of his paper, idly examining the dust in the chalk tray beside him.

Time moves with excruciating slowness, and he settles gently in, like a man waiting for his ship to come.

Or for college to arrive.

Talk about school with these students, and you hear that college is important because learning is important - because it makes you a better person. That message has gotten through. These kids in Weston, at a storybook school tucked in wooded hills, are primed to work toward the things that will ''help us in life.''

Right now that means the schedule on the blackboard.

''Morning exercises 8:15. Math 8:30. Snack 9:15. Handwriting 9:30-9:45. Story writing . . . .'' and so on, until the day ends and another begins with a very similar schedule.

But the schedule doesn't tell the whole story. The faces do. The faces of these young students sparkle. They find magic in such simple tasks as finding words to describe themselves, beginning with a particular letter.

''What can I use for 'B'?''

''How about bum?''

''I'm not much of a bum.''

''Look at this! They have six meanings here for 'keep.' ''

''Are you a kitchenette?''

''No. It's impossible.

''Nothing here with 'K.' ''

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