Monday, September 20, 2010

My Childhood in the 1970s: More Teachers and Pedagogic Weirdness

(Jacqueline Bisset turned 66 on September 13)

My memories of my earlier schooling are profoundly fragmented. Being a "perceptualist", indeed an outright "sensualist", (if not at times even "hedonist"), I see in images and in syntax.

Other times I don't exactly think or feel but seem captured and possessed with and by a mood, seemingly provoked by a mysterious and incoherent exterior world, a world sort of like William James' "blooming buzzing confusion" but nevertheless at times a joyous creative, rather than destructive, confusion. In short, given this fragmentary nature of my memories, I feel a more extremely episodic approach is in order, one tending toward the aphoristic but nevertheless rooted in concrete and bodily sensation rather than instruction and abstraction per se.

I remember the first teacher I had a crush on. This was very early, perhaps second or third grade. Long before bewitching and lusty Carla who was to come in earliest adolescence. It was a few years before my double dating of Sally and Lydia at that "hippie" free school.

(If you will recall, Sally and Lydia were two of the few times in my first two decades where I actually fell for girls who were actually peers. Unfortunately I couldn't decide between Sally and Lydia, and each of them expressed their competitive jealousy in mostly passive aggressive ways that eluded me. When I met Lydia's mother I decided it was the mom that I really loved, because, well, she looked a bit like Gloria Steinem which was an improvement over the daughter's Helen Reddy imitation. Better yet, rather than listen to those Bee Gees records like her daughter, mom actually listened to Miles Davis! Lydia was so hurt that I didn't want to come into her room but would rather stay with her mom, gazing into the mom's eyes, at her short skirt, and wondering how I could ever begin to talk about Miles Davis with her - if my mother ever stopped babbling with Lydia's mom at any point).

And that English teacher? I remember that she taught English and we called her Mrs. Miller. Above all, I felt her features resembled Catherine Deneuve, a French star who had begun to fascinate me when I saw her on the screen in the many French films my father snuck me in to see.

I remember writing Mrs. Miller a very thoughtful and careful marriage proposal declaring my feelings. I even included an apple: all of this (I thought) was done anonymously and discreetly, since I placed it under her table when I thought nobody was looking.

(I apologize, dear reader for this brief digression into traditional narration, especially after my introduction where I lead one to expect something more unconventional. This is a bit more continuous story, more narration and less image and fleeting sensation, or intellectual idea. Sometimes a story may take shape after all, despite my warnings about fragments).

And what did I get for my first foray into romance, and my utter bravery at self expression? A talk from Mrs. Miller about my feelings were not correct or appropriate (though this last word was luckily not then in vogue) for someone of my younger age. It was as if she were chiding me for my feelings being incorrect. I cannot think, in retrospect, a more "non-1970s" way to have handled my youthful sensitivity. Perhaps underneath her sexy exterior she had the internal character of some dowdy, old school matron from a previous century. She seemed utterly lacking in humor and did not appear at all amused at receiving such a gift from someone of my age. She apparently had no sense of "cute".

But as I wrote my proposal I imagined her after class waiting for me in much the similar pose you see at the photo at the top of this column. You see, though I was a child, I thought and felt as if I were an adult. I had no proper sense of being a kid. And I knew that adults married. What better choice than Mrs. Miller, especially if she so reminded me of Deneuve. Perhaps I could take her away to France, away from the provincial climate of southern redneck South Florida.

However, as this woman actually had a conversation with me, albeit an unkind one, this was a vast improvement over my first contact with the opposite sex. This was when a girl - a complete stranger - approached me from the trailer park next door only to grab my crotch and drag me to the dirty, liquor- glass infested gravel and cement. She was like a wild animal or creature and I had known no behavior like it from any peer. Later it was rumored she was carried away from her "home" by city authorities, possibly for insanity, doubtless to end up in some children's mental ward.

Is it any wonder that I would spend hours in rapt fascination with Catherine Deneuve, Fanny Ardant, Kate Jackson, and last but not least, the great Jacqueline Bisset (who turned 66 this year on September 13)?

But I know I promised talk of teachers and pedagogy and I shall digress no more.

I remember isolated cases of authorial weirdness. There was of course Mr. Hightower with his beard and customized van. Then there was Mr. York. York was a short lived principal of another equally weird independent school. I think it was called York's Academy.

