by Tina Blue
February 11, 2001
This essay is written as an act of solidarity with an eighteen-year-old girl who no longer exists, though the woman she became is alive and well and writing terrific articles.
I want to thank Felice Prager, whose article "The Typewriter" inspired this essay by reminding me that I had not yet written on one of my major concerns about the role of teachers and the impact a teacher can have on a student.
First of all, I have to say that Felice is a wonderful writer. "The Typewriter" is interesting and well written, as is everything she posts.
But it's also wrong--dead wrong.
Oh, there's nothing at all "wrong" with the autobiographical story she tells or with her skilled handling of its details. What's wrong is the conclusion she draws from the experience.
Her article describes a famous author (she omits his name) whom she took a writing class from when she was an eighteen-year-old college student, the only freshman in an advanced writing class in some college in New York. Though she did not know it at the time of the events in the story, this author was famous on campus for his little shtick of throwing a typewriter past the head of some student he had selected, according to who knows what criteria.
Felice's story begins with her ducking a flying typewriter and thinking, as it crashes into the wall behind her, that her professor must be a raving lunatic. We soon learn that he singled her out not just for his little type-writer toss, but also for special verbal abuse during each class period.
Eventually she gave up writing altogether--for twenty-five years!--and didn't start again until she had what she refers to in her article as a "near-death experience."
Yet her story ends with her claim that she thinks his teaching inspired her writing.
So what do you think? She's wrong--right?
In a comment on that article I compared her reaction to the "Stockholm syndrome," wherein hostages, as a consequence of their terror and their powerlessness, are brainwashed into accepting the hostile beliefs of their captors. Well-known victims of the Stockholm syndrome include the Americans who were taken hostage in Iran in 1979, and various other hostages taken in Beirut and other parts of the Mideast during the 1980s.
When they were first released, many of them spoke as if they were in full agreement with their captors' positions and beliefs, in some cases even justifying their own kidnapping and the brutality of their treatment while in captivity.
Another famous example of the Stockholm syndrome is Patty Hearst, who as "Tanya" participated in some of the Symbionese Liberation Army's bank robberies and shootouts.
Battered wives and abused children also show similar signs of being psychologically coopted by their abusers, believing themselves to be at fault, or their abusers' behavior to be somehow justified, no matter how outrageous it is.
I feel certain that if someone told Felice--either then or now--that a professor had thrown a typewriter at someone's eighteen-year-old daughter and then singled her out during every class period for such sneering, insulting remarks, she would recoil in horror and wonder why that monster was not fired, and possibly even arrested or sued!
Why is it that we can only recognize such behavior as unforgivable abuse when it is directed at some innocent other than ourselves?
Back in 1985 I had in an English 101 class a wonderfully intelligent, hard-working student named Molly. In one of her essays, Molly praised a choir director who had come new to Molly's church the previous year. This woman, Molly claimed, had taught her the value of hard work and self-discipline. (Frankly, I suspect Molly could have taught a drill sergeant the value of hard work and self-discipline. I can't imagine that she had much left to learn on that score by the time she was a senior in high school!)
Everyone was terrified of this director, not just because she had a short fuse, but because she was given to viciously berating anyone who violated in the least degree a single one of her innumerable petty rules.
Bad weather, seriously ill children, transportation impossibilities--nothing was considered an adequate excuse for missing practice, or for being as much as a minute late. Even one's own sickness--complete with mucosal effluvia and a gravel-voiced sore throat--was not an excuse to miss practice.
One of her main rules was that the singers must not ever look down at the music they held in their hands, not during performance, but also not during practice. Even a slight lowering of the eyelashes was interpreted as a sneak-peek at the music, and would draw the full fury of the choir dictator's--oops, I mean director's--outrage.
Molly, who was the sort of person who tied herself in knots to follow rules and to always do what was right (in my opinion, not necessarily the same thing), was the only choir member who had never broken any of this dragon lady's rules. Perhaps the fact that she hadn't yet had the opportunity to publicly humiliate Molly provoked a particularly virulent hatred, because when Molly blinked one night during choir practice, this insane woman decided she was really trying to glance down at her music, and she flew into a towering rage.
Poor Molly. These excessively "good" children--usually, of course they are girls--are so sensitive to criticism that they are easy to destroy. You don't have to yell at them. Even looking slightly disappointed is enough to cause them overwhelming guilt and self-loathing.
But this Stalinesque choir-creature did not content herself with looking disappointed. She tore into Molly for several minutes, and then
permanently kicked her out of the choir!
Molly had been an active member of the choir for four years, since she had turned thirteen, which was the age when children were allowed to join the adult choir. Singing in choir was one of the great pleasures of her life, and she had grown very close to the other choir members, who were mostly older than she and who looked on her as a special pet.
