Of all the words to split hairs over…

6 minute read

August 24, 2019, 9:18 AM

I’ve got one more school story for you.  I figure that I’ve told this one so many times to various people that it’s worth putting in Journal entry form and getting “on the record” once and for all.  It also demonstrates just how toxic the situation was in 1990 at Bonnie Grimes Elementary School in Rogers.

Fourth grade, as I’ve indicated before, was a pretty rough year.  This particular incident occurred in late October.  I was in the car rider line after school, waiting for my ride to church for the after-school program that I participated in on Wednesday evenings.  The teacher on car duty was Vicki George, the speech therapist, i.e. the person who worked with the kids that had speech impediments.  Having no speech impediments myself, I never worked with Mrs. George in an official capacity.  My only interactions with her were when she was supervising other kids, i.e. lunch duty, bus duty, car duty, and so on.  My interactions with her were generally negative, because she was a real stickler for behavior – more so than the regular teachers – and as such, on several occasions, I got nailed for stuff that I wouldn’t have gotten nailed for by anybody else.  I generally tried to avoid her, but sometimes our interactions were inevitable.  I don’t remember how I managed to piss her off on this particular occasion in the car line, but somehow, I did, but in any case, it was something really minor (and what I did isn’t relevant to the rest of the discussion).  I remember that she told me, “I’m giving you a yellow slip,” i.e. a report about a disciplinary matter, just before my ride showed up and I left.

I thought nothing of it, and the next day, I got a copy of my yellow slip.  Okay, then.  I didn’t hear anything else about it for a while, so I figured that was the end of it.

Oh, how wrong I was.

A week or so later, as I was heading out to recess, I got called aside by my regular teacher.  I was to report to Mrs. George’s room.  When I got there, I was to serve my punishment for my transgression in the car line.  The punishment was to copy five or so definitions from a dictionary that Mrs. George had provided.  My assignment was to look the words up and copy the definitions onto the paper provided.  Fair enough.  In the process of all of this, I remember going past the definition of “flaunt” while in search of a different definition, and thinking to myself that I was glad that I didn’t have to copy that definition, as it was a long one.

The last word that I had to copy the definition for was “pettiness”.  It was a very short one, and it used the base word in the definition.  It was something along the lines of, “The state of being petty.”  I didn’t mind, because it meant that I was getting off easy for that last word.  I copied that very short definition, and went to turn the assignment in, having served my punishment, and intending to return to class.

Mrs. George looked the assignment over.  She saw my copied definition for “pettiness”, and challenged me on that, telling me that wasn’t the definition, and that I needed to do that one over.  I was surprised, because I had copied the definition exactly.  My general philosophy when it came to punishments was that it was a bad idea to fool around with those.  You’re already in trouble, so don’t make it any worse.  Just do it, get it over with, and move on.  Thus why I copied it exactly.  I resented this punishment in the first place, but the easiest way forward was to just go through with it.  But at the same time, I wasn’t going to do anything above and beyond what was assigned to me as a punishment.  I’m not a masochist, after all.

That said, I knew that I had copied the right definition, and so I refused, offering to show Mrs. George the definition in the dictionary.  After all, she had assigned the word, and it had a short definition in the dictionary that she had provided to me for this assignment.  This was something that was entirely within her control, considering that she provided both the words and the dictionary.  If she didn’t want a short definition, she should have chosen another word.  Mrs. George refused to look at the dictionary to verify the definition, and took my challenge as an act of defiance, even though I was completely right.

And with that, it was off to the principal’s office, which was a place with which I was very familiar.  There, Mrs. Carmical listened to what Mrs. George told her, and then acted based solely upon Mrs. George’s account of things.  Mrs. Carmical handed me a new piece of paper, a pencil, and a dictionary, and told me that I was going to do the whole assignment over.  My first thought was, absolutely not.  I had already completed it once, and I wasn’t about to complete it again.  So I just sat there.

