Friday, July 11, 2014

"Do I Dare Disturb the Universal Moment of Silence?"

[Recently my younger sister, Carolyn, mentioned this story in a facebook comment. She had a few of the details wrong, so I decided to supply my own version. It's a long story, involving the intersection of religion, politics, education, adolescence, rebellion, and my burgeoning Libertarianism. Boring, really. ;) Not that my recollection is perfect; I think I wrote this all down at the time, but I'm not finding my journal from that year. This means I'll need to rewrite it. Thus you'll get a less accurate story, but a more polished one. The details of my conversation with Mr. "Hunt" are murky, so I'm reconstructing the dialogue. I doubt I was actually that witty and calm in the moment, but I can't help but edit a smidge....It's reasonably close....Wouldn't you rather have a more amusing tale, rather than a strictly true one? The story is true, just not the facts....--Gail]

Back when I was young and foolish...I was young and foolish.

I grew up as a Middle Child, squarely in the middle of some exceptional siblings. Larry taught himself to read at age 2; Cheryl got a perfect verbal score on the SAT; Ronald beat me at chess when he was 4; and then there's Carolyn, whose accomplishments are legion and legendary.

I really admired Cheryl, in classic "birth order psychology". [1] So when she left for college, and I found myself the oldest kid at home, and I was starting at a new high school but wasn't allowed to date yet, and I was flailing around, being fifteen years old and searching for identity....well, naturally I experimented with imitating her.

I signed up for AP American history a year early, because she had really talked up that specific teacher, Mr. M. He was skeptical that a sophomore would do okay in his class, but I was determined to make my mark.

I also took honors Algebra II, but found that teacher, Mr. "Hunt" [2], to be...uninspiring.

He was competent, I suppose. He knew the material. He didn't flounder around in confusion like the previous math teacher (Mr. W., 9th grade Geometry, who panicked when I showed him a 1 = 2 proof). Mr. Hunt stood up and lectured every day, assigned problems, and then gave us some class time to work on them. He kept reasonable order in the classroom.

He was also stern, boring, and unimaginative. And I picked up this vibe of chauvinism and bullying. He was subtly, but not overtly, sexist.

Sadly, he was my "home room" teacher, so I got an extra ten minutes of him every day.

Standard protocol was that the PA system would come on, a disembodied voice would ask everybody would stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, and then add "Please remain standing for a moment of silence." Count of sixty awkward seconds, and then regular announcements would start. Whoop.

A few weeks into the semester, I got bored during the awkward moment of silence, and started thinking. (Always dangerous, I know.)

All those kids, standing there like sheep. Glassy eyed, bored, restless...conformist. Baaaaa. None of them looked like they were actually meditating, praying, or pondering Life or God or Patriotism. Mostly, they all looked like they were standing around either because a disembodied voice had told them to do so, or because everybody else was doing it.

I had probably been reading some T. S. Eliot. That's about the right time slot. ("Do I dare, and do I dare? Do I dare disturb the universe?")

I was bored. I wanted to imitate Cheryl, who was very politically opinionated and assertive. (Yes, it's ironic that I mocked the imitators while doing the same thing myself.) I wanted to fabricate drama, because then I'd have a story to write about. I wanted to demonstrate my individuality. But mostly, I was curious.

I sat down.

People looked surprised, but then shrugged.

Except for Mr. Hunt, who waited until the announcements were over, and then came and leaned over my desk. (I was in the front row. And he loomed.)

The entire class then watched the interaction in awe. It was, quite possibly (I flatter myself) the most interesting thing to happen in that room in years.

MR HUNT: I noticed that you didn't stand for the moment of silence.
GAIL: That's right.
MH: May I ask why?
GAIL: I didn't feel like it.
MH: But everybody else was doing it.
GAIL: Precisely. But if everybody does it just because everybody else does it, there is no meaning to it.
MH: But you don't know that. Some of them could have been meditating or praying, and you distracted them.
GAIL: I was sitting very quietly. I don't see how that would distract a person really concentrating on something.
MH: But it's disrespectful.
GAIL: I did not intend to be disrespectful in any way. But I doubt any of them were praying anyway.
MH: You don't know that.
GAIL: That's true. Should we ask them? [She gestures at the 30 other kids who are, presumably, staring in fascination] [3]
MH: [Glowers.]
MCH: [Abruptly changes tactics] Do you believe in God?
GAIL: Yes, sir. I do.
MH: [Incredulously] You DO?
GAIL: Yes, sir.
MH: Then don't you want to honor Him by standing for a moment of silence?
GAIL: I can honor God at any time, and in any place. I can pray sitting down. [4]
MH: [Frustrated, switches tactics again] Well, if you believe in God, you must believe in the Bible.
GAIL: Yes, sir, I do. [Thinks "Saying all theists believe in the Bible is a stretch, but let's not get sidetracked, here."] [5]
MH: Well, the Bible says that you need to obey people put in authority over you.
GAIL: I happen to have a Bible right here. [She pulls it out of her backpack.] Could you find that reference for me, please?  [6]
MH: [Gapes that a student he clearly didn't believe to be religious has just called his bluff.] I don't have time for that. I think it's in Deuteronomy somewhere. What matters is that I have authority over you, and I am telling you to stand for the moment of silence.
GAIL: My religion teaches me to respect people who exercise authority properly. [7]
MH: [Freaking out] Well, I say that I have authority here in my own classroom. And if you don't stand, I'm going to force you to do so.
GAIL: [Losing her aura of suppressed amusement and instead going dangerously quiet]. I do not respond well to ultimatums. [8]
MH: [Snarling] Well, we'll see about that. [He stalks to the board and begins the lecture.]

