Friday, October 09, 2009

Me and Authority

I sometimes say that I'm really not a very sweet, nice person and I usually get reactions along the lines of "Ha ha! You're funny!" or "You're too hard on yourself."

But honestly, sweetness has never been one of my major virtues. As a young child I trusted nobody, felt suspicious of any motivator or program designed to improve my mind or attitude, and felt contempt for kids who jumped enthusiastically into whatever project they were told to jump into.

It would be easy to pump myself up by saying that such children were duller and more sheeplike than I was, but it's seriously untrue. School Enthusiasts were often genuinely bright, creative kids.

Below you'll find an approximation of one of those elementary school motivational doohickeys : The Rainbow Reading Chart.

This is NOT the actual chart. I did not cherish or keep mine, and I've looked at all kinds of reading incentive tools online but cannot find anything like it, so this is a guesswork version that I've created purely from memory.

I've guessed at the categories, but I think the chart was evenly divided between fiction and nonfiction and I'm pretty sure that we got that bonus circle in the middle to use for an extra book in a category we liked best.

No matter - it gives you the general idea.

It's good for kids to expand their horizons and not just read the same kind of thing over and over -- actually I do, really, pretty much see the merit in that -- so some educator somewhere came up with using color as a motivator.

For each book we read, we colored one box in the correct subject row. We were allegedly inspired to read at least one book in every category so as to complete the outer circle, coloring every box around the rim. Then work our way inward, reading more in each row.

We all had to do and turn in a chart, but our level of achievement was up to us. It was handed out by the librarian during weekly Library Time, and wasn't graded. This being the 1960s, when humiliating kids was considered just fine, she held up each chart when we turned them in, so that the reluctant reader, with only 3 or 4 boxes colored at all, got to squirm for a few seconds. In many ways it was a majorly sukky era.

Here's my recreation of the completely filled and exquisitely colored chart of a Paragon Of Educational Achievement and Good Attitude, whom I will call Suzy :

"Suzy" always delivered with gusto. See how snarky I'm being? It's jealousy. She was truly smart, both a good artist and a good creative writer. No idea what became of her after elementary school but I suspect good things.

Anyway she got really into assignments like this and her chart was held up for us as both a show of well-rounded reading -- I mean, Suzy would read anything -- and a great coloring job. Other cool coloring jobs were also praised.

Creative coloring was not discouraged. They weren't rigid about coloring rules, really. Fun was OK. You could use the rainbow, or do all shades of purple or whatever you liked. The main idea was to read widely.

My chart was nothing to brag on. I read only what I wanted to read. It annoyed me that extra books weren't counted once their category was filled, but I basically said "Pffft" to switching over to some topic I didn't care about, when I could be reading another Nancy Drew or Little House story.

My interests really weren't all that narrow. I had spells of engagement in various topics. I pored over the World Book's anthropology section. My family was full of doctors and I went through a phase of fascination with medical advances. History was fun if there was good drama. Squanto and the Pilgrims was a wonderful, sad story. I devoured lots of those Bobbs Merrill Childhood of Famous Americans biographies for kids that later, in library school, we were told were didactic and boring turnoffs for children. Sheesh. They weren't for me!

But anyway, this chart was a one-time thing, done between certain dates. My bursts of nonfiction interest took place either before or after it, and naturally, reading World Book for fun didn't count.

My parents, who were/are none too fond of conformity either (This, by the way, is a Clue), instilled in me no ardor for incentive programs. I read plenty without charts, and they actually kind of wanted me reading less and playing outdoors more. I was really a little snot about the enthusiastic kids. Can't they see through all this Pretty Colors, certificates, Gold Stars crap?! I wondered. When the grownups want to make us do something, they try to fool us into thinking that we're the ones who want to do it.

The thing that -- I guess? -- made me differ from the other kids was not that I was such an independent thinker, but that I had a trust problem. The Suzys of the world really believed that teachers and other Powers That Be had our best interests at heart; that even annoying assignments most likely had good motives behind them. For Suzy, the glass was half full; for me, half empty.

It persists, in that I really really do NOT like authority. I always saw authority as being the creator of meaningless Dilbert-style busywork that keeps people too busy to rock the boat.

It's how I felt about assignments that actually had no dark purpose at all, and were only ways to help me grow and learn. This was one of them -- now I see it as kind of a neat idea.

It's how I still feel about School Spirit blather, which I think is strictly a way to channel kids' energies into supporting the Regime in Power, rather than questioning it. It's for sure how I felt about the county I used to work for, with its endless round of meaningless meetings and procedures.

My mission, and I guess I choose to accept it, is to learn to sort good authority from bad, but I will probably never get past thinking that anyone who issues rules or requirements for me is guilty of a power trip until proven innocent.


Mike said...

They're pretty devious, though. Those biographies that purport to show the childhoods of Great Americans are often carrying a message that, if you'd given a Great American one of those charts, it would have come back perfectly colored and totally complete. ;-)

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

8~) Those biographies also gave us the impression that their illustrators were traditional-values folks who would never draw rude comics or ...Worse Things!