Recently I found some of my old report cards, along with a few happy notes from my third grade teacher, festooned with cartoons: “Charles has done great work today!” and so on. Looking at them you might conclude that I did well in third grade. On the report card that year my teacher wrote “Charles has been very special to me.” Maybe I was: after all, it was my cackling laughter she recorded for use as a Hallowe'en sound effect. But what I remember is trouble. Those cute congratulations for doing my work were few and far between, because third grade was when the battles really began about my stubborn refusal to do assigned work.
It had started in first grade, as my joy in learning had been invaded more and more by worksheets and other demands from teachers that I saw as pointless and disruptive, and so I skipped out on them as much as I could get away with. (For the purposes of this piece I'll pass lightly over the problems I had with other children, which were formidable in their own right.)
The lesson that stuck the deepest and longest from third grade came after I had crafted a paper mouse in loving detail. When I showed it to my teacher she told her special student – quite gently, I emphasize – that I should have taken care of my backlog of unfinished assignments first. You see, this art project was only for those who had done their serious work: a positive reinforcement, like those cartoon notes. The logic that meted out such favors on such conditions could not tolerate my transgression, so my teacher was obliged to turn my pride of accomplishment to shame. I repeat: she broke it to me as gently as she could, but shame me she did. I have often wondered what went through her mind in carrying out this subtle behaviorist violence. Where did she learn it, who told her that it was effective, or good for children? Did she follow in full faith that it would shape me to be a good worker, a good learner? How long had she been carrying out this technique? Had she seen it break the resistance of children before me?
Whatever fairness she may have told herself she was enforcing, that lesson destroyed my trust in her – and in teachers generally. For this made clear how insignificant my “special” gifts or even my conscience really were in her eyes. Yes, at its root my refusal to do homework was a matter of conscience, but who takes seriously the conscience of an eight-year-old? She could override my sense of right and wrong with diagnoses of laziness or failure to cooperate, but what she was really enforcing was her power over me. Something in me, something in every child, sees right through that, which is why adults try so hard to crush it.
My first grade teacher had been gracious enough to concede when I began a sentence correctly with “because,” but this was different. I was two years older, and instead of disagreeing in a matter that could be empirically demonstrated, I was guilty of a violation of class ethics, and the teacher had the power to enforce them, while I had none to defend or even assert mine. That was what I really learned in third grade.
How many teachers are so occupied with trying to acquire and follow the most respected theories about how to teach that they have no time to develop their natural human empathy? It is this empathy, more than theory or method, which could have given a well-meaning older woman the insight she needed into how a boy served his own gifts, and made her theatrical flourishes in the classroom (which could fill another six pages) more than simply shocking or comic effects. But really, being an avid learner not only counted for nothing if it got in the way of worksheets, but of course it attracted the ire and scorn of peers as well.
My constant daydreams were an added frustration to the program, but the scorn they bred in teachers (“Earth to Charles!”) only made them more precious as an escape. I daydreamed with a complexity, concreteness and focus that I no longer seem capable of. So when, in fifth grade, we were given several story prompts to write about, it was a revelation of joy beyond my ability to describe.
I had found a new dream: to be a writer! And I could have pursued it for hours. But when a bell rang or a clock hand moved, then it was my job to set those frivolities aside for the more important things. Teachers' efforts to entreat, cajole and finally threaten me into doing “my” work failed to convince me fully of the necessity of busywork, but over time they would succeed in convincing me that I was a lazy boy who was bad at finishing what I started – all the more reason not to trust me to choose my own tasks. A neat way of absolving authority from the troublesome burden of cultivating empathy.
My parents saw that I was struggling and, searching for alternatives, arranged (without my knowing) for me to be tested by ISD #77's Gifted and Talented program. I had seen their director interact with my family. I didn't know what his job was but he seemed nice, until he aimed his psychological wiles at me to coerce me into making contracts to do my homework. They meant nothing to me and I broke them one after another, wishing that he would just go away. After several fruitless weeks he finally did leave me alone. I had no idea at the time that Mr. Contract's intervention came from my parents' wish to improve my school experience, but I did know that his game was absurd and manipulative: oh dear, now not only was I lazy, but had sullied my honor too. He never showed interest in what I was learning, though who knows, maybe he really meant to help me pursue my dreams, if only I would keep my word and do my homework?