Well, I was mad. What a bully!

I sat there for the rest of the period and schemed. I didn't learn much during that class, but then, that was the norm.

Immediately after the dismissal bell, I rushed down the hall to Mr. M.'s classroom. I had only a few minutes of passing period, so I needed to be fast. Cornering him, I quickly explained the situation. I knew him to be a socialist-leaning guy, one who had participated in the Chicago Riots of '68. Very liberal. Since he was also my AP American History teacher, AND the AP Government teacher, I figured he was the logical reference point.

He was, indeed, sympathetic. His eyebrows rose at my summary and he said, "He can't force you to stand."

"I know that," I said, "But I don't think HE knows that."

"I'll talk to some people," said Mr. M., and then wrote me a late pass to my next class. (Let's hear it for the oppressed minority immediately working to build a political coalition!)

Through the rest of the school day, I plotted.

Well, actually, I fantasized.

By the time Dad came to pick me up, I had elaborate visions of acrimonious meetings with the school administration, chaotic town hall meetings, televised school board meetings, and signing up to be the ACLU's latest test case on school prayer. ("Wouldn't THAT look good on a college application?" I thought. "Oh, the essay I could write about the experience....")

When I told Dad about the incident, though, he just listened and then said "I don't want to pay for a lawsuit."

I argued that if we got the ACLU involved, they would probably pick up the tab.

He looked skeptical. "I doubt they'll want to touch this one," he said. (He was probably thinking that this was already settled in the case law, and he was right.) "And I would also prefer not to be involved in any law suit right now."

He didn't specifically forbid me to pursue it, though, so I continued to Dream. (And I don't think he would have stopped me; he was big on kids solving problems for themselves.) Dad didn't want to get involved in a law suit, but he enjoyed browbeating idiots a bit, so if there were a meeting among teacher, principle, student, and parents, I could count on Dad to make it entertaining. If I could, I would sell tickets...[9]

I called Cheryl that night and got some suggestions. That night, I drifted off to sleep imagining various ways to provoke Mr. Hunt into further idiocy, just to tighten my case against him. All without violating any school rules...

When I arrived at school the next morning, I checked in at Mr. M.'s room.

"I talked to the principal yesterday," he reported. "And the principal wrote up a memo and put it in every single teacher's mailbox this morning. The memo reminds them that, according to school policy and law, the moment of silence must be non-religious and voluntary."

I was almost disappointed. This was clearly a win for me, but it was so...anti-climactic.

It wasn't the drama I wanted, but it was also the most intelligent thing the principal could have done. I was grudgingly respectful. (I have since come to believe that settling these things at the lowest level possible, with minimal drama, is the best solution. I'd prefer that people work out their problems without turning everything into a federal case. But then, I'm a grown-up now.)

I thanked him for his help and wandered off again. Later, as I walked into homeroom, Mr. Hunt beckoned me to his desk. In low tones, clearly not wanting to back down before more witnesses than necessary, he informed me that he'd received a directive that morning about school policy and he could not force me to stand. His teeth were gritted slightly, but he was honest.

I nodded and went to my desk. Gloating on the inside. Probably not very much on the outside.

As usual, we all stood for the pledge, and then I sat down. Some class members had overheard Mr. Hunt's comment to me, but not many. Everybody watched in fascination to see what would transpire next.

He walked to the board and started a lecture. A faint, disappointed sigh wafted through the classroom, and then dissipated. Everybody had seen him publicly back down. I didn't go out of my way to rub his face in it...but I had clearly won.


Okay, I confess: I DID rub his face in it. Because, the next day, I DIDN'T sit down during the moment of silence. Instead, I meditated, on God, or on revenge, or on my need for God's forgiveness for exacting revenge...

Again, the question: is it hypocrisy if I acknowledge that it's hypocrisy?

I remained standing every day thereafter, for the rest of the school year.

I suspect that Mr. Hunt was furious. If it had been a legitimate matter of conscience for me to remain seated (like if I were a Jehovah's Witness and I also refused to do the Pledge), he probably would have gotten used to it in time.

Instead, I staged a big stunt, called his bluff, forced him to back down, and then, having made my point, went back to standing.

Of course, he was stupid to have backed himself into such a corner; he should simply have ignored me. The moment he escalated it into a power struggle, he had already lost. If "violence is the last refuge of the incompetent," perhaps bullying is the second-to last.

Did I make a fool of him, or did he make a fool of himself?

Yes, I was obnoxious. But, as adolescent rebellion goes, this one was pretty mild. It didn't involve boys, booze, babies, or buicks.

