Before I was old enough to go to school, my parents kept a willow switch on top of the refrigerator. I don’t remember that they used it much, but the threat of it infuriated me. One day when they were working outside, I got up on a stool, took the switch, broke it, and threw it in some bushes. I don’t remember if there were repercussions, but my parents didn’t replace it. Over time, they rejected corporal punishment as a disciplinary technique, which made all of us happier. I can still tap into the feelings of empowerment and righteous rebellion I felt when I threw away that switch.
In first grade, I remember feeling devastated and humiliated when I received a dreaded “goose egg” (my teacher’s word for zero) on an assignment. At that young age, I vowed to do everything in my power to avoid a failing grade. I became a very good student academically–and a compliant one.
One winter day at recess, when I was in second or third grade, a group of us wove long dry grass through a wire fence to make “walls” that would provide some shelter from the cold wind. We imagined ourselves as pioneers building a house out of what was available in the landscape. The first-grade teacher, a severe older woman, told us to stop. She gave no reason, and we couldn’t figure out what harm we were doing. We felt disappointed and resentful when she smothered our creative joy.
My fifth-grade teacher was an older woman who had also taught my dad when he was my age. She favored me because of that connection. One day she was teaching something that I knew was wrong information, because I had heard something different from my dad who was more knowledgeable about the field than she was. When I raised my hand and offered the more accurate information, she yelled at me and said that my dad was not the expert. I felt shocked, confused, and humiliated.
On another occasion, that same teacher took discipline into her own hands and beat a boy with a ruler when something he did made her mad. In an attempt to maintain his pride during such public humiliation, he laughed as she hit him. She marched him to the principal’s office. He came back chastened and tearful.
In junior high, my sister sustained a third-degree burn on a small area of her leg after accidentally touching the hot exhaust pipe of a motorcycle. Our pediatrician said that, for a few weeks, she should avoid any physical activity that might possibly bump the burn. Several of the teachers at her school, including the principal and the principal’s wife (who was the P.E. teacher), disliked my sister. They labeled her “sullen”, because her shyness and unsmiling face were misinterpreted as uncooperative. When she came to P.E. with the doctor’s note excusing her from the class, the P.E. teacher ignored it and forced her to play dodgeball. My parents called the school when my sister came home in tears, after her burn was hit by a ball. She was allowed to skip P.E. for rest of her recovery time.
My high school biology teacher believed that the most important thing he could teach his students was to follow directions to the letter. (Mindless automaton training, anyone?) He put tricky instructions on his quizzes to trip us up, and marked us down when we failed to follow his deceptive instructions exactly. One memorable multiple choice quiz directed us to write our answers at the end of the sentence. Blanks were printed before each numbered question. We all struggled with those directions and talked about it with each other after class. What did he mean by the “end” of the sentence? If we interpreted it the way most people would, we would NOT put our answers in the neat blanks in front of the sentence, but write them after each sentence. That seemed crazy because they would be a lot less easy to read and grade. The blanks were confusing; maybe he meant we should put the answers at the “front end” of the sentence.
Many of us chose the more rational option and wrote our answers in the blanks provided. The next day, all of us who made that choice failed the quiz, even if we had correctly answered all the questions. The teacher fairly gloated as he pointed out to us that we hadn’t followed directions. When some of us tried to explain that we had read the directions and were confused by them, he completely dismissed our protests. My parents, who rarely interfered at school, and other students’ parents called to complain. Most unluckily for the teacher, one of the students who failed to follow the directions was the principal’s son, who also went home and complained to his dad.
The next day, the biology teacher bitterly announced that he was giving credit for everyone’s correct answers, even though they didn’t follow directions. In a fit of sour grapes, he belittled everyone who had whined to their parents, called us babies, and predicted future disaster because we couldn’t follow directions.
As is still true in many schools, we were required to address our teachers using their surnames. I internalized the intentional subordination to authority to such a degree, that I couldn’t bring myself to address my college instructors by their first names. I avoided using their names at all.
What stands out to me in all these examples is the extreme lack of power we children had, and, in many cases, how threatened the adults felt when we challenged their authority. We were powerless to change the outcome; only other adults had enough power and influence to change the way these adults behaved.
