I’m not a neurolinguist, but as the expression goes, “some of my best friends are.” They like to remind us that the human brain is an organizer. As marvelous as the brain is, it cannot manage random, disassociated data; therefore, our brains are crafted to sort, classify, categorize, and relate. “STORIES” exist in all human cultures because human brains use this format to organize the events of our existence, and give structure and meaning to our lives. For each of us, our lives become stories linking and defining who and why we are. With no particular organizational structure, I share a collection of my stories:
THE TEACHER GENE -- FATHER’S DAUGHTER
My maternal grandfather was a teacher until he could no longer support a wife and 12 kids on a teacher’s salary. My Mother and Father were both teachers as were 6 of their siblings. Fourteen of my cousins are educators. I am absolutely persuaded there is a “teaching gene” running through both families. Now the “teaching gene” doesn’t require that you become a professional educator, it just means that whatever you love or do, you will find yourself teaching it to someone. Congenital teachers just can’t help themselves.
In the 1940’s through the 1950’s, the Principal was the alpha male of the school world; and I spent 12 years in a world dominated by my Daddy. Of course, I didn’t call him Daddy. When I walked onto the school grounds he became, Mr. Jackson. This linguistic trick was not particularly difficult since my Mother and brother followed exactly the same rule. Daddy was the sweet, gentle man, who spoiled me rotten; Mr. Jackson was a terrifying presence, who ruled the school with an iron fist.
There were two other “rules” I learned very early: (1). Never, never, never under any circumstances repeat anything you hear at home. And (2). Never ever expect any special treatment. If anything it worked the other way, I was less likely to receive leniency, so there could never be any suggestion of favoritism.
My first hint that there were adult interactions in which children could be ensnared came during the first months of first grade. We didn’t have kindergarten in those days, and I started school when I was 5. My first grade teacher was heavy on discipline, and I soon became persuaded she didn’t like me. I was ashamed, thinking there was something wrong with me; I hoped that if I was very good, she would like me.
One day, I had to go to the bathroom. In 1945, Fairview Alpha School didn’t have indoor toilets, so I had to take the long trek to the big outhouse on the edge of the woods. It was a pretty Fall day, and I confess I may have “dawdled” on my walk back. “Dawdling” was the infraction for which I was punished. My punishment was to stand in the small, dark, cramped supply closet located just behind the teacher’s desk in the front of the room. Inside the dark closet wasn’t too bad. I could even see a narrow slice of the classroom through the keyhole.
I wasn’t especially concerned until Mr. Jackson walked into the room. He took a seat at the back, just inside the range of my keyhole view. He sat there for what seemed hours before standing and turning to leave. As he reached to turn the doorknob, I could feel the tension flowing from my body, “I had escaped disaster.” But I sighed too soon. Even as his hand turned the knob, and the door started to open, my teacher spoke. I swear, there was a tinge of evil satisfaction in her voice, “Frances Ruth, you can come out of the closet, now.”
Daddy paused and slowly turned back into the room. I slunk from the closet, eyes down. He stood at the door while I took the walk of shame back to my desk and slid in. I sat there frozen until I heard the sound of the door closing behind him. The remainder of the day was sheer hell. All I could think about was what he would say (or do) when we got home.
After the last bells and the departure of the buses, my Father and Mother always met at the car. Usually I beat them there, but that day I delayed and tried to sneak into the car without being spotted. I must have succeeded, because I overheard Daddy telling Mother about the incident. To my amazement, they laughed. I was astonished and more than a bit insulted. The most humiliating, mortifying episode of my life, and they thought it was funny. When they spotted me in the backseat, they stopped laughing, but Daddy never scolded or punished me. Indeed, I could have sworn he looked at me like he felt sorry for me.
Four years passed before I had another teacher who didn’t like me. Now I would never imply that these years passed without me getting into trouble; far from it. But my, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade teachers were fair. They only punished me when I deserved to be punished. As they say, “If you can’t do the time; don’t do the crime.”
After all these years, I still find it hard to believe my 6th grade teacher was as ugly or as mean as I remember her. Her appearance was absolutely Simian. She looked like Zira from Planet of the Apes, except Zira always had a pleasant, benevolent expression.
When she caught me reading ahead in our “readers,” she punished me; so instead of reading ahead, I hid a library book behind my reader. When she caught me, she took my library books, and wouldn’t let me read during “free reading time.” She said my handwriting was awful, and moved my desk to a corner of the room away from the rest of the class. She accused me of “back talking” her in history class, and banished me to the cloakroom (the long closet at the back of the class room where coats were hung). The banishment wasn’t so bad, since all the old books were stored in the cloakroom, and I could read all I wanted. When the other children started pitying me, I knew I was not imagining things, – this teacher really was out to get me.
I finally decided to take my case to Daddy. After all, he was her boss; and surely he could intervene on my behalf. So I complained. I placed my case before him, ending with the plea that I was not being treated fairly. His response wasn’t what I expected. He looked at me sadly, and said, “Life isn’t Fair.” I’m not exactly sure of his next words, but the gist of his pronouncement was, “Life isn’t fair; deal with it.”
I was only ten, but I was wise enough to realize my Daddy was speaking to me as an equal, not a child. He was sharing a sad truth as gently as he could. The wisdom of his observation has permeated my life. Consequently, I have spent less time protesting, complaining, griping or bemoaning unfairness; and more effort undermining, subverting, outwitting, circumventing, evading, overthrowing, and reversing unfair practices (and people).
Once I stopped worrying about “fairness,” I realized my teacher was not only ugly and mean; she was dumb. It had never before dawned on me that a teacher could be dumb; they were supposed to know everything. Right? In that discovery, she lost her power over me. She could punish me, but she couldn’t make me feel ashamed or inferior. I was no longer emotionally “hurt” by her reprimands; and that seemed to diminish her “fun” in tormenting me. The term “Bully” wasn’t used then as it is today, but she was a bully.
There was a postlude, or as Paul Harvey says, “the Rest of the Story.” Neither of these teachers really disliked me; they hated my Dad. I was only a pawn, they used as a hostage. I didn’t figure it out for many years, and my parents would never have told me. My first grade teacher was lazy, and Daddy was determined she would do her preparations and plan her lessons. She came around, and remained at the school for many years. My sixth grade teacher only taught one year for my Daddy. She was transferred at the end of that year and never returned.
Mr. Jackson’s Advice – When I became a teacher, I asked my Daddy’s advice, and this is a summary of what he told me:
1. Discipline isn’t something you do; it’s who you are. It’s what you think of yourself and your relationship to your students. If you believe in your own authority; they will believe in you.
2. A Sense of Humor is absolutely essential for a teacher. You cannot survive without being able to laugh at yourself and the absurdities of life. When in doubt about the correct response, consider laughing. It will get you out of many tight spots. Take care though, most students would rather be whipped than laughed at.
3. Threats. Never make a threat you are not prepared to carry out. If you make a threat you have to follow through; so as a general rule don’t make threats. Just tell students what to do; if you put an OR on it, they start wondering about the implied choice.
4. Selective hearing and vision. If you hear it or see it, you have to act. If you don’t want to act on it; don’t hear or see it. A wise teacher cultivates selective deafness and blindness.
5. Leverage. Some students don’t care about grades, or what the teacher thinks of them. Some students don’t care what their parents think. All students care about what their peers think. That’s your leverage; you just have to figure out how to use it.
I’m my Daddy’s girl in more ways than I care to admit.