Blackboard Jungle, Part 4: Anecdotes and Musings

There is a quasi–permanent debate about the education system — with a tendency to get particularly hot during election campaigns — that usually revolves around costs and pretends to have quality in mind. Yet I hardly ever hear of new strategies to ensure a general education level that meets modern professional and academic challenges, or contemporary tactics to achieve as much, being considered.

Granted, new types of schools emerge (for no good reason at all), now and then, textbooks are edited (or, shall we say, simplified), and new materials tested (as if introducing tablet computers in class would help anyone but individual manufacturers), but promising approaches to provide adequate, equal education are never seriously discussed.

Perhaps we should start asking fundamental questions and stop conducting expensive long–term experiments already. Pupils are no lab bunnies, after all.

Pick Yourself Up or The Art of Seeing a Chance in Every Challenge

I often hear some expert give anxious parents the advice to immediately intervene when their kids are harassed or bullied by their peers, these days. And I wonder what kind of kids both these experts and parents used to be at their offspring’s age.

I just love it when parents brag that they “know the kids inside out” or that (only) their own children are “angels”. Right, dream on.

Every child knows — and I mean this quite literally — that premature adult intervention in general (and parental intervention in particular) only complicates children’s affairs — sometimes even beyond repair. Have you nothing learned during your own childhood?

I do understand that all parents mean well and want to protect their children, but eliminating all of their kids’ issues by parental force is to postpone these issues until a time when parents will no more be in the position to do so.

It is the teacher’s job to maintain — or restore, if need be — order at school, not the parents’. Yet to single out bullies and hold them accountable for every misdeed, under the pretext to keep peace, is pointless. A fair amount of transgressions in every classroom is committed by the supposedly innocent who know quite well that the “usual suspects” will be blamed. And not to forget, no one is a bully by choice or birth but by design, through foul rearing.

The parents’ job is to rear their lambs to become steadfast sheep and their pups to become decent wolves — by shining example, not by empty words and promises they won’t be able to keep in the end.

Otherwise, they will create either of two individuals that will haunt society, one fine day — agitators and mindless followers (or, to stay with the metaphor, wolves in sheepskin and sheep in wolfskin) — and neither will have been their doing once the damage is done. That much I dare predict.

Granted, adults who have no children are always the best parents. Like the political opposition, they never have to prove their own concepts. So why even listen to them? Are these entitled to have an opinion on the matter, in the first place?

Yes, they are. First of all, we all used to be children, no one was born an adult. We all had to endure childhood and learn the ropes of life. Some of us did better, the majority got away with a black eye or two, and some few merely escaped by the skin of their teeth.

Basically, there is no need to have children of one’s own to know how they roll: each their own way — and usually informed by the fashion their parents set.

There is no “parent gene” that mysteriously enables only those who begot a child to recognise (other people’s) ill–behaving children — consequently, no one can lack it, and therefore have to cope with “unruly rascals” in silence.

And, last but not least, being part of a society comes with the right to reasonable self–regulation. Everyone, parent or no, old or young, male or female (or whatever), has a right to see that relative peace and civility (the prime advantages of living in societies) are preserved. It is the society’s (that is to say, each and all members thereof) duty to provide equal education and an environment where knowledge and skills may be acquired without difficulty.

“Ain’t got no kids, ain’t none of my business” is simply too cheap an approach to this matter. Every single child today — be it the bully, the wallflower, the teacher’s pet, the superstar in the making, the one who plays along to get along, or the class clown — will, one fine day, be an adult member of society who is eligible to vote, may get a driving licence, be a doctor, lawyer, or some other people’s boss or teacher (if all fails, even a politician). That’s what each and everyone of us better keeps in mind.

How often do we hear of violence (against themselves or others) induced by utterly frustrated people: adults, students, even children? And how often do we see the same pattern unfold, once we learn the background story?

More often than not, these people have had to endure neglect, physical or mental or emotional abuse (sometimes even a combination thereof), personal humiliation and insult, conscious exclusion, or unreasonable peer pressure, until they eventually snapped.

