I’m in front of the class on the first day of school, and for some reason, I’m totally unprepared. (How did this happen?) Throat tight, I fake a smile, grab for words, tell an anecdote, anything to hold their attention. But the strangers in rows in front of me aren’t having any. They start to shuffle and murmur; they turn their heads away. Then chairs scrape back, and I realize it’s actually happened. The students are walking out on me. I have finally gotten what I deserve.
This dream in one form or another is dreamed by thousands of teachers before the beginning of the fall semester. Some dream that they can’t find their classrooms and are racing frantically through darkened halls; others that they are pontificating in nasal tones on subjects they know nothing about; others see themselves turning to write on the blackboard and feel the class leaving behind their backs. The dream is so common that most people I know discount it. “Oh, everybody has that dream,” they say, dismissing the subject. But the dream is not discountable. It is about the fear of failure--the failure of one’s authority--and it points to the heart of what it means to be a teacher. When I had this dream, I’d been teaching for more than 15 years. I was a full professor at a reputable university, regarded as a good teacher and a productive scholar. So why was I having a nightmare about my students walking out on me? Where did the doubt and insecurity come from? The answer lies in another dream, one where I’m a student.
I am studying for my Ph.D. exams and am about to take them. Suddenly I realize I haven’t studied at all. I’ve been doing some vague research on topics that interest me, but they aren’t the right ones. I’ve never even cracked the surveys of English literature I’d relied on in graduate school. Why haven’t I touched these books? I have 25 minutes before the exam. Maybe I can cram at the last minute. But instead I get myself a cup of coffee, find a good place to read, go back for my jacket, and so on, until there’s no time left. I realize then they’re going to fail me. (This is all taking place at the university where I currently teach; it comes to me that this is the chance the older faculty have been waiting for to show me up for what I am.) It’s a 10-hour written exam with an oral component. I’ve learned from a colleague I consider more learned than myself that the exam has short-answer questions such as “Who were the Fugitives?” (Do I know who the Fugitives were? I’m not sure.)
Then comes the familiar moment of recognition: I already have a Ph.D.! I decide in a frenzy of rebellion that I won’t take this exam, I will not subject myself to the humiliation of failure. I’m walking up the stairs now toward the exam room; there’s no time left. What will I do?
In this dream, I appear as a student in an institution where I’m a full professor. I’m almost 50, dreaming of being in the position of a 24-year-old. Here, as in the other dream, I’m a fraud, someone who’s supposed to know things she doesn’t actually know. It’s the same situation, really; only this time instead of being humiliated and rejected by students, I’m going to be humiliated and rejected by teachers, people in authority over me. The old fear, the exam fear, never goes away. As you go through life, it just gets projected onto other situations. If you become a teacher, the fear is projected onto your students. They don’t have the power over you that your teachers once had, but your internalized fear gives them the power. Looking back, I now see that because of these fears, I developed, over the years, a good-cop/bad-cop routine in the classroom. In order to win my students’ love, I would try to divest myself of authority by constant self-questioning, by deference to students’ opinions; through disarming self-revelation, flattery, jokes, criticizing school authorities; by accepting late papers, late attendance, and nonperformance of various kinds. Meanwhile, in order to establish and maintain my authority, I would almost invariably come to class overprepared, allowing no deviations from the plan for the day, making everything I said as complex, high level, and idiosyncratic as possible lest the students think I wasn’t as smart as they were. I would pile on the work, grade hard, and--this must have confused them--tell them that all I cared about was their individual development.
It’s easy, though, to caricature the devices I’d stoop to in order to both yield and keep hold of authority. It’s easy to criticize. If I alternately intimidated and placated the students, it’s because I was threatened and felt afraid, afraid of my students, and afraid of the authorities who had stood in judgment of me long ago.
The image of authority is embodied for me in teachers. Mrs. Colgan in 1B, standing tense and straight in a black dress with little white spots that droops on her figure. Her lips are pursed, her hair is in a hairnet, her black eyes snap with intensity, and her whole thin being radiates the righteous authority she exercises over us; it is mixed with wrath. She is scolding, holding a small book in front of her flat, draped chest. Mrs. Colgan has to exert all the energy she has to maintain this stance. Most of the time she spoke to us in a soft, gentle voice; she liked to be soft and gentle with the children. Only when someone really stepped out of line did she become her steely, purse-lipped self. Because I saw this, I was only afraid of Mrs. Colgan, not terrified of her. I saw in her the two faces of authority: the desire to lead gently, to be kind and affectionate, to love; and the necessity to instill fear, the desperation of having to beat back the enemy by whatever means.
