The year was 1990 and I was starting 5th grade at Public Nerd Academy. The more popular name for Public Nerd Academy is J.R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School. In other words, a magnet school for people who scored high in standardized tests and excelled in traditional education settings. I had spent September of that year at my elementary school, awaiting a spot at Masterman. I had applied late and was only going because all of my friends abandoned me to go be smart somewhere else.
In a matter of days, it became clear that I needed to get out of my elementary school. I was doing well, but with minimal effort. On day one, my teacher knew that I was waiting to leave and she tried to shame me and break my confidence about the move. “You think you want to go to a school like that, but those kids spend all their time in the library! You won’t last a day!” On day 5, after I had shown an uncanny ability to memorize boring facts under pressure (including a correction of one of her pieces of data), accelerated understanding of proper family tree notation, and keen comprehension of place value, she started changing her tune. “I hope you get in there. You’re going to be really bored here.”
Finally, after my mom wrote a scathing letter to the school board (someone had transposed my test scores and it was affecting my ability to be accepted into the school), I got a spot. On my last day at my elementary school, my teacher was all smiles. My dad had come to school with me that day and at some point we found ourselves in the principal’s office (scandal!). The principal then attempted to shame me and break my confidence too. “Here you are a big fish in a little pond! There you will be just the opposite!” “I hear your best friend hates it there and wants to come back here!”
Both points were loads of crap, and even at 9 years old, I was aware of it. My dad did not need to defend me, as I looked the principal straight in the eye and said, “I’m not learning anything here. I’m alright with being a little fish. Also, my friend doesn’t want to come back here. She’s happy there.” And with that, my dad signed some papers and I started up at Masterman the next week.
On my first day I was greeted with a whole cornucopia of new information. Some of it seemed useless in retrospect, but it was interesting and it made me enjoy class. Class was more difficult. We were learning things that I didn’t know and I had to think a lot. It was a whole new world! I thought I had found a place completely different from the one from which I came. I had no fear of showing my intelligence. I had no fear of speaking up, of speaking out, of being different. I trusted that the caliber of people I would now encounter would generally be higher now, especially the adults.
Yeah, I was 9. What do you want? Of course I had no fear of these things…I had only been there a couple of days and none of my notions had been challenged yet! Also, as a 9 year old, I respected adults, but I only really trusted my parents because they weren’t full of crap. If they told me someone was, in fact, full of crap, I believed them (and they were usually right).
My 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Levine, was, as it turned out, not a high caliber individual and facilitated my learning of a very important life lesson.
Throughout my education, my mother has been defiant about certain things. She is not a fan of the education system and thinks that people’s obsession and pretention about education (especially higher education) is akin to religious zealotry. I don’t disagree with her on this point, though we have had some conflict since I decided to go to college (I wanted to be a chemist, which requires higher learning than highschool can provide and hands on experience that books cannot provide). As such, she was not really a PTA kind of mom. Obviously, she wanted me to go to school and was involved with my education at home (helping me with homework and such), but she had no desire to be involved at the school otherwise. She didn’t want to make cupcakes for meetings or hear people whine about the text books or whatever it is people go on about at these things. At Masterman, it was called the Home and School Association and every year, the school’s goal was to get 100% of parents to be involved. To join, your parent had to fill out a form and pay $5.
If your class managed to get 100% enrollment, the class was rewarded with…
You guessed it! A pizza party! DOMINOS FOR ALL!
So, I go home my first week of school and tell my mom about this, though I let out the part about the pizza party because, well, I’ll admit something here: I didn’t really care if we got a pizza party or not. If my mom wanted to join The Association (the home and school one…not the wussy band from the 60’s. Though if that had been the case, I would have really tried to convince her. Who doesn’t want to sing “Windy”?), great, but if she didn’t, who was I to force her? It’s her time and money (even if it’s just $5). As expected, she didn’t want to be involved, so I didn’t bring in the form.
A few days before the deadline, Mrs. Levine ominously called 4 students up to her desk. I was one of them. She looked at us with a “knowing” look that was tinged with disappointment. She spoke.
“As you know, the deadline for joining the Home and School Association is coming up. You are the only 4 students to have not brought in your forms and pay. I didn’t want you to be the cause of the class being denied a pizza party, so I filled out the forms and paid $5 for each of you.”
We all looked at each other in a confused fashion. And then she said,
“I expect to be paid back before the party.”
I was astounded, to say the least. When I was 9, I wasn’t really cursing yet, but had I been a cursing type at that time, I definitely would have asked the important question, “Are you fucking kidding me?”
I don’t know what this woman thought was going on, but she seemed to be in complete denial of the various circumstances that led to our parents not joining the Home and School Association. In my case, it was out of principle. My mom didn’t want to be on the Home and School Association, so she didn’t join. How can it be simpler than that? The point of the contest was that the school wanted as many parents involved as possible. That’s a noble goal, but if someone doesn’t want to be involved, they have their reasons and YOU CAN’T MAKE THEM. That seems to go against the idea of a volunteer organization. As for the other kids, sure, it could be simple forgetfulness. Or it could be that $5 is a hardship for the family. We were going to PUBLIC school after all. Theoretically, you’re not supposed to have to pay for your education there. Theoretically, you were going to school to be educated and the money required to get the kid clothes and school supplies might have tapped them out, especially in the beginning of the year. Sometimes you just don’t have 5 bucks. Or maybe the kids that didn’t pay have terrible relationships with their parents and couldn’t bring themselves to tell them about it. Who knows? Mrs. Levine certainly didn’t and she took it upon herself to go against the seeming wishes of the parents simply to win at a dumb contest for a trivial prize.