Aside from York's view that classes should never be indoors since to put growing kids inside was like a prison for children, his most notable distinction was his extraordinary capacity to speak blatant falsehoods to his class as if they were gospel. He came into class like a merciless storm, a beady, sweaty, blob of a man. There were no books or chalkboards. Just a rant:

"Everyone is exactly the same. It may seem to you that we are different but we are all identically the same. We might forget that. Always remember that!"

I am not paraphrasing him. I HATED his message; it was an obscene assertion that had been empirically discounted and demolished in a most violent fashion by just about every human contact I had experienced in my life, and just about every observation I could make of the wild kids of all ages in his own class. Unfortunately I made my disagreement publicly known, which made for more than one meeting with my parents. Why nobody else found cause for dissent was beyond me.

In this particular school they threw different ages together on the grounds that age did not mean anything and was a form of discrimination and labeling of kids. This made his words yet more hallow of course.

Even worse was his claim that jazz was invented in the country of Germany! I knew something about jazz and tried to talk of New Orleans and Kansas City, only to find myself, of course, in York's office after class. At least he didn't physically beat me like that Southern military styled principal did at that Prep academy. But was the free school an improvement over the Prep school? Not likely, especially with a regime of enforced ignorance in a loose, casual presentation.

That man should have been barred from teaching anywhere in this country, never mind being a principal! But in the free wheeling, localist, decentralized, chaotic culture of 1970s free schools anybody with a building to lease could put up a shingle labeled school or academy and do anything their deepest and darkest heart desired with any group of kids - free from any regulation from city or state!

Worse yet, this willfully ignorant and arrogant principal allowed the older kids to take us for rides on the dashboards of their muscle cars while they smoked weed. Me and my buddy George might have enjoyed this, but it was woefully irresponsible. (Though I did get to hang out with some beautiful teenage girls and actually watch them make out with their surfer boyfriends).

Worst of all, this principal allowed the romantic couple of the class - a retarded lanky boy in Sears toughskins with bad acne complete with visible puss who would compulsively masturbate in public and dump food and drink on anybody within his vacinity, and his mate of choice, a mousy, unkempt and barely literate girl who had a problem with compulsive laughter and giggling - to make out openly in class. It was not a pretty sight and soured me for many years on the prospect of any intimate relations between any two people.

My best friend George was in that school with me and I often ask him to repeat the story just to have a witness to make sure I really saw and heard what I did as I remember it. Did he tell us everybody was the same? Yes. George assures me he did. Only in their wisdom, others kept quiet. It was left to me, in my naive stupor, to think nothing of pointing out such an error. It was as if he told us that objects could fall upwards.

That principal did not last. He was brought up on charges of wrongful sexual advances to one of the youngest of the female students.

His replacement was a husband and wife team (!) who were into seminars and group workshops.

Both husband and wife were impossibly obese and were obsessed with all sorts of human potential movement movements and fads. I remember that, unable to get along with my peers I would wander the grounds endlessly talking to the man of the couple about my discovery of Marx and socialism. (His wife was always in a bad mood and liked to hide in the office. You will note too the continuation of the no homework, no traditional classroom rule, as well as the idea that class should be outside as much as possible). We often wondered what the wife did all day. Why did she hide out? The explanation by the husband was that she was "not a people person".

Mr. Leo (I'll call him because he LOVED Leo Buscaglia) was not so keen on socialism or Marx. He was keen on what he called feelings. He always wanted me to get in touch with my feelings and talk about my feelings with him. Luckily he didn't apply too much of Buscaglia's hugging techniques. I was a fairly touch averse child.

Leo would go on and on about how I was okay and he was okay, about how it was okay to cry. I told him that not was all okay, but he would reply that this was an illusion on my part.

The only time I remember being inside a classroom was when we were forced to listen to that Marlo Thomas song from Free To Be You And Me as sung by football star Rosie Greer. He seemed upset that I did not have strong histrionic emotions and was more interested in art, literature, and the future prospects of the another kind of class struggle. He argued against me saying I wasn't giving myself "enough space". He loves that word space a lot. Perhaps it was my parents who were the problem; maybe they didn't have enough space. His favorite book was a book called Values Clarification. I actually read that damned book and reported back to him on all of its flaws and errors in logic.

He played that single song over and over again. He even made us repeat it back to him like a kind of Maoist ditty or chant. Pretty song we would be crying alright - crying to get back outside and be bored, anything to be away from that song. I presume some of the males in the class felt it was a "faggot" or sissy song. I did not indulge in such hatred myself. I wanted to dream instead about...Jacqueline Bisset and Fanny Ardant.