And what is the usual — I am inclined to say, typical — reaction? Those who believe to (and actually should) have known these people, report that they never recognised any signs of stress, and everyone else pretends to be in shock and is convinced that the tragedy could have been avoided, if only …

Of course, hindsight is always twenty–twenty. Yet we adults do have the benefit of hindsight (because we already know what it means to be a child, an adolescent, or a young adult in the adults’ world) when it comes to consider the possibilities and the development of our future society.

There is no point in trying to forcefully reshape our society to “become child–friendly” (or “childish”, as some do suspect), because childhood is the shortest stage in the average person’s life. Childhood is no goal, it’s just a series of initiations — and these who have been delivered from passing all trials are as often struggling for the rest of their lives as those who were dealt a “real bad hand”.

Of Wolves and Sheep

Kids Gaol (commonly referred to as “kindergarten”) was supposed to be fun. One man’s heaven is another man’s hell, they say. If that is true, I am the other man.

I was used to be around adults of all ages from birth. Being around people of my own age bored the daylight out of me. Having to spend time with them made no sense at all. So I took to watch them — from a distance. After all, it was still possible that I simply missed the point of being there.

As far as I could see, there were two groups of inmates: wolves and sheep. As soon as one of the sheep had chosen a toy to play with, one or more of the wolves came by and tore it out of his or her small hands; boy or girl, it didn’t matter: sheep was sheep. For some reason, the order of the day appeared to be “us against them” — or, from where I sat, rather “these against those”.

The sheep began to bleat each time around but ultimately complied with the rules enforced by the wolves. It wasn’t until the situation threatened to get out of control — some of the wolves tended to get pretty nasty, especially with those sheep that seemed to be particularly, well, sheepish — that the “aunt” intervened.

The kindergarten teacher was a different animal altogether. She had introduced herself as my “aunt”, friendly smile and all, but I was relatively certain that we were not related. I did not contradict her, though. Knowing that she was a liar, without her knowing that I had found her out, could prove useful one day.

After a week of watching this dull game between wolves and sheep over and over again, I decided that I needed a strategy or go crazy myself. My body they could have, but I would defend my mind to the last.

I had long since realised that adults got utterly confused when I acted contrary to their expectations, asked questions they had not seen coming, or said things they’d rather not hear. It was about time to see whether this tactic would also work with my peers.

I had noticed that the sheep chose to play with a rather restricted range of items only (in spite of an outrageous abundance of available toys). That was strange. Was there an unspoken rule that the rest of the toys were off limits? I had to find out. After all, I had nothing to do and nowhere to go, and whatever would come of it was bound to be a change from the trudge.

I chose the wooden building blocks. There were several boxes, and they seemed to be particularly unpopular. Each shape had its own colour. Somehow, that appealed to me. Yet I had no concept as to how they were supposed to be used and no idea what to do with them.

I began to build Mammy’s (my maternal grandmother) farm from memory to cope with homesickness. The place, an hour and a half north of the city, that remained my secret, my real home until the day she died, eleven years later. Yet the day was over before my work was complete.

Unfortunately, I failed to negotiate the “aunt” into keeping the status quo until the next day. So back into the boxes with all the blocks in the evening, and out of the boxes again to start from scratch every morning it was. Well, well, well … Each day, I managed to build more than the day before.

After another week, in the middle of the afternoon, just as I was about to build the church behind the farm, I eventually ran out of blocks. Like, totally. I couldn’t possibly reduce any more details to gain a few extra pieces. To be honest, the final version was so abstract that even Mammy would have failed to recognise her home of several decades.

My work with those blocks was done, and I had completely forgotten about the wolves and the sheep — and the “aunt”, for that matter.

It wasn’t until I had begun to use more and more toys no one seemed to play with and a total of three tables to build really large landscapes, that the wolves began to close in.

At first, they came one at a time; later, in groups. Yet for some reason, they never charged or even touched one of “my” tables. All I had to do was raise my head occasionally and stare at each of them until they retreated again.

