Guest essay by Caleb Shaw
One sign of healthy skepticism is that you take things with a grain of salt, but there is a problem inherent in having this attitude, namely “disrespect.” We are suppose to respect our elders and teachers, and I can’t say my skepticism has always led to such respect.
For example, as a teenager in the late 1960’s I embraced the Jack Weinberg quote, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty,” in a way that seriously thwarted learning from my elders. To be blunt, the reason I distrusted elders was because I wanted to break the law, and they’d put me in jail if they knew what I was up to. (I wish I could say I was breaking rules for some noble cause, such as pacifism, but that would be dishonest.)
Basically I wanted to do things elders would disapprove of, and didn’t want to hear elders rebuke me for doing things that they claimed were bad for me. Therefore, instead of learning from elders, I learned the hard way that many of the things they said were bad for me were, in fact, bad.
Apparently, if I was going to be skeptical, I should have been more skeptical of the statement, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty,” however it didn’t seem possible I’d ever be so old. That particular skepticism didn’t sink in until my thirtieth birthday approached, and I looked in the mirror and thought to myself, “Oh Lord, I’m about to be one of those people you can’t trust.”
Now that I’m over sixty I thoroughly approve of respecting elders. In fact I have revised the Weinberg quote, and it now goes, “Don’t trust anyone under sixty.” After a significant pause I add, “And I wouldn’t trust those over sixty either.” After a second significant pause I conclude, “For that matter, I wouldn’t trust myself.”
The simple fact of the matter is that humans aren’t perfect. (Some say there are such things as Perfect Masters, but I can’t claim I’ve ever met one on the street.) Sooner or later everyone I’ve met, including myself, makes a mistake, and, by making that mistake they, in some way, shape or form, break the trust. Even a minor mistake, such as being one minute late for an appointment, breaks the trust. Even if you have a thousand excuses, you failed to keep your word. Therefore it is quite true to state that no one can be trusted.
Life would be a complete drag if I took human imperfection to heart, and walked about scowling at everyone. Another attribute of humans is that, just as you can’t trust them to do right, you can’t trust them to do wrong, either. At times the most unlikely people pull off amazing deeds of kindness, strength and heroism. Humans are a lot like the weather in this respect: You can’t forecast them with 100% certainty.
Though you can’t trust humans to be perfect, you can develop a form of government that takes imperfection into account, and, through a system of checks and balances, makes it possible to make, recognize, recover-from and forgive mistakes. In like manner you can create scientific disciplines that allow one to make, recognize, recover-from and forgive mistakes. In fact all areas of life, right down to a game of darts, can be governed in a way that allows one to make, recognize, recover-from and forgive mistakes. All people need to do is accept a system of rules.
This was precisely what I refused to do, as an ignorant, young jerk. People much smarter than I had worked long and hard to create various systems that effectively deal with the fact humans are prone to making mistakes, but their systems involved rules, and I didn’t like rules. I would find a better way, an “alternative lifestyle.” Rules didn’t seem to be the same as freedom, and I wanted to be free, unaware (to a ridiculous degree) that one thing I’d never be free from was making mistakes. Then, when my mistakes became apparent, I, in the spirit of a true do-it-yourselfer, set out to reinvent the wheel. Because I was very lucky, my mistakes didn’t kill me, and I eventually arrived at a solution that looked very much like a wheel.
Now I sit back and wonder, “What in God’s name was I thinking?” I wasted decades reinventing a wheel that teachers were trying to give me for free. What made me such a stupid rebel? What a mistake!
I suppose I could play the blame-game, and say someone else made a mistake that led to mine. America is a nation founded upon rebellion, and Americans are such rebels that even the motto on their money states you can’t trust humans. It was therefore my homeland that put rebellion in my blood.
Or I could blame women, (especially schoolmarms), because it was only when women got the vote that drinking beer became unconstitutional. Prohibition didn’t merely engender a disrespect for the law, but even for the Constitution our forefathers died for, yet, as a young boy, I could hear old-timers laugh about how they brewed beer in the basement, blithely unaware they were encouraging disrespect for the Constitution.
Or they laughed about how they drove 1000 miles in ten hours, though the speed limit signs said sixty-five.
On the fourth of July everyone set off fireworks in my Massachusetts neighborhood, though fireworks were illegal. Does that not celebrate independence from the Law? Is it not in the very nature of Americans to disobey elders, whether they be King George or one’s schoolmarm? It isn’t my fault! I am not to blame for the fact I wasted decades reinventing the wheel!
The blame-game may be fun, but it cannot pull you out of quicksand. At some point it simply doesn’t matter how you wound up to your neck. Getting out of the mess becomes the focus. However, providing you survive, it is a healthy intellectual exercise to look back and ponder the mistakes that got you into quicksand. Even if it doesn’t get you out of the ooze, it might help you to avoid jumping back in. It is in this spirit that I would like to cause trouble, by pointing the blame-game finger at the schoolmarms.
