After Hawthorne came Pelham Tennessee, where I came to discover that I was a genious! It seems that my Texas and subsequent Kansas schooling had put my learning on such a high plain that I was out of sync with Tennesseans my own age. It was suggested that I was gifted and that I be put in independent study. At Pelham this meant I was sent to the library to be around books and look at excyclopedias until my mountain-raised colleagues could catch up. The rules at Pelham were similar to those in my previous schools but for one. When going to the bathroom, you had to raise one finger for pee and two if you would require toilet paper which was dispensed at the teacher’s desk in front of the whole class. I never decided if girls had it better or worse for always requiring tissue. This approach was apparently adopted because some kids sometime in the past chose to put large amounts of tissue in the toilet and cause a blockage. It was this kid whose face I imagined each day when stopped by potential embarrassment I held back my bodily functions for eight hours. It wasn’t the kid who was the criminal here I came to realize but the system that had to respond with a wholesale response to what seems a minimal problem. When you try to educate the masses in a mass-production approach, you must make some sacrifices in the name of the greater good. I only spent about three months at Pelham, for my dad’s greener pastures beckoned.
We moved into the mobile hame in Deckerd Tennessee without the luxury of electricity. My father assured us that lights would be forthcoming but for the time being we were lucky to have hot water. Deckerd was to be my most exotic school experience to date. For the first time I noticed that blacks outnumbered whites 50 to 1 and that different rules applied accordingly. It was during my tenure at Deckerd that I first began to see the subtle rules that governed subcultures in public schools. The adults don’t make these rules but they don’t intervene when a social rule is breached either. In this way the role models can become caretakers of negative social constructs. While at Deckerd I learned that I had a place in line and it was at the back and that I had to give up my bus seat to anyone of dark skin who asked for or demanded it. When I see the films of the racial struggles of blacks in America I like to think I can taste just a small hint of what their plight might have felt like. Whenever the school I attended was really challenged, either by over-population or budget, I observed that disciplin was stronger. When I say stronger I don’t mean more effective..we’ll maybe I do. The severity of the disciplinary action seemed to grow commensurate to the fear that administrators would lose control of population. Disciplin became more public, like the beheadings of the French Revolution or the lynchings of the southern past. Intended for effect, disciplin became a cautionary tale for would-be rule breakers. What I haven’t mentioned at all yet was learning. What was the learning like in the environments I’ve described so far. The fact that these experiences have dominated the story might be a hint to the real lessons we learn in public school. As a student, which is more important; the civil war or where you should sit in the cafeteria on the first day of seventh grade. The brain is in survival mode and is engaged in "fight or flight" until one is assured they understand the rules, social first and then those of the system, as they may pertain to social embarrassment.
At a recent Learning and the Brain conference in Cambridge Massachusetts I listened as the social constructs of schools was described as it impacts the emotions of the developing brain. In a study of what they call “Controversial Girls” ( These are girls who most would describe as the mean ones who seem to breeze through schools, blithely destroying psyches along the way.) These girls seemed to only care about the opinions of their male peers and the collateral damage left in their wake was the subject of the study. The study sought to see if intervention with the victims of these girl’s behavior could be helpful. As the developing adolescent brain endeavors to attain executive function, individuals struggle to make good choices and often fall prey to peer pressure while waiting for the frontal lobe to develop fully. After weeks of remediation, where victims were taught to put the effects of social attacks into proper perspective, these girls realized some benefit. Unfortunately, these efforts are not carried out in schools everywhere.