When I taught High School English, the best pupils I had were the school-hating malcontents. Each was what James Dobson identified as the "strong-willed" child, tho I found them the brightest, most creative, most disruptive, with the poorest grades. They were "school failures" who lacked status and had nothing to lose - except their self-respect, and that they would not give up. They were the "difficult" pupils that disturbed classes and interrupted "teaching." They deserved my respect and got it. To other teachers they were threatening. Fearing their power and lacking the skills to deal with them, teachers punished repeatedly, and wishing they would disappear, shipped them off to the principal's office. Yet, I found the rebellious kids not difficult. They were the most interesting, far more so than most "superior" pupils. The troublesome ones were, in my view, the "best" kids in terms of character, intelligence, and sanity. I found them a fascinating challenge. And I liked them.
The most "successfully bad" ones were eventually, among teachers, compared to Hitler, the very top-on-the-badness chart. But Hitler was not "strong-willed." He was insane, a prisoner controlled by his several obsessions. What the German people needed in the Thirties were more strong-willed citizens, those who had the courage to resist authoritarianism. People like those most "rebellious" in my classes. People who had not "sold out" their integrity and souls and bought into the System.
Why has Shakespeare's "Hamlet" been at the top of the literature charts for 400 years? One reason is it asks us to consider what is perhaps life's most important question: Am I going to be - or am I not going to be - authentic? Do I choose to stand by my convictions, or to abandon my moral compass and "play along to get along"? Shall I march along in lock step, or step to the beat of my own drum? During those exciting years I liked best the "trouble-makers," the "discipline problems." Never in all my teaching years did I ever send a pupil to the principal's office to be "disciplined." Indeed, I never once punished a pupil in any way.
I think it was because I invariably saw myself in the "screw-ups." Clearly they had been mistreated, and had a level of intelligence that could not abide boredom. I could not blame them for the "misbehavior" that was plainly caused by the school's failure to meet their needs. I wanted the school to be a refuge for those unhappy, surly kids. I did not want the school to be another fascist regime pushing them around, bossing them, forcing them to comply with decisions made by their "betters" in an office somewhere.
I found I could not, unfortunately, make the school over - (tho by God I tried). But I could, and did, make my classroom a place where they were not bullied, not punished, not ridiculed, not made to feel lousy about themselves. The so-called troublemakers wanted some degree of control over their lives. In time I saw that they wanted to make some decisions, even if wrong ones, and a safe place to make them. What is a school FOR? Those who arrived battle-scarred learned - some quickly, some later - that I would not add to their grief, that I was not The Enemy. As I trusted them, they trusted me.
My feeling was that when a child is blessed with a "strong will" he should appreciate it, as a rare gift to be treasured and cultivated. That strength is a valuable asset that, applied in a positive direction, can make much needed changes in this trouble-wracked world. Historically, that quality, tho rare, is common to all who have been contributing to advancing and improving the material and spiritual conditions of humankind since history began. It is cruel and stupid to destroy it. While the hordes of Dobsons and paddle-swingers were - and are - determined to crush that spirit, to cripple that uncommon strength, I wanted to encourage and redirect it.
We were alone in the room when Chuck, the 16-year-old I would sometimes spring from jail on Monday morning, declared, "This school sucks!"
"Right!" I answered. "But it isn't smart to say it out loud." I explained: "You caught on years before I did. You already know this is an obedience school, and the Trainers are scared. This is not the time to take them on. Until we position ourselves to make a positive difference, we are wise to keep it quiet. It's cool to know what's really going on, but cooler still to avoid putting a target on our backs by mouthing off. They are now positioned to make life miserable. You have only two more years of time here: Use it to work on yourself. You have to educate yourself - no class can do it for you. Observe how the System works, and above all study and emulate those you admire. Meanwhile, as wise old Henry Fonda once said, 'When you're up to your nose in shit, it's best to keep your mouth shut.' And when you go to jail, be sure it is for a worthwhile purpose." And I gave him Henry David Thoreau's "Essay on Civil Disobedience" to read. And Martin Luther King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail."
Nelson, too, played on the edges of the law. He had a calmness I coveted, and integrity I admired even more. He lived with his dad in a shack built of Coca-Cola signs at the town landfill. No one's status was lower, nor their spelling more atrocious. When he handed in an essay that was so beautiful, and so sensitive - tho full of spelling errors - that I beamed at him and graded it "A." The principal, who the paper had somehow reached, told me he was changing the grade to an "F." I handed him a piece of chalk and said, "Do that and you're the new English teacher - because I'm out of here." He backed down. The following year when he thought he could get away with insulting me, I quit on the spot.
Each one of the "problem pupils" was rebellious in his own way, while the top-of-the-class "A" pupils seemed to be all cut of the same cloth: Boring. At times I would tell them, "Hey - you all got "A"s. Now get out of here - go to the library and read something." Wayne's handicap was being the son of the shop teacher. Without perceptible warning one day he decided to "ride" me, test me like no other had ever done. And he was good, like a chess player. He trusted me to not mention it to his father; he was most relentless, my most daunting challenge. I didn't know how to deal with him. I just knew that I would not join in a power struggle. All others in class sat silently, watching the drama.
Wayne hated reading and writing, that is to say, English was his most hated subject. I learned his one overriding interest in life was electronics. He did not know that in the U.S.A.F. I had taught pilots and crewmembers the electronic and radio systems of the B-26 aircraft. After a week of insolence I felt that Wayne's abusive remarks had to be answered or I would soon "lose it" - and that I could not let happen. One morning I covered the blackboard with an elaborate radio schematic, with its tangle of circuits, detectors, resisters, capacitors and wires everywhere - all from memory. Wayne sat bug-eyed. Pointing to one circuit, I asked, "Who knows what this is?" Wayne: "I do! It's the Colpits oscillator!"
Correct. And what is this feature here? I asked. "That provides the feedback," said Wayne happily. And I knew I had him. Then I explained about the value of feedback in talking with people, and how the listener's input can influence the outcome of a discussion. Wayne, now in his element, couldn't have been happier: English now made sense! To my last day, there was never another problem with him. His "enemy" could walk on water.
Why was I so carefully avoiding putting down the pupils assigned to me? Reason: I had decided at the outset that if I could not maintain a disciplined classroom without punishing the kids, I would seek some other line of work. In Korea, if a pilot or crew gave me a hard time, which very rarely happened, I'd simply dismiss them from class and send them back to fly a few more missions over North Korea. (A.F. regulations gave me one rank higher than everyone in class. Would you believe - for a time I held the technical rank of Major General?)
But in my English class these weren't adults. The pupils needed the space to be kids. And the more resistant and rebellious they were to authority, the more I saw myself in them. We were comrades, not adversaries. And if they did not "know" that, they felt it. They knew I liked them, could see that, even while maintaining classroom order, I enjoyed them. They knew I worked half the night preparing for them. They taught me so much about teaching and about children.
They were "undisciplined" only in the view of Authority: they refused to submit to humiliation. They had their own internal discipline, in unknowing agreement with Erwin N. Griswold, dean of Harvard Law School: "The right to be let alone is the underlying principle of the Constitution's Bill of Rights." I respected their rights as children and Americans, as they embodied that motto treasured by the early patriots of New Hampshire: "Don't tread on me."
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