I think I can say, with a high degree of probability, that it is a mistake for schoolmarms to put boys (such as I once was) in rows of desks, and expect the boys to sit still. Boys squirm. Boys kick. Boys dream out the window, dip pigtails in inkwells, shoot spitballs, and fail to memorize six words of Shakespeare even while writing twenty lines of rhyming doggerel mocking schoolmarms, (with hilarious cartoon illustrations.) You are just begging for disaster if you fail to recognize boys will be boys. You will turn a boy who might have been law-abiding into a law-breaker. Boys, by their very nature, need to run wild, and if you squelch this impulse you will have hell to pay.
(I’ve talked with schoolmarms who know this, for they have seen that boys sit most still and learn most right after recess, and right after summer vacation, and squirm worst and learn next to nothing just before recess, and when spring is in the air. However, being schoolmarms and not boys, they don’t even whimper when their government and/or teachers-union urge recesses and summer vacations be banned “so boys may learn more.”)
I actually think it isn’t a schoolmarm’s duty to discipline boys. That job is the father’s. If I wrote the laws, then, rather than a bad boy being expelled to the principle’s office, the boy would be sent by taxi to the father’s workplace. If the Dad was in jail, send the kid there. That would get men’s attention darn fast.
That never happened when I was little. I suppose I should point the blame-game finger at Dads, for when I was young they put widgets ahead of family, and ran away to the rush-hour each day-break, leaving their poor, defenseless sons in the quicksand of classrooms, and at the mercy of schoolmarms.
Due to a weird twist of fate, I grew up dead center in a wormhole in the space-time continuum, wherein I escaped the wrath of schoolmarms when it was expressed by caning, and escaped the wrath of schoolmarms as it is now expressed by drugging. When I made chaos out of their quiet classrooms, all I faced was the wrath of schoolmarms expressed by words.
Much of my skill with the use of the English language was absorbed from schoolmarm’s tongue-lashings. In order to keep order in classrooms of twenty to thirty Baby Boom rebels, they had to exploit adroit sarcasm and cynical sneering, and employ twists of dubious logic and clubbing condemnation. Their wit could be superb and set the entire class laughing, but when you are a little boy and the whole class is laughing at you, you do not think of witty rebuttals as much as you think of getting some sort of completely unholy and uncivilized revenge. An abscess of resentment brewed in me. Schoolmarms may have kept me quelled, when I was small and helpless, but when my hormones hit and I swiftly loomed taller than they, all my study of their use of English came back to haunt them.
They had created a monster. True, Frankenstein is not usually portrayed as jovial, nor as being able to out-argue the doctor who bolted in his brains, but reality is often even stranger than a monster movie. I became an outlaw, but one of the most harmless outlaws imaginable. Initially my sinister activities involved dreaming out windows, wandering into the classroom after the bell, or shrugging when asked where my homework was. It was when I stopped shrugging, and started answering the sarcastic questions, that I think I set some sort of modern record for the most after-school detentions ever received for being cheerful.
Detentions were a half-hour spent sitting in a classroom after school, and were a bad idea when boys are bursting with energy. I could only serve four detentions a day, because the last bus left at four-thirty, and for a time it looked like I might not graduate due to not-having-served the amazing numbers of detentions I was amassing. It was at this point an uneasy truce descended. Likely the teachers dreaded the prospect of another year with me, though perhaps the teachers were also embarrassed by the prospect of failing a student who was going to win the award for creative writing, and not failing him because of his grades, but rather because he cheerfully answered their sarcastic questions. In any case they stopped being sarcastic, which meant I had won.
It was at this point, at my moment of victory, that I fell flat on my face. The culprit was drugs, but I’ll talk of that later. For now I want to remain on the topic of respecting elders.
Schoolmarms did teach me a sort of respect for elders, but it was not the sort of respect that leads to one rushing to elders, desiring their attention like a rock-star’s fan desires the star’s autograph. Instead my primary goal in school became to avoid the attention of schoolmarms. They were the Gestapo, and I was the French Resistance. My respect was the sort of loathing respect one has for a bully. After the hormones hit and I won my victory I became like the Norwegian Resistance, and schoolmarms became like the trembling Quislings after the Gestapo had fled Norway.
Now I look back across a half century and wonder: What was it that made them the bad-guy Nazis, and me the good-guy? Why didn’t they seem like millionaires, loaded with knowledge, as I myself was a mere beggar, with the empty pockets of ignorance? Schoolmarms were offering me a free hand-out. What was I fleeing?
I think the answer lies in the single, dreaded word, “Drill.”