The re-education of a 12 year-old Future Journalist
April 10, 2016
By Nate Thayer
I was a difficult child.
I went to 13 schools prior to graduating high school. I did not leave most of them by my own choice.
“Nate is very smart and finds academics easy and does well in class. He has a bright future if he would only apply himself. But he lacks discipline and appears to have some serious problems with authority,” read one report home to my parents on how I was faring at one of the social penitentiaries for the reproduction of the ruling class where my mind had been incarcerated until I was able to plot my escape. To be honest, it was usually a mutual decision. Soon, that school insisted it would be in the best interest of all parties if I did not return to that institution the following academic year.
That was when I was 14. It was the fifth school I had attended in 3 years.
I have recently been perusing several hundred boxes of books, papers, and various possessions acquired through a decidedly nomadic, itinerant half century of life that I have kept in storage, seemingly, since forever. I have spent many hours discovering double-edged treasures bringing back many memories stuffed under the mattresses of my life.
Some of the most special, forgotten treasures are from these childhood school days that my mother had the foresight to know might be meaningful to me someday, and surreptitiously secreted away, tucked in boxes to keep safe until I was old enough to understand how important they might be if I was ever to try to decipher why my mind is wired the way it is today.
I made it a point, if I can be allowed the sanctuary of an acrobatically creative narrative while delving into an often unpleasant youth, to do original research into the spectrum of academic curriculums, which spanned into the fringes of traditional education settings to more flexible learning formats.
I went to fundamentalist Christian missionary schools, private day schools, all boys boarding schools, coed private day schools, Christian coed blue-blood boarding schools, alternative open class room schools, and public high schools.
I was required to wear a coat and tie well before puberty at most of these schools. And I was required to attend church daily.
There were a lot of rules.
I broke most of them.
For lesser infractions, one would be disciplined with “work hours” as penance and assigned a mundane task to perform as punishment, such as janitorial duties etc.
At one school, I accrued 578 work hours—an historical school record which, I am guessing, still stands today. Effectively, that meant so many “work hours” that there was no hope I would ever be able to complete them prior to graduating, not that the chance of ever graduating was either likely or proved true. But I saw this as a plus and a relief, because it really didn’t matter how many more rule breaking infraction hours I accrued as a result. And, hence, how many more rules I broke in the future.
This was all prior to college, which I attended, sort of, for a while, sort of.
Most of these pre-collegiate academic institutions were social penitentiaries for the reproduction of the ruling class.
They included a lot of boarding schools since I was the age of 12. Their purpose was to ensure one did not have one’s mind poisoned with the misconception that one could think for oneself, or even tip-toe along the boundaries of independent or critical thinking.
If the wardens in charge of the minds of youth were successful, and prevented the escape of an inmate or allowed them out on parole to fraternize with the public at large, upon graduation at age 18 or so one had been sufficiently programmed to be deemed safe to experience the real world without any threat of diverging from the quite effective brainwashing. The damage had been done to most.
But I had gone to 13 schools before I was released into the civilian population at 18, largely as a result of me not having much “respect for authority”–or, as I then interpreted it, that most of those in charge had no fucking idea of what they were talking about.
I am finding all sorts of stuff in these boxes of papers and school records and report cards of memories from my youth.
Yesterday, I found a box with my 7th grade English class school paper assignments, with the teacher’s comments and my responses to his comments.
It is dated October 28, 1972—44 years ago.
I was 12 years old. That is 7th grade for the American school system. I was an inmate at an all boy’s Christian boarding school in Connecticut with the ominous and appropriate name of “The Rectory”.
Every second of every day was regimented. One of my jobs was to get up at 0600 each day and ring the tower school church bell to awake the entire student body sleeping in dormitories.
We had exact times to file in for breakfast. Our bedrooms were inspected for cleanliness each day. Church. Class. Recreation, meals–every minute was organized and mandatory. All lights had to be out at bedtime—which was 9:30 PM. Everyone had to be up by 0600, showered, dressed in coat and tie, bed made and room clean for inspection by 0630.
An adult dormitory monitor who lived on the dormitory would inspect each room at precisely the assigned hour to make sure an endless list of infractions were not violated.
