On Wednesday this week, I did a substitute teaching job at my local high school. The class was an elective, or what some schools call a “preferred” class: mixed choir.
Things started out on a positive note with some laughs we all shared during roll call. I announced the regular teacher’s plan for the period and told the students what I expected from them during our time together. This all seemed fine. Then I drew their attention to a classmate who had been prepped by the regular teacher to play CDs of songs and medleys for possible future concert performances by the choir and to gauge their interest in the music. This required active attention.
Most of the students were listening and singing along (which I encouraged), and then the disruptions began. I was able to get things under control at each outburst, but by the last forty minutes of the period, I was exhausted, feeling frustrated at the students who were outright disrespecting not only me but their fellow classmates who genuinely wanted to listen and sing along. After the lead student played the last song, “Stairway to Heaven,” I redirected their focus with a discussion of the band who composed it, Led Zeppelin. This worked for a few minutes. I decided to have the choir sing two of their concert pieces for me — that worked well, and for all of ten minutes, they were like angels (and they sounded like angels, too!).
Apparently, though, I underestimated the desire for [some] students to waste their precious time in their favorite class, because the place practically erupted in chit-chat, loud laughter, listening to music on phones, and elopements to other parts of the classroom. I stood silently, hoping that they would “get it,” and the lead student implored his classmates to quiet down: all to no avail.
In the end, I marched close to the group, startling a few students and eventually getting them to pay attention to me. I told them that I am a musician, too, and that when I go to band practice, I listen to the band leader. I don’t waste time talking about inane topics or goofing off with bandmates while the leader tries to get us to make music. No. I pay attention, because that’s exactly where I want to be, doing the thing I love. I told them that I knew choir was a preferred class, and that they had chosen this class for the same reason I choose to be in a band: to learn songs and make music. “So,” I said, “if you aren’t here to listen to these songs and sing along, then you can excuse yourself now because you don’t belong here. You made the wrong choice.” No one left the room, and for the rest of the period, they were relatively respectful, aside from their sour faces. Oh, I know [my pretend pout]. The sting of being called on your childish bullshit, so harsh.
When I got home, I immediately starting making an elaborate lasagna-type casserole for dinner. I spent nearly three hours in the kitchen, prepping each layer and cooking the marinara. The whole time, my mind would not let go of my classroom experience from that day. In fact, I even sent the regular teacher an email message to share what had transpired; it felt important to me that she know how poorly most of her students behaved in her absence. I thought this action would relieve my mind of arguing against their disrespectful behavior, but it did not. I listened to thoughts bubbling to consciousness as my mind formulated a speech. That said, here is what I would like to say to those students — in particular, to the ones who were openly disruptive, but to them all in general. My claim is that they are not the rebels they pretend to be: they are merely immature, disrespectful, and apparently willing to dispense of their own professed values at any opportunity. My arguments follow.
I know some of you might think that because I am a substitute teacher, it is “rebellious” of you as teenagers to flagrantly disrespect me. Maybe that’s because I am not your regular teacher, who you will see day in and day out and who likely does not tolerate such “rebellious” behavior; that is, you think you can get away with it. And on some puerile (that means childish) level, your repetitive disruption in class does indeed represent a form of rebellion, one against an authority figure who you don’t really know and therefore don’t want to offer respect. Perhaps you don’t know how to give people the benefit of the doubt. I can understand that sort of thinking because, after all, you are children. Specifically, you are children who have not learned to respect substitute teachers. Maybe you haven’t learned to respect any adults, or anyone for that matter. Maybe you are jaded because you’ve been burned too many times by your own parents and other adults, and now you don’t know when it is safe to trust. If this is true, I have genuine empathy for you. Because here’s the deal: in the real world, most adults are worthy of your trust and respect. Yeah, that’s right. Most of us get an automatic “pass” because we have earned it: we are mature and conscientious and we earnestly want to treat you right and help you do right. In other words, we really show up for you. Sure, some adults get an automatic “fail” because they are immature, they bail on you. And let’s be clear: that’s not me.
But let me get back to you. You likely believe yourselves to be “rebels” by being disruptive, but you’re not really rebelling; you’re simply acting like children. You lack self-control. True rebels, in the classic narrative sense, are committed to a cause that is much larger than themselves and petty, narcissistic whims of absolute power. A true rebel has self-control. A true rebel fights big stuff, like injustice, inequality, systemic racism and sexism, and tyrannical rulers, for a few examples. Think MLK, Susan B. Anthony, Ghandi, Malala. Think Tom Morello, Black Flag, Sex Pistols. See the difference? Their desires are to disrupt powerful systems of corruption, oppression, and human suppression. Your desire to disrupt the classroom has as its so-called “cause” the ill-conceived notion that your personal, individual, selfish wants to watch the latest videos and read the latest Twitter posts by some talentless music hack are larger than the fact that you are in school to learn, which requires focused work. But you are wrong. Your non-cause (that is, getting out of doing your school work) is pathetic. It presumes that you are more important than a true cause like, oh, I don’t know, rampant sexual assault in our country. But you are not more important than victims of sexual assault — you just aren’t. (Unless you are a victim, in which case I urge you to seek help.)
