This illustration shows up towards the end of my recent book. It prefaces a chapter where, as was often the case during my time in school, I was accused of being inappropriate.
Inappropriate. A quick Google search gives us this definition: “not suitable or proper in the circumstances.” Okay. Pretty ambiguous word, if you ask me. Who gets to decide what is suitable or proper? Or even what the circumstance are? Reality is multiplicitous.
The word inappropriate has a relationship with power. It’s usually the people or institutions with power who decide what is suitable, what is proper. A moral code to enforce, an ethos to instill.
Every high school I worked in had a hat policy. It was inappropriate to wear hats. Improper. What a strange rule. Why couldn’t students wear hats? Because it was inappropriate in Victorian England to wear hats indoors? And those values informed the institution of school as it built momentum in the United States? Maybe.
I distinctly remember a faculty meeting early in my career where a group of two-hundred adults spent an hour talking about hats. Finally, when pressed, an assistant principal told the faculty that hats promoted gang activity with black students. I taught in a mostly black school at the time and the assistant principal, like the rest of the staff – and like me – was white. I remember thinking, at the time, that it felt like such a waste of time and energy to police the use of hats. Felt a little racist too. White people telling black people not to wear hats because of gang activity? I don’t know. That wasn’t how I saw it. I saw it as the people in power passively enforcing a code of ethics that had nothing to do with our present circumstances.
The ethos that people accept in different circumstances builds momentum until people are behaving suitable or properly without any consideration of why? And then they rationalize their behavior around concepts such as race?
That’s a little scary.
I was told I was inappropriate any number of times in school. Things I said. Things I did. Jokes I made. The way I dressed. This happened to me both as a student and a teacher. Later, I came to think I was naive when it came to the unspoken white, middle-class values that informed the circumstances of my schools.
Dad was a first-generation Jew for Jesus freak. Mom was absent. Nobody explicitly taught me (or coerced me) into censoring the thoughts and, more dangerously, the jokes that came into my head. So, without intending to be, I was often disruptive. Jokes at the expense of teachers. A funny comment to the person sitting next to me. This behavior often made my life more difficult. My grades in school suffered when teachers were offended by me. It was hard to get into college with a terrible GPA. That sort of thing. A punk rock life comes with consequences, I guess.
Later, I was more careful in my disruptive behavior, more improvisational. I worked to understand my circumstances before doing something that, finally, I realized was inappropriate. Improper. I taught Battle of Algiers in 11th Grade English to discuss the War on Terror from multiple perspectives, to complicate students understanding of the geopolitics surrounding 9/11 and the endless war that followed suit. I used improvisation and drama pedagogy to engage students in collective, artistic creation — to challenge individualistic notions of school and society. I taught Grand Theft Auto – San Andreas to challenge understandings of what constitutes text as well as to analyze racial and gendered narratives.
I often got in trouble as a high school teacher, in part, because of what is mentioned here. Other things happened too. I used improper words. Inappropriate. I didn’t censor texts I taught in English class or student writing or projects they created. I guess my work as a teacher often made people uncomfortable. I stand behind this inappropriate work. Disruptive teaching, by its virtue, makes people uncomfortable. People need to be uncomfortable if they’re going to think seriously about the ways they’ve been coerced into different narratives – different codes and different ethics.
I’m not pretending toward hero teacher here. First, there’s thousands of teachers in this country that are, at this very moment, teaching students to better understand the codes of ethics they follow. Parents and adults too. Teaching disruptively. Secondly, I won’t pretend my teaching career was always strategic. Sometimes I made jokes or did things that, looking back, were disruptive without being productive. People find different ways to survive in school, I guess. Laughter went a long way for me. Helped me cope with the rules, the regulation, and all the little ways I was coerced into being a proper young man by people who, looking back on it, probably didn’t think too hard about what they were doing or why.
I organized Playing with Sharp Objects in a linear way. The first few chapters detail my experience in school. I work through different teachers I remember. I do this, in part, to build an account of the things teachers did in my circumstances. Because these things informed the teacher I became. How could they not? My goal wasn’t a masterpiece. No, I just wanted to share my experience as a teacher with the reader. This sharing required me to share my experiences with my colleagues. The good, bad, and the ugly. There’s nothing vindictive about the book. But it felt like there was a need to account for all the people in school who tried to coerce me into being what they thought I should be – appropriate.
I’m weary of imposing my views of what is proper or improper on others. Especially in schools.