I hated being powerless, but I coped with it by doing what I needed to do to be a “good” kid and by cultivating a cooperative and pleasant attitude that ensured most adults in authority liked me. Other kids were less willing to submit and they received lots of abuse and contempt from those same adults. There was no way to win–to emerge with self-respect and confidence.
Although there were adults with power who did not use it abusively, there was no question that any power we children had depended on following their rules, which were frequently opaque. A tiny few adults were egalitarian with power sharing, and I trusted them implicitly. My parents valued my opinions and worked to accommodate my wishes and desires, and to understand my struggles.
What’s really disheartening is that the interactions between adults and children are still often set up like a zero-sum game, where there are winners and losers and those with power always win. Even though I knew a few adults that I trusted and who respected me, I am struck by how potent my memories are of feeling utterly powerless. Injustice always leaves a wound and interferes with a strong sense of self.
It is crucial that we reject adversarial roles between adults and children in which adults need to maintain control, be on the lookout for manipulation and subversion, and present a powerful, united front. We children and adults are all flawed, vulnerable, creative, and compassionate people who have a lot to learn with and from each other.
I’m interested in your memories of injustice or justice at the hands of adults, and how those experiences influenced you. Please comment or email me directly.
I was so easily humiliated as a child that when I thought I was tugging on my Aunt Laura’s sleeve and it turned out to be another friendly old lady, I wanted to run and hide. Around the same time, I was in S.S. Kresge’s (my favorite store), and I saw a sign that said “Ring Bell for Service.” Arguably I should not have rung the bell, but equally arguably, no good was served when the fierce and angry saleswoman came at me and told me to leave the store and never come back. I showed her: I never did.
I corrected teachers in high school. A history teacher told us that “A.D.” meant “After (the) Death (of Christ).” I said it actually meant “Anno Domini” and tried to explain how his definition didn’t make sense logically (he knew “B.C.” meant “Before Christ”). He didn’t listen to me and it was humiliating, so I tried not to do it again. But then the health teacher made an error that was really egregious, and I felt it was a community service to speak up. He said the hymen covered the cervix. I looked around and nobody blinked. I tried to correct him as if he’d just misspoken, but he doubled down and mocked me. Again, I appealed to logic to try to describe the anatomic impossibility, but that involved being a little explicit and everybody laughed. I persisted in coming to him after class with a diagram, and the next day, he grudgingly and almost inaudibly muttered that I had been right.
Also, we once had a bad babysitter and we were spending the night at her house. She had a big shaker on her table like the one we had for sugar, and I made myself some toast with butter and shook the “sugar” all over it…except it was salt. I took a bite and it was horrible of course. She insisted I eat it because I had made the toast and I was not to waste the food.
These experiences and others made me very skeptical of authority, to the point that I sometimes inappropriately challenged it as I grew up; that is, was rude or righteous when there was a more respectful way to disagree with someone in power. I’m still not sure whether to be embarrassed or proud of the time I walked out of a college class because the instructor kicked another student out for reading (the textbook) while he was talking. The instructor was throwing his power around, but I think he was also hurt and felt disrespected as a person, not just as the person in power.
Yikes! Monster saleswoman attacks child for frivolously ringing bell. It’s amazing how free adults feel to attack a child over a minor annoyance. It’s a reaction of entitlement–not be interrupted or inconvenienced, not to even have to pretend they are engaging with another person.
The “sugar” toast story infuriates me. There’s no room for people to make mistakes? There’s no way she would have made an adult eat the toast after making the mistake. I’m glad you set the health teacher straight, in spite of his reluctance to believe that a student could possibly know more than he did. The power dynamic in our culture that adults have to maintain their superior knowledge and authority gets in the way of people learning from each other. How sad that the teacher felt humiliated because you knew more than he did about the hymen and cervix. How wonderful it is when people who take on the role of expert can be humble enough to know there’s always something they don’t know and then gracefully learn something new from anyone of any age. I understand your conflicted feelings about walking out of the college class. It makes sense the instructor felt disrespected as a person, but I’d wager that how he dealt with his hurt was messy and out of proportion to the offense precisely because he could exercise power over the students.
