School Daze Revisited

Oyster Ostracized and Other Memories
OR School Daze Revisited

    First, Max Brod (pen name) chronicles the humiliation and long-term damage wreaked by an ignorant teacher. Most of us can recall one or more teachers that inspired us and gave us love and good value. Sadly, Max encountered an opposite to such an iconic figure.
    Three memoir vignettes of mine follow. With them, I recall germane events at my small-town school.
    Not all individuals portrayed here are shown in a favorable light – perhaps that would include myself. No offense or harm is meant. One may presume these descriptions are snapshots of time and place and assume such people have lived exemplary lives.
    There are those who might ask whether Max Brod is the same person as Mata Hairy. I will neither confirm nor deny such speculation.

Oyster Ostracized (Max Brod)

          There is a long list of authors ostracized. The ancient Greeks used oyster shells as ballots, when voting on whom to kick out of town. Thus the word “oyster” morphed into “ostracize.” Many writers have avoided direct rejection – through phantom ghost arrangements or a multiplicity of pen names.
           Members of past and present Scriblerus Clubs mixed comedic and tragic traits. Milton, Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn were incarcerated. Dante, Ibsen and Swift went into exile, willing or not. Kierkegaard hid behind a series of pen names until they were connected. It didn’t go well for him when the gig was up. Kafka’s works were burned on German campuses during the period of National Socialism. Andre Malraux wrote a paradoxical Voices of Silence.  J. D. Salinger surrounded himself with barbed wire and quit being a public personage altogether.
          God, the ultimate ghost writer was ostracized. So what within all that pain would motivate this expose? Does misery actually take comfort in company? Yes, cathartic common company finds the middle ground, between those Greek comedy and tragedy masks. Employing the intrinsic Irish satirical trait liberates one from the wound.
          An imposture teacher with fifteen years experience in front of a middle school classroom taught me an unintentional lesson in writing. A first ever assignment employing creativity was given. I completed my theme with enthusiastic 12-year-old innocence. It never occurred to me that my work was any better or worse than the work of my peers.
         After grading our themes, the teacher dictated that the better papers be read by their authors before the class. Mine was last. After reading my piece I was told before my peers that the work was the best by far, but was the work of an adult. It was inferred one of my parents had written the paper for me. My family was defamed and I was labeled a cheat and liar. I objected at once and was told to sit down and be quiet. For the rest of the time I was in public school, I warmed a chair. My peers mercilessly ostracized me over the matter. I went silent on the subject for some twenty years.
           For the remainder of the time I was within the walls of a school house, nobody directly asked me why I didn’t like school. The catchphrase about finishing school as the formula for success and going anywhere in life was repeated like a stuck phonograph needle.
           Within a few years, Tolkien’s trilogy made it onto my reading list. His primordial bedrock was voiced by Gandalf's: “You shall not pass!” and plummeted into the bowels of the earth. I couldn’t care if I passed or failed in a classroom. Eventually I jumped onto a freight train and went somewhere to mock the repetitious, “You’ll go nowhere” proclamation. I kept going until I circumnavigated the earth. Aristotle’s peripatetic model works now, just as it did for centuries, before the present classroom model. His teacher Plato’s Academy continued for 800 years until it was closed by a Byzantine emperor.
          Over forty years passed before I entered a public university with open enrollment. Since I had no transcripts in hand from the private college where I studied upper division courses I had to take a competency test in writing. What an intersection with destiny was within the prompt. I was to write a letter to a school board, persuading them to implement programs to remedy juveniles dropping out of high school. The poignancy was a Grand Cooley Dam of writer’s block. Not a civil syllable would come out of me. Most school districts employ doctors of education now, unlike when I was a boy. And they need to hear from me, a refugee from high school about doing their jobs? I flunked the exam. It was insisted that in order to be admitted, I would attend a remedial writing class.
          After writing an assigned, concise biography for the first session, including my fervent persuasion about the value of studying philology, the teacher asked me to stay after class. He asked, “What are you doing here?” After I explained the circumstance, he told me to go back and argue for full admittance, and then invited me to share a bottle of scotch with him.
          So it was that I went back to admissions and quoted Shakespeare, asked if my syntax was sensible and my grammar was correct. Still, the only way I was released from remedial writing requirements, was through the ruse of claiming I was incompetent at word processing. I agreed I would take a hand written exam instead, and was granted full admittance. I neglected to take the exam, so I effectively burglarized the bureaucracy.
    Edmund Burke said: “Education is the state manufacture of echoes.”
    Being mindful of the former adage and the consequent axiom: “Look before you leap.” one may expect the pursuit of fame and fortune through writing can include getting rocks bounced off your ostracized head.

