Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Here's a cheerful thought

Well no, but salutary nonetheless. From Bill Bryson's recent memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (a birthday present from a friend who apparently knows my taste even better than I do myself, as it's not a book I would have ever picked up on my own yet I loved it):

Each year the teacher held up my pathetically barren [U.S. Saving Stamps] book as an example for the other pupils of how not to support your country and they would all laugh--that peculiar braying laugh that exists only when children are invited by adults to enjoy themselves at the expense of another child. It is the cruelest laugh in the world.

Forty years later it is still too painful for me to put my own example of this laughter here; suffice it to say that it involved a teacher announcing to the class just what book I had purchased that month from the Scholastic book club. No wonder I'm such a freak about reading privacy.

13 comments:

Elizabeth said...

Wow. What a loaded post. While I remember many examples of my own humiliation, and that of others, at the hands of teachers (3rd grade, oh God, what a minefield of bad memories), it was harder to come up with some scenes of teacher-driven humiliation in children's books that weren't in the Roald Dahl or JK Rowling mode. I wonder, what realistic middle grade novels can we remember where a teacher humiliates a child in front of other students? Posters, any thoughts?

leila said...

A Year with Butch and Spike, maybe?

KT Horning said...

Karen Cushman's 2006 novel "The Loud Silence of Francine Green" has a teacher who humiliates a student by making her stand in a waste basket. But my sense is that many authors these days are afraid of portraying teachers or librarians negatively, perhaps because they understand who is buying and promoting their books and they fear that it will affect sales.

That said, my only memory of scholastic humiliation came at the hands of a school librarian who made me sit on a little wooden stool in a storage closet every week during our classroom library visit because my mother had accidentally returned the library book I checked out the first week of school to the public library. (It was Marie Hall Ets' "Play with Me.") I wasn't allowed to check anything out for the rest of the year, or even to browse through the library's collection until the book was returned or a new librarian was employed, whichever came first. (It ended up being the latter, the following year.)

The only books in the storage room were career books in a formula nonfiction series where every title started with the words "So You Want to Be a..." I read them all over the course of the year, and still, for some reason, ended up as a librarian.

thommy said...

I'm reminded of the scene in Sharon Creech's BLOOMABILITY where Dinnie's teacher arranges for kids to help distribute boxes of food to the needy at Thanksgiving. The last house on Dinnie's group's route turns out to be her own, and the mixture of confusion and shame she feels still makes my arm-hair stand up. Though unintentional, it's the sort of situation that puts the humility in humiliation.

Lynn said...

I must have had a blissful childhood, or at least one where I was blissfully unaware and untouched by humiliation dished out by teachers. Not that I didn't hear stories, but maybe I was just quiet enough (ahem) that I was not subjected to the sort of issues mentioned above. Seriously though, I taught school for several years during my varied career and there is simply no excuse for that type of behavior.

I do remember an incident on a bus trip where I had taken several books along to read. One of them was Ball Four by Jim Bouton and the other, Gone with the Wind. A member of the travel group, a young man about my age, couldn't decide which title upset him more .... sweet little me reading books with "that kind of language." LOL.

fern said...

Jacqueline Woodson's *Locomotion* has a terrific example of the kind of mistake that well-intentioned teachers make all the time, and seldom ever realize they have made. This teacher-of-the-year asked students to write their poem of the day about family, which puts Lonny in a painful position. (I don't know whether child readers respond to this book, but it should be required reading for prospective teachers.)

It's when we assume that what seems to be true for most of our students is true for all of our students that we do this kind of unwitting damage. I'm guessing any GLBTQ teen could attest to this. The last mistake of this sort that I was called on involved a reference to a student's mother: his response "She's dead."

Franki said...

I think this conversation has taken an interesting turn--how teachers are portrayed in books. I am always amazed at the stereotypic ways that teachers and principals are written about in fiction. That is one of the reasons that Mary Lee and I asked for "Cool Teachers in Children's Literature"--so that we had a list of books that portrayed teachers in ways that were authentic. (Idea from Jen Robinson's "Cool Boys/Cool Girls" in children's literature. An intersting thread.

YS Doug said...

This is not a literary example, but a real-life one.
As a former music teacher, I was appalled to see one of the fifth grade teachers in my building humiliating students who had not completed their homework by having the student get up in front of the class and sing a solo!
I heard it going on across the hall and walked in curiously. The teacher explained that Billy had not done his homework and therefore had to sing "Row Row Row Your Boat" alone in front of the class. She asked Billy if he would do it if his music teacher (me) sang along with him.
I explained that I had a class to teach, but later that day I tore into that woman with such incredible rage I was hyperventilating. She was essentially using my subject area as a punishment, making her students believe that singing is a consequence of bad behavior. She apologized, though I don't think she ever really realized how foolish she was about the whole thing.
She continues to teach today; I find that frightening.
Perhaps that woman will show up in one of my books someday... when I write one.

Anonymous said...

Ys Doug's posting reminds me of how unfair it is to make kids write as punishment, too. Many children find writing difficult enough -- no need to make it even less appealing!

thommy said...

Speaking of inappropriate punishments, I had a colleague, a children's librarian in a public library, who visited a local school to tell stories to kindergarteners in the school library. The school librarian had a problem with a bunch of 6th grade boysearlier in the day, and made them sit in the back and listen to the stories as punishment. Needless to say, they acted out their unhappiness, and everybody lost.

rindambyers said...

My first class experiences were in a tiny eighth grad class (12 of us) in a small boarding school overseas. It had a library, the first I'd ever seen, a great wonder to me, but it also had the sweet and pretty on the outside but truly awful on the inside eighth-grade art teacher who gave me the worst grade I've ever gotten in any class ever, a D-, despite many hours of hard work on my part. I've never forgotten the pain, the humiliation of it. That hurt only eased, finally, nearly 40 years later when I exhibited,as a quiltmaker who is entirely self-taught, a original quilt made with an original technique, a collage piece with over 90 distinct fabrics in it. People's consistently positive reactions to that one quilt finally convinced me, deep down, emotionally at last,that my terrible teacher's opinion DID NOT MATTER, and that, maybe I can't draw in a naturalistic style like other people, but I am just as much as an artist. as one who can. I was offered $500 for the small piece, but I'll never sell it, and when I'm gone, it will be donated--it's so precious to me, but you know what? The whole boarding school experience wasn't a total loss. In that tiney library, I found out what it meant to have a small, safe, secret place of my own for reading--and dreaming. Libraries, much as I get impatient at their faults sometimes, preserved me as artist, as creator.

Stella said...

I was in the 11th grade when I had the most humiliating teacher. She ignored me for the most part, but found it necessary to pick on the boy whom everyone else already picked on.

This was a grown woman calling one of her students horrible, horrible defamatory names, and repeatedly telling him to shut up, and that she hated him. In front of the rest of us.

I wrote a rather scathing letter to her at the end of the year, voicing my discontent. I'm honestly surprised that she wasn't fired for the things that she said.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure the many stories told here are true, but I'm a teacher. I'm equally sure that there are MANY of us who would never behave in such a fashion.