Rebel with a cause, part 2 of 2

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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 …

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Rebel with a cause, part 1 of 2

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I referenced a couple of school related incidents in my previous post about writing,  so if you remained at all curious, it starts here, with a few years of leading up to my final stand 🙂

When most people talk about rebellious teenagers, they’re referring to rebellion against parents, rules, societal norms, and authority in general.  Much to the relief of my parents and the disappointment of my children (no juicy stories to share!) I didn’t go through a rebellious stage at home.  I had moments of rebellion, but mine weren’t typical, and I always had my parents’ support in them.

I rebelled at school.  I didn’t rebel against rules or hard work.  I didn’t disrespect teachers, I got very good grades, I didn’t skip class, I didn’t smoke, I didn’t drink, I didn’t party.  I didn’t even stay out late at night. But I did rebel.  (Can you even believe it, looking at that face?)

I rebelled against injustice and ridiculousness.  I rebelled against having immoral ideas and material forced upon me.  I rebelled against anything sending the message that I had to conform to what teachers said, even if it was against my personal beliefs, just because I was a kid.  I wasn’t rebelling against authority;  I was standing up for a cause.

Just the beginning

I didn’t like my grade eight (or nine?) science teacher because he was a forty-something playboy type who thought he was “all that”; I thought he was a creep.  Along with his generally annoying ways, he made a blatantly inappropriate sexual reference one particular day while speaking to the class about something in the area of biology, and I reacted to it in a way that got me kept after the bell.  I don’t honestly remember what I did, but I do remember that once everyone had left except me – and a friend who stayed to support me – I was sure I was in trouble and I smirked.  This was my unfortunate reaction when I was nervous or in trouble for something, and it landed me in the principal’s office that day.

I was very disappointed because the vice principal (principal was busy) seemed much more concerned about my smirking at the teacher than he was about the teacher’s behaviour.  This was my first indication that as a student my guilt was assumed first and foremost, regardless of any truth I might be sharing.  Apparently, my previous record of good grades and respectful behaviour were either unknown or irrelevant to him.

I stood my ground that the teacher was wrong, and was then told that “they” would be checking in with all my other subject teachers to see how I was behaving in class.  I told him that was fine with me and that I had no concerns.  Just to be sure, I personally approached each of my other teachers after school that day to let them know they might be asked about my behaviour as a student in class (kept the details vague) and that if there was anything at all they weren’t happy about I wanted to know directly.  None of them had a problem with me and assured me that I was a good and respectful student.

I remember my dad coming to the school either the next day or not long after and going to the office with me to meet with the principal himself.  I wouldn’t give up my own position, my dad supported that, and when I asked the principal about the results of talking to my other teachers, he had nothing to say.  He decided to have my science teacher join us; the guy sat down and was acting all nice and trying to be casual about things, but I didn’t even want to look at him. When the principal asked me why, I told him I wasn’t comfortable with him and that what he did was wrong.  I don’t remember exactly what happened after that meeting, but it was near the end of the school year, and we heard over the summer that the teacher wouldn’t be returning to a school in our district.  There had been other complaints along the same line after the end of the school year, from people who probably weren’t wanting to rock the boat with him during school time.  Take that, administration.  I was not wrong.  I got used to standing alone amongst conformers.

Then came the videos

In grade nine we were all supposed to watch a video about venereal disease and how to prevent it.  The announcement of the start of the video came over the speaker when I was in English class and while the rest of the students were leaving their desks, I stayed in my seat.  My teacher came over and asked me why I wasn’t leaving, and reminded me that we were all supposed to go because it was an important educational video.  I told him that the only way to get VD was by doing something I had no intention of doing for a long time so I didn’t need to watch it.  I was “preventing it” just fine on my own.  He was a very nice and reasonable man, and he thought I had a point, so he let me stay and get back to my work.

When I got to grade eleven – a different school with a whole new set of teachers to surprise! – I found out one day during lunch hour that there would be a video shown during a class of mine later that day of an actual vasectomy surgery.  No, thank you.  I went straight to the pay phone and called my mom.  She agreed that there was no way I had to watch such a video; she called the school directly, backed me up and that was that.

Senior High, Holding my own

My grade eleven English teacher was a real winner.  She majored in English but couldn’t explain to us the proper use of who and whom (“I just do whatever sounds best”)  or the difference between a colon and a semi-colon, among many other points of study.  She had a sign-up sheet for students who wanted to help her with her regular marking and “earn” themselves a higher letter grade in the class. She spent a lot of time at the back where the guys were sitting and it wasn’t uncommon to see her sitting on the edge of their desks chatting it up, even though she was middle-aged herself.  I’m not implying that she had inappropriate intentions; she just wasn’t the most professional teacher I’ve ever had.