Now all of a sudden, simply because she had dared to blink, Molly was out of the choir forever.
Within a year (rather predictably, if you ask me) the choir had disintegrated and the director had moved on to do a job on some other church choir in a different city. When the former members began to regroup under a new director, they eagerly invited Molly to rejoin. She didn't. In fact, she had stopped going to that church altogether. After her public dressing down, she was too embarrassed ever to face those people again.
Now, figure this out. From where we stand it's easy to see how much irreparable harm that woman did, not only to Molly but to the entire church and its choir. But in her essay, Molly praised her as a demanding disciplinarian who had improved Molly's self-discipline by forcing her to work harder than she otherwise might have!
My own term for this is the "Paper Chase" syndrome, after that movie where John Houseman played a Draconian law professor who made his students' lives a living hell. (Actually, I never even saw the movie--the scenes in the trailers of the professor bullying his students made me too angry.)
By the movie's end, of course, all the bright students that he abused so badly throughout their years in law school end up practically worshiping him as the best teacher in the whole world.
Excuse me, but I don't buy it.
Sure, I know students are often a lazy, self-centered bunch, and we sometimes have to lean on them pretty hard to get them to do what they must do. We usually also have to push them to get them to reach past comfortable mediocrity toward anything like what they are really capable of.
But I also think students today are far worse about this than in the past because they have been coddled and catered to all through their education. If such abusive teachers had not provoked a wild overreaction in the direction of leniency, then today's students might not be quite as spoiled as they are.
Still, I don't care how coddled a student has been, there is a world of difference between being demanding and strict on the one hand and being an abusive power-tripper on the other.
Certainly, there are some students who do well enough under the brutal regimes of such instructors as Professor Typewriter-Thrower. But those sturdy young men and women would probably thrive in a class taught by Attila the Hun, even if he started each class by lopping the heads off a couple of students.
How many other students, though, are permanently damaged, even destroyed, by such teachers? The ones who do well with such bullies probably get nothing extra--except a sense of triumph of the Nietzschean "whatever doesn't kill me only makes me stronger" sort. Of course, any kind of brutal hazing can produce that same sense of triumph. A demanding but more rational and humane approach would teach them at least as well, and I doubt that the loss of the "I survived hell" feeling would do much to lower the quality of their education.
And a more humane approach might prevent other students, perhaps most students, from being catastrophically harmed by such teachers.
Felice, who writes so well, and who loves to write, did not write again for twenty-five years. Even then it took a near-death experience to get her started once more. I blame that jerk of a teacher for that lost quarter-century. What might she have accomplished during those years had she not been intimidated, terrorized, into abandoning her dream for so long?
And what would she say if she had an eighteen-year-old daughter who was treated that way by her writing professor, when all she wanted was to learn to write better? Would she buy it if, after twenty-five years of not writing, her daughter then announced that being brutalized by that teacher must have been inspiring after all, since she was finally writing again?
Let me tie up one loose end here.
In spring of 1989, I was at the medical arts building with my ten-year-old son, for an appointment with the asthma specialist. We ran into Molly in the parking lot. Since it had been four years since she was in my freshman English class, I asked her if she was due to graduate pretty soon.
Her answer: No. She had dropped out of school two semesters short of graduation. After two and a half years of maintaining a 4.0 average, she had suddenly found that she was no longer able to deal with the demands of her classes and of keeping up her GPA. She was at the medical arts building because she had an appointment with her psychiatrist.
Stress and depression--amounting to what used to be called a "nervous breakdown."
Young people like Molly--again, usually young women--are all too often victims of bullies like that choir director and Professor Bonk-You-on-the-Head-with-a-Typewriter. And they are most often their targets, since bullies are inevitably cowards, so they will seek out easy victims, not the ones who might fight back.
I also can't help but wonder how many of the students who were targets of the thrown typewriter and the sneering insults in Felice's professor's classes happened to be young women. And attractive young women at that. I believe there is a strong element of sexual dominance display involved in a lot of that sort of behavior.
I would be very surprised if the abuse that Molly suffered at the hands of teachers and choir directors had nothing to do with her psychological crash and burn. Many students--often excellent students--can't just shrug off having typewriters thrown at their heads, either literally or figuratively. They let the typewriter-tossers convince them that they are responsible for the abuse they suffer, and that accomplishing anything short of the impossible is simply further evidence of their worthlessness.
So they drop out of school--or they stop writing for twenty-five years. But they blame themselves, not the power-tripping showoff who taught them only that nothing they could do would ever have any value at all.
I hate teachers like that!