Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Legacy of Lost Dreams

I grew up with teachers who could yell at you, throw you out of class, push you and punish you if  you misbehaved in class. Did I ever feel like I was abused? No. Did my mom ever feel like I was abused? No. You can argue that it was the way we were taught and we didn’t know better. It was how things were done back then. We weren’t so much aware of children’s rights. Or human rights in particular and how we can stand up to defend them. I could argue that parents will always be parents and knowledgeable or not in the human rights they would love and protect their children against any form of abuse, regardless.

I adored my class head master, my Romanian teacher. He was a tall man with a heavy hand. A walking and talking encyclopedia. It was amazing listening to him. He gave lots and expected just as much. There was little tolerance in not doing your homework, doing something else in class while he was teaching, committing serious grammar mistakes. He would grab your arm and throw you out of class and not let you come in till the end. I was one of his favorites because I was good with languages. It was my thing. I started going to competitions and did really good. Got second place in the National Contest by 13 of age. One time during the preliminary phase of the competition held in our town, he came in the classroom. I was in 6th grade. I will never forget. We had to comment on this piece of literature called “Ardealul”. I had a thing for skipping letters and not paying attention to punctuation which for him was the most awful thing you could to any language. I remember he walked in the back of the class then slowly walked back up coming behind me and looked at my paper. He always carried around this key chain, half leather, half metal (see picture below). He took that out and he knocked it on my head with the leather side. It didn’t hurt but the metal on top sort of clapped and it made a scary sound. I swear, the next second I saw all the mistakes I had made until then and corrected them immediately. He didn’t even have to say a word.

After I won second place at the nationals he gave me a 4 (I think that’s a -C in English grading) for messing up some verb analysis. I couldn’t believe it. I cried so much. One other time he took a whole point and gave me a 9 (B+) instead of a 10 (A+) because I missed one letter in a whole, otherwise very difficult poem I had memorized and written in my paper. He was a harsh man. And yes, had you asked me back then I would have said that I was “afraid” of him. But in fact, looking back at it and at the memories I hold of those times, I realize I actually respected him and admired him and if I ever did better and never gave up on learning, never really complained, it was because in fact I was drawn to him and the fact that his passion for teaching and wanting the best from his students meant more than his ass kicking and yelling when we fucked up. And we fucked up badly.

Same with the history teacher. Oh boy. She was this tiny skinny short red hair woman with harsh features who hardly ever smiled. Oh, she was goooood. She’d step in with this huge map of army front movements in different wars. Got on top of her chair to hang it above the black board and then opened the “catalog” - class book. You were praying not to hear your name being called. If you did, you’d stand up and start saying the lesson. Then she’d interrupt you and ask you questions. If you hesitated or looked like you didn’t know, she’d pin you down with this look going through your skull and said: “Come on, stop staling. Chew those words up faster!” And then one of two kids would say they don’t remember something and she’d go “If you need to remember, you didn’t understand what you read, you just memorized it like an animal learns tricks. That’s not what I want. Sit down. F.” Uh uh. One time I was wearing a skirt down to my knee. She said it was too short. I was 14. But you know what? I friggin’ loved her! The way she’d explain facts, so humanly as if we were there and we could see and understand for our self the tragedy or beauty of history made me go on studying history and choosing it as part of my high school graduation exam.

Same in high school. Best teacher was the history teacher. He’d come in with his slick longer black hair combed backwards. He’d check to see who had been missing classes and he’d make them say the lesson. One time a colleague said she was out on vacation with her parents in Germany. He asked where exactly and then he started asking specific questions about different statues and museums in that town. He was that good. She didn’t know what he was talking about. And then he said, "you’ve missed the best part of a vacation spent in town. Knowledge." Uhhhh, loved him! And somehow, he liked me. When I graduated and I A+ed my exam he came and gave me as a graduation gift 3 books about the World Wars and Hitler, because I was passionate about the subject.

I could name a number of other teachers that had a huge influence on me, who taught me how to think for myself, against the Romanian educational system that'd have you memorize entire pages. Who helped me trust myself, the knowledge I had accumulated and my vision over things. Who supported me in being different, in having initiative to create projects and follow my beliefs. 

In high school we had teachers patrolling the corridors to see if anyone is missing classes or trying to smoke in bathrooms. If you were really late you weren’t allowed in class. If you dressed inappropriately or had long hair as a boy you’d be presented to the entire staff and students during the weekly “careu” meeting as a NO row model. If you failed to change you’d be sent home for 3 days. Then home for good if you went on.

