Part of a teacher's job is to enforce the school's rules. Teachers are the referees, calling penalties as they are needed and when they are deserved. Sometimes that's easy: for example, everyone agrees that stronger kids shouldn't be allowed to bully weaker kids. Sometimes it gets harder, particularly when you don't agree with the rule that it's your job to enforce. For me, one of the major challenges came with entheogens, teacher plants, or drugs. As a child of the 60s, I had ingested a wide variety of things, and felt that drugs were tools, that used appropriately, could deepen and enrich one's life. I remembered being a student at MIT, where the administration established a program that would test anonymously submitted samples, and tell you (via phone, and 10 digit code number) what the submitted drug actually was. MIT did not want their students taking drugs, didn't approve of their taking drugs, but most of all didn’t want them taking drugs that were cut with adulterates. It was an intelligent and compassionate program that I have always admired.
None of the school systems for which I taught had any remotely similar program. Their view was that drugs were a viral evil, and that anyone a teacher could identify who had been infected by the virus should be isolated and punished. The difference in perspective, between my attitudes and high school administrators’ attitudes, led to a number of sometimes amusingly dissonant situations.
The first one came when I was in teacher's college, and was assigned a practice teaching position in Lindsay. I was 25; my teacher advisor was maybe double that. On our first meeting he explained to me that he was very concerned about drug use amongst his students. He explained that as I was younger, I might be able to recognize signs of addiction he had missed. If I did, he urged me, I should immediately tell him which students I thought were on drugs. He then took a deep breath and confided that a friend of his on the Lindsay police force had once shown him marihuana, “both the leaves, and the berries”. Part of me really wanted to point out to him that marihuana doesn't have berries, it has seeds. Fortunately, I was able to bludgeon that part into silence. Nor did I point out any of the kids in his class who were obviously extremely stoned. (How could I tell? When I asked one student what his name was, he started giggling hysterically, and couldn't stop for 5 minutes.)
My first full time job after teacher's college was in Cobalt, and as I got to know the students there, it became pretty clear who the stoners were. At my second parents' night, the mother of a student I'll call Richard came in, and went on a long tirade about how terrible it was that students were smoking marihuana, and how it was my duty to share with the police any suspicions I might have who was supplying it. I knew who it was: her son, Richard, who was getting it from her older son who was a student at University of Toronto and sending packages up to Cobalt. It was a really tempting moment, but I kept quiet. I had learned one of the great secrets of teaching, which is that if you want to know what's really going on in your students' lives, you can't pass judgements about it.
I was 26 and my senior students were 18, so the differences between us were much less than they would be three decades later. Joan, one of my Cobalt students, told me about Supertramp, a new band who sounded interesting and offered to make me a tape of them, together with the new David Bowie album. I accepted happily; a few days later Mary handed me the tape box. When I got home and opened it, there was a very professionally rolled joint on top, with a note saying, "I like to get blitzed when I listen to new music; hope you do too." In fact, I did, but that wasn't the problem. The problem was that while it was clearly a generous and friendly act, Cobalt was a small town where everyone knew everything about everyone. When I passed Joan an envelope the next day, containing both the joint and thanks for her kind offer, I learned that most of the students in the school already knew and had eagerly been waiting to see what I did. I was learning that as a teacher I had to walk the walk.
IndEC, the alternative school in which I taught four years later, was more challenging because the rules were fuzzier. The students were older, and more mature. In chemistry, there were sophisticated presentations on THC, the active intoxicant in marihuana. In my photography course, students would hand in projects on drug pipes. In literature, Hunter S. Thompson, and William Burroughs were perennially popular. In World Religions, students would read Aldous Huxley and Tim Leary's works on the use of drugs as a way of moving towards enlightenment. One of the surprising truths about drugs has always been that if someone talks intelligently about the effect of a drug, it's pretty likely they've had experience with it. I suspect that made it pretty clear to both my students and to me that we were colouring outside the lines with similarly psychedelic crayons. But nothing was said, and I never admitted to anything that might come back and haunt me at a later moment.
Except once, at the David Bowie concert at Maple Leaf Gardens, in 1980. Another IndEC teacher and I were at the concert with about a half dozen IndECers, and a joint got passed down the row. It got to me, and I took a deep breath, inhaled and passed it on. Nothing was ever said about it, which is good, as it was certainly a hanging offence. Must say, it was also a very fine concert, Bowie being at peak form and in his 'Thin White Duke' phase. I'm still close friends with three of the students who were in that row.
When I went back to a traditional school, Clarkson, things were different. I was older, and my students were younger, and while IndEC's one to one student-teacher meetings encouraged openness, the traditional classroom discouraged it. But I still had lots of facial hair, and listened to current music, so I knew the question would inevitably arise. And when it did, I was ready.
“Sir, do you smoke marihuana?”
“Well,” I smiled cheerily, “that’s really a silly question to ask me. Because if I didn’t smoke marihuana, I’d tell you the truth, and say, ‘No, I don’t smoke marihuana.’ And if I did smoke marihuana, because I’m a teacher who wants to keep his job, I’d lie and say, ‘No, I don’t smoke marihuana.” So the answer to your question is no, I don’t smoke marihuana.”
Many of the students from Clarkson did smoke, and some made a lot less of an effort to hide it than others. The student smoking area, inches outside school property, often had clouds of marihuana smoke over it. So the staff generally tried avoided going near it, so as as not to be in a situation we could neither condone nor ignore. Lorne Park was a wealthier school down the street, and we counted ourselves lucky that our students’ problems were usually with alcohol and marihuana, as they couldn’t afford the more expensive drugs such as cocaine that richer students indulged in. As Robin Williams once noted, “Cocaine is God’s way of punishing you for having too much money.”
There were times students did come to me for help. One of my gifted students, Jean, came to talk to me in the throes of her first LSD experience, which had become longer and more intense than she had expected. I was able to be present, supportive, and non-judgemental and when it wore off she was (and has remained) hugely grateful. Another gifted student (from the Lorne Park area) had a year and a half of cocaine-fuelled dysfunctionality. I didn't kick her out of the gifted program, because it was absolutely clear that her problem wasn't academic, and I couldn't see how being put back into the regular program, away from her friends, would do anything other than alienate her further from school. She came through wonderfully, and had become the editor of a major Canadian fashion magazine when last we crossed paths. People will often live up to your expectations, but they certainly will live down to them.
The head of Clarkson’s guidance dept once sought me out to serve on a teacher panel he was convening to address the issue of student drug abuse. I told him what I felt, that the place to start was with recognizing that some students were inevitably going to use drugs, and our role was to teach them how to use drugs in a way that minimized dangers and problems. He looked at me in shock, and said that he felt all illegal drugs were always bad, and we certainly couldn’t condone any drug use under any circumstances. And that was the end of my formal participation. I felt at the time that he was wrong, but I don't think I fully understood why. He felt that the problem was that some students didn't have the right values, and he wanted a program that would give them those values. I don't think you can give people values. I think you can shape an environment that encourages them to develop the values you want them to have, but that holding the students in compassion without judgement is essential key. Too wish-washy? Perhaps it made me a less good referee of student transgressions than some might have wanted, but I'm sure it made me a better teacher.