Wednesday, 4 February 2015

¡Cállate, Mateo!

To make up for my frequent bouts of inactivity, here is a short, introspective story I wrote some time ago. Not very tl;dr, I know. It's just something to keep my blog warm while I continue cooking up new posts.

¡Cállate, Mateo!

On the first day of class, I felt immediately relieved for having selected Spanish over French. I was in the minority; some unexplained force seemed to draw everyone towards French classes. I didn’t get why. It smelled of a bandwagon and that always repels me. I never really cared much for French stuff. To me it always felt distant and sterile, somehow lacking in anything I could connect myself to. Spain, well... I knew absolutely nothing about Spain. It had that totally alien, yet exotically interesting vibe to it.

As soon as I saw my teacher, Ms Royale, I knew I would enjoy this new cultural experience. She had long, oversized sculptures dangling from her ears, her dress was flamboyant with a hundred dark shades of a hundred different colours I had never quite pictured side-by-side before. She had decorated the classroom in a similar style. Lush with foreign posters, pictures, tapestries, and all the peculiar knickknacks you would expect to see from a souvenir stall beside some sun-baked road in the middle of nowhere.

She had that exaggerated warmth and welcoming demeanour that you might expect from a cultural stereotype, carrying herself as if she was everyone’s great aunt, and similarly starved for attention since the last Christmas you spent reluctantly indulging her in some boring hour-long conversation. You half expected her to grab your cheek and jiggle it about making kissy-faces. Almost too energetic. Every action she took was somehow emphatic and dance-like. Mature and yet full of life, the class was her spotlight and she virulently held everyone’s attention.

Unfortunately my first day in class carried a very different feel. Far from exotic and different, it ended up being just as confusing as every other class. The words being explained to me were like white noise, the letters on the bland droning textbooks seemed to be obfuscated by thousands of tiny blind-spots in my eyes simply refusing to let me read them. Spain no longer seemed like some distant adventure, suddenly it was just foreign, and me, stranded there, unable to even ask for directions.

In those first few weeks I did my best. I asked for help but was told to shut up, in Spanish of course. Though I tried to listen hard and learn, I quickly found my brain shutting down and my internal fantasy software powering up. The more I tried to focus the more hypnotized I became by the unchanging, meaningless static until my fantasy world closed in around me and enveloped it all like a rising tide. Before I knew what was happening, a biting Spanish voice struck me like a whip, and a hundred eyes now staring at me melted through whatever adventure I had conjured for myself.

A humiliation I was not unaccustomed to, being escorted to the door by a pointed finger and a disdainful look. Marched in implicit handcuffs to be punished for my crime. I was accustomed to it, and lacking the vocabulary to express myself, I had long given up on protestations of unfairness. I gathered up the crumbling remnants of my pride and carried them wherever I was sent. Understanding why had become a thing of myth, no more real to me than tribesmen dancing around a totem pole to make it rain.

Over the years I began to act out. As boys do. I clowned around for attention; I roused the rabble and pushed at the boundaries of what I could get away with. My attention on a knife-edge between hunger for knowledge and apathy, the tipping balance of that toxic classroom had rendered me just bored enough to be desperate for some kind of interaction, and just hated enough for my boredom to be an excuse not to teach, rather than taken as an invitation to do so. My antics went over with the godly Ms Royale even worse than the other teachers.

When you really think about it, if you take the actual learning out of a classroom, what you’re left with is a lot like solitary confinement. Sure, you’re not alone... but you may as well be. Everyone else seems to be in this parallel universe where everything makes sense. Rapidly scrawling at their textbooks with complete understanding, as if possessed. You’re in the same place as them, but you’re... absent. What you’re left with is a room that is empty of all but potential sources of embarrassment, and a single glaring entity at the other end of the room. The watchful camera making sure you don’t try to escape.

Of course, escape is impossible. The class becomes an endurance round. How long can a child of 13 sit perfectly still, pretending to be interested, while having absolutely nothing to engage him? Among the many thoughts that swim around in this sensory deprivation tank of an experience are the ponderings on why we use this format to teach children at all? Clearly it doesn’t work for everyone. Is the purpose merely to force the child to learn? Or is it more about breaking their spirit? Was this my labour, my community service? I can’t say if it was tough love or punishment, but I can say what it felt like. Especially when my effort to participate was sincere.

Inability to learn is so easily confused with some kind of stubborn refusal. Struggle, conflated with mischief, and soon enough, the wardens are sent in to give you a few knocks and ensure that you go back to pretending you understand. Eyes ahead. Hands still. Make no movements. Now write something, but pray we don’t check what we wrote, because we know you don’t know what to actually write. My poor handwriting was a useful tool in such situations, one look at the scribbled mess on my page and their slack-jawed confoundedness got me out of trouble. You can’t accuse me of not taking the right notes if you don’t know what I wrote, can you?

