By: Cat, the Brunette
Warning: This is not the heartwarming, mushy sort of Thank You letter most teachers would want to read — it’s taken me fifty years to write it, but looking back on it she taught me the most important lesson of my early life. If you were or are a happy student, or teacher, or just a firm believer in public education — kindly do us both a favor and do not click the “more” link — this was not written for you; I’m not interested in arguing with you, and am glad your experience was a positive one. It’s been written for all those other kids — of all ages — out there who’ve been damaged by the educational system, who choose to read it. I hope they’ll share their stories too … this is just mine, and no doubt others have far worse stories to tell.
I’ll call her Mrs. Poole. Mrs. Poole was a dour woman, who seemed to take an instant dislike to me (though I doubt she really liked any of her students, she did seem to favor some over others). What on earth I could have done to arouse her animosity at the age of six, I still wonder … I was a shy kid, and up to the age of twelve or so spent pretty much every available moment with my nose in a book. Maybe it was that first week of school, when my mother gave me an apple to take to the teacher. Hesitantly, as I walked into class, I approached her desk to offer the apple. Mrs. Poole sniffed, frowned — and made a comment to the effect that I had a runny nose; the apple would probably make her sick. From then on, if Mom ever handed me an apple for the teacher, I’m sure the bugs and mice in the woods near the school appreciated it … I never delivered an apple to any teacher again. As the year progressed, I did my best to avoid her withering gaze and tried hard simply to blend into the woodwork. Mostly I think it worked.
One day, though … I desperately had to go to the bathroom. There was a tiny cubicle in her classroom with a toilet — it had no windows, and I knew that the light bulb had burned out weeks before. Either she didn’t notice, or didn’t care … like most kids, I found the dark scary, and that water closet was pitch black with the door closed. Students could raise their hand and ask to go down the hall to the bathroom (which as I recall required an adult escort), and as I squirmed in my seat trying to work up the gumption to beg her permission, I lost it. Involuntarily, I found myself in a soaking wet seat with a puddle growing on the floor beneath me. The room briefly grew silent before her outrage exploded and the snickering began. I was mortified, and miserable. Made to clean up the mess, naturally (and appropriately) in front of the entire class. Perhaps a few of the other students felt sorry for me … but one boy in particular gleefully teased me about it all the way through till sixth grade. It was a relief that we went to different junior high schools, and I never saw him again. At the end of that particular school day, I couldn’t bring my stinky self to get on the bus with the other students. I was sure I could find my way home, so I started walking, and was more than halfway there when my mother (alarmed that I hadn’t gotten off the bus with the other kids) drove up and took me home in the family car.
After that incident, I tried hard to avoid the need to ever use a bathroom during the school day, all the way through high school. Largely successfully … I suspect I was dehydrated during those years, but I learned to hold it and refrain from drinking liquids in the morning. At least I never had a problem with bed-wetting, like one of my friends — they lived in our neighborhood, and everyone knew Patty (not her real name) had wet the bed, because her mother would wash the sheets and hang them out to dry. As if to announce it to the neighborhood … I guess she hoped to shame Patty into getting up to pee during the night. Somehow, I doubt it helped Patty — and may have made her problem worse. Perhaps Patty had a reason … did she have to walk past her parents’ bedroom, or her brothers’ (she had several) to get to the bathroom? Did she have some cause to fear that walk in a dark, quiet house late at night? I don’t know, but I doubt anyone ever asked her — she never told me anything, and I was probably one of her closest friends at that time. (We’ve long since lost touch. In retrospect, all I can do is wonder.) Back in that day, child molestation would have been a taboo subject … and later I had friends who did talk to me about their brothers; obviously it happens. Today, it’s “see something, say something” — back then, the worst thing you could be was a tattletale or snitch. How times change … although I doubt times have changed all that much, in that sense — a sexually abused child would feel as hog-tied by circumstances as ever, and as helpless. I hope she’s found happiness.
