I used to muse with my colleagues at FDR High School in Brooklyn that one way we could make a million dollars and retire early was to figure out how to aerosolize Ritalin. At the time the diagnoses of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and its meaner big brother, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) were zipping through the nation’s schools like the flu in December — and Ritalin, a costly prescription drug, was on hand to treat the afflicted. I joked that we, as teachers, might want to take some of the control in our own hands and carry around little mace-like canisters of it for when the kids started to get a bit wild.
A student starts to wiggle and fidget during my lecture on agricultural discontent in the early 18th Century and “psssssssttt . . .”
Now, of course, I wasn’t serious, and a modern psycho-pharmacopeia is a boon for many families, but one can also safely acknowledge that a percentage of those diagnosed ADD or ADHD are just kids bored out of their minds by school. It is not a remotely natural thing for fifteen year old human beings to sit in attentive silence on hard wooden chairs for seven hours a day. In generations before the advent of Ritalin, teachers got to crack a ruler across the knuckles of upstart kids to keep them in line, but our society is no longer comfortable with that method of behavioral control. We prefer our coercion to be invisible, internal.
Which in some ways is even more insidious.
A few years after ADHD, another diagnosis started to make the rounds: Oppositional Defiant Disorder, or ODD. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology, symptoms of an ODD child include frequent temper tantrums, excessive arguing with adults, rage and resentment, the questioning of rules, active defiance, and refusal to comply with adult requests. And you’ll forgive me if these parameters also seem to diagnose a very NORMAL child, too. And yet we medicate: sometimes appropriately, sometimes not.
Years back I had a wonderful kid named Jenny Limon. To listen to the scuttlebutt around the faculty lounge, Jenny was in danger of being diagnosed ODD. A number of my colleagues thought she should be either expelled or sent for a psych evaluation. For all I know, she may have been. As I recall, she didn’t even make it through a full year at FDR. She was a kid that sorely didn’t like busy work and she let her teachers know it. She hated the little things, like being given grief when she asked for the hall pass or to get a drink of water. She was known to throw a temper tantrum or two. She had rage. She had resentment. She relished arguing with adults. And she was one of my favorites, maybe because she was so confrontational. I’d love to know what became of her, but she’s one who ran past me while I was busy looking elsewhere in the rye. Yet, something tells me she’s going to be alright in the end. Maybe even heroically so.
The semester Jenny was in my class I’d been selected by my assistant principal to participate in a “staff development program” focusing on the use of dramatic techniques in the classroom. In general “the staff” made rude (and entirely predictable) hand gestures about “the development” being offered by the administration, but this program seemed like it might actually be cool, AND it would get me out of the classroom for a few Friday afternoons, so I willingly signed on.
After those few Fridays the two dramatists with whom I’d been training came into my classroom for a week of direct work with the students. At the time that class was wandering around the plains of Northern Europe in the early 1500s, so the director suggested that we get the kids to re-create, in sweeping terms, a scene that must have played across Europe in the days after Martin Luther, an oppositional and defiant young man if ever there was, tacked the 95 Theses to the doors of the Castle Church at Wittenberg.
We started on Monday with a short reading from Pillars of the Earth describing a town that was building a cathedral. To change the mood of a normal classroom, the director asked all the students to read the photocopied pages while wandering away from their desks. While the kids were reading, and looking very much like actors running lines, or monks studying a text, the director and I moved the students’ desks into a circle and laid a blanket over some book bags we’d placed in the center of the room. As we were doing so, the assistant director lit candles and pulled the shades, which darkened a room like a theater with only the curtain warmers left up. Then, as the students finished their reading, the director improvised a role — speaking as Chorus to an audience he’d slowly pull into the story. The blanket that covered the book bags became the rolling hills of a Medieval Town. He named the trades and titles of the city, stopping and gently touching the students on the shoulder incanting, “. . . smithy, fishmonger, tavern owner, lord . . .” Then, maintaining the magic that suspends disbelief, he spoke of a physical world into which we’d set our action, indicating where their homes would be, where their fields would lay, where the sun would rise and set in their valley. It was brilliant.
Then the director spoke of the abbey and the half-finished cathedral that sat upon the hill. He spoke of its history and our sacred duty to carry on the work that had begun fifty years before by our grandparents’ generation. We had the opportunity, here and now, to commit to the cathedral’s completion. To do so would put our children and our children’s children that much closer to salvation. Yet, sadly, the coffers were empty and we would need an enormous sum of money to complete the Lord’s work.
He then produced from his jacket a letter and told the assembled that he’d recently received orders from the Vatican. Construction MUST continue despite economic hardships, no matter what. Construction must continue.
His presentation was excellent. It evoked a mood. It employed accents and a visceral sense of the space. It was hokey as hell, but it brought a bunch of Brooklyn teenagers and their teacher into a phase-shifted world outside the normal classroom, and in the back of the room, oppositional and defiant Jenny was taking it all in.
