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.