“Let’s Pretend It’s The Principal’s Skull!”

I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself. — John Dewey, from “My Pedagogic Creed”

It was the 5th grade but that was irrelevant. We already had it figured out. Their real job was to teach us two iron lessons, and we were expected to memorize them cold: 1) The teachers were always watching, and 2) The teachers were the rulers in charge. Which made about as much sense as stale air in a rubber ball, because the evidence was already clear: the teachers were actually counterfeits. The real ones were being driven to extinction. We didn’t know how, but our hunch was that they were being poached so their bodies could be used as camouflage by these robot “rulers in charge.” It made sense.

It started to make sense when the new principal arrived. The switch that controlled Mr. Briar’s brain was set to Maximum Corporal Punishment, and he immediately invented the task of straightening us out and “fixing” our school. As far as we could tell, the school wasn’t broken, but Mr. Briar was squarely convinced that our minds were being “ruined by the hippies.” His mission was to purge them, replace them with evil obedience machines, and transform Vineyard Elementary into a prison camp.

Detentions were suddenly handed down for the smallest “infractions” like writing our names in textbooks (which we had always been instructed to do), or blurting out answers before raising our hands and waiting to be chosen. New rules were coming faster than we could wad the printed notices to our parents into spitballs.

One week I was holding hands with Shirley; the next it was palms flat, arms to the sides, and separate lunch lines; and the next it was getting a swat for kissing her on the lips. I thought we were in the clear, but Mr. Glitsch with his lazy left eye was peeking us out the whole time from around the corner of the building—and he waited until we were finished before springing his trap and sending us to the office.

On our way there I asked her, “If kissing is against the rules, how come he didn’t stop us right away?” Shirley just shook her head, walked with her eyes fixed to the ground, and didn’t say a word, as if she was signaling that we didn’t want to know the answer. We both got swats from Mr. Briar, and after that we drifted apart.

We weren’t alone. Girls, boys, blacks, whites, and kids from different grades were forming into separate groups. Fights after school were happening more often. Some of the kids’ grades were dropping, and even our schoolwork began to look different. Drawings of race cars, castles and puppies turned into car crashes, burning houses, and black dogs with red glowing eyes and bubble captions that read, “Single-file! Left-right-left!” and “Wrong! Do it again!”

One day I was sitting next to Brian in art class. He was clenching a fistful of crayons, the ugly colors that nobody liked. He had the tips pushed flush against the paper so they made one giant crayon like a “suicide” drink from 7-Eleven but without any flavor (not that anyone was eating the crayons). Then he began coloring in a wild circular motion, coloring really hard, so hard it was making tears in the paper, and the picture he made was a hideous blob that looked like throw-up mixed with gasoline and set on fire. Then he added stick people running in all directions, and when he finally stopped, I just looked at him and said, “Well, what is it?”

“Napalm.”

Brian only weeks earlier had been obsessed with “Speed Racer” and coloring the immortal picture of the Mach 5, and here he was, flashing back to the third grade when the new kids from Vietnam came out of nowhere and joined our school. We left on a Friday, came back on Monday, and there they were, a pack of about 30 of them, sticking close together, speaking their Vietnamese, and not trusting a one of us. It didn’t matter what we were—black, brown, white, whatever—none of them would talk to us at first.

But after a few months of English lessons taught by the good teachers—the ones we still had back then—they started telling us stories about the American bombers that dropped fire all around them and forced them to move to bigger villages where they had to hide from American grenades and machine guns and the other Vietnamese from the north. The worst part, they said, was that both sides were shooting their relatives who weren’t doing anything wrong; either that or they were shooting them by accident, or worse: just for fun.

A few of the kids had American dads who got them out of there and brought them and their mothers back with them to California. Some of the kids were orphans because their relatives were dead or trapped behind and not allowed to leave. Either way, it was weird to watch the war on television, then hear about all the “refugees” coming to America, and realize I was going to school with them now.

And when they talked about what their country was like when the bombs started falling—that the air was full of smoke and the stench of burning bodies, the sky was always dark and sad, and their families and friends were being slaughtered—I figured that that was Brian’s image of our worsening situation: these “teachers” were dropping punishments like bombs and making us prisoners in our own school.

And even those kids were saying that the place was closing in, steadily getting darker and sadder, and that the bad teachers were “disappearing” the good ones. It was nothing compared to the horrors they’d experienced; nevertheless, it was a process they seemed to be familiar with.

But speaking of throw-up, that’s what our school lunches began to look like. And our choices for school activities we’re being eliminated. Art class was cut from an hour to a half hour. Music class was cut altogether. Team sports were replaced with marching and formation drills. Instead of having open debates in history class, we were told to simply memorize the material, pass the tests, and not ask questions. And we were constantly reminded of the Two Cardinal Lessons: the teachers were always watching us, and their rule was absolute and not to be challenged.

We finally came to realize that there was another, darker lesson being taught, a lesson we knew was a complete lie: that our world was going to be flat—nondescript, malformed, deflated by design, and dictated by others—and we needed to form a resistance, but how?

The only symbol of protest we had was a red rubber ball we brought back from recess, after taking it to the playground where nobody could hear us, and forming a wide circle around it so we could take turns kicking and kicking the shit out of it until the fucker finally popped—then facing the relentless accusations of “deliberate destruction of school property,” which we denied vigorously for fear of our lives.

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