Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Authority

The girls are back in school. 4th and 5th grade. It is strange for me that they do things I can remember doing.

I had a wonderful teacher in 4th grade, Mrs. Tucker. She was very small and round, but I hadn’t enjoyed a growth spurt since preschool, so this endeared her to me. She was round, because she was pregnant and she had her baby on my birthday, that year, which made me love her even more. I felt like her favorite.

She was patient and kind and never raised her voice at the class, even though we were a smelly circus of 9 year olds. I remember someone had diarrhea as they sat at their desk. The smell was so strong, we had to evacuate the classroom, but no one would own up to it as the Principal and various administrators interrogated us in the hall. Can you imagine standing there, your pants filled with squishy, cold, shit… I wouldn’t have owned up to it, either…social suicide. I guess Mrs. Tucker understood this, and took over the Spanish Inquisition. She took us aside and spoke to each of us individually. Within minutes, we were all sitting at our desks again, she was reading Old Yeller, while an apple scented candle began to blanket the stench of barnyard animals and Pine Sol. To this day, I don’t know who the Phantom Shitter was. Had I been a clever child, I would have singled them out as being the only person suddenly sporting too big pants from the lost and found. Alas, I was not a clever child.

In 5th grade, I had the White Witch. Mrs. Stephens is proof that elementary education is a satisfying industry for the clinically sadistic.

I was gangly and awkward; too skinny; had brown, greasy hair; thick, thick glasses,…I could have been a JK Rowling character. Mrs. Stephens could smell the insecurity in my blood. She would stand me up in the front of the class and lecture them on the importance of hygiene and a balanced diet. I wanted to dissolve on the spot.

One afternoon, I came down with the stomach flu. I spiked a fever and was roughly the color of concrete. I asked her if I could go to the nurse’s station or the girls’ room and she said no. Of course. I could feel the choppy seas in my stomach turn over. I through my hands over my mouth to stem the tide and ran from the room, almost making it to the bathroom stall. When I was finished puking, I lay on the floor next to the toilet until I had the energy to walk back up the hall to the classroom so I could gather my things and call my Mom to pick me up. When I returned, Mrs. Stephens chided me for leaving class without permission and refused to let me call home. She was so efficient in her cruelty that I actually felt guilty for leaving the classroom, for throwing up, for disrespecting her that way.

It is because of Mrs. Stephens that I have revisited the idea of childhood obligation to respect authority. Adults abuse their authority. That’s why 33% of girls and 20% of boys are sexually assaulted before their 18th birthday.

I have instead taught my girls about their rights as individuals. They have the right to have ideas and goals and pursuits apart from anyone else. They have the right to feel safe and healthy. They have the right to be happy. They have the right to exercise their rights, or not. (The 10 year old is more hormonal than happy these days, and would rather not set herself apart from the pack by pursuing anything individual/uncool.) They do have the obligation to respect these rights in other people as well.

I am hoping that this philosophy will set the girls up to be well adjusted, self actualized individuals in need of as little therapy as possible in their thirties. But what do I know. I’m beginning to understand that all of these “parenting styles” are really just little social experiments. We adults are trying our damndest to appear as if we’re not making this up as we go. We don’t know what we’re doing. We’re just along for the ride, looking at our ticket stubs, hoping we’re not on the Titanic.

2 comments:

Bon said...

i recently came to the same conclusion about parenting styles, and worse, to the realization that there really is no "right" in so many of these choices we make for our kids. i've known that about the rest of my life for years, but i think, with my son, i was still hoping there was a proper authority whose side i could be on, in some ways.

i had a teacher, once, who while not nearly so overtly abusive still made me feel like yours did. my whole teaching career was a reaction against her. my rage at petty abuse of power is still a reaction against her.

i am glad to know that your girls know that this is not okay...that respect is something to be earned.

an evocative, haunting, sad but beautiful post.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

My first grade teacher and fifth grade teacher and 7th grade science teachers were meanies. The rest were brilliant.

What I learned is that some people are assholes. Sometimes they are in charge of you and you just have to endure. It taught me patience and how to recognize an authority-abusing jerk when I see one. It taught me how to stand up to them in such a way as to not completely alientate them. I must say those lessons have served me well in adulthood.

My parents stood back and let me learn those lessons on my own, out of laziness, ineptitude, or on purpose, I don't know, but I'm grateful it worked out the way it did.

I think the most important thing you said is "They do have the obligation to respect these rights in other people as well." I believe the rest will fall into place as they learn that valuable lesson.

I also know your girls and know you don't have much to worry about. :)