A few months ago, Mrs. Poole’s name came up in a conversation with my Mom. “Mrs. Poole said you repeatedly wet your pants in class,”* Mom said rather casually. “It happened ONCE, Mom,” I objected … and all that hurt and humiliation came flooding back afresh; in addition to everything else, did Mrs. Poole really lie to my mother? Why?! Honestly, I don’t think I’d thought about that incident for years, perhaps for decades, till that moment. Was it not enough that Mrs. Poole detested me, she wanted my own mother to think poorly of me too? And who was my Mom — a preschool teacher herself — to believe, six year old me or the school teacher/authority figure? If Mom has accepted that lie for the past fifty years, what point is there in trying to set the record straight now? None, perhaps, but I have to admit it was a masterful parting shot on Mrs. Poole’s part that has me thinking about her now. I suspect she must have been a bitterly unhappy woman, to deliver that sort of psychological blow to a child, and apparently relish it. Mrs. Poole, I hope you found some happiness too.
So — back to the nitty-gritty — what did Mrs. Poole teach me? From the get-go, that happy face facade of public schooling was ripped away. Behind the curtain, I saw it as something more sinister … clearly, I was not a precious child at all, but — at least potentially — a dangerous or disruptive nuisance, just waiting to happen. I was there to learn lessons, not to think for myself — and to learn them from people who’d never thought to question their teachers, or evaluate what they’d been taught, as I sensed even at that tender age. And even though in later years, I had some kindhearted and well meaning teachers, who I appreciated — any faith I might have had in the system was irrevocably shattered at an early age. For that, Mrs. Poole, I thank you. And that first ill-fated apple too, it also taught me a lesson of the ultimately most useful sort. (I do hope the bugs and mice enjoyed it, Mrs. P., or did it go straight into the wastebasket?)
I was never a good student. No, I didn’t do well at learning my lessons — not the sort other people taught, anyway. I learned to think for myself and to keep my thoughts quiet … all to myself, perhaps pour them out in a journal. I learned to listen and observe, and keep my observations to myself. I learned to look past appearances, realized how deceptive they can be, and saw how deeply wrong it was to accept them at face value and judge people accordingly. It seemed obvious to me that rather than learning that sort of lesson, I had to make every effort to unlearn them … to shake the foundations underlying everything I’d been taught to accept, often a difficult and painful process.
In short, I came to understand that pretty much everything we’re taught is either outright BS, or half-truth blended with BS, or facts twisted in such a way as to mislead or manipulate perception. Fear and humiliation are primary tools of the teaching trade, and however pleasant the face (most teachers really are nice people), they’re teaching what they’ve been taught to teach and it’s likely their livelihood depends on them doing just that — or else.**
Children who think but don’t learn well (I know there must be lots of you out there) weren’t gems in the rough, to be gently and lovingly polished to bring out their finest qualities and unique brilliance; no — unless we did our best imitation of Play-Dough, allowing ourselves to be molded according to the whims of the system, and its desires for the type of product (that would be you/me) to be turned out: well, we were bad kids, poor students, underachievers, hyperactive, troubled. Classes bored you to tears? Teachers and other adults occasionally stunned you — the kid — by saying the darndest things (I’m trying to be polite, and maybe a bit funny here too)? You wondered why you were supposed to shush, banish all your burning questions and resign your impertinent imagination to the woodshed, while the grown-ups droned on about the dullest subjects and expressed the safest opinions imaginable? Maybe, if they’d listened to you instead, they would have learned something. Then again, maybe not … thanks, Pink Floyd, for “Teacher, leave those kids alone! We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control … ”
Mrs. Poole, it’s odd to arrive at a stage in my life when I can finally thank you. You taught me a lot, even if it wasn’t the intended lesson or the planned curriculum. Wherever you are now, if you’re still among the living, it’s reassuring to think you’re no longer teaching. I don’t doubt there are teachers like you following in your footsteps, even today. Teach your children well, get ‘em early, but never confuse what you’re teaching with what they’re learning. They may come away from that classroom with their own ideas, despite all your efforts. Maybe someday they’ll even write a thank you letter.
*Perhaps not Mom’s exact words, but Mrs. Poole’s meaning came through clear as a bell, and stung.
**It would be remiss of me not to thank the awesome John Taylor Gatto for his courageous dedication to exposing the truth behind modern schooling.
Cat the Brunette formerly wrote under the pen name “Catfarmer.” Now she helps out at the VinSuprynowicz.com blog, and occasionally posts there (when she’s not tending to their energetic family of cats.) She and Vin live peacefully under the desert stars, guarded by a family of attack roadrunners (and vast armies of attack ants, too!), in rural Nevada.