On Being An Accidental Smart-Ass

    Personally, I would have preferred a good sour-mash bourbon over the scotch, but Max's teacher is still all right by me ...
    As for the “state manufacture of echoes” – I can recall my children coming home and reciting what a teacher had told them that day. Often I would offer alternate takes on what I took to be the teacher's opinion. Even if I agreed with the teacher, I felt that it was appropriate for them to hear more than one side of an issue.
    I am in sympathy with Max's experience. Whether the teacher's intent was malicious or just thoughtless – a great disservice was done and Max was exposed to one of a kid's worst nightmares: derision and exclusion by peers.
    I have no recollection of seeing or feeling such an injustice as Max suffered. I saw other abuses, however. Students in my children's school or in the school that I attended might have had totally different experiences in two different grades. These variations were derived from the discretion conferred by different teaching styles.
    I was a lover of knowledge for its own sake. Being socially stupid I would hastily raise my hand when the teacher asked a question. In hindsight (being 20-20) I might have deferred to those who were less confident and slower to respond, but no less willing or informed. I was a smart-ass without malice or conscious intention.
    My greatest weakness was in correcting a certain teacher. This person was possibly teaching his minor subject and frequently made errors, which I was happy to correct. He was young himself, probably in his twenties and my hubris no doubt caused him to despise me. Such conceivable bias did not harm me as was Max's misfortune. This educator also instructed siblings of mine, which lead to at least one memorable event.
    I do not mean to imply that any animus (if indeed there was any animus) towards me was inherited by my kin.

One-eyed Justice

    A younger brother was - like most farm kids - strong as a bull and also a formidable wrestler. As he remembers it: on one occasion he fell ill with an unintended consequence.     
    After reporting to the school office and calling our parents to come and bring him home, he was told to put his head down on his desk and wait for his ride.
    Perhaps the same teacher that I refer to previously was not quite “in the loop”, but he appears to have acted impulsively. He walked by my brother's desk and administered what I like to call a Jethro Gibbs head slap. My near-comatose sick sibling had no idea where or from whom the blow came from. He reflexively rose and knocked the teacher away from him, leaving the flummoxed instructor sprawled on a heating register.
    Wisely, the now-wary teacher exercised restraint and sent my brother to the principle's office. The principle sequestered my apprehensive kin and himself in his office. First he spoke quietly: “Between you, me and the fencepost I don't have a problem with what you just did.”
    Still muted, he continued: “But it is perceived to be my job to chew you out, and I'm going to do so loudly enough that it is heard in the outer office and down the hall”.
    They remained in the inner office while the principle publicly berated my brother at high volume yet grinned at him privately. My brother then emerged with his shoulders properly slumped (probably not difficult to do, considering that he was sick as a dog) and wearing the appropriate contrite expression.
    Max, sometimes there is justice and it appears this small-town's justice was blind in only one eye.

The Fixit Man

    The following partial (and generally accepted) definition is given for a school social worker: “School Social Workers are trained mental health professionals who can assist with mental health concerns, behavioral concerns, positive behavioral support, academic and classroom support”.
    In the school that I attended, a similar role was filled by someone who was not a social worker, yet school officials relied on him to meet much of that criteria. One measure of his success is that the school auditorium is named for him. He was the custodian.
    Male students deemed to have behavioral or disciplinary problems were assigned to this man. He would put them to work as an aid to his duties and often there would be remedial improvement. The custodian was of humble station and modest education. He may or may not have actually attended High School, but certainly went no further than that. Yet he had the right stuff when it came to handling (alleged) malcontents and inspiring them with direction and self-esteem. In his case, that gift did not come from education.
    Teachers are human beings, and as such, are fallible. Self-inventory is an antidote for fallibility. Such self-inventory might have prevented Max Brod's humiliation and our teacher's smack-down.
    To the good, an administration which enabled the resourcefulness of a school janitor to empower young men is due considerable credit.
    Some of these narratives portray the sort of events exploited by the enemies of public education as examples of business as usual. They are (in my opinion) exceptions – not normality – and lessons from which we can learn.