I often wish that I was the person then that I am now. Over the years after encountering many instances of authoritative idiocy, I started to speak up and call people on their crap (not in my personal life so much but certainly in my school and professional life). If I had been this person, I would have laughed in her face and called her out in front of the whole class and explain to her that she had just taught us a really shitty lesson about how to get your way.
I went home and told my mom about this and she was flabbergasted. I think she may have said, “Are you fucking kidding me?” and I told her that I wasn’t and that my teacher is ridiculous. My mom refused to pay and I agreed with her. There was just so much out about this that I couldn’t disagree with the decision.
So, it went on for several days that I didn’t bring in Levine’s money. As it turned out, my class was the only class to have “achieved” 100% enrollment and Levine was walking around exceedingly smug about it. This was, of course, disgusting because she had cheated to win and was in charge of educating a bunch of 9 year olds. Every few days she would ask us about our payment. I told her that my mother didn’t want to join. One day during a quiet period in class (we were reading or something), she came up behind me at my desk, leaned down and spoke into my ear.
“Gina, you still haven’t paid me back the $5. The pizza party is tomorrow. If you don’t bring me the $5 by then, I’m sorry, but I can’t allow you to go to the pizza party. It just wouldn’t be fair to the other students.”
And then she skulked away.
I was, once again, astounded. This was my teacher? Look, I know. If you elect not to participate, then you don’t participate. But this was a parent thing. The woman knew this and was manipulating me to feel badly so that I would go home and guilt trip my mother. This woman was one of the first adults to show themselves as completely and utterly full of shit. It was an important day in my development.
My mother and I had a very open relationship growing up. She would ask how my day was and I would tell her, in great detail. We talked about everything. So, of course I told her about this incident. She couldn’t believe it. “Really? They’re going to punish YOU because I don’t want to be on the stupid association? REALLY?” She went to her purse and pulled out a $5 bill and gave it to me. She thought about writing a letter and making a big deal of it, but figured that would just bring the place down on me and decided against it. So Levine won that round.
The next year, we had to back to her classroom to get our assignments for 6th grade. She was in a neck brace. Apparently, she got whiplash falling off a dinghy. That was possibly the funniest thing I had ever heard.
I got her back that year because there was a holiday door decorating contest on our floor. I walked down to see what Levine’s class had done and it was clear that Levine had, once again, done the whole thing herself in order to win a fucking pizza party. I went back to my classroom and sat down with the teacher (who I had a really good relationship with) and told her this entire story and then I said, “We are going to win this door decorating contest and we’re going to win with student-done work. Also, FYI, tacky always wins.” So everyone in the class made cut outs and various decorations and we hung up lights and giant balls of tinsel and we won that motherfucking pizza party fair and square.
And it was the best slice of Dominos I have ever had.
Thinking about this incident in conjunction with the teacher and principal at my elementary school attempting to make me feel unworthy and unconfident, I just am amazed that people like this are allowed to have any influence on children. At the age, children are so impressionable. It is the time that really decides how socially adjusted they’re going to be. If authoritative people are telling them that they are not good enough or that they are so full of themselves to acknowledge that they are smart or that being a rational outspoken person makes a detriment to the welfare of the group, they will believe it. If you tell them that cheating to win just to look good, they will adopt that into their own ethics. Or, if you as an authoritative figure show yourself to be untrustworthy and vindictive, kids learn that too. They learn that respect should not be guaranteed and won’t be given away freely.
We live in a time when parents are struggling to keep a home afloat. Both parents work a lot of the time and the time spent with their children is often minimized. Parents influence as much as they can, but once kids are in school their teachers are the parent figures. We spend 13 years in these institutions and form so much of our identities there. We have to be able to trust our teachers to do right by us and so often they fail.
I do think a lot of teachers try very hard to be successful. I have often thought about taking up the profession but it just seems like such a daunting task (much like becoming a parent). I am intimidated by the fact that even if you are the best teacher in the world, you will not reach everyone, you cannot save everyone. I do think that many of the people that choose to do it are generally a noble sort. I don’t believe the old adage, “Those who can’t, teach”. Teaching is a skill that many people do not possess. However, choosing to be a teacher doesn’t mean that you deserve automatic respect and reverence. You need to show your students they can trust you and you need to encourage them to think critically at all times. Breaking down their confidence when they acknowledge that they need more challenge is NOT useful. Teaching that dishonesty and manipulation is the best way to win is completely detrimental to satisfying success. Teaching that it’s ok to assume what’s best for someone without ever talking to them teaches you how to be terrible at relationships. As a teacher, you have just as much influence over kids’ ideas as their parents. Sometimes even moreso.
If they don’t learn the important things in school, they are handicapped for the rest of their lives as they try to catch up.