Understated Overstandings
Ayo Akindele, Division 3, College freshman #ws18e-s3d3

The public address system comes on, its reach permeating through the halls, the classrooms and the bathrooms of the school. A cackle of electricity, then a voice, rendered inhuman by distance and static, calls me to the office. A familiar dread pools within my gut. From my previous experiences with physical discipline to the austere intransigence of the authority figures here, I’ve grown to develop a healthy sense of paranoia, regarding administrations, which spreads from my gut to the rest of my body as I make my way through halls that are now strange and unwelcoming, and to the waiting room, where I sit on a leather couch to wait for the principal and to consider my punishable actions and their consequences. Except, I can’t think of anything I’ve done wrong, but still, the fear resides till I’m called into the principal’s office.

In here, the principal of my Christian school reprimands me, as kindly as she can, on my ‘affiliations with the occult’. In watching the terseness of her lips and the shiftiness in her eyes, I can deduce that my fear of this encounter is legitimate, although I still don’t understand why. And without the true opportunity for a word uttered, I am asked to leave. “We can’t have this kind of thing here, at this school.” Then I’m sent home to the severe castigation of my mother, who was called in by the school and now draws my attention to a 14-page Wikipedia printout on devilry as she yells and scolds with fury in her eyes, blaming the internet for corrupting her child. My brother, in a calmer way, deals out his own version of reproach. He doesn’t understand the situation either and I am left beaten, alone and confused, nursing wounds that will no doubt welt while retreating further and further into myself. At this point, I am eleven years old. I am in the fifth grade and I have absolutely no idea what the occult is.

I’d always been an introverted child, clinging to books, instead of people, and to words, as my escape from it all. In reading the dusty old dictionary at home, I’d stumbled onto the word ‘phantasmagoria’. I loved the way it rolled off my tongue, the mystery and the beauty it conjured up in my mind, and so I decided to use it in a writing assignment for my Bible class at school. Upon encountering the word while marking said assignment, my Bible teacher, who didn’t know what the word meant, decided to search it up online. Finding links to the occult, she immediately reported it to the principal and, the next day, my life spiraled downwards into a series of punishments and disciplines that scarred a frightened eleven-year-old me, internally and otherwise. In the bombardment of sentences and exclamations that I received afterwards, there was not a single question. “Do you know what this word means?” and “where did you find this word?” were never asked. Instead, there was only the swift and brutal judgement of individuals more concerned with addressing a perceived problem than actually fixing it. After that incident, I decided to stop reading the dictionary, avoiding all words that were foreign to me. It took me a couple years to fully understand what had happened and to move beyond my misguided response to the event, in which I avoided all forms of experimentation in my writing, limiting myself and sticking instead to the prescribed forms of complaisance and conformity.

Fast forward to the year after that phantasmagoric misencounter, and I am in the sixth grade. Believing that only my high school performance really matters, my marks have begun to drop. A constant comment in my teacher’s reports is that I am distracted, always either drawing or reading instead of doing what I’m supposed to be doing. In fact, after a presentation in front of the class, where I read off a sheet of paper instead of presenting a PowerPoint with props, as others did, the teacher called me out of the classroom, gave me a failing grade for that presentation and told me that she was being generous. And, if I’m being honest in hindsight, I also believe that the 30-something percent that I got for that assignment was a generous mark. Essentially, I had become the posterchild for good-for-nothing slackers that had nothing to offer the world. Then came the incident.

As I mentioned before, I constantly drew in class. This included drawing on assignments before handing them in. My teacher never really minded this much, except for the time that I drew a small swastika by my name before handing in a worksheet. Looking back, I would have completely understood now if she’d condemned me immediately and set into motion a series of punishments, much like that of the fifth grade. But, she didn’t. Instead, she saw me, the good-for-nothing slacker, and thought, ‘let me hear what he has to say for himself’. She pulled me aside privately and asked me if I knew what the swastika really was. A familiar dread pooled within my gut. At that time, I knew nothing of the swastika; I couldn’t even remember where I first saw it, and so I told her the truth. It was in that moment that she took the time to explain to me what the symbol was and why it was negative. In hearing the deplorable connotations of the symbol, pure horror swept across my face and I apologized profusely. And, that was it. The incident never repeated itself, she never brought it up, and I went about the rest of my grade six year as usual.

While my sixth-grade teacher may not have recognized the gravity of her actions in that moment, the small act that she displayed, of seeking to understand a human being before administering judgement, has stuck with me to this day. In considering both the fifth-grade and sixth-grade scenarios, I can understand the appeal of rapid judgement: it’s quick and easy; it saves time and energy; and, it leaves no room for preconceived notions to be challenged. This means, though, that it also leaves no room for real growth. From the perspective of a teacher or an administrator who has to deal with hundreds of children on a daily basis, the appeal of this approach can be overwhelming. Even for students who simply interact with each other, the appeal of rapid judgement can overshadow personal reason. However, the costs of unattempted understanding far outweigh the benefits of baseless punishment. These costs are evident all around us, from the increase in student suicide rates to the propagation of school shootings. A lack of understanding leads to damage that lasts far longer than the thirteen years of grade schooling. The hurt that is left, both psychologically and interpersonally, can also dig far deeper than is even consciously perceived at times.

To improve the schooling experience for myself and others, I have already implemented this approach of patience and understanding in my relations wherever I find myself. As a tutor, I’ve had to deal with people who put no effort into their academics, very much like my sixth-grade self. Because of the example that I had from my teacher, however, I know to look beyond actions and to consider people purely as human beings that are capable of mistakes. I also know not to rush to conclusions. From my experiences with physical discipline, I’ve learned the value of communication and how to control the urge to respond to violence with violence. It is in the understanding of this urge for violence within myself that I venture to spread the tranquility of personal understanding and reasoning wherever I go. While this approach of understanding may not be enough to combat the terrible role that mental illness plays in the dreadful events that occur in our schools and communities, even the smallest act of understanding can provide an individual with the hope that life can get better and that help is available to be found.

None of this is to say that all forms of discipline are evil. Self-discipline is essential in life and as children, discipline is something that we are taught which enables us to grow into the best versions of ourselves. However, when the desire to instill discipline overshadows the desire to understand people and to foster growth in them, it is then that children isolate themselves and are uncomfortable speaking to their parents; it is then that real issues go unaddressed and are left to fester; it is then that the smallest problems grow uncontrollably into forces of violence and destruction that just might lead a child to pick up a gun in order to be heard by a world too busy punishing to truly care.
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