Friday, June 23, 2017

The Proper Thing To Do With Power



I don't have the right to tell other people what to do, even if those people are children. I make mistakes, of course, I've lived my whole life in a society that tends to feel otherwise, but each day I strive to remember that no matter what my role, even if it's one that implies power over others, such as teacher or father, I have no right of command, even as I have plenty of responsibilities.

That said, our world seems to be full of people who desire to exert control over their fellow humans, not just in early childhood, but across the spectrum. I don't get it: forcing others to do as I say doesn't give me any satisfaction. Indeed, whenever I do it, I walk away feeling like a failure. Yesterday, for instance, as we sat down to sing songs, several children began playing with the fine, dusty gravel on a nearby walking path. Not a big deal until they started throwing the stuff. It was a day of gusty wind, which carried it into the faces of other children, getting in their eyes and mouths, stinging their eyes and making them cough. I interrupted our song to say, "Stop! You're getting dust in people's eyes!" It was effective, but the chastened expressions on the kid's faces have been haunting me ever since. While I may have succeeded in protecting those eyes and throats, I failed in my manner of achieving it.

No, I don't get it at all, yet it's clear that there are others for whom the power of command brings, if not pleasure, at least a sort of gratification. History is full of examples of political leaders for whom this is true and everyone knows of parents who rule their houses with iron fists. Each day, the news brings us stories of humans abusing their power over others, from celebrity comedians who drug and rape women to cops who resort to violence when they don't feel that someone has been sufficiently compliant. That some have power over others is probably an unavoidable fact of our competitive, hyper-capitalistic society, but few things make me more angry than those who abuse their power, even if they claim they are doing it for their victims' own good.

In 1986, I read Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale, the horrific cautionary story of a near future America that has fallen under the control of religious fundamentalists who have taken full control of the reproductive lives of women, using religious justifications backed by the threat of brutality to force women into lives of complete submission. I've just revisited this dystopia over the past few weeks as I've viewed the new television series based upon the novel. This is fiction, of course, but there is nothing in Atwood's story that is without historical precedent and it's hard not to see parallels to the world in which we live today. For instance, the state of Missouri is on the verge of passing a law (it has already passed both houses of their state legislature) that would give employers and landlords the power to fire or evict a woman simply because she uses birth control, something that 99 percent of all sexually active, reproductive-aged women have done, according to the Center for Disease Control. This could leave women with a Catch-22 of choosing between being forced into child birth or being jobless and homeless. I understand that abortion is a hot-button issue, but contraception? This is about exerting power over others, pure and simple, and it's entirely appropriate that protesters have been showing up in the garb of Atwood's handmaids.

I am a middle-class, middle-aged, white male. As I go through my day-to-day life, I am relatively immune to those who would command me. Indeed, by virtue of the accidents of my birth and my longevity, I possess power beyond what I deserve. It's power that I don't want, which is in part why I am forever trying to give it away, to return it to those who are too often subject to the abuses of others, who more often than not are my fellow middle-aged, white males. This is the attitude with which I attempt to enter my classroom each day, seeking to empower the young children in my care, to let them know that ultimately, "I am the boss of me and you are the boss of you." I want them to know that because I want them to be as free as possible, but even more importantly, I expect that many of them will one day find themselves possessing power: I want them to know that the proper thing to do with power is to give it away.







(I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!)



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2 comments:

Diane Pinkus said...

Thank you.
Its nice to know that You as a teacher feels this way...
I myself took my 2 children out of school partly because the abuse of power by teachers.
Thank you for this post. Its nice to know that you are still out there..



Reading your posts ,
Fondly
Diane

Olga Parker said...

I love your blog and all your articles. As a teacher, you do a great job, it must be interesting for the kids to visit your classes, I wish I had such a teacher when I was a schoolgirl.

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