It’s the second image that tends to remain in people’s memories. The teacher, the one who stands in front, who stands while others sit, the one whom you must obey, the one who exacts obedience. For obedience is the basis for everything else that happens in schools; unless the children obey, nothing can be taught. That is what I learned. Obedience first. Or rather, fear first, fear of authority, yielding obedience, then, everything else. There was a boy in the 2nd or 3rd grade who symbolized the need for the kind of authority I hated. I’ll call him Louis Koslowski. He was always bad. Nothing the teachers could do or say ever shut Louis up. He could be temporarily quelled, but sooner or later he always came back for more. I was terrified of being spoken to and about the way the teachers spoke to and about Louis Koslowski, for he brought out the worst in them: shouting, name-calling, intimidation; every form of sarcasm and ridicule they could command, every threat, every device of shaming. If there had been stocks in P.S. 98, Louis Koslowski would have been in them.
Louis, though, like Mrs. Colgan, had two sides. He was terrible, we were told; he was the universal troublemaker without whom everything would have been fine. And surely he caused us to suffer through hours of yelling and hours of leftover bad feeling spilling over from the teacher onto us, and oozing out from us into the corners of the room. But he was cute, his energy was exciting; he was an appealing figure in a rough-and-tumble way. Sometimes I thought the teachers were right, but sometimes I thought he was being picked on unfairly. Why make such a fuss? I mean, we were supposed to sit all day, hands folded on our desks, legs crossed (if you were a girl), silent, staring forward in our rows. Looking back, it seems that much of the time in school, the only interest or action lay in the power struggle between the teachers, whose reign of terror enforced the rules, and the students like Louis K., whose irrepressible energy contested them.
But the struggle was not for me. I have another image of a boy in 3rd grade--his name was Steven Kirschner--a pretty blond child with sky-blue eyes and a soft-as-doeskin nature. He is standing at attention next to his seat, being dressed down by the teacher for some slight. I don’t remember what it was, but I knew he didn’t deserve such treatment. He stands there, stiffly, hands at his sides, in brown corduroy pants. His eyes brim with the tears he is trying to hold back. He is the very picture of innocence abused, yet the lash, metaphorically, fell on him just the same. And it fell on me, too, for strange as it may seem, I did not distinguish between myself and the unhappy scapegoat for the teacher’s wrath. And so when Mrs. Garrity, the worst one of all, with her brown suit and red face, made red by perennial anger, was heard screaming horribly and interminably in the hall at some unlucky person, it seemed to me entirely an accident that the person had not yet been me; when Mrs. Seebach, of the enormous bosom and enormous behind, bellowed at us in gym class, seized by demonic rage over a student’s failure to properly execute grand right and left, I trembled. I could have made the same mistake. Once Mrs. Seebach did ridicule me in front of the class because I didn’t know how to tie a knot at the end of a piece of thread; there was no knowing when it would happen again.
It was executioner and victim in my scenario, and the victims had better watch out. For above these harridans were other authorities even more august. Mr. Rothman, the new principal, and (holy of holies) Mr. Zimmerman, superintendent of schools: presences so terrible no one dared, not even the Louis Koslowskis, to so much as breathe naturally as we stood in rigid rows for their inspection. When I look back on my early years in school, it’s Steven Kirschner standing helpless next to his desk whom I identify with, not Louis Koslowski rolling a spitball under his, and certainly not with the teachers.
You would think that with experiences like these so vivid in my mind, I would have avoided school, but no. I became a teacher. I joined. The teachers I consciously modeled myself on were not the ones I’ve been describing but teachers I had later in junior high and high school, teachers who never used the metaphoric whip, but inspired, encouraged, and praised. Still the older models remain; the deeper stratum lies underneath, its breath of ancient terror haunting me. Unless I perform for the authorities, unless I do what I’m told, I will be publicly shamed. My own early and repeated exposure to authorities who terrified me absolutely helps explain my habit of alternate rebellion against and submission to the authority figures in my life. And it accounts at least in part for my contradictory behavior toward my students; wanting to control and not to control, wanting to be loved--and obeyed.
The pedagogy that produces oppression starts early and comes from traditions of child-rearing like those Alice Miller describes in For Your Own Good, where she writes: “Child-rearing is basically directed not toward the child’s welfare but toward satisfying the parents’ need for power and revenge.” This need, in its turn, is created by abuse suffered and forgotten. “It is precisely those events that have never been come to terms with that must seek an outlet,” says Miller. “The jubilation characteristic of those who declare war is the expression of the revived hope of finally being able to avenge earlier debasement, and presumably also of relief at finally being permitted to hate and shout.”
I do not know what earlier debasements the teachers at P.S. 98 were avenging when they screamed at us in the halls, but I know they must have been the object of someone’s vengefulness. Their hatred and shouting are still echoing in my mind, and I’m sure I cannot be the only one. Eventually, I became aware that childhood experiences of authority had controlled, without my knowing it, the way I exercised and failed to exercise authority as an adult.
I suspected that it was the reality of what had happened at P.S. 98, more than my present one, that had been dictating the terms of my university life, day to day. Fear was the underside of that life. Much of my behavior has been ruled by it. The fear stayed buried, controlling me secretly, because, though I became learned, was taught four languages, three literatures, and many other things besides, I’d not been taught how to recognize and face my fear. Learning this for myself has been frightening and discouraging and a long study. But for me, it seems, there was no other way.
A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Look Back In Anger