I lasted exactly one semester at that penitentiary before the school and I parted company.
In that case (among later ones), I told them—which was not the usual scenario—that I was leaving.
A solemn meeting was held in the principal’s office where a school psychologist was brought in. They summoned my mother from New York City. The stern duo of headmaster and psychologist did their most somber, grave best to try to persuade me that if I were to leave their supervision I would be a failure in life.
This still very much annoys me.
I had, at the time, the highest grades of any student in the entire school. I remember this because they would publicly post every student’s grades next to their names on a bulletin board in a common space for all to see. What a horrible experience for a child, in retrospect, if one was not performing at their peak, as it was defined for them, for whatever reason by the dictatorship of junior academia.
I remember the exact words of the psychologist that day sitting in the principal’s office when I, 12 years old and 4 feet 11 inches tall, informed them I was leaving their institution because I had determined it was not in the interest of my personal or intellectual development to continue the relationship.
“If you leave this school, you will be a failure. You will never be a man. Men don’t give up,” said the shrink, sitting in an ornate leather chair, the stern school headmaster scowling from behind an intimidating large wooden desk.
I didn’t like that man in 1972. And I don’t like that man today in 2016.
I suppose I was a contrarian way back then, which I am well aware has its downside, but I have no doubt I made the right decision 40 plus years later. I learned then that authority was not sacrosanct and demanded critical thinking. I thank them for that.
Below are documents from a sixth grade English class dated October 27, 1972—44 years ago–which I found in a box of old papers.
It includes my original homework paper assignment, the notes and comments of my teacher, my responses to his comments on the quality of my writing, all of which I returned to him for review.
October 27, 1972
Teacher: Sir Andy Rutman
“Last summer while in North Carolina, I had a chance to go rock climbing. Now rock climbing is my favorite sport and I always jump at a chance to do it.
A party of eight of us went to a gorge in the middle of the Carolina wilderness where we knew were some good climbs. We practiced on many little climbs until we knew we were ready.
Early one morning we woke up, had a light breakfast, and hiked for about two miles down a very steep path. After about an hour we came upon a huge rock, 350 feet in the air. I could not believe my eyes! It looked like an endless wall bounding up into the clouds. I had no hope of going to the top of this mountain rock.
We got all our ropes ready and within fifteen minutes we had started to climb the rock. At 4:30 in the afternoon we were on the top of the rock eating lunch. I had climbed the rock! At times I was sure I was right on my first conclusion. But I had climbed it. I had done the impossible. I had done a “five dollar job”.
The teacher, “Sir Andy Rutman”, graded the paper a 95%. He commented at the bottom, in all capital letters: “VERY GOOD. BUT IN SOME PLACES YOU LEFT OUT WORDS, SO IT DID NOT MAKE SENSE. QUESTIONS?”
“Sir” Andy made several corrections and criticisms which I detail un-redacted below.
In the second paragraph, first sentence regarding the phrase “A party of eight of us went to a gorge….” Sir Andy circled the two words “of us” and wrote in the margin: “Not necessary.”
I wrote in the margin under his comment: “Yes it is and does make sense!!!”
In the last paragraph, fourth sentence, “I was sure I was right on my first conclusion” Sir Andy put a big question marked and circled it, indicating he didn’t know what I meant.
I scrawled in the margin next to his circled question mark: “Just what I said!”
I wrote, in a summary of my response to his grading conclusions and skills in the returned paper to him addressing his criticisms and comments: “Your corrections do not make sense. You just want to find something wrong.”
Forty-four years later this now 55 year-old sticks by my then 12-year old comments as correct.
As I said, I was a difficult–more than a few would argue–problem child.
And, reasonable people now argue, I am a difficult man.
But I still loathe to this day my early English teachers who did their best to suck the life out of a young child’s imagination, in the stead of nurturing and encouraging it.
We won’t even begin to speak of my 9th grade English teacher who failed me for starting my sentences with the word “and”.
I have made a point of starting sentences with the word “and” in hundreds of stories I have published as an adult professional writer in the ensuing years, and I think of him and smile sometimes.
And say a quiet “fuck you”, to be honest.