My year as a dunce
When I was 5 years old, my mother lied about my birthday and enrolled me in the first grade at PS 200 something in Brooklyn. It was a big mistake because I did not know my alphabet and did not know how to count numbers past pick-up sticks.
However, my biggest problem in first grade was that I was left-handed in a right-handed school. The school principal was a Latin scholar and knew that left in English was sinister in Latin. He decreed that no one in his school was allowed to write left-handed. When my teacher saw me using my left hand, she stormed over, yanked the pencil from my hand and yelled, not quietly, “From now on, don’t write with your left hand!” I looked up at that towering, scowling person and said, “No.”
That was the start of two weeks of school haze, dear old wooden rule days. Every day my knuckles were bloodied, plagued by a hickory stick. I did not cry nor complain. But I did not change. When two weeks of bloody knuckles and emotional threats did not work, the teacher tried another tactic. She made me sit in front of the class wearing a “dunce hat.” She said, ”You will sit there until you decide to write with the right hand.” And that’s how I spent my year as a dunce.
Since then, I have had 18 years of education but the best lessons I learned were in that first grade. One was that I learned how it felt to be shouted at, belittled, threatened and humiliated. I have been a teacher for more years than I can count. And a math teacher at that. I have always remembered how I was treated and have always been sensitive to the students’ needs. I know that hitting children and dunce caps are no longer a problem.
Unfortunately, many teachers (and parents) still terrorize children by shouting, ridiculing by sarcasm, belittling or ignoring them. Those teachers do not belong in the classroom. Young children have very fragile confidence levels. They retain insults against them for a long time and even believe that they are at fault. We should be careful at all times of what we say and how we say it.
The second lesion I learned in the first grade is that you should not be forced to do something you know is wrong. You know you will pay a price when you go against the popular but wrong position but you will know that you did the right thing. I am proud of that little skinny 5-year-old boy I was who had the courage to say no to what he believed was wrong, who was unafraid of the bullying and consequences of disobeying a stupid rule, and who emerged a more sensitive and kind person.
However, this piece is not about me. It is about you. The Supreme Court’s terrible decision about Citizens United has enabled super rich and Superpacs, some Chinese and some European, to affect our election. You must vote to show them that your vote is not for sale and your intelligence is not degraded by half truths, innuendoes, or lies. Vote for candidates who pledge to work together to end gridlock in Congress. Neither Obama nor Romney can succeed if we don’t vote to do the right thing. And if we don’t do the right thing, America will face it’s two years as a dunce.
George Feineman lives in Grass Valley.
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