The set up for the week was pretty straight forward. We were going to create a morally and ethically charged condition for our students and then make them fight their way out. On the second day we shifted the scene into the abbey itself. Candles were again lighted. An image of the Rose Window of Chartes was projected on the back wall of the room. Moments of silence were enforced while Gregorian chants played on my boombox in the background. The students were asked to take on the role of monks who had been ordered to raise money to continue building the cathedral. If a monk wished to speak, they need only stand and be recognized.
The problem was presented: We must build the cathedral, but where to find the gold?
Variables were introduced. To increase taxation on the villagers would drive some to starvation and others to poverty and theft. Theft was a sin, and therefore our decision was fraught with the understanding that while saving some souls, we might be condemning others to death or eternal damnation. This led to an introspective discussion on the morality of a church that would tax the poor while supporting a clergy living in comfort. Danny, one of my favorite boys, stood up and declared that so long as “we lived within these walls” safe from the elements, then we had no right to ask for money from the poor. A few other monks grumbled in assent. That was promising to hear. When trying to create an alternative reality, if you can hook a few of the students the rest of them tend to fall into the imagination more readily. Such is the power of culture.
The abbot then ratcheted up the heat by receiving a direct order from the Vatican. That it was actually a prearranged envelope brought to the door by one of my colleagues who had a prep period at the time didn’t seem to matter. The letter instructed the monks that they would either raise money for the cathedral or they would be turned out of the monastery themselves just as winter was coming to our latitudes. The stress level rose markedly. This was an injustice, and if nothing else, 16-year-old kids can spot injustices from several miles away. This is a truth that likely abides in all epochs.
In the back, I saw Jenny start to fidget and wiggle, but she fought hard and maintained composure.
The following days were remarkable as my Brooklyn teenagers spent their time in heightened disputation about the morality of hierarchical religious institutions. There was even a nascent revolutionary movement hatched between Danny (a monk from Bensonhurst) and one of his friends (a monk from a Bangladeshi branch of the brotherhood) to radically redistribute the wealth of the order if the monks were to be turned out onto the streets. “If we wanted, we could even live here with the people all together, at least for a little while.” Friar Danny from Bensonhurst and Brother Bitar from Bangladesh, forming a proto-anarcho-syndicalist collective on the plains of Medieval Northern Europe . . .
There were days that I really loved my job.
Throughout the week, oppositional and defiant Jenny had been hanging back, brooding, but clearly taking everything in. She was down for the revolution, but was also biding her time. Then, when the abbot suggested that we could raise coin with a new system of indulgences that had recently come into fashion in Italy, Jenny became a fire-breathing revolutionary.
The mechanism, the abbot explained, was simple: As we know, men will always sin. And we know that in order for men to gain salvation, they must do penance. Therefore, it has been determined by the Vatican that we need not wait for a sin to be committed. Rather, we may create a market wherein men, who are inveterate sinners anyway, can provide the church with its needs and in exchange the men might buy a form of insurance, “an indulgence, if you will” from the church before the sin is committed . . .
Most of the kids were confused at first. But I could see Jenny’s eyes start to enflame as the meaning of what the abbot had said took hold. I have no idea what injustice she’d faced in her life, but this was a passion coming from a very real source. She hadn’t said a word in three days as the debate had swirled around her. But now she stood and asked the abbot if he really meant that people could “pay first and sin later?”
The abbot said yes.
Jenny pressed on. “You mean a man could pay you today, kill some dude tomorrow, and still be forgiven?”
“Technically, yes,” the abbot responded.
“And stealing the same? And raping? Anything?”
“Yes, but men are sinners and we need the money to do God’s work.”
“That’s bullshit and you know it!” Jenny shouted.
“Those are our orders from our Pope,” the abbot calmly responded.
“Then,” Jenny said as she held the abbot’s glare, “both you and your pope can go to hell . . .”
The abbot affected a look of visible shock, and while it may have been bad form (either as a high school teacher or the assistant rector of this medieval abbey) I couldn’t stifle a chuckle of pride.
Thursday was spent in coalition building. The abbot held court on one side of the room. Jenny sat cross-legged on the floor in the corner, while Danny and Bitar brought wavering monks to her for a conversation. They pled their cases for and against the sale of indulgences. Towards the end of class, a vote was held and a majority of the monks sided with the abbot. The order would, indeed, sell indulgences to raise money for the cathedral. Those that sided with the abbot didn’t want to risk having to live outdoors, wandering the roads in poverty. Moreover, they wanted to build a cathedral because it would make their city rich and beautiful. Many of them were fearful of what the abbot might do by way of punishment, as he intentionally spread the rumor that he had significant influence with Mr. Tallon on their grade for this week’s activity. Some of the students went along just because siding with the abbot took less effort. In so much, they were also playing a historically relevant role. A few operators craftily negotiated their support into choice positions within the order. I’m not sure if control of the hall pass was ever considered simony in Rome, but you could have made a good case for it in room 423 of FDR High School on a November morning some ten years ago.
