It was a dark and stormy night…
Ok, I won’t make you wait any longer. Just make sure you’ve read part 1 before you go any further.
Grade eleven Social Studies: We were given the assignment to write an opinion essay, remember?
I chose the school system as my topic.
I’m pausing here so you have time to laugh or gasp or choke or whatever you want to do.
Better now? OK.
I don’t remember all the details, but I touched on some very current and pertinent points for the time period, respectfully but honestly, including something about independent thinking being encouraged unless it led to questioning or criticizing “the system”. It was a great paper, no bragging intended (I can’t necessarily take credit for the things that came easily to me). I did hand it in with some concern about how the subject would be received, but I was damn proud of it. I got an A.
Fast forward to grade twelve English, same teacher, Mr. Cramp. (Let me pause here to give him credit for being a far better English teacher than my previous one had been! I liked him during Social Studies and I liked him for English, until …)
It was time for our big novel study to be done as a class and Mr. Cramp chose George Orwell’s 1984. The first day we were to start reading, we had a substitute teacher and a double block class – usually silent reading for one block and then a regular class for the second. I opened the book, read up to page 16, was disgusted by the scene described there, closed the book, and put it on my desk. I took out some other work and quietly passed my time. Not long after, the sub noticed and then started walking up and down the rows of desks until she got to me. She asked quietly why I wasn’t reading the book. I answered quietly that it offended me and I didn’t want to read it, but that I would continue working and talk to my teacher when he got back. There was no fanfare; everyone else continued reading.
My dad called that evening from Vancouver where he was for a meeting, I explained the situation to him, and he assured me that I did not have to read the book if I didn’t want to read it.
The next day, Mr. Cramp returned, and I was asked to stay after class. He told me that the sub had left a note saying I refused to read the novel and that I had caused disruption in the class. I assured him I hadn’t caused anything of the sort, that I’d answered her question respectfully, and that I’d worked quietly so as not to disturb anyone. He then wanted to know why I refused to read the book.
I told him it offended me, that there were immoral sections in it and it was not the kind of material I wanted to read. At one point in our debate, I even reminded him that I knew he was a church going Christian and that he should understand why I wouldn’t want to read something like that. He chose it because it was considered a “classic.” I questioned what constitutes a “classic” and who gets to decide. He wasn’t pleased and things got more heated. I asked to be allowed to read any one of the many other books on the suggested reading list for our grade and was denied. We debated for a while longer and we both left unsatisfied. Again, to his credit, he wasn’t harsh or rude with me, but he was very upset and understandably frustrated.
So began the power struggle between us: the classroom discussions – unrelated to the book – that I remained quiet for even though I knew the answers to questions he posed and he knew I knew them (sometimes I was the only one who knew them) but wasn’t putting up my hand, and the various quizzes I was doomed to fail after assigned chapter readings (even though a few of my other classmates tried to give me daily summaries in Biology whenever it fell before English on our schedule!). I was disappointed in him and while I wasn’t willing to be rude to him, I had lost my interest in participating energetically. He couldn’t break me. I think he probably always knew he wouldn’t win but, as the teacher, he also couldn’t bring himself to bend. Perhaps he even wanted to but wasn’t allowed to, who knows? Regardless, though we had once shared a good rapport we were now just mutually respectful adversaries.
My biology teacher – an eccentric but fun little guy – casually teased me one day that he heard I was refusing to read a novel in English class. I responded that I didn’t think it appropriate for teachers to sit in the staff room and discuss something like that when it had nothing to do with anyone else. He just laughed. I knew then that probably all the teachers were aware of my stand, but I was long past caring. I was, after all, nearly old enough to vote, so I certainly had the right to stand up for myself and my values.
During parent teacher interviews it was common for students to walk their parents around to find their classrooms (huge school!) and I sat outside while mine went in to meet with Mr. Cramp. The typical time slot was about ten minutes, so after half an hour, a couple of the other parents waiting in line were joking with me, asking just what kind of mark I was getting in the class (one of the other parents was, ironically, the principal from the junior high school science teacher incident described in my previous post!). I told them I actually had an A. That gave them all a good laugh.
When it was over, my parents said that he had expressed his concern over my refusal to read the book and the fact that he knew I was avoiding class participation since the issue began. They expressed their support of my right to not read the book. He made sure they knew that it would affect my mark because I wasn’t able to participate in the assignments or the quizzes. We were aware of this and I did drop from a high B to a low B average for that section. And, as part of his perspective, he then brought in the matter of the paper I had written in grade eleven about the school system, using that to further his point about my non-compliance. Dad reminded him that he had given me an A for a well-written paper. He admitted it was well written despite its indication of my tendency to rebel on certain matters. I can imagine from what I know of my parents and what I knew of Mr. Cramp, that the whole meeting went off without raised voices or rude comments. But it remained a standstill nonetheless.
At the end of all that came the book report I wrote in its entirety while working coat check at a New Year’s Eve parish dance. I used class notes and came up with a paper that earned my teacher’s 87% grade – not up to my usual level (in my day, 87 was an A minus) but a very reasonable result for not having read the book. And he knew I hadn’t read it, but he was reasonable enough to mark my writing on its own merit.
If you’re still here, good job paying attention! I didn’t realize that I remembered so many things so clearly until I started writing them down. It’s pretty obvious that I’m strong willed. It’s also obvious that my parents stood with me when I stood up for something important to me. None of these situations show that I “won” anything. But I also didn’t lose. I stayed true to myself, I was respectfully assertive, and I learned that even if you can’t actually beat the system, you don’t have to let it beat you.
I came away from my many years of school with two favourite teachers I remember fondly to this day. Neither stifled my spirit; both showed me that being an effective teacher was about far more than the subject matter, and that respect is earned. It doesn’t just come with age or degree.
Oh, I nearly forgot to tell you about kindergarten, when I was so bored and angry about having to use those big fat red pencils to print when I could already write my name in cursive script, that I deliberately scribbled outside the lines on all the pictures on a counting sheet, just to make a point. THAT was talked about in a parent-teacher conference too …