Hi Shawna. As always, I enjoyed your blog post! Thank you. The one thing that kept coming to my mind was how well-meaning teachers would try to “save” me. I was lucky to have been a “good” student, meaning memorizing and test-taking were really easy for me, so I did the bare minimum to get an A-grade and fly under the radar. Every once in a while, however, one of my teachers would get wind of the fact that I did most of my homework and studying in school (in the class just before their’s) and they would have a heart-to-heart talk with me about how I should apply myself better, ‘cuz I had so much potential, blah, blah, blah. I would stand there silently nodding and thinking, “You don’t even know me. You have no idea what areas I am applying myself in.” But I had NO interest in ever letting them know. The funniest part to me was when they actually thought their talk had made the impact on me that they were shooting for. How proud they were of themselves!
Thanks for this story, Dionne. It feels really sad to me that the teachers who tried to “save” you were so sure of their agenda for and their perception of you that they made no effort to really know you and find out why it was important to you to be so efficient and skilled that you were able to do the homework in an earlier class and still successfully complete the assignment. In a different setting without the authority vested in them, at least some of those teachers probably would have enjoyed befriending you, finding out what you loved thinking about and doing. And you might have enjoyed being in their company, too, without the unequal power dynamic that precluded establishing a relationship of peers.
Dionne, I resonated with your comment about smiling and nodding and not feeling any motivation to explain. I find when dealing with people who are less emotionally clear (than I hope I am), I feel that same thing. I just finish the conversation as simply as I can and escape. I used to try to explain or “educate” them knowing that if I could just give them more information, they would see my point of view and become better people and save the world. hah. There are those rare and wonderful people who do want to learn, and are actively seeking authentic connections with people. They stand out from the crowd and are great to be around. Just another way of describing the “different setting” Shawna referred to. Child-Adult, Adult-Adult. It’s the same concept.
My 7th grade Social Studies teacher was similar to your biology teacher. He was fixated on rote learning so much that our daily task in EVERY single one of his classes was to copy down word for word the “current events” bulletin that he hand wrote on the wall-sized chalkboard each morning. He was a terrible speller and often got facts wrong.
I found him so infuriating, but also felt so powerless, that my coping strategy for my sense of helpless rage over some injustice (probably a bad grade I didn’t think I’d earned) was to draw a cartoon of him tied up and being dipped in a vat of boiling oil – just a silly revenge trope I’d seen in cartoons but it made me feel better.
Since we stored our notebooks in our desks, he found this drawing (why was he rifling through my stuff? Because kids have no privacy). Instead of confronting me directly, he held up the drawing in front of the class and mocked the artist. Though he didn’t mention me by name, everyone knew it was mine because I was known for being good at drawing. He knew that publicly humiliating me, a shy kid who tried to do well in school, was the worst punishment I could endure, so that’s what he did.
Oh Erin, what a horrible experience to endure. The level of cruelty in that teacher’s behavior towards a child–you, in fact–is horrific and monstrous. There is so much wrong about what he did, both in his teaching style and during the incident you described. Your drawing must have really hurt him. He must have been such an insecure person who deeply doubted himself and his teaching creds. Your story is sad and terrible in equal measure. It is a tragedy that children under his tutelage were forced to cope with and must have internalized his powerlessness. Thank you for telling the story.
First, this article seems like it came from the New Yorker or the Atlantic. The right length, the right cogency, the right punch. That was my primary thought as I read it.
Second, I kept flashing to adult-adult interactions in American society, particularly police and politicians. That is, abuse of power by those appointed to positions of authority. The taunting, the humiliating, the abuse, the arbitrary punishment, etc.
Thanks for another great article. And mark me down as another person that had equally horrible, scaring events in my childhood at the hands of misbehaving adults.
Wow, Jonathan, thank you again for the compliments! I’m overwhelmed. I’m interested in the similarities you see between adult-child and adult-adult interactions between those with power and those without. There is far too much abuse of power in all-age interactions. I wonder if children grew up with more power and agency over their own lives if they would not be so quick to use power as a weapon over others, whatever their age. Power over others is compelling and one must be very self-aware and empathic to not abuse it. I don’t imagine that upbringing alone would prevent abuse of power, but at least children growing up with agency would learn earlier about what is destructive and what is wise use of power. They might also be less narcissistic because they wouldn’t have to protect themselves all the time from power abusers.