When one of the sheep approached me, though, I let them take what toy ever they fancied (all of a sudden). After all, none of that stuff was mine, it was merely a means to kill some time. (Interestingly, not one of these toys was ever taken from them. There was also significantly less bleating, which I found very convenient.)

I would simply take some other abandoned toy to fill the gap or reshape the landscape I was working on at that day. After several weeks, it didn’t even bother me that I had to destroy my creations every evening. It had become a habit of sorts.

What had also become a habit was exchanging a few words, now and then, with those sheep who approached me most kindly. For the wolves, however, I had nothing but open contempt and an evil glare. Not much has changed since …

It may have been blind instinct that made me act that way, and the ability to confuse the “enemy” did certainly help, but it was not blind luck that I got away with it for so long a time.

No one disturbed my circles during the remaining two years of kindergarten, and no one engaged me in the daily brawls during the first year of primary school. The few who actually approached me for one reason or another, did so with respect.

That was enough time to intently watch, analyse, and learn something about both groups:

Wolves cannot handle opposition, and most of them are cowards. They don’t charge until they are certain to get away unscathed. (Note: I’m talking about human bullies, not the animals. Even though members of the canidae family do not charge unless they are sure to win, they act out of prudence rather than cowardice.)

Sheep, on the other hand, are always looking for someone who is treating them less mean than others do. And they tend to follow everyone who appears to treat them decently. Their tendency to follow anyone with blind — more often than not, unjustified — gratitude made (and still makes) me uncomfortable. (Note: Again, I am talking about humans. You really don’t want to go near a ram with an attitude.)

Our kindergarten teacher, the “aunt”, obviously understood the rules of group dynamics, which is why she let the sheep fend for themselves (as long as nobody got physically hurt). Any overprotective intervention would have been utterly misunderstood by either faction of the group (this phenomenon may be observed quite often in the adult world, these days).

I don’t know (and, honestly, I couldn’t care less) whether or to what extent my appearance had opposed her own strategy to maintaining peace and order. After all, I was not there of my own accord. I was merely one of a larger group for a while, left to my own devices and (slowly, very slowly) learning to be a child among children.

Fighting for the Pope

My first fight ever was in my second year of primary school. To be fair, it was only in parts the teacher’s fault. Perhaps, it was just one of those days.

I have no idea what makes a trained teacher ask a class of seven–year–olds for the name of the current pope, but that’s what she did. It may have been her inexperience still showing at times (our first day in primary school had also been her first day as a teacher), we will never know.

However, there were at least two classmates whom I trusted to know the correct answer, and I expected them to do the decent thing and respond to the call.

Having to raise one’s hand in a certain manner and wait to be granted leave to speak up annoyed me no end. After all, I was no monkey in training.

Little did I know that this was to be a day of valuable lessons and thus far unknown disappointments: The teacher refused to admit defeat in the face of a hopeless situation. Even the two girls I had considered the smartest kids in class failed to come up with a random piece of information everyone could have gathered from the daily papers. And I, last but not least, would break a hard–and–fast rule I had laid down for myself.

I was loath to share information unless I considered it relevant in any one context or for the greater good, and therefore had developed the habit to silently wait my turn.

Endless seconds passed, then some more, until I couldn’t bear the teacher’s forlorn gaze any longer. Damn it.

I raised my hand just enough to comply with established practice and said, without waiting for permission to speak, “Paul VI”.

The bully in the last row burst with laughter. “Hohohooo!” he hollered. “Paul the What? Bloody iiiidiot!”

The class responded dutifully, until all noise died, as it slowly dawned on them that something was wrong. Johnny had broken several golden rules of the classroom at once (speaking without permission, personal insult, profanity). This lesson was not going to end well.

Yet the teacher did not respond to Johnny’s transgressions, at least not immediately. Instead, a brief smile lit her face. The instant I saw it, I regretted my decision to get involved in this farce. Hers was the smirk of a victor who had won by proxy, full of contempt for the vanquished and glad to have spared her own troops.