One day she had us move our desks into groups of four to do a project involving scissors, glue and cut outs from magazines to make collages for some stupid reason; she had previously sent a couple of people out to buy the magazines, telling us that there was still too much money left in the budget for her department so it had to be spent or they wouldn’t get it next year.  Thank you, taxpayers, for those magazines. (Meanwhile, the biology department was struggling to find enough money for the grade twelve fetal pig projects.)

Several ridiculous classroom events led me and five other students to get up and walk out of class one day because we were so frustrated.  We walked straight across the hall to the principal’s office and told him that we were learning nothing, that she was doing ridiculous things, and that we couldn’t take it anymore.  We wanted a proper teacher.  We were all A students.  He told us all about her qualifications and suggested we return to class of our own free will.  We must have eventually gone back but our uprising hadn’t been completely in vain because we had taken a stand for our own education and that was something.  It led to further discussions.

One evening not long after that, my dad took me to the school where we sat with my teacher and the principal around a large table covered with a blown up copy of the curriculum, and they tried using it to prove she was teaching us as she should be.  Interestingly enough, the way those things were worded (vaguely described and without proper explanation) we couldn’t prove her wrong by that piece of paper, but after a civil interaction, they both knew we weren’t being fooled.

I rode it out to the end of the year when, with three weeks left, she gave us our last in-class test, because she wanted to have everything all marked before the actual end of the year to save her time.  Yes, she voiced these things. The next time she asked us to do an assignment after watching a video, I asked her nicely why we had to do it.  Was it going to count for something?  She answered “no”, because the marks were done.  I suggested there was no point in wasting my time doing it then, she suggested that wasn’t a good attitude, and I sat quietly pondering her lack of logic while waiting for the bell to ring.

On final exam day, a few of us heard students of other English teachers talking about the poetry section on the final exam.  Poetry?  We had done nothing at all with poetry! Perhaps that was supposed to be happening during cut & paste time?  We ran to one of the other English teachers and asked for help so we could at least cram something into our heads before the test started.  Thankfully the other teacher was able to quickly go over the main ideas and assured us that there were only a few poetry questions.

I think she must have tried mending fences because I remember going with another friend to her house for tea one day over summer holidays.  She was probably a lot of fun socially, but students need teachers to teach.  That fall she was given a principal position at another school.  And we shook our heads …

Then there was the time in grade twelve that I skipped a pep rally on principle.  Hard to believe, I know, but the story went something like this:

Some of the teachers had actually been complaining to us in class about government budget cuts and how they were expected to cram so much more material into less class time, suggesting that they didn’t know how we were going to cover everything in the shorter time frames.  And then one afternoon there was a pep rally in the gym for one of our teams and all students were required to attend.  It was to be a two-hour event.  WE WERE EXPECTED TO SKIP AN ENTIRE AFTERNOON OF SUPPOSEDLY NOT ENOUGH CLASS TIME TO GO TO A SPORTS RALLY.  Just wanted to make sure you got that clearly.  They even locked the school doors so we couldn’t just leave school altogether and an announcement was made to that effect.  Un-freaking-believable.

So I went straight to one of my favourite teachers who wasn’t attending the rally herself and asked if I could please sit in her class and work on some of my assignments instead of wasting two hours at a pep rally.  She, being one of the sweetest and most dedicated teachers I had, completely understood my rationale, agreed with my sensible alternative choice, and at her own risk allowed me to sit in her classroom until it was over and the doors were unlocked for us to go home.  She was a tiny, sweet, humble, and unassuming English lady, but she was also a stand-up-alone-when-you-have-to kind of person, and we remained friends long after graduation.

And now, the story you’ve been waiting for …

Ok, you’ve only been waiting for it if you read my last post which hinted at my high school years.  This part – the best part – could be a whole post on its own now that I think about it.  I mean, this teacher deserves a whole post…

And really, you’ve already been reading for a long time here.  So yes, I’ve just decided to make it another post all on its own, Rebel with a cause part 2.  Stay tuned for tomorrow …

 

It’s All Been Done

It was a simple conversation about how nothing seems “special” anymore, about how it’s all been done many times – the food, the movies, the trips – and suddenly we realized that we are now the people who see the world as too fast, too technologically consumed, too rich and disposable, spoiled.  And then it exploded into one example after another and our own version of “Grampa, tell me about the good old days …” (which, incidentally, has a very good message that still rings true even thirty years later…)

We talked about how we’ve been noticing it moving in this direction for some time and that we can’t imagine how anything that comes from now on could be a “surprise” or a shock to us after all we’ve seen, how there seems to be nothing left to our imagination anymore because the greatest things we can think of are either already happening or just another result of what’s already going on.  