Ms Royal, however, was strangely immune to my survival mechanisms. She didn’t care about punishment or teaching, she simply didn’t care. After the seventeenth or so instance of my misbehaviour, whether rightly or wrongly classified as such, she found the solution. I was to be given my own desk! Outside the classroom. Where I would sit, in the hall, every single lesson for the ensuing 4 years. I was close enough to the door to hear them chanting their lingual lessons over and over; able to feel the energy of their minds assimilating that information, but it was too muffled for me to learn along with them.

The desk became a home away from home for me. I added to its ingrained album of graffiti with my own personal touches. I practised my drawing in whatever paper I had handy. My fantasies left the shores of pretend worlds and now were of my being in the class with them. But the desk was still my cage. I lived there, outside the class, outside of everything, and I listened to the other children learning. This was my labour. This was my punishment for not being able to understand.

Needless to say; this did not help with my acting out. The best way to make a criminal out of someone is to brand and treat them as a criminal. School gave up on me, so I gave up on school. I pushed the envelope further than ever. Though not all my classes had taken to emulating Ms Royale’s solution for miscreancy, detention came a close second. So my Spanish classes were spent outside of the classroom, and my evenings were spent doing “lines” in detention. I stopped remembering what it was like to feel anything but resent for my teachers, or to walk home when it wasn’t already dark.

Those days were my purgatory. Without a sense of meaningful feedback on your actions, you can no longer differentiate between punishment for the sake of teaching you a wrong, and punishment coming from out of nowhere. You’re damned if you don’t and more damned if you do. Every action or inaction ends up being wrong, and you can’t even ask why without screwing it up somehow. Mind-shatteringly resigned to stepping about without aim in this psychological minefield, you eventually retreat into a stunted trance like a traumatized lab-rat.

They say school lasts as long as it does because that is precisely how long it takes to break a child, but whatever my indulgence in self-pity, I am nothing if not a fighter, and I wasn’t giving up without one. I tried several times to sneak into the classroom at the start of Spanish class. Keeping my head low. Trying to steal moments of education before my theft of what didn’t belong to me became noticed. Despite my insistence to stay, I was directed out of the class every time.

Of course, none of this really had much impact on what grades, coursework or homework would be expected of me. The obligation to succeed rested on no one but me, but to actually present me with the knowledge I required was nobody’s job. Towards the end of school, I actually started to care about that. I became conscious of how much time I had lost, how much information had never reached my ears. I wanted to do WELL, to know I at least tried before resigning myself to the failure everyone knew I would be for the rest of my life. I had to know it wasn’t JUST me.

So I battled Ms Royale to let me into the class, and didn’t let up. I didn’t comprehend this at the time, because I thought it had all been completely just and entirely my own fault, but of course she could hardly call my bluff and send me to the principal. What would he say, “How dare you try to learn?”? So she acquiesced and allowed me into the classroom. I beamed with joy at the thought of learning – an odd experience for me to say the least. Of course, with that came a new conundrum; everyone was much further along than me. Everyone knew the basics, even the advanced stuff. I still couldn’t even say my name.

I put my hand up several times in the first fifteen minutes, asking what this meant and that, asking for clarifications on everything. Eventually she got sick of answering me and started telling me to shut up in Spanish. “Cállate, Mateo”... shut up, Matthew. I didn’t shut up. I kept asking questions. I kept raising my hand. When she ignored me, I blurted them out. I refused to let her beat me. And she didn’t. Not alone. She enlisted the help of the class, teaching them all to chant “Cállate, Mateo. ¡Cállate, Mateo!” She conducted this orchestra to rise in volume the more I tried to participate, until I was beat down to silence.

It didn’t stop with my submission, however. “Cállate, Mateo. Cállate, Mateo. Cállate, Mateo.” I escorted myself out of the class. Back to my desk, my home, where I at least understood the rules. I could attempt to explain the quivering ball of emotion that swelled inside my chest, the collection of all the moisture in my body into a single well behind my eyes, but I could never do it justice. Suffice to say; knowing that you are the one that everyone unanimously agrees shouldn’t be here is a very specific brand of loneliness. I was the bad guy. No point in disagreeing.

After this happened several more times, I gave up. I lost the will to participate. I lost the care to complain that she (and many others) were insistent on interpreting my difficulties in keeping up with the class as trouble-making, stubbornness, the malicious behaviour of someone who isn’t interested in learning. They saw me as the enemy, not as a child, and I was held to the standards of a belligerent adult, when all I had done was try, and sometimes fail, to learn.

It can hurt more than you expect, to see someone you in some way look up to, a teacher, a mentor, the custodian of your enlightenment turn on you out of pettiness, insecurity or impatience. The people you depend on, the gatekeepers of knowledge, you expect fairness from them. You expect to, in some way, matter to them. School does, indeed, last just long enough to break a child. But I still never gave in. I still attended, I still at least TRIED to learn, and I still completed my exams, and passed with flying “meh”. I got beaten, but I didn’t give up. I proved that it wasn’t just me.

So go ahead, tell me to shut up. Judge me. But I’ve never needed a choir backing me up to make my own case, and when I fail, it’s never permanent. Because I Don’t. Give. Up.