He failed, and I don't regret my actions. They could keep their GT program, along with their definition of honor.
Fifth grade still gave some opportunities to write freely though, and I seized on those meager chances, inspired by long hours of looking through books and National Geographic articles instead of doing my homework. A student teacher honored one of my stories by reading it out loud in front of the class. (Did that impress the bullies? soften their hearts to leave me alone? Let's not be ridiculous.)
Writing became more urgent to me in sixth grade, spurred on by my voracious reading (which soon developed a fertile symbiosis with the video games I played). I still have the records of three summer reading programs from my fourth, fifth and seventh grade years.
I failed to complete any of them.
So I won no prizes for what I read, even if I was slogging through The Red Badge of Courage or learning how recording studios worked, or taking six months to patiently digest 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in its unabridged entirety (but that wasn't in the summer so it didn't count).
My eyes, opened in third grade, could not be closed, and in fact I was constantly reminded: reading, aye, learning, like unauthorized art work, was rebellion if it went against the programmed activities or assignments. If I hadn't slacked off from so much class work I never would have tasted the richness of story that some of our textbooks concealed, of which the teachers doled out such a paltry portion. Nor would I have had time for Verne, Wells, Malory, and others that weren't on my teachers' radar.
In junior high I hung on every word my Social Studies and Life Science teachers said, reveling in the glories of new knowledge, but still resisted homework. I stole a lot of time to educate myself beyond the curriculum and in defiance of the expected workload, sneaking paperbacks in classrooms like contraband. The library became my refuge not only from students, but also some of the teachers and especially the principal. It was shared with the high school and therefore had plenty of books written for grown-up readers.
So with all the reading I did on my own, and with Rebecca Wall sitting next to me, I could well afford to flourish in Mrs. Boyce's English class, and I remain grateful for it. Acting in a school play (a privilege previously denied in consequence of not doing homework) was another lifeline, as was Math League. How Mrs. Heinitz managed to cure me of my raging hatred for math I do not know. But she did – temporarily. I think it might have had to do with her unflappable calm, a trait that the principal did not possess.
It is sad that I remember that principal – a human being who was probably loved and respected by many – as a face contorted in rage, screaming at me in the cafeteria. And an iron hand on my arm, pulling me through the hallway while her shrill voice berated me for having the nerve to sign up for Students Against Doing Drugs in my free hour when I had so many overdue assignments! I look at her smile in my yearbook and can't believe she ever wished to be such a terror to the young. But what and who she was in her personal life had no bearing on mine when she put her faith in the same behaviorist doctrine that had compelled my third grade teacher to trash my triumph. Once again, my behavior constituted a transgressive threat against an ideology that had the practical force of religion, and its priesthood felt duty-bound to punish. I would have done better under the secular humanists whom I hear spoken of with such great fear, but have yet to see wielding the real power in a school.
I pity my junior high principal, but never have I wasted a shred of gratitude on her attempts to correct me. I owe none of my life's successes to her, nor to the faith that claimed her allegiance.
In those bad years I had to keep writing: escapist fantasies to purge the horrors of junior high, and more serious attempts to assimilate tropes and techniques that impressed me from my extra-curricular reading. Poetry too, inspired by Neil Peart, one of my most important teachers who I never met and never expect to in this life. But official allowance for this was fast drying up in the sharpening scrutiny from the guards. My grades worsened, culminating in the shame of a D+ in English my freshman year.
At home I got the riot act, of course. Ds in junior high were one thing (and I had gotten several), but this was serious now. I had college to think of. By that time there was little to prevent my bad grades from taking a devastating toll on my confidence and self-image: after all, isn't that what they're for? Maybe if I had been one of the bad boys, I could have better articulated defiance towards the constant attempts to manipulate my behavior. But my socioeconomic class would not forgive that, and I wasn't tough enough to defy it along with school. The bad boys terrified me with their worldly ways and adult confidence, and several of them were clearly marked for prison.
