Saturday, March 8, 2008

Laboratory of Really Dumb Experiments

I decided in kindergarten I didn't like school. Five years old, and I wanted less to do with it than I did with girls. Of course, at that age I didn't understand that public schools unwittingly eat much of the young. But I learned. Now I know that it is its nature.

I knew little more than I was bored and restless and inattentive, and saddled with a teacher that years later I realized was the matrix for Miss Wormwood from "Calvin and Hobbes." She insisted on naps even if we weren't tired, and if we didn't fall asleep she would whap us on our butts with her shillelagh. She didn't whack our heads, although I suspected they were the object of her heart's desire, unsatisfied only by her fear of the law. Her conscience wouldn't have stopped her. She didn't appear to have one.

"Shut up!" she would hiss, her pointer an up-and-down blur on our keesters. "Go to sleep!" she would snarl like Agent Smith. Even at five I had my doubts about the efficacy of lulling children to sleep with a smack to the butt. To this day, my idea of a monster is an ugly, dumpy woman with cat's-eye glasses, dressed in a drab, shapeless dress. Bill Watterson (the forementioned "Calvin and Hobbes") and Gary Larson, of "The Far Side," apparently shared my experiences; their teachers in cartoon fantasy are similar to mine in reality.

Lying on my mat and looking at my teacher from the corner of my eye, I felt both horror and pity as I watched her move among us like a pudgy wraith, wielding her Wand of Pain. The horror was because she didn't seem totally human to me. Did she hate us? It seemed so to me. If I had known the word I would have thought her a sadist. Since I was only five, I could only say I didn't like her. I did not know the word "sadist" or think, "Well, gosh, this woman certainly fits the archetype of Satan." But comparing her to my mother and my neighbors I found she had little in common with them. I even doubted she lived in a house; I entertained the thought she dwelled in the basement of the school as the Phantom of the Crawlspace.

The pity was for my teacher's kids – if she had any. I hoped she didn't. ("Go to sleep!" WHAM!) Pity and horror were some of my main feelings in kindergarten. Years later I realized they were related; horror is what leads to pity ("Thank God it's not me, so I can feel sorry for you").

When I was a teenager I realized that funny smell always on my teacher's breath was alcohol. No doubt it was one of the reasons her conscience was impaired.

Heck of a way to start your school days. A thin veneer of kindergarten, to the superficial eye, with undercurrents of boredom, horror, sadism, fear and pity. And a boozehood for a teacher. And all of five years old. I won't discuss the Big Yellow School Bus to and from Hell.

Things didn't get much better from first through sixth grade. After that, there was jr. high, but that's a whole other Stephen-King-generated Hell. There was an occasional teacher whom I liked, and others who had a spark of quasi-humanity that sputtered occasionally in them, but for the most part they appeared to have been grown in the same vat. (I have this image, probably from a horror film, of a monster, all eyeballs and teeth and claws and a dog biscuit for a brain, hauling itself out of a bubbling vat: "Arrgghhh! Where's the kids? Arrgghhh!")

I was always glad when I made it home: cookies and milk and cartoons awaited me. In college I asked one of my friends – raised 300 miles from me – what he did when he came home from school. His answer: "Well, I got some cookies and milk and watched cartoons." Did you like school? I asked him. His answer: "What are you, retarded? It was a kind of Hell." (Which raises the question: just how many Hells are there?)

Because I didn't like school, I figuratively escaped from it by daydreaming away most of my 12-year sentence. Since I still have my report cards, I know what my teachers wrote about me: "I hope Bobby continues trying to concentrate, as he is capable of doing such good work if he only keeps his mind on the matters at hand! He needs to spend time working accurately on his assignments." Another one reads, "Bob is not turning in his assignments. Those which are turned in are usually very brief and show little preparation."

All my comments have in common the unquestioned belief that everything was my fault, not the school's. Pinion a kid to a chair for several hours a day, bore him with Dick and Jane and Pony and Spot, and then pretzel-logic the responsibility so the blame falls solely on him when he doesn't pay attention or do his homework. I will always be fuzzy on how many times I got in trouble for drawing pictures in class instead of listening to the teacher go "WAK WAK WAK" like the incomprehensible instructor in the Charlie Brown TV specials.