Jenny, for her part, was able to convince six other students to stand on moral grounds, Danny and Bitar among them. As the session drew to a close, the abbot called the monastery to order and informed the rebels that they were facing excommunication. To which Jenny responded that if that was the case, then she and her friends would “go and tell everybody about this bootleg indulgence bullshit.”
The class again ended with Jenny and the abbot staring at one another in cold silence. You could have heard the proverbial pin drop.
I had no idea what we were going to do on Friday to wrap up this whole tableau, and when I met with the dramatists during my lunch period I expressed that concern to the director.
“What do we do now?”
The director answered nonchalantly, “Oh, we’re going to execute them.”
Friday’s class began with the assistant director snapping her fingers, at which two large male students we’d contacted earlier got up and stood arms akimbo, at her side. The seven “protestors of the Church” were told that they would be held under guard as an ecclesiastical court determined their fate. Jenny and her six compatriots were led out of the classroom to the storage closet next to my class. A guard stood outside the door to prevent their “escape,” while one of my colleagues watched from across the hall to prevent my “getting fired.”
Inside the class there was a debate, and it was determined that each of the rebellious monks be given one last chance to confess their sin of insolence, but if they didn’t they would be executed.
Execution was to be symbolically achieved by giving each of the students on trial a candle. If they wished to confess their disobedience and then place their candle, still alight, on my desk, they could join the other monks who would form a circle around the condemned priests. Alternatively, they could say their final words before a ritual execution.
Towards the end of class, word was brought to Jenny and her rebels, and candles were distributed. They were left alone to discuss amongst themselves what was to be done. They had five minutes, but if felt like hours before the guard knocked at my classroom door and told us that they were ready to return.
Again, the shades had been drawn. Their classmates stood around the room with heads down. The abbot leaned over my desk with a scowl as twenty-six candles, each representing one of his “obedient” monks, glowed in his eyes. The assistant director and I made way through the students so that Jenny’s group could walk to the center of the room unmolested. Each one was guarding their own candle against the world.
What happened next was astonishing. The seven students stepped into this make-shift Star Chamber with a sense of righteous resolve. Jenny, oppositional and defiant as Martin Luther himself, took her place in front of the abbot. Four students lined up directly behind her. Danny stood a rank back to her right. Bitar, a rank back to her left.
It took a minute to sink in: they had formed a cross.
The abbot then read out the charges and explained to them that all they had to do to save their lives (and quite possibly their grades) was to abandon their foolish rebellion, embrace the teachings of the church, and put their candles down on the desk in front of him. It would be so easy. Just come home to us. Come home to the Church.
And if they refused, as per previous agreement, they would be led to the back of the room where their candles would be taken from them and extinguished. They would then be required to stand in silence, facing the rear wall.
The abbot asked if they understood.
Jenny nodded, as did her band of rebels.
The abbot walked around the desk one last time and solicitously asked Jenny if she would like to forget this whole thing ever happened and come back to the flock.
Oppositional, defiant and beautiful Jenny looked down at her candle and then back at the abbot with eyes ablaze and screamed so loud I’m sure that classrooms all over the school were momentarily stopped in wonder:
At which point Jenny and her monks, in unison, defiantly and in utter, passionate opposition, blew out their candles but stood their ground, letting their spirit rise on a breeze that blew in from a cracked fourth floor classroom window somewhere in the hinterlands of Brooklyn.
Hearing the scream, my assistant principal rushed to the door of my classroom with that look of desperation particular to frightened middle managers on her face. She stared, stupefied, at the scene. Seven students with smoke rising from their candles glared back at a classroom visitor as the rest of the students and their teacher stood with their backs up against the walls of the room. The class remained frozen like that for a moment until the director broke into a smile and started to applaud. Then the rest of the class joined in and there were whoops of joy and some high fives mixed in with the “what the hell just happened” looks on all of our faces.
If only for a few moments it seemed like someone had just transmuted all the base metals of Brooklyn into gold.
Jenny Limon, oppositional and defiant as a revolutionary, had done something truly amazing. And something entirely human. She had encountered the functionaries of a system that valued wealth and order over justice, and the peaceful status quo over righteous individual will. And she had won.
Again, I have no idea what happened to Jenny, and I don’t doubt that she was a terror in many a classroom other than mine. But when given something interesting to do, when given the opportunity to express her passion and her spirit, she flew. And, maybe as is her nature, she flew straight into the face of authority and oppression.
That’s what we expect of our heroes, isn’t it?
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[…] read another story about my students, consider this one about the brilliant young revolutionary, Jenny […]