We like to look at our K-12 years with nostalgia but how do those who suffered through their K-12 years cope with their memories? Twenty five years ago this week I graduated from Delran High School. I remember suffocating inside an un-air-conditioned gymnasium while a vicious thunderstorm rumbled outside. I remember the anger, emptiness, and sadness I felt while listening to the insincere blessings for the future being offered by my peers and school faculty members.
Looking back at my years in the Delran school system, I’ve come to the conclusion that it resembled an abattoir where the students were treated like beef cattle; herded indiscriminately from room to room; zapped in the head periodically until we were dismembered into digestible pieces to be processed, sold, and consumed by the giant machine called Society. During those years I saw Social Darwinism at its worst: a philosophy of poison the weak and pity the strong; of bullying run rampant while most teachers deliberately turned a blind eye towards it and, a few evil ones, who would deliberately set up situations where weak students were terrorized.
There were only a handful of excellent teachers during my school years: Mrs. Scanlon, my third grade teacher; in middle school: Mr. Dodd, who taught science, and Mr. MacKiernan, who taught math; in high school: Mr. Reiss who taught cosmology, Miss May who taught Spanish, and Miss Weiss who taught me how to type. They were very, very good and to them I offer a heartfelt ‘thank you’.
Most of the teachers I had were either: harmless, anonymous, or (on certain occasions) clueless.
And then were the amoral charlatans masquerading as educators. I remember them especially because they did a lot of damage not only to me but to a lot of other innocent students as well.
I remember a fourth grade teacher who brutally spanked a male student in front of the entire class on the last day of school all the while proudly proclaiming, “I’ve wanted to do this to you for a long time!” (After the spanking, the kid fled in terror). I remember a middle school teacher who thought it funny to open the door to the bathroom in the back of the classroom while a student was relieving himself. (I wonder if the student in question thought it was funny).
I remember another middle school teacher who spent more time verbally browbeating his students instead of teaching English. One time he gave a seventh-grade female student such a vicious, savage tongue-lashing that she was shaking and sobbing hysterically. What was her heinous crime? She was chewing gum in class.
I remember a high school math teacher who had a student’s personal diary stolen just for the fun of it. I remember when he “returned” the diary to the student in question he had this enormous grin on his face because he had obviously read what was written inside the diary. And then there was the gym teacher (and coach of one of the athletic teams) who ordered a larger student to physically abuse a small, weaker student in front of a class because the smaller kid had quit one of the athletic teams. This same teacher also liked to wrestle his female students in front of the class too.
That is why I felt so angry, empty, and sad when it came time for me to graduate. I wonder if others have felt the same anger, the same despair, and the same emptiness when they were cast into the outside world under similar circumstances? How did they cope with the horrors of their scholastic experience? Did it make them stronger or wiser? Or did it leave them to wander forlornly as survivors, as swimmers searching for a lifeline in an ocean of despair?
Sometimes schools can destroy as well as build.