In class I sometimes became so bored my brain would involuntarily conjure up fantasies of what I'd like to do to the teachers: BZZZT, right through the giblets with a destructo-bolt from a Marvin the Martian ray-gun. If I was in school today, my mouth would be pried open and Ritalin poured down my gullet. Probably with a funnel.

Why was there no Attention Deficit Disorder when I was a kid? Where has it been hiding for thousands of years? Even the ancient Greeks accurately described real diseases like diabetes; why is there nary a word from them about "hyperactive" kids? Maybe because ADD, which was diagnosed only in the last few decades, is a phantasm completely unhinged from reality? Could the real problem be schools that bore kids to near-insanity? And instead of blaming the problem on the schools, blame it on the kids, just the way my teachers blamed my boredom and inattention on me. Only these days, instead of hitting students, we dope them up.

I find it incomprehensible that there are four million to six million kids in the United States who are prescribed Ritalin, a drug chemically similar to cocaine. And it's not just for restless kids who jump around; it's also for inattentive kids who daydream. Sounds to me as if it's an inadvertent attempt to drug to sleep the imaginations of bright but bored kids. And imagination, Einstein said, is more important than knowledge.

Have boredom and imagination – normal things for kids – now become diseases, to be treated with brain-altering chemicals? Have schools now become Laboratories of Really Dumb Experiments, with children as the guinea pigs? Would I, an imaginative kid whose brain conjured up fantasies from robots hooked up to frog brains, to submarines made out of hot-water heaters, to air-to-tree (sigh) shoulder-held rocket launchers, been treated with Ritalin? Even at five, just because I wouldn't lie still and go to sleep? Would my sadistic stick-wielding teacher, confused by cheap wine, approved of it? I think so.

I wonder what bitter harvest we will reap from these Ritalin-treated brains when the possessors are adults? (Kurt Cobain, diagnosed as hyperactive and raised as a Ritalin child, might be an example.) The public would throw a conniption-fit if the schools treated children with booze or marijuana every day; why is there not much more outcry over treating them with – as we called it in high school – speed?

Little kids raised with their brains full of speed. "It calms them down," the legal pushers claim. I've seen speed freaks stare at one of their hands for an hour. Marijuana has the same effect. The users were calm, all right. Sheesh. I wondered what speed was doing to all the cells and neurons and synapses in their brains. I'll bet doctors, schools and the drug companies wonder, too, even as they try to con the public into thinking they really do know. I wouldn't be surprised if they were peering into a Magic 8-Ball. A very dusty one.

It was these same speed freaks – and coke heads – who told me Ritalin is a street drug. They've told me if enough is ingested, the effects are better than sex. Long-term side effects? A few. Suicide, for one, and selling their babies to get their daily fix for another.

There are always two sides to every story. The side few know about is an impaired conscience is almost always a result of drug addiction, be it alcohol or Ritalin. My teacher was an example of the first; baby-sellers and school shooters such as Kip Kinkel, the second.

All I can say: oh, good Lord, what is wrong with the schools and "doctors" prescribing this poison for kids? Who is going to take responsibility for the side effects? What's that I hear? There aren't going to be any? Really? Name one psychoactive drug that in the long run doesn't have side effects.

I can think of no one who has ever used marijuana or cocaine every day who contributed anything to themselves or society. Yet kids raised on an amphetamine are supposed to turn out just fine and be productive and happy people? I don't believe it. I doubt Cobain believed it, or Kinkel.

The kids would be better off if they were allowed to some physical activity. That would calm them down. A playground is a lot cheaper than Ritalin, although not as profitable to drug companies. Playgrounds are no profit at all for drug companies.

And a more interesting curriculum wouldn't hurt, either. Especially for the smarter, more imaginative students. The one scene from Ferris Bueller's Day Off that is always clear in my memory is where all the kids are sprawled nearly unconscious on their desks as Mr. Excitement himself, Ben Stein, drones on in a monotone that would do Satan proud with its ability to warp souls. Doesn't high school ever change?

If I was a conspiracy buff I'd think there was a plot to destroy the brains of American children. And if I was an enemy of America, I'd be smiling, hoping for a generation of adults so drug-addled they lack both conscience and imagination.

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