And I wasn't just being obnoxious; that was only a side-benefit. I honestly did think there was a Principle involved. I had been reading the Libertarian Party platform over the summer. Further, I wanted to demonstrate to my classmates that there were options. Whether or not they chose to avail themselves of said options was secondary. As long as I got them to think, just slightly, that counted for something.

I think Mr. Hunt was an alpha-type, with a driven need to be in charge. The problem was, he expected everyone else to be either alphas or betas. In true Homer fashion, I was neither.

It wasn't until years later, after I was married, that I discovered my true "personality type": I'm a gamma girl. I don't seek out chances to be in charge, although I can do a good job of running things if necessary. I refuse to be a blind follower, but I'm willing to take orders from competent people, so long as they don't try to micro-manage.  I think political systems are fascinating, but I don't really care about posturing or prestige in social hierarchies.

Really, I just want to do my own thing my own way. I'm willing to ignore all the boring betas in the world if they don't annoy me. I'm willing to put up with the alphas in the world if they don't try to give me stupid orders.

I didn't try to organize an insurrection. I didn't try to get anybody else in my class to join in my "sit in." I didn't actually care whether anyone else followed me.

Poor Mr. Hunt. He was baffled.

We declared a tacit truce for the rest of the year.

To give him credit, I never caught him manipulating my grades. (I checked.) Although he probably graded me a bit more harshly than he would have done to someone else (given no credit instead of partial credit on an incomplete answer, for instance), I didn't detect any obvious errors. I think he was honest, in a rigid and unimaginative way.

I didn't really learn much Algebra II, but it's not fair to blame him for that. I mean, he didn't help. I'm confident I would have done better with a different teacher. But I'm never impressed by students who whine "my teacher hates me" and then refuse to do a lick of work. I did my homework. I did reasonably well on my tests. I maintained a B+/A- average the whole year. Combinatorics and logarithms never really "clicked" for me, but then, I didn't try very hard to get excited about them.

I disliked him, and he disliked me, but we managed to ignore each other with icy civility. I paraphrase Lois McMaster Bujold: "he slid halfway to stupid but then stopped, which is rare indeed."

So, there you have it. The intersection of religion, politics, education, angsty adolescence, my burgeoning Libertarianism, and my abortive attempts to involve the ACLU in a major test case. All wrapped up neatly in a little bow.

Like I said: boring, really. ;)



[1] Isn't sibling rivalry an interesting thing? Cheryl surprised me immeasurably about a year ago when she said that she had always felt like I was smarter than she was. "Wha--?" I thought. "But she got the perfect score on the verbal section of the SAT. And she got the 5 on the AP US History exam. And much of my school experience involved hearing 'Oh, you're CHERYL's sister...' And she has a Master's degree but I don't. And..."

[2] I've changed his name.

[3] I couldn't see most of the room, since I was in a front corner. Mr. Hunt, who was leaning over my desk from the front, had a much better view of the entire room. Most of whom, I assume, were gaping but avoiding direct eye contact with the red-faced teacher.

[4] I WISH I'd said "But I thought that, according to the U. S. Supreme Court, a moment of silence in a public school should not be overtly religious." Cheryl would have said that, and then cited Engel v. Vitale, 1962 as support. I was not, obviously, Cheryl. Carolyn would have said all that, and then thrown in Wallace v. Jaffree, 1985, Gobitis, 1940, and a host of other cases, quoting relevant lines from memory. I am most definitely not Carolyn.

[5] Ronald would totally have gone there, not caring which of many fronts he was arguing at any given time so long as it (a) delayed the boring lecture and (b) derailed a homework assignment. ("As long as I don't get sent to the principal's office...this at least is interesting, although I'd be even happier arguing with a teacher who was less of an idiot...")

To fill out the sibling roster, I suspect that Larry would have ignored the whole thing and daydreamed, or possibly come home and complained about how stupid the policy was without actually taking action.

[6] Let's hear it for the LDS Early Morning Seminary Program, Woot!!! ("Seminary" in our sociolect means that high school students get up super early and do an hour of scripture class, before school, at the church. This is a huge sacrifice and investment for kids and parents, but it also yields great dividends. And not just for snicker-worthy moments like this one.)

[7] "...That they [the powers of heaven and the priesthood] may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.” (D&C 121:37.)

"Unrighteous dominion" is my one of my favorite scripture references, ever.

[8] That quote, I am confident, was accurate. He made me mad.

[9] I remain, to this day, saddened that Carolyn didn't "sic" Dad on her dreadful orchestra teacher. I would have purchased a plane ticket just so I could watch.


Krenn said...

carolyn had a dreadful orchestra teacher?

Gail said...

How could you have missed the infamous Mrs. S--? Yes, Carolyn had a VILE orchestra teacher. The woman was genuinely abusive.

Krenn said...

was this the same orchestra teacher i had for a year? what grade was this?

Carolyn said...

Ronald, I don't remember when you quit orchestra...our middle school teacher was a great instructor. But my high school teacher and I clashed. Horrifically. She thought I was an arrogant show-off (and to be fair, I probably was, but that never stopped other teachers from liking me...), I thought she was an insecure powermonger.