My socioeconomic class saved me from being marked for prison, but that only sharpened the shame of bad grades. Although I was smart, they said, I was wasting my potential by my naughtiness: reading, writing and drawing according to my own curiosity (and conscience? That was getting harder to hold onto) instead of doing the work they gave. Any protestations by teachers that they really cared could not change that, nor could they mask the foundation of our relationship on an enforced inequality of power.
For the most part, the personal concern for my success and even the compassion my teachers expressed as they gave me those low grades only reinforced the message that I had serious character defects in their view – or that they didn't see me, they saw a subject, who was headed for trouble if he didn't adjust his behavior. If I ever thought that a teacher really cared about me as a person, it only made me wish more fervently that I didn't have to spend my days in a setting where self-worth was predicated on submission to authority.
Things changed for the better the next tri, when Mrs. Seelicke let me count a scene from my novel for class credit. She liked it so much that she surprised me by reading it out loud in front of the class without telling anyone it was mine. I still remember the gasp of admiration at the end from Anna Sandberg, whom I admired desperately from afar. I never remember exchanging a single word with her, but to hear that my writing impressed her . . . how do you think I felt?
Panicked. I was in ninth grade, remember, and dealing with not only the fallout from bad report cards, but a host of problems I needn't belabor. The souls entrusted to your care are beset by similar and different, by stresses and turmoils that your efforts to create a safe place might never fully assuage.
So when Mrs. Seelicke approached me to talk about some kind of mentor program to encourage my writing talent, I really freaked out. By all rights I should have thrown my arms around her, wept for joy and begun a rewarding relationship with someone – finally – who believed in my dreams (reminder: I'm talking about the teacher, not the pretty girl). But I didn't. I shut down. In trying to coax a pile of tinder into flame you may snuff it out with too forceful a breath. Maybe if she had persisted in talking about it, if she had, say, asked me to write more of my novel for class credit, or offered repeatedly to talk to me about where it was going and give advice (since I was suffering from writer's block at that point), it is likely that I would have finally opened up to the strange and unnerving experience of fully trusting a teacher.
Could we have been successful in setting aside that enforced power inequality? After nine years of it, such a prospect was really quite frightening – too human! So I did not take her up on her offer. And of course, there was nobody to blame but me. Should you be held responsible if an immature kid ungratefully runs away from your attempt to reach out to him?
I got an A in her class though, for all the good it did me. And the next tri in Mr. Mandli's class, when we read Romeo and Juliet I felt haughtily superior to my classmates. Having heard Early Modern English read out loud regularly for years (without any graded tests to ruin it), I understood it. My ego was stoked by dominating a competition of Shakespearean vocabulary mastery – payback time for all those taunts about reading the dictionary! A regrettable and damaging distraction, but Mr. Mandli was a wonderful English teacher. Genuinely empathic, he was willing to question the justice of our power relationship. He strongly reminded me of Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society. The next year I was mesmerized by Mr. McCreedy, who commanded respect without demanding deference (do you teach your students to know the difference?). But there was no room for writing my stories. The study hall supervisor loved Truman Capote's writing but would have sent him to detention had he been his student.
My geek friends wrote copiously in their spare time (and probably when they should have been doing homework): epics of magical adventures and daring battles. I joined in the game with gusto, but I never showed them my stories, the ones that I really believed in. Looking back now, I see that even these were derivative and shallow, but there was no safe place for someone to show me this, and to guide me beyond. Anyway, they afforded me the chance to work on the mechanics that are vital to good writing. I was able to sharpen them against the models I found in what I read, but rarely did I get the chance to enlist a reader for honest critique (for which effusive praise is no substitute).