Here’s another example along that line. In the name of being a “bad-ass rebel-child,” you insult the wisdom, intelligence, dignity, and entire life experience of someone like myself, a 52-year-old woman who has been sexually assaulted and harassed multiple times and otherwise violated, oppressed, and dismissed as a rule by a rich-white-heterosexual-male hegemonic social construct that has been in place for some 10,000 years and has recently proven upon the
election of popular-vote-losing Donald J. Trump that it is totally fine to vociferously hate women, even when they meet your arbitrary “hotness” goals, even if you claim you love them. Hence, if you insult my dignity as a woman, you and your fake rebel status are part of the problem.
You insult the fact that, despite all I endure, I am happily married to the man of my dreams and we own our home. You insult the hard decision I made to move far away from my midwest home to California, where I knew no one, to successfully become a singer-songwriter-musician who plays multiple instruments, has written and recorded numerous CDs and a few hundred songs, toured the nation, and continues to create and perform. You insult the fact that I had the initiative to write and publish a nonfiction book and three poetry books, write three full-length screenplays and produce a movie from one of them. You insult the fact that I teach music and do graphic design to make a living in addition to my efforts as a substitute teacher in the public school system. You insult the fact that I returned to college at the age of 43 to complete my BA in Communication Studies (which took eight grueling years of part-time study and incurred nearly $50,000 in student loan debt). During my studies, I created numerous lengthy works of scholarship, graduating with high honors and the respect of my teachers, fellow students, friends, and family. By the way, that degree allowed me to study further and pay even more to become certificated so that I could come to your classroom and [do my best to] have fun while we learn together. But there was no fun to be had, because you were too busy insulting me and my efforts.
And on that note about my effort, you actually insult the very nature of my being, which is to learn and then share that learning with the world at large, whether through singing and songwriting, performing, photo editing, teaching, or just about anything I do in my life — including writing this blog post. Simply put, you insult the very idea of human striving for betterment of self and society. So you not only insult me, you insult every single person trying to get better, advance, evolve, grow, whatever you want to call it, on a mind-body-soul level — people who want to improve their lives by improving other people’s lives. But that’s not you.
Yes, because of the mediated, vainglorious, self-serving image you hold of yourself as a kick-ass rebel, you fail to see anyone, like myself, who has worked diligently over decades, starting from humble beginnings but making difficult decisions and taking risks, sometimes falling down but always getting back up — smarter, stronger, and more humble — to forge a life worth living. Perhaps worse is that, in a terrible twist, you allow your childish ways to also obscure, obfuscate, and obstruct any glimpse of accurate self-reflection and self-correction, which are vital to becoming a real adult and a true rebel regardless of age. I know 12-year-old girls that have more maturity and rebelliousness in the pockets of their skinny jeans than you do in your whole being — at least the being you were willing to show me that day.
Maybe you want to argue that you are “really mature,” but fell temporarily into a never-happened-before group-think with all your cool pals. Nope, not buying it. True maturity, as with true rebel status, can be claimed only by those who stand alone when friends and family and community question the cause. Think Harriet Tubman and Joan of Arc. True rebels are willing to suffer the consequences of actively, nonviolently leading the fight for something much, much bigger than themselves. True rebels have no problem being alone, standing out from the crowd. In fact, many of them prefer solitude to — guess what? — the awful noise of social group insularity. Ever notice how some of the most “popular” people in every arena are usually the most insecure, thin-skinned, braying asses around? No, I didn’t think you noticed. Most of you are too busy further elevating these frightening — and frighteningly powerful — celebrities.
So let’s face it: you have no cause. If you did, you’d have come to me after class, asking me to sign a petition to fight for indigenous people’s rights in Ecuador; or asking me to donate to your fundraiser to fight back against the nomination of racists to the popular-vote-losing Trump’s staff; or getting my opinion on a song you are writing in support of ending rape culture and gendered violence; or inviting me to attend a school play you are acting in that advocates combatting climate change. Read the key words: fight, advocate, support: these are the the true rebel’s core verbs that speak to enacting their cause. So until you have a real cause, please, please stop thinking that you are acting like a rebel because, today, you showed me that you’re nothing but a fake — an insulting, childish fake.
When you’ve done some serious soul-searching, when you’ve patched together your inner mini-warrior from whatever wreckage you feel you’ve endured, and when you’ve found something bigger than your deluded, disrespectful, feckless, spoon-fed self, don’t come to me. Get going and get growing so you can save humanity from fake rebels like you used to be. It starts with you.
I wish for you a smooth process of maturing and becoming true rebels with worthy causes, but if you hit some rocky patches, please don’t give up.
Sharine Borslien (a.k.a., Ms. Shari)
P.S. To those students who were participating in a respectful, appropriate manner, THANK YOU. I see in you hope for a better future.
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