Two years after I graduated high school I came back from college to visit my teachers. I was astonished with how things had changed. Girls were dying their hair like rainbows and were half naked. Wore more makeup and had more cell phones and fancy hand bags than the teachers. They barely had backpacks or books on them anymore because they weren't "fashionable." They would afford joking around with teachers as if they were of the same age. It felt I came from light years away back into a future past.

In high school when they were hiring new teachers they would put up their names and the grade they got on a panel for students to see. And I remember we got a new geography guy who was admitted with a C+ and we all commented on how can a guy grading so low can come and teach us.

So most students had high expectations of their teachers. As our teachers had high expectations of us. Parents wouldn’t rush in charging at staff that they are “abusing” their children for yelling at them or punishing them. Instead they would ask us “what did you do that you ended up punished?” When I was 14 I wasn’t into boys haha. But somehow this one taller guy from a different class liked me. I didn’t even know he existed! One day I forgot my history book at home and I rushed to get it (luckily I lived across the street) and when I came back I ran past him so I’m not late. My class was at the other end of the corridor than his. Somehow he believed that was insulting towards him that I didn’t pay attention to him so he ran after me and jumped on my back hitting me with the knee in my lower back.

At the time I didn’t know my kidneys were both on the same side. So they both took the shock at the same time. I fainted. I woke up with my Romanian and History teacher standing above me talking to me and a bunch of my colleagues holding my book and staring. Mom and that boy’s parents were immediately called on scene. Mom arrived first and my head master took her to see that boy. I was really mad because mom had never – N E V E R!!!! – done anything to any kid who was abusive towards me because she believed reasoning with them instead of telling them to go to hell was the right approach. So somehow I always ended up undefended and felt stupid. So mom’s presence there felt useless to me. Well, I underestimated mom. She came in and again, as usual, she started telling this boy how it’s not nice to do something like this and that violence blah blah blah. And I was sitting in the door step thinking how I’m never going to be like mom when I will defend my kids because some people just don’t get nice as a peace language. Because obviously, they don’t practice it!

And of course, the muy mucho boy grinned at mom and turned his back at her. HA! Mom tapped him on the shoulder and when he turned around, she slapped him across the face so hard he lost balance. I was in awe! Let me say that again! I was cheer-fucking-leading for mom! You go mom! That’s how shit is done for fuck sake! She grabbed him back and said “if you ever in as much breathe her way, walk her way, look at her less peak to her, I’ll find you and step on you and you better believe it!” Ohhhhhhh!! Momma! YES! His parents came in and went all crazy that my mom slapped their 5”11’, 14 year old boy, that he is “a child and doesn’t know any better and you don’t beat my kid.” The father went saying “I work abroad, I have money don’t mess with me. And my wife is a cook at the military cantina (at the time that meant something in our society – you knew people).” Mom turned around and said “My girl was on the floor because of your 'child' who doesn’t know any better than to be violent and I can see why. I don’t care about your money and connections. You don’t mess with my child or I’ll bite the flesh off you!”  

Well back then stuff like that happened rarely. Now 14 year olds shoot 50 students with one machine gun because they are depressed. Bigger boys bully smaller kids. We have inside cultures of the most popular boy and girl and everyone else is either different, inadequate or geek. Or worse: unpopular. Such bullshit. Now a teacher can’t raise his voice because it’s emotionally abusing a child who treats him disrespectfully because he “know his rights” and can’t be “abused” anymore. My teachers would have gone to prison if it were for all the “children’s rights” to be named each time. Now teachers fear parents and children oppression in the name of too much “emotional” abuse. You can’t touch them anymore.

On the other side, you have teachers who cross the line big time. They are abusive, they hit children, they shout and make them feel guilty and puny faced with their aggressiveness. It happens from kinder garden to high school. Recently the owner of such a place was caught on camera literally dragging kids out of their beds, shaking them and slapping them across the face. And we’re talking kinder garden kids. When I was in college, one French teacher had a problem with left handed students. She would corner a 22 year old and oblige her to write with her right hand saying “we, myself and your colleagues, would like to see you write with your right hand. Left hand is not natural!” and she smiled. I was head of class and I remember one day I couldn’t take it anymore (even though the girl she was messing with was the least of my favorites). I told her it’s wrong to act that way and went on to discuss it with the head of the French Department. She was gone afterwards.

