It was the first day of Grade One, only I was not your typical grade one student. I, and a handful of other kiddies like me, had been included in an experimental program for kindergarteners based on our reading abilities, and found ourselves in a shared classroom with thousands of extremely large children. Okay well there weren’t thousands. Maybe 30. And they weren’t very large. We were five, they were six. But they seemed VERY large to me. If I could show you the classroom from my tiny awe filled eyes, it was a Colosseum. Vacuous. Echoey. Terrifying.
The grade ones were not just large, they were glamorous. They had names like Valerie, and Corrine, and Stephanie, and long swinging glossy hair that fell down their Amazonian backs.
The teacher was a round woman, with pointed spectacles and a gruff voice. Mrs. Stephenson, I believe. And she wore a white blouse with geometrical patterned print in red and black. Isosceles triangles staking their claim on my young mind, as her voice boomed across the Colosseum and she loomed over us, stalking the isles, commanding order, waiting for me to make a mistake.
Some very important Amazons were chosen to hand out booklets, and worksheets, and pencils, and crayons, all of which was going on while loud booming introductions and instructions were being broadcast from the front of the room to the upper back row, where I found teeny tiny self stationed. I was awe struck by the appearance of fresh stationary, the heady fragrance of a new notebook. The crisp tip of a Crayola Crayon in Grass Green. Sometimes my dad would bring me to his office on Sundays, and while he would work, I would have access to the tall shelf with the mesmerizing stacks of paper in different sizes and shapes all lined up in tidy rows, the jars of erasers, the markers glinting every colour under the rainbow.
I was mid bedazzlement when I heard the SWOOSH of 30 pages sweeping the air, the HUSH of small voices falling silent. My eyes darted to the desks around me, my head held still to conceal my confusion. But then I heard her. “AND ON THE FIRST PAGE, YOU ARE TO USE YOUR GREEN CRAYON, AND DRAW A HOUSE”. I partially exhaled. This seemed straight forward, even manageable. I flipped open the cover of my fresh booklet, and pushed it back. I picked up my crayon. And with tender loving care, I drew my house. It had a pointed roof. It had a door. And, it even had a window. I relaxed. I was satisfied. I had done a respectable job.
I had experienced praise before. I could “See Tip Run” with the best of them. I didn’t know what strange magic I possessed, just that grown ups smiled and nodded and manipulated their voices into a general expression of well being when I demonstrated my “abilities”, which was a particularly desirable feeling.
From the hush rose a din; the squeak of desks under the squirm of restlessness. Whispers relaxing into chitter as our first important task came near to completion.
And then the booming voice returned, Janis Joplin with a pointer, “And NOW I WANT YOU TO OPEN YOUR NOTEBOOKS, AND WRITE YOUR NAMES AT THE TOP OF PAGE ONE”.
The world began to spin, awfully, terribly, in a whirling topple of page ones and first pages. My green house, so joyful and dutiful only moments before, now glared from the page, growing with my horror, larger and larger and more visible to my peers. I wanted to throw my small body over it, before all thousand pairs of eyes were looking over my shoulder, at this house, that was supposed to be somewhere else, some other mysterious confusing place that I had failed to discover, all leading Janis, her pointer, and the bobbing brigade of isosceles triangles across the Coliseum, TO ME.
That’s when I put my hand up, desperate to cut my impending ridicule off at the pass.
It’s also when I burst into tears.
The rest of the first day of early entry grade one class for advanced readers was a blur. Mrs. Janis Isosceles Stephenson seemed awfully certain that I could work on page two, and just draw another green house on the handout where the first green house was supposed to have been located.
The Valeries and Stephanies with all of their extra syllables and pretty hair gathered around me with soft concern to ask me what happened and provide some kindly reassurances.
I remember years later my mom telling a story from her elementary years, when the teachers were stricter than mine, and so on down the line. They were painting, with green paint, no less. The teacher had decreed from the front of the class that should any of them spill a drop of the green paint, they would have to drink it.
And there was one tiny scared child who wasn’t going to wait for judgment day. He spilled, and so he was quick to execute his own punishment to avoid further attention and shame. The teacher turned around to find him chugging down an entire jar of green paint.