Not all experiences with school officials were negative. There was Mrs. Hammer in one of my first science classes. Now Hammer was the hardest face to experience, so painful she was to the eyes. She carried the more unpalatable marks of old age to new depths of abjection, so many lines, creases, warts marking a shrunken withered head. Moreover, her voice resembled Mercedes Macambridge's voiceover for the devil in The Exorcist.

Mrs. Hammer believed in me though and wanted me to grow up to become a scientist. She felt a I had a gift for science. Little did she know how terminally boring I though it all was, so immersed in a humanistic and artistic approach to life at an early age.

Unfortunately her encouragement of this science "stuff" left me vulnerable to the dogmatism and domination of my father. I had to build two elaborate science projects. One concerned a report on the evils of unnatural food: a science report I entitled the "the chemicals in your breakfast." I basically listed all of these chemicals then in use like red dye no.4, various emulsifiers, and preservatives and had to list evidence that they caused cancer and deformity in laboratory rats. My final "proof" came in the form of using the chickens that belonged to the extreme right-wing anti-Castro immigrants who lived near the family factory.

Armed with pounds of Fruit Loops, Count Chocula, BooBerry, Frankenberry and other kids oriented junk breakfast food, I poured the offending guilty food stuffs onto the withered, brown, tan and yellow grass of the immigrants' land. Not a single chicken stopped to eat the cereals. They eyed it with suspicion and walked away. My father's conclusion? That the so-called lower animals had more wisdom about health and nutrition that "we humans" in my father's phrase.

Mrs. Hammer actually gave me an A on that report.

That, however was not the only report I was assigned. There was my father's insistence that my final "science report be called "ESP and you". I had certainly done naturalistic magic tricks with cards in public outside of school but my father made me do a card trick with no trick. That is, he assured me that, through the combined "mental powers" of him working through me, the kids would "guess" with accuracy each card.

Of course the end result proved to be a disaster. Not only did not enough of the students guess the right card to determine anything of consequence but the whole science class "report" made me look like a fool, turning the entire class against me. James Randi the skeptic would have been proud but since, as my father had taught me, the whole point was to "prove" ESP, the result was not a positive one. Mrs. Hammer saved the day though by using it as an opportunity in a lesson in critical thinking and proper evidence.

Of course I was wrong to expect that, through some special mental powers, I would make the whole class psychic, at least temporarily. Actually I gave it little thought at all, so concerned was I with the graphics, the construction and design of it all. I did beg my father to let me do the tricks the usual way. Perhaps I was already the budding skeptic, skeptical of my father's compulsive credulity towards all things New Age, magical, holistic, natural, occult, spiritual etc. But, alas, I was left alone in the class, hoping and praying more than a couple kids would guess the right card. I think only one or two. Hammer had lots of wisdom to offer on scientific method, proper sampling, the trouble of randomness and the difference between causation and coincidence.

I never recovered any decent status in class after that. I became a pariah, and doubtless that led to being shipped off to yet some other school due to behavioral conflicts with other students.

This same dreary cycle would be repeated yearly only until I finally reached Interlochen Arts Academy in sophomore year of high school, in 1983, which was like an enlightenment for me, a magical transformation, the first school I was at that had good teachers, great wisdom, something like real nurturance and inspiration through the arts. It was far away from home, in the remote woods of Northern Michigan. But it was the first time I felt at home with being a budding intellect and creative personality. My relations with other students were far from great. But they were tolerable and at times pleasant, and we often shared much in common. And the teachers were genuine mentors and intellectually curious.

And that, in the end in my long journey through various schooling. At a rate of about a school a year K-12, you can imagine my sense of alienation, dislocation, and confusion at such change, both culturally as much as emotionally and intellectually. Aside from the bedrock that is "bred in the bone", the world of my two parents, and the vast plethora of adult friends outside my home, those schools and especially the lack of attachment and emotional instability they engendered in me, went a long way towards making the person I am today.

1 comment:

  1. Once again, a highly entertaining and wonderfully written piece of personal history. I can see this series of short memoirs turning into a "confession," a sort of a cross between Rousseau and Philip Roth. You have all the qualities of a good novelist, in balancing as you do personal impressions with observations about human nature and indeed history. I'm enjoying this series a lot.