We’re not even going to talk about sexual harassment and so on.

A few years ago, a friend of mine who used to teach asked me to help her correct some tests (English grammar) because she was down with the flue. And then she’d grade them according to my corrections. The tests were a mess! And these were senior high school kids about to pass their English graduation exam. I said, about 80% of your class will not take anything beyond C. And this is like basic grammar rules, irregular verbs and stuff. What the hell are you teaching these kids? They’re gonna mess up big time in the exam! It’s your reputation at stake. They are your business card out there! She said, “Mela things are not what they used to be when we were in school. I have a kid who told me from day one that he doesn’t like English, he won’t use it, he doesn’t need it and I can’t make him learn it. So he never wrote anything, never did homework, never answered questions no matter what I did. Not even his parents could make him – or so they said. And when I refused to pass him, another teacher came in to plead with me that he’s her nephew and he’ll fail graduation all together if I don’t pass him. What do you do with that kind of pressure coming from your own peer? Then another girl was putting on makeup during class and I told her to stop. Instead she started brushing her desk mate’s hair. What the heck would you do? You can’t yell at them, you can’t take their stuff away, you can’t kick them out of class and parents don’t do squat. It’s us vs kids vs “rights”.

So where is the fault in all this? Who is to blame? I believe the educational system is going down. Teachers are less prepared or they simply have stopped caring to give their best faced with rebellious teenagers who “defend their rights” and parents who either stand by them or can’t manage the situation. In Romania we still practice the extravagant gifts propaganda for teachers in primary education (expensive handbags, jewelry etc). We still practice extensive private tutoring going by the mentality that kids “won’t make it” through an entry examination no matter the level of education they are registering for if they don’t have private tutoring.

This issue is so tangled at times that I don’t even know which angle to approach first. I will conclude by presenting one last case that’s on going now. One of my colleagues has her little 10 year old studying in a German speaking school. Kids are kids, they push each other and yell and play and get upset at each other. In her class there is this boy who has been transferred several times from one school to another because allegedly he is a bully. Parents have in fact come with proof and testimonials of the fact that the child has a problem with socializing and integrating in a community and has been attending regular counseling since the age of 5. Being in a group has helped him get better but it hasn’t solved the problem completely. Isolating him would just make it worse and would turn him into a lost case. His bullying can be anything from calling other kids names to pushing them around or somehow trying to get their attention.Nothing more violent.

One day he pushed (slightly) one of the girls. And her father went in and opened a criminal case against the parents for abuse. He had probably added all the other times that his daughter was “bullied” by the boy and came to the conclusion that a criminal case against the parents would solve the situation. The school called upon all the parents to listen (again) to what they have to say. Everyone agreed that the boy needs work in terms of behavior. At the same time, his parents brought in the boy’s councilor to testify as to the reality of his problem and how his acceptance in a community actually helps despite the still existing deficits. The father in question did not drop the charges and in fact he is asking for them to be prosecuted in court. This is education and rights and abuse in the year 2016.

I think that is too much, especially given the situation. But, he decided otherwise. What if that boy becomes totally unstable and really harms a child? It’s a true theory, it could happen for real. But on the other side how can the boy’s parents take away from him the last chance he has to a possible future normality? The truth is always relative. You can’t teach small kids not to fight. We fought. And we were 47 kids in that class!!! But I don’t think we were ever this bad. I don’t think our parents were ever faced (or rarely) with such situations where kids were completely out of hand.

I am worried about the time when my kids will enter school. And if my mom worried about me going into smoking and drugs, I feel that’s one of the smallest challenges I’d have to face as a parent. An altered personality, bad influence, emotional abuse from bad examples (eg: in another colleague’s class – 1st graders! – on Valentine's Day, a parent bought a huge teddy bear for his 7 year old boy to give to a girl he fancied who didn’t even liked him. And he gave it to her at school. Then my colleague’s little girl came home crying asking why she didn’t get one. Is it because she is not liked?) Parents’ ego and attempt to show off in class through their kids, teacher’s expectations to be “materialistically appreciated”, the liberty to say "abuse" too freely and with grave consequences as well as a system that still indoctrinates kids with tones of memorizing are my true worry at this point. And I’m sure I’m missing lots of other aspects that parents now can fill out.

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