Ultimately, this incident ended in a stalemate.  I waited it out, sitting in Mrs. Carmical’s office for the rest of the day, doing nothing.  Mrs. Carmical did not press the point, and so the punishment was over when school let out for the day.

This whole incident was messed up in so many ways.  Holding the original transgression as constant, and assuming that the punishment was intended to be fair (i.e. she was not deliberately setting me up), Mrs. George made two big mistakes.  First, based on her reaction to the definition of “pettiness”, it was clear that she had not looked up any of those definitions herself.  If she had, she would have known that the last definition was a short one, and presumably would have avoided it.  Second, after being challenged, she refused to verify it.  After all, if she knew that she was right and that I was wrong, she would have no problem with going in and showing me how I was wrong.  But she wouldn’t do it.  She just had to be right, because she was the teacher and I was the student.  I don’t understand the mindset where teachers just have to be right, even when they’re wrong, because ultimately, all it does is cause them to lose the respect of their students.  Especially so in cases like this, where they are demonstrably wrong.  But once you go all in on being right like that, there’s no going back from that without losing face in a major way.  In other words, the teacher is always right, and if the teacher is wrong, see rule number one.  Likewise, there’s also the idea that the student is always wrong, especially if the student’s being right means that the teacher would be demonstrated to be wrong.  That sort of mindset in practice can be very damaging, considering how impressionable kids are at that age.  Meanwhile, Mrs. Carmical had the power to stop the whole thing, and chose not to.  The proper thing to do would have been to look at the assignment, look at my paper, and look at the dictionary, and verify that the assignment was completed according to instructions.  The correct response should have been, “So what’s the problem?”  After all, it’s assumed that she is principal for a reason, and conflict resolution would be one of those things that principals should be expected to do.  The teacher might have had egg on her face because she made a mistake, but things would have been settled definitively and fairly.  But that’s not what happened, because this was Grimes Elementary, and fairness wasn’t how they operated.  Instead, Mrs. Carmical just took the teacher at her word, automatically assumed that I was wrong, and acted based on that.  I lost a lot of respect for both of them that day.

Let’s also talk about the word that was challenged: “pettiness”.  Out of all of the words to be petty over, Mrs. George was being extremely petty over “pettiness”.  I suppose that if she didn’t like my definition for it, then she would just demonstrate what pettiness was all about?  Who knows.  Also, what is it about teachers’ insistence on always having to be right, even when they’re not?  I would really have a lot of respect for a teacher who is willing to admit a mistake when challenged on it, or can demonstrate why they are right, rather than viewing any challenge as an act of defiance.  This wasn’t unique to Mrs. George or even Grimes, though.  That happened throughout my educational career with a number of different teachers.  Ultimately, all it does is cause you to lose the respect of your students, and that just makes everything more difficult.  After all, it’s harder to work with people that have lost respect for you.  Respect is earned, not demanded, and is easily lost.

This whole episode is also a testament as to why individual teachers should not directly punish, and instead let the next level up hand down the discipline.  In middle and high school, after all, the teacher’s responsibility for discipline ends when they send the student out of class.  After that point, it’s up to the administrators to figure out what happened and then determine discipline based on policy.  I could live with that, because I knew what to expect, and there was a separation between the person whose emotions are wrapped up in it and the person who is assigning punishment.  At Grimes, there was a sheet with “school rules” posted in every classroom that included specific punishments for infractions.  However, those rules were ultimately just decorative, because every teacher came up with their own rules and meted out their own punishments, without any sort of guide to determine what punishment fit with what infraction.  It drove me crazy because there was no consistency.  I would much rather see them follow a flowchart so that discipline is nice and consistent.  Some punishments did fit the infractions, but often times they didn’t, as the teachers often would let their emotions get in the way, and ended up giving out-sized punishments for minor infractions.

In the end, this was one more incident to add to the dumpster fire that was fourth grade.  Things would get much worse before they got better, and I was delighted when that year ended.