Changing my mind about the kid in the principal's office

Last winter, during our annual trip out of town for walks and movies and relaxation at the coast, we watched the entire disc set of The Prisoner, and I figured out (again) that other people think I'm unmutual. I was bemused (again) at this notion, considering the strain of mental and emotional effort I have always, always expended trying as hard as I can to understand and be understood. It's hard to express how important this is to me - to understand and be understood. It's a need that flows from my sternum and from my lower back, and it has caused the deepest physical and psychic pain in my life when this need cannot be met. (yes, really)

I know, right? Weird. What's anyone else supposed to do with that level of intensity in one of their friends? What were all my friends and family supposed to do with that?

Mostly, people just love me anyway, and tolerate my relentless drive for clarity and understanding. Mostly, it's a good thing I married a man who would put up with such an intensity of endless conversations that start with my saying, "I don't understand this," and he will have the conversation with me for the thousandth time, parrying with my mind, refusing to give in just to make me leave it alone. (Thanks, honey. I think this has kept me out of both the loony bin and the pharmacy.)

See, back when I was a kid, I was never - no kidding, not one time - sent to the principal's office in school, except on errands, to deliver messages in the days before intercoms were ordinary, or to retrieve the naughty student and escort that student back to the ordered, stable, mutual and socially predictable classroom. The classic teacher's pet. The good child. The natural student, in fact so naturally at home in the classroom that I started studying my teachers for methods, pedagogy, and classroom management techniques at about the age of seven. When you're a kid, no one's really listening to the kinds of questions you're asking anyway, so no one thought my desire to understand and be understood was unmutual. I was just a kid - and when I didn't get real answers, I figured it was because I'd made an error in the way I asked the question. (yes, I really thought like that, even then) And the island was not such a bad place. If you grow up in a very mutual place, the fact of imprisonment does not fully impress itself on the mind until you've been a grownup for long enough to see people escape - or try to.

Is this too metaphorical? I will try to be understood. Here is what I mean.

The parents and teachers and babysitters and camp counselors and club leaders and recess monitors who surrounded me as I grew were all people who gave me the same set of rules for living. They really did love me, and I really did trust them, and because of this, I really did believe that the kid who got sent to the office was a kid who had done something immoral. Wrong. Bad. Naughty. I thought, I mean to say, that every rebel - every unmutual - was wrong. (yes, I really thought that)

And yet ...

There was a relative or two who hinted to me that beyond the walls and beaches of the island, there was a wider world. Sometimes the parent in some other household, or a teacher who didn't stay long, or even one of my peers would let me in on a reality I'd never imagined.

And now that I'm so old all of my own kids are grown, and I've seen many, many people younger than I am try to figure out how to avoid being unmutual, and I've learned about some huge ideas like "civil rights" and "racial equality" and "war crimes" being committed by our side.

If the sign says "Whites Only," but you drink from the fountain with your colored face, you have been unmutual. Uncooperative. But wrong? Not really.

If you're a child in a school, and you hit back when someone weak is being bullied, have you disobeyed the rules? Yes. Are you very, very likely to get into trouble for standing in the way of oppression? Yes. But have you done something wrong? Morally wrong? No. Sometimes the rules are wrong.

So now I've decided that sometimes, in fact, much more often than I knew, being unmutual is the best, more moral, most brave thing a person can do. And I've even changed my mind about the kids who got sent to the principal's office. I might finally be beginning to understand the difference between being cooperative and being good. Yes, really.


Carol Whipps said...

I LOVE this.

Ami said...

I recall a lesson in Mr. Robinson's Bible class when he interpretted "Saint" Paul's admonition to obey the powers to be as an absolute commandment. Something in my rebellious nature balked at this. What about the American Revolution? It was wrong. So in Nazi Germany, the 'moral' person would turn in Jews? I believe I used the example of the Ten Boom family. Hiding Jews was sin, he said. My indignantion was enough to burn my hard disc with a memory as clear as if it was only yesterday and not 30 some years ago.

Children don't like ambiguity: they find comfort in black and white. Mr. Robinson moralizations weren't as immoral as they were childish. Yes, Mr. Robinson, it's wrong to disobey the authorities, even if they are Nazis. Any regime is better than anarchy. But that doesn't mean it's right to cooperate with genocide.

As a 'good' kid' who was never sent to Mr. Zimmerman's office to be disciplined, you never knew what went on behind those doors. My bet is that he scolded the young defender of the weak (if such a person ever existed), and wrote a commendation in his personal file while you were escorting him back to class.

Stephanie said...

Actually, you might be pleased to know that I've heard from other former students ... and Mr. Z was one of the people who understood the difference between cooperation and virtue. There are former students who remember some pretty spectacular instances of the man's generosity of soul. It made me happy to know that -- even if at the time I would have been shocked.