My childhood memory, and what it did to me

At the height of the recovered-memory craze, Doonesbury did a sequence where Mark Slackmeyer interviewed a practitioner. The therapist asked Mark to think back, and Mark brought up a memory of an older man scaring him. The therapist eagerly suggested, "It's a priest, and he's trying to molest you!"

"No," Mark replied, "it's LBJ, and he's trying to draft me."

My Horrible Childhood Memory, like Mark's, is institutional and less traumatic than rape or beatings. The total institution in question is the one we all get drafted into: elementary school. The repeated trauma was learning things when they were first explained and then trying not to misbehave while the teacher kept trying over and over again to get it through to the "slow" kids. (On occasion, they attempted to press me into service helping explain the work to the slow kids, which I was not temperamentally suited for.)

One of the ways the material was presented so the slow kids could get it was with lots of pictures. I soon realized why people nastily said, "Do you want me to draw you a picture?" I now know that I overgeneralized. For one thing, "slow" was often, but not always, euphemistic. Some who took longer to learn the stuff eventually got it at least as well as I did. (And even those who didn't weren't the enemy; the system that forced me down to their level was.) But let's not get all egalitarian here. Most people are even dumber than I am, some very much so. Most of the "slow" kids ground to a halt fairly early in the learning process.

(The trauma also meant that it took me a long time to learn that pictures are not just for explaining things very slowly, and my prejudice, one of the few bad ones my mother handed down to me, against comic books (and graphic arts in general) leaves out serious art that I am incapable of understanding, though as with humanity, Sturgeon's Approximation applies, and in many if not most comic books, the pictures add negligible info to the little in the words. Now I relive the trauma every time I have to wait for AOL or some other GUI to draw the pictures needed by the majority of its users.

(I suppose it is, as usual, more complicated than it looks. A friend who uses words quite well insists that she does not think in words, but rather in tangible images. Maybe Jerome Kagan is right, and we all think in multisensory schemata, with some handling theirs by the nonverbal parts, while I pick mine up by the words, and some of those who seem to be "slow kids" are not being taught in ways they could use.)

Further complicating things, my parents, and to a lesser extent the school, believed in good old "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." The slow kids had needs, which had to be catered to. I had abilities, so I should either join in the repetitive efforts to teach, or-more likely-have the decency to shut up and not interfere with the essential process of giving to the needy. It was also tacitly assumed that there was a universal glass ceiling and no one should learn too much.

It was also a double bind for me, because my mother believed that of course I was smarter than the other kids, but it was (if I may anachronize) politically incorrect to believe that. As with all double binds, the third rule was: "Shut up," she explained. This was different from her treatment of racism, which she did right (single, congruent message on all levels): They are really (essentially) like us; do not go along with the false distinction of color. (She occasionally slipped into the common view of the races, but admitted that she was slipping and apologized for it.)

Whatever else you may say about your past, it got you here, and I try to think of the good aspects of even disasters. I have such a tendency toward low self-image that if I hadn't had the grade school horror, I'd be tempted to identify with the proletariat. Now, however, I will always think of them as the ones who took forever to figure out "The cat sat on the mat" while I wanted to read about dinosaurs. I shouldn't despise them; I try to remember that they have feelings and can hurt, and I should try to help minimize their pain. Jerry Pournelle has said that schools vaccinate children against literature--protect them from it by giving them small quantities of dead stuff. Jo Walton has made a similar remark about the mild Anglicanism inflicted on British schoolchildren by their Sturch. I have been vaccinated against egalitarianism.

I should also be wary of assuming that the class system is working. There will always be people in a lower class than they deserve. In Dr. Rosenhan's experiment the sane people who had themselves committed to asylums were no longer listened to; in the same way, slower schools are liable to assume that everyone there belongs there, and not listen to contrary evidence. The exceptions should be rescued before they internalize the idea that they belong with the group they've been put in and either stop trying to learn or (less dire) project and decide that everyone in the lower classes is unfairly oppressed. I am careful not to mistake myself for one of the lower classes, but I am the sort of liberal who believes that people don't have to be my equals to deserve decent treatment. Talented individuals in oppressed groups are pushed down and pulled down: told by the upper class that all of their kind are stupid, and told by their alleged peer group, "Don't get ahead of yourself," meaning, "Don't get ahead of us."

(Oh, and I also suffered the sort of attempted adult molestation aimed at Mark, but I didn't personify it as LBJ. I thought of it as Uncle Sam trying to give it to me up the General Hershey highway.)