 

We talked about how kids don’t often play outside anymore or make their own fun or even know about classic children’s stories, songs and fairy tales, and about how going out to eat at a place like McDonalds was a real treat for kids but now they’re everywhere and people are driving through, eating on their way to somewhere else.

 

We talked about a conversation I had been involved in earlier that day about braided rugs and how I remember them being made in my younger days, and that when the lady at “the store” mentioned the tools to keep the strips of fabric in place and help them to fold properly I suddenly had a picture in my mind from childhood and I knew exactly what she meant.  I don’t know if my mom had some or if I just saw them being used somewhere, but as soon as she started to describe them I knew.  This kind of conversation happens often when I’m at “the store”. (In our house we don’t have to name the store because we always know exactly which store we are talking about!)

 

We also agreed that this is one of the reasons we like “the store” so much: the people there think like we do about home and family, making and building things by hand, sharing moments that aren’t just about what you are making but why and what kind of fun you are having doing it.  It’s a store with things and people that remind us of ways that we can take back some of what this crazy world has lost and in a way reclaim it for ourselves.

 

We talked about how the world is a smaller place now and everyone can reach out and touch someone across the globe in a matter of hours because we have monstrous multi-level jets to fly us wherever we want to go.  The things we saw in movies that made our chins drop are now really just around the corner.  Many children will have seen more of the world by the time they’re ten years old than I will ever see, and a yearly or more often vacation to a tropical spot is becoming the norm for many families.  While en route, the inflight movie is showing some other wonderful place you might want to visit next.  We concluded that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all, just that it’s more expected than special or amazing.

 

We talked about old shows like Buck Rogers, and how it was exciting back then to think that somehow, someday the world might actually look like that, but noticed that now there’s no more wonder in science fiction.  Other than beaming up Scotty, the world of science and technology has pretty much done it all.  They still don’t know for sure if there’s anyone else out there to beam us back, but even the alien movies can’t shock or amaze anymore, and we’re noticing that all the movies of today that we find to be really good, whether set in ancient, modern or futuristic times, are more about the human spirit and what makes the world good in the most basic sense than they are about imagining possibilities.  They’re running out of ways to amaze us.

 

The funny thing here – or perhaps the enlightening thing – is that “WE” were not myself and another middle-aged person sharing deep thoughts.  This conversation was with my daughter who, at twenty-six, has realized that she’s already seen it all.

 

Don’t get me wrong – I love my power tools, my computer and my mobile devices for the convenience they provide (and the memory, by way of a calendar that pops up reminders for me in my less-than-with-it moments) and I’m not knocking the TV, the modern household appliances or the indoor bathrooms.  I like to be warm in winter and I don’t like chopping wood.  

 

But when I watch favourite old programs like the Waltons and Road to Avonlea, something in me wants to be there, away from this fast-paced complicated world.  I know they had their problems as do people in every era, but there’s something I envy in the idea of keeping all your money in a jar in the cupboard and not having to worry about paying for anything but food and clothing, because there were no light, heat, or water bills in the mail.  I see the simplicity, with the house and furniture that dad built, the family time around the kitchen table where people talked and laughed, the after supper time at the old radio curled up in blankets mom made, and later the husband and wife time out on the front porch swing, and I just want to grab some of it.  Life was filled with homemade goodness and it wasn’t just because they didn’t have the machines to take away the work; there was satisfaction and enjoyment in the making of things, in the making of a home.  

 

My mom taught me to sew my own clothes when I was nine years old and while I rarely sew anything now, that skill got me through many years of sewing things for myself, my husband, my kids, and our home, and if I need to sew I certainly can!  It was the first of many crafts I learned along the way (whenever a new one came along, my mom would buy supplies and give them to me to learn to do it!) and while the hobbies have changed, the enjoyment of making things is always there.  My mom still knits and quilts and has made sure that even her grandchildren have baby sweaters stashed away for when they have their own families.  I am grateful for the homemade things we had growing up and that my mom passed on to me the skills and the desire to make things with my own hands.

 

I honestly don’t intend to sound like the senior who constantly reminds young people about the olden days and how things were better then, because some things are better now.  It’s just that once something good comes along it seems to go so far that we lose the “something good” that we had before.   

There are many good things about modern life, and I’m happy to take advantage of those that interest me.  But I don’t really know if they make the world a better place or just a different one. 

 

I do know now that making and building things myself has given me a sense of taking back something that’s been lost, reclaiming something from a simpler time and making it happen here and now for me.  I know that next time there are little boys riding their bikes through the ditch along our backyard I will be thankful for the reminder that some kids do still play outside and make their own fun.  And I know that I’m glad my daughter is adamant that her children will learn about fairy tales.

I guess I’ve officially become old fashioned, but I’m OK with that 🙂