Peter Marmorek (uhclem) wrote,
Peter Marmorek
uhclem

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Dancing Around the Rules

"The more prohibitions you have,
the less virtuous people will be."

Lao-tze


Today I was talking to Rick Hosside, who's a teacher at Clarkson, the big school in which I now teach. I've always felt a certain kinship to Rick because like me, he had also once taught at IndEC, a small alternative school. Rick had come up in my World Religions class, when one of my students had had a cell phone ring in her bag. That is Very Bad according to school rules, so she tried to cough to cover it up. I laughed at her, and said I couldn't believe any teacher took that sort of rule seriously, and she said oh no Mr Hosside did, so when I ran into “Mr Hosside” I kidded him about taking it seriously and he said no, he did because it was, after all, a school rule. Then I said "So?" in a way that indicated that my concept of what a school rule meant was very different from his, and the conversation...and probably the relationship...was on a downward spiral that reached its nadir when he explained that in the business world people had to follow rules, and I explained that I wasn't training people for the business world, I was training them to live, which was the exact opposite.

It was depressingly similar to the conversation I had with Miguel, who teaches Math, and who was upset because Shawn had been writing rap lyrics in his class last Tuesday, and when Miguel confiscated them they had Bad Words in them. He was displeased when I clearly didn't give a fuck about the type of language, and more displeased when I explained that as Shawn (who is often a jerk, but that's a whole different subject) was doing a rap magazine for my Media course, it was appropriate that he use such language. Miguel felt that it was unreasonable that we had different rules about what was acceptable language in different classes, and I could tell who he felt should change their rules. And he could probably tell what I thought of his attitude, which didn't help the mood he was in after being told by Shawn's mother that she thought he was a rude idiot.

There's a fine old quote, “The more I see of people, the more I like my dog”. It would probably be cruel to say, “The more I see of teachers, the more I like my students”, but it does amaze me that these people take these kinds of rules about personal style seriously. I too get irritated when a rule in my classroom is violated, like the rule not to change the names of all the folders on the computers, which one little troll did today, or not to steal all the mouse balls, which happened last week. But I get irritated because it makes more work for me, or for the students who have to figure out where their projects have disappeared to. Other teachers seem to assign a moral value to style. Students are bad if their style of behaviour is different from what the teacher wants it to be. If I were playing tennis and my opponent's serve went out, I'd call it out, but I'd be disinclined to believe this made my opponent a bad person.

One of the really important issues I often have to explicitly address is that students are not bad people because they're failing or not working, or not handing in work or skipping class. And that they shouldn’t think that the fact that they're getting 23% in my course and haven't handed in a single assignment of substance since September means I don't like them. Because it doesn't. If I were Macbeth on stage and they were Duncan or Banquo, the fact that I killed them in the play wouldn't mean we couldn't go out for a drink afterwards. Those are just the roles we're playing. And we are neither Broadway nor Harvard. We're a little rep theatre company trying to help each other. Why impose this heavy morality on superficial behavioural choices? Our school's new dress code, under which I am supposed to send any female student to the office if I can see any part of her cleavage, is another example of a very bizarre moral overlay to a stylistic choice, before we even get to the impossibility of a defensible response to the obvious parental question of why the teacher was staring at his student's cleavage in the first place.

Our school has a rule that there is no eating in class. This means that when kids are hungry, they ask to go to the washroom, disappear into the cafeteria where they run into their friends, and miss a half hour of class. So I made a rule that students can eat in class, if they clean up their mess. If they don't, they lose the privilege. This worked well, until one kid was intercepted by the vice-principal carrying food to my classroom, and when she said, "But you know you aren't allowed to eat in class," he explained that he was allowed to eat in Mr. Marmorek's class. The VP called me down after school, and clarified that I did in fact allow students to eat in class. She then said, like someone playing the ace of trumps, "But you know that's against school rules." I agreed that I did know.

Then there was a very strange and interesting pause. I knew she was waiting for me to apologize and say I wouldn't do it again, because it was against school rules. I thought it was a silly rule, so I wasn't going to say anything. I was curious what she would do. Eventually she said, "Well, I'm going to have to tell the principal about this," an extraordinarily weak response that conjured up visions of 1950's Mom saying, "Wait till your father hears about this." I smiled, gently, and said, "You have to do what you feel you have to do." I never heard anything about the issue again.

People impose a moral overlay on all sorts of things today. Sports teams win because they dig down deeper, because they give more, because they are morally superior. Increasing demonization of political opponents, in which those who differ are morally culpable, is ubiquitous. Anyone since 9/11 who has ventured to suggest that it might be useful to explore the reasons why some people hate the US has quickly found that out. Always I come back to Elie Weisel's line in “The Gates of the Forest” in which he says “The just man knows a thousand truths and that's his weakness; the murderer knows one and that's his strength.”

I mark essays and assign numbers in courses, and do so with as much honesty as I can muster, but these are at best a consensual hallucination. In other places and times, at higher or lower academic levels, the essay to which I give an A would be a failure, and the one that abjectly fails would be a wonderful piece of writing. Fifty years ago the seventh man on the ice in hockey, the rover, was a legitimate position; today it's a two minute penalty for too many men on the ice. A referee has to call the penalties, but they are arbitrary. That's vital to recognize because there are so many deeper levels of communication possible than superficial morality. As David Foster Wallace said, "You might consider that how to escape from a cage must surely require, foremost, awareness of the fact of the cage.” Taking superficial rules seriously is wrong because it means you never get beyond those rules. If everyone walked in step, how would any of us ever learn to dance?
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