“Yes, … you are right. Paul VI. Very good!”

The way she uttered these words made everyone in the room — even Johnny in the last row — instantly aware that her statement proclaimed her triumph over the moron, rather than merely confirming my answer. She could just as well have hollered back, “Who’s the idiot now, huh? Who?”

And the class approved in the same manner they had agreed with Johnny, less than a minute earlier — dutifully — only that they now laughed at him.

After the next recess, I found a slip of paper, obviously torn from a textbook, on my desk with a message in shaky letters: “Behind skool. Bark!”

Given that there was a park next to our school, and knowing how Johnny rolled, it did not take a genius to realise that a formal declaration of war had been delivered.

My seven–year–old brain silently translated it to “Meet me after school in the park (and I’ll slap the crap out of you)”. Yet my seven–year–old brain also realised that I faced a dilemma.

I had watched him manhandle several kids for a year or so. It was obvious that he didn’t know the first thing about a serious fight. He had no idea what he had gotten himself into, and I didn’t want to be seen beating a schoolmate to mush in public — close to school, no less. I would have to play that piece by ear.

If, on the other hand, I avoided to pick up the gauntlet, he would not miraculously stop being a pain in the neck.

It was my first brawl, and it was over soon. Johnny looked miserable, the poor wretch, as he picked up his satchel and trotted home. His red shirt, barely visible underneath specks of mud, looked like it was soaked in blood, as his stocky figure slowly vanished from sight.

I had not done him any physical harm. In fact, I had merely touched him twice — with moderate force — to ward off his first attack. Gravity, the slippery ground after a night of heavy downpours, and his own clumsiness did the rest. As I said, he didn’t know the first thing about fighting. (Be like water!)

About his emotional state, I cannot report much. He arrived the following morning with clean clothes and combed hair. We both acted as though nothing had happened. Yet for the remaining two years, I have never again seen him acting hostile towards anyone.

Darn idiots all: the teacher who enjoyed her cheap victory, Johnny with his big mouth, I who had failed to look the other way for another second or two, and the pope … just for being the pope.

Yet the darndest of idiots were my classmates (other than Johnny). I did (and still do) understand that they gathered in the park, one and all, to watch the show. I never learned how they received word in the first place, though. It may have been Johnny who had taken care to have an audience, certain that he would teach me a lesson, or the raw instinct of children.

I did (and still do) not blame them for cheering while the fight was on, either. Yet that they kept hooting with laughter although he had gone down already, I could not forgive them.

There is a fine line between cheering the victor and taunting the defeated, and those who fail to recognise and respect it should be banned from the playground.

(Note: I do not advocate any form of violence as a means to settle a conflict, and I have never excited a fight. If you think a victory justifies every battle, you are no smarter than Johnny in the last row. As an immediate result of this little episode I have lost more than poor old Johnny could have ever hoped to possess.)

I do understand that teachers, too, are only human. Yet, just like parents, they have to restrain themselves sometimes. You do never — to make sure that’s fully understood: I mean never, not even in your weakest moment — humiliate others for their physical weakness, cultural or socio–economic background, lack of education, or general ignorance (or whatever reason, really) — especially not in public.

What’s being said in private, may be understood as friendly banter or accepted as admonishing words, but uttered in public, it is likely to be taken as a grave insult and may add fuel to a fire (perhaps) yet unknown to you.

Would a more experienced (or better trained) teacher have been able to prevent this showdown? Most certainly, but she would have had to sacrifice her moment of triumph.

We both — Johnny and I — had infringed classroom rules. She could have had the class wait for a moment, summoned us both out of class, and given us a good talking to — right away, just the three of us. Then she could have resumed her lesson by nonchalantly informing the class that “as we just heard, the pope’s name is Paul VI”. This way, we all would have kept our face that day.

Back then, I simply thought “poor old Johnny”. He was just a lone wolf among too many sheep — and, come to think of it, so was I. We never became friends, though. But then, I was friends with no one in primary school.