AUTHORITY is terrifying for some of us. No one thrives under authoritarian rule. Because even when we excel, we excel for someone or some thing outside of ourselves. We produce under fear.
There is a fundamental difference between authority OVER and authority FOR. I can be an expert, and I can use my knowledge and practice and history to help and serve you.
Authority OVER is punitive. It says I can take away your praise, or your freedom. I can hurt you. It is another way that someone outside ourselves decides our worth. It disrespects. Authority OVER has forgotten that the mandate of authority is to protect, not to shame.
Can we have a society without it? Well I am not going to speculate on governmental structure today, how it plays out in practice over theory, and how we respond to it. But I will talk about our inner authoritarian. I will encourage us to audit our inner rule makers. Sit in on what they are saying to us. Differentiate between the protective and the punitive. Rules are meant to serve us, not themselves.
I can remember a few years back when my kids joined the neighbourhood kids to build a tree fort. COOL, huh? Well the tree fort, consisted of a plank of wood, nailed between two, you guessed it, trees. It was stable. It was unlikely that this “fort” was sending anyone to the ER, including the tree. One of the parents who lived closest had checked it out. We trusted him. I mean after all he was a COP. Most of us felt pretty great about our imaginative children, spending hours in the outdoors when they could have been asking for screen time. But then there was this guy. This neighbour. A dad of one of the kids in the group. He called a meeting, and went on and on about the imminent disintegration of the fabric of society were we to allow these kids to break an actual rule, meaning nailing the board to a city tree. He seemed genuinely despairing that the children could not be allowed their game under any circumstances because we could under no circumstances tell them that it was okay to BREAK A RULE. The rest of us did not see it this way. We quietly allowed him to voice his fears, resisted the urge to eye roll, felt compassion for him and his family, and then went on about our lives without much further adieu.
Now I am not saying we should or shouldn’t have. But I am saying this man could see only the RULE. The Rule, had a life of its own. It no longer had to pass a test, as a good rule or a bad rule.
And that is the case for many of us. Our inner authoritarians want us to do for the sake of doing, to follow for the sake of following, to seek praise out of attachment to the praise, to that early grade one teacher who beamed at us for being good, or doing well, or out of terror of the ruler cracking master or mistress who threatened to cause us pain.
Sixteen years after my green house fiasco, I was the first student to arrive on the first day of classes in law school. I took the world seriously. I took them seriously. Gravely seriously. Crushingly seriously. Metaphorically, I was drinking the paint before I even arrived in class. And in fact, if it hadn’t been for my completely rebellious, shit disturbing, rule guffawing, no-need-to-study, make friends with your profs, write notes in class, shock everyone with your JOYFULLY IRREVERANT BEHAVIOUR, best girlfriend, who was sent straight by the GODDESS OF SANITY HERSELF to the seat next to me on that first day, I would have gone the way of death by Kool-Aid before you can say “pop quiz on corporeal hereditaments”.
After many many a year of unlearning authoritarianism, my vote is that we re examine our inner rules and our inner rule makers. Are they helping us? Are they getting us happier, healthier, growing us? Are they loving, protective, relevant or outdated? Is our rule a tool or a tyrant?
I know some amazing, beautiful, loving, smart, successful, talented, contributing, giving people in my corner of the world alone who have lost houses, gone bankrupt, owed money, quit jobs, hated jobs, struggled to find meaning, been divorced, never fallen in love, felt like fakers, had messy houses, forgotten to change their oil, haven’t had time to read the parenting manual, owed taxes, been inefficient, underperformed, overperformed, been late, been disorganized, gained weight, lost weight, felt grateful, felt angry, avoided the doctor, avoided the dentist, eaten raw, eaten junk, and dealt with really hard shit. Stories of bucking the system, failing the system, and winning the system. Common denominator=system.
Today, maybe you could all join me in drawing a house on page two, or ten, or on your living room wall; in making a tree fort, and spilling some paint. And then we can laugh, and laugh and laugh. Love ourselves anyways. And maybe spill a little more.
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