In eleventh grade it almost happened: I took a Science Fiction class that let me write whatever I wanted. My teacher liked what I wrote but also gave useful criticism. He was a new teacher who wasn't determined to assert his power over us. He did once threaten to leave the room in high dudgeon after a clash of wills, and a student called him out for it. Mr. Voss stayed to argue with the student and between them they quickly resolved the matter. I'll never forget it. I had witnessed a rare thing: a disagreement resolved between two equals who were finally willing to lay down their pride.
I repeat: between equals. I saw precious few models of this, so it was one of the most important lessons I ever learned in high school – in a class devoted to something that people dismiss as fluff. This was not on the lesson plan. There were no quizzes. There was just this example of two equals, and I loved Mr. Voss all the more for it. I loved Mr. Helgeson too, who took us through ancient literature with the unquenchable curiosity and joy in learning that are an integral part of the human spirit. Nor did he shrink from poking holes in my arguments when I was guilty of absurdity or lazy logic. His example validated and amplified my own innate curiosity. Like a Gnostic Christ, he didn't so much teach me as tend the bubbling spring whence I drank and got gloriously drunk to this day. The B+ I got from his class was laughably irrelevant.
But the trimester following that, when I finally got to take a class dedicated to creative writing, it was a disaster. My teacher had a whimsical streak not unlike my beloved Mr. Mandli, but his class gave no place for stories trapped in individual minds clamoring to be let out. He led us through exercises that were useful, but disjointed. Reading Isaac Asimov's Foundation novels in class brought reprimands for not doing makeup work (maybe he thought science fiction was fluff?). And then, after all this, he blithely bid us write poems that were “philosophical and totally cool.” Budding poet, I? was so turned off that I cheated by enlisting classmates to ghost-write them for me. They were despicable doggerel, but I didn't care, I was so glad to escape that stupid class with no worse than a C. I'm sure my teacher saw right through the deception, but was too tired of me to contest it. He probably saw me as either a waster of talent, as so many others did, or as a poser who didn't have much talent to begin with. If I wasn't going to discipline myself, how could I ever presume to be a writer? I had wasted my chance – my second chance! And so creative writing continued to be a hobby – pat on the head – only tolerable if it didn't detract from my work, and because it wasn't as childish as drawing.
In my senior year I improved my grades so that I could go to college, so that I could go to graduate school, so that I could get a job that would pay (barely) enough to pay off my student loan debt. Then I realized that all along I was also supposed to get good grades so that I could go to college and graduate school and then get a job of prestige and privilege, above those who had gotten bad grades. That was why my bad performance scared my parents, saddened the teachers who formed attachments to me, and gave the guards license to mistreat me. That my own curiosity and creative drives might serve as the most reliable guide to my own life, or that they might at least enrich it and valorize a variety of work – such a notion wasn't on the program beyond the occasional ritual lip service, which only emphasized their practical contempt for the dreams of real children.
My experience in excellent and amply-funded schools left my gifts in a state of atrophy, but it didn't take them completely away. I won't tell you here how I revived some of them, but I take some satisfaction in noting that much of my living over the past ten years has come through what I write, even though I have not risen to positions of power (and I walked away from one of questionable privilege to come here). I have other gifts besides writing, for which grades and test scores were even more irrelevant, and to which curriculum was always coldly indifferent. You have them too, and so do your students. Are you using them? Are they? They need to serve their own gifts as the gifts know best, a dizzying diversity that confounds tests. Are you helping them to believe in those gifts, or are you too busy learning the latest technique for keeping them in their places?
The mechanisms you administer cannot measure their real talents or abilities, let alone give you true insight into their dreams and desires, or any part of their truest selves. In fact your most earnest efforts may inflict psychic wounds that take years to heal, if you allow procedure, protocol and doctrine to overpower your human empathy.
I hope your intent is to encourage them not to accept their allotted place in the world, but to make one, indeed to help re-shape the world to better fit their idealism (which they may well keep hidden from authority figures such as yourself: what reason have you given them to trust you?). At the very least, I hope you do your best to guard these young people from the lie that test scores or grades can reliably measure their intelligence, virtue or worth.