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On high school

Jordan 2018-04-14

Content warning: use of homophobic slurs.

User Proyas writes, on DC’s school system:

Student misbehavior was atrocious. For example, out of the students who showed up to class, it was common for some to walk into the classroom late, again without any explanation and often behaving disruptively. As a rule, whenever a student did that, he was obligated to sign his name on a clipboard for the teacher’s attendance records (there was no punishment for tardiness–late students merely had to write their names down). Some late students would chronically resist doing this, either ignoring him and just going to their desks or yelling curses at him. My friend described an incident where one student–who was physically bigger than he was–yelled out he was a “FAGGOT” when asked to sign the clipboard, provoking laughs from all the other students, before sitting down without signing it. After seeing he could get away with that, the student started calling my friend “FAGGOT” all the time. Other examples of misbehavior included near-constant talking among the students during lessons and fooling around with cell phones.

Teachers received almost no support from the school administration. Had sane rules been followed at this high school, students would have been immediately sent to the office for formal punishment for these sorts of offenses I’ve described. However, under such a policy, the office would have been overwhelmed with misbehaving students and probably some of their enraged parents, so the administration solved the problem by forbidding teachers from sending students to the office for anything other than physical violence in the classroom. My friend had no ability to formally punish the student who liked to call him “FAGGOT” other than to use stern verbal warnings.

That feeling of impotence you get after reading this, combined with the fact that the teacher is actually objectively much more well off than the student is/will likely turn out to be, is a hint. Let’s look at this from the point of view of the student.

To succeed in school, first you need the ability to navigate a system, and second you need to choose to exercise that ability. As is the case with any setup like this, the way you behave depends on what rewards the system is likely to yield for you. If you’re high-achieving and your life is structured in a way that makes it low effort to exercise your ability (e.g. you have two parents and they are able to take you to and from school and help with homework, you don’t need to work a job, you can focus on learning and social status) then you’re likely to end up in the positive spiral in which your achievements beget enough praise and promise of a bright future to fuel your future achievements, and you need only so much as fart on a pencil to do well in school. (I’m exaggerating but I won’t say by how much!) If you’re middling it’s a bit of a crapshoot, and your outcomes will probably depend on specific things like how strict your parents are, what your friends do on Fridays, and how fast you can do arithmetic and type on a keyboard. And you’ll probably end up with some distrust in the system, but unless you’re also especially motivated, no desire to break out.

If you’re under-achieving, and you’re being raised by a single parent, or have to drop off a younger sibling at school before being 20 minutes late to your first class every day, or have to work nights, or can’t get academic help and frankly don’t see the point because all it does is make you feel like shit… well then the system tends to become your enemy – and why shouldn’t it; it’s got no rewards for you, it’s never once praised you, all it does is repeatedly tell you you’re not good enough and you’re not allowed to leave. So you do what everyone being slowly flattened under the weight an invisible hand would do – you start punching up. (Paper covers rock but my fist in your ass!) This is as ineffective as it is natural but you might find that it comes with some perks, particularly with regards to social status.

See, from what I remember about high school, teachers are not the top of the social hierarchy (shocking, I know, your dream wasn’t to take a teacher to prom, and if it was then you probably weren’t at the top of the hierarchy anyway, even if he was totally hot and sorta fatherly in a Catholic sorta way). In fact, teachers aren’t even in the hierarchy. You don’t measure your status against them at all. They might as well be desks. To students, they represent a part of the system, and while high-achieving and middling students see that it’s worthwhile to get along with their teachers, the under-achiever correctly determines that for him, it’s not.

We see this same dynamic between the indoctrinated youth and celebrities. “I’m not into celebrities,” you say, but subcultures have celebrities too. (Your favorite band, blogger, writer, author, activist, or CEO, and if you have none of these then congratulations your life is devoid of all consumption, where do you grow all the food you eat, and what’s with that weird portrait of the Burger King making out with Ronald McDonald?) We punch up at celebrities like they’re gods because we don’t think we will ever effect them, because, once again and all together, we probably won’t.

If you read the story above from the point of view of the teacher, then your goal was to do the job of educating the youth for not enough money, and the student was part of the game, a little space invader shooting lasers at you. You felt impotent because you realized there was nothing you could do to help him, or at least stop him from calling you a fag. You started to see him as part of the system holding you down. Teachers bravely aspire to change the world, but they can’t do that when students like this kid defy their authority and distract from their lessons. So we make the mistake of thinking that the student’s behavior is a status play against the teacher. But as we’ve just learned, in reality, it’s just a status play against the other students. The kid gets to show how cool and fearless he is by standing up to a teacher (a god) and he wins social status because there’s nothing the teacher can do about it within this setup. But actually, the teacher can leave for a nicer school district and let that kid grow up into the bad habits he’s already forming, and that’s what his real power is.

Here’s my version of what the teacher could have done:

After seeing he could get away with that, the student started calling my friend “FAGGOT” all the time. So this is what my friend did. One day in class he went around the room to every single student and one by one he had them each call him a faggot. And then he said, “is anyone curious about why I had you do that?” A few heads nodded. “Terry over here learned through trial and error that calling me names was an easy way to gain social status, since there’s no action I can take against him. But what he doesn’t realize, because he’s not as smart as me, is that he only gains social status insofar as he is perceived as being more fearless than other students. So if everyone has the ability to call me a faggot, and you all indeed do, then what power does Terry actually have?”

“Now you’re thinking, isn’t this going to cause Terry to just escalate even further? I don’t think so, not since I’ve called it out like this, because that would be proving my point, and there’s nothing more damning for social status than admitting to overtly seeking social status.”

“But why point it out like this? Do I really think this is going to change Terry’s mind about the right way to behave in school? I’m not sure. But here’s what I do know. I could leave this classroom tomorrow, find a job in Seattle and never have to think about him or his low-rent future ever again. But I became a teacher because I wanted to improve the lives of kids like Terry and I’m not going to let some idiot ruin it.”

In fact, it doesn’t really matter whether or not this changes Terry’s mind. What matters is that it changes the other students’ minds about Terry. Because now Terry has lost the branding of “the fearless one who calls out the teacher” and received the new branding of “the loser who the teacher saw right through, gee isn’t Language Arts important.”