My classroom, my teaching, and the school environment — all of these projected daily lessons to students about who they were and who they should be.
I noticed I had been tagged by a former high school student on Facebook a few days ago. “While looking for pictures of my Daddy in some old memory and picture boxes that I forgot existed,” she began, “I came across this WHS [Woodruff High School] artifact that became the deciding factor on whether or not I was punished with demerits for a week out of every month.”*
She posted these pictures of the artifacts, hall passes from my class:
The high school where I taught English for 18 years was the same high school I had attended. By the time I was reaching the end of my time there, the school had morphed into an extremely authoritarian environment — demerits issued to students for being late to class, simply going to the restroom during class (for any reason), eating in class or chewing gum, and the usual assortment of what most people would deem disciplinary issues such as fighting or causing a disturbance during class (“holding court” and talking back being the major offenses).
These strict rules meant some students found themselves issued in-school suspension (ISS) for nothing more than very minor infractions, such as needing to use the restroom several times.
As this student noted, and as is typical of school dress codes, for example, these policies were very harsh and disproportionate for young women during their menstrual cycles:
I was 15 years old and hated getting demerits for needing to use the restroom. (you know — — that unfair rule that is a blatant disregard for females and the needs we biologically have zero control over. The one that punishes females because periods refuse to schedule themselves around a 12 minute break or that 4 minutes we were given to change classes.)
Early in my career as a teacher, which began in the fall of 1984, I recognized that teaching English was often about far more than reading, writing, and literacy. My classroom, my teaching, and the school environment — all of these projected daily lessons to students about who they were and who they should be.
Frankly, I found those lessons to be extremely problematic.
One principal allowed prayer over the intercom and boldly announced that he would be proud to be punished for flagrantly breaking the law — all while expecting students to meticulously follow every rule imposed on them by the administration and teachers.
The first decade of teaching, in fact, taught me that formal education is often a way to reflect and perpetuate the very worst aspects of sexism, racism, and classism grounded in a community. In my doctoral program, I came to recognize I had been thinking and practicing critical pedagogy without any real awareness it had a formal name and philosophy.
But the restroom pass, I think, and how I navigated school and classroom rules with my students stand today as (using my former student’s language) powerful artifacts of a more basic grounding for how formal education and teaching should be guided — maintaining an awareness of and respect for basic human dignity among all students.
While the school policy for restroom visits mandated that all students were turned in for any trip during class, I initiated a policy that allowed students simply to take a prepared pass (see the artifacts above) and go to the restroom if needed, no demerits issued. Students did not need to ask and were expected to leave and return with a minimum of disruption to class.
I explained my policy and stressed to students that it was their responsibility to honor what I was offering — that using my policy to sneak a smoke, vandalize the restroom, or simply to wander the halls would put them at great risk of being punished harshly if caught by another teacher or an administrator. In other words, I could offer grace from embarrassment and demerits, but I could not control what happened once they left my room.
Throughout much of those 18 years, I was almost daily reprimanded by administration for not issuing demerits for students coming late to class, using the restroom during class, and eating or chewing gum in class. This was stressful (and petty, I felt) and genuinely helped bring my career as a public school teacher to an end.
Human dignity and professionalism also cannot be partitioned.
Another aspect of how I managed my class in opposition to school rules I found dehumanizing and (using every chance to teach) draconian included that I always explained to my students that I was not sneaking or hiding my practices as a teacher from anyone. I was openly challenging these rules and I was also willing to pay the consequences.
Once the assistant principal and athletic director/football coach stood at my door and began to yell at me since several students were eating while working on their essays. That day, I walked out of the class, past him, and to the principal, explaining what happened and noting it needed to be the last time it did.
How can we, I asked, expect students to maintain a level of behavior, tone, and deference to authority that the people charged with authority in the school flaunted daily?
I simply have never been able to separate my personal aversion to hypocrisy from my roles as teacher, coach, or parent. As I have noted in posts before, I had a sign on my wall that read: “Any fool can make a rule and any fool will mind it” (Henry David Thoreau).
The more I taught, the more I recognized that my role as a teacher of literacy was about power and human autonomy. I could not compartmentalize classroom discipline, interacting with students, and the so-called ELA curriculum from each other.
Ethically and philosophically, all of my behavior as the teacher and as a person had to be consistent with the ideals I believed in — central to that being the need to respect the human dignity and autonomy of the students assigned to my class, and all of the students in our school.
Of course, over 18 years, I made many mistakes in both how I treated students and in my teaching; I failed students from time to time as people, and I did occasional great harm to reading and writing (sigh).
But much of the time, my classroom was a safe haven for young people to be honest and genuine, for learning to be a community experience, and for lessons that were healthy and fair but not simply about Nathaniel Hawthorne or writing literary analysis.
And my classroom was a work-in-progress, searching for ways to meet Paulo Freire’s idea of teacher/student working with students/teachers as well as creating my teaching role as authoritative, not authoritarian.
Reading the Facebook post from a former student, written 20 years after the fact, helped me understand that the hall pass was more than a loophole or a pass to use the restroom. It was a pass for a student to be fully human as a 15 year old young woman.
How often as adults, especially in schools, do we deny children and teens access to their humanity as if they need a pass for that? As if each of us is not born with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?
When we as adults are charged with roles of authority, our first directive should be always to see and to hear the humanity of those assigned to that authority.
It has been two decades since I left teaching high school, and one of my students reached out with kindness and once again taught me a lesson.
And a reminder for me as a person and a teacher: “But I have promises to keep,/ And miles to go before I sleep.”
* The full post reads:
While looking for pictures of my Daddy in some old memory and picture boxes that I forgot existed, I came across this WHS artifact that became the deciding factor on whether or not I was punished with demerits for a week out of every month.
I feel like I need to make this confession — — 20 years later. When you were my teacher in tenth grade, I accidentally brought this hall pass home in my coat pocket on like the first or second day of school. I had every intention of returning it and apologizing for the accidental theft, but I was 15 years old and hated getting demerits for needing to use the restroom. (you know — — that unfair rule that is a blatant disregard for females and the needs we biologically have zero control over. The one that punishes females because periods refuse to schedule themselves around a 12 minute break or that 4 minutes we were given to change classes.)
I wasn’t searching for a loophole, but a loophole found me. I held onto to this hall pass for my entire sophomore year. I went from having to attend Saturday school regularly to have demerits erased to stave off ISS to never getting another demerit.
This hall pass did the same thing my junior and senior years. I used to look at it and remember there was at least one teacher at WHS that refused to enforce such bullshit. Tonight I looked at it and saw a symbol of how indoctrinated and conditioned we are/were to the archaic rules and punishments that infringe on our very basic needs.
Thank you for being a teacher that absolutely refused to punish girls for having functional ovaries.