Tuesday, March 12, 2013

800 Words: To My 19 and 24 Year Old Political Selves (Part II)

January 2001. I co-led a group of students down from Hyde School in Woodstock Connecticut to Washington DC to protest the Bush inauguration. I moved heaven and earth to get the school to allow the students to go, and somehow was the one who ended up doing all the legwork to get them there and attracting all the firepower from teachers who wanted nothing more than to see this effort of ours fail. I sent a letter to the entire faculty of the school telling them in no uncertain terms that they were hypocrites for demanding higher levels of moral character from students while not doing what it took to help their students when they took the initiative to act morally. And if you understood anything about the climate of that place, you’d know that sending a letter like that is roughly as dangerous to your future as walking into machine gun fire.

The defining realization may have come from college, but the need for a defining realization came from Hyde School: the defining three years of my life to this day, and I expect for many decades more.

I don’t know what the Hyde School has become, it’s an experience that is more than ten years in the past. But at the time, Hyde School was a place which bred unreality. It prayed on desperate families and provided them with a ready-made doctrine for life as rigid as any religious or totalitarian dogma - and once those families were ensnared, it proved just as hard for them to escape. Like with any religion, there should be no doubt that there are many people whose lives were made better by its ministrations. But, like religion, the improvement of those lives was almost always effected at the cost of worsening the lives of others. Like all totalitarian regimes, it encouraged friends to turn against friends, contorted language so words would mean precisely their opposite, and weaponized fear as a means of conditioning students to love their tormentors. It was a feasting ground for sexual predators, both teacher and student, and was a place where bullies could stretch the full plumage of their inner sadists in ways that were completely sanctioned by the school. It utilized interrogation techniques that made the techniques which the Bush Administration approved at Guantanamo seem all too familiar, and used them far more liberally than the Bush Administration ever did. Hyde was a school, one of many in America for wayward youth, whose entire apparatus is built for the reconditioning of kids’ brains to alter their sense of reality. Now, before you accuse me of sounding like a raving conspiracy theorist, let’s put some things about Hyde in proper perspective.

There is no one in the world who needs their perceptions of reality altered more than teenagers, and particularly badly behaved teenagers. So for all its problems, let’s not exaggerate, and let’s give the devil it’s due. The majority of kids who ended up at Hyde were those whose conduct was so beyond redemption that a proliferant measure of the harshest possible discipline might have done some of them good - and a few of them probably needed still harsher discipline than Hyde afforded. Furthermore, it gave some children with a bent toward fanaticism and sadism (sentiments which, for the sake of argument, let’s admit might be used to advance virtuous causes so long as there are proper and ironclad restraints on how it is used...) the self-assurance they needed to face adulthood with a confidence they otherwise would never have developed, even if that confidence came at the expense of students who were less willing to give their critical faculties over to other people. But against the gains accorded these students must come the losses of the students who were more withdrawn, more isolated, more uncertain, and less self-confident, than their extraverted peers. No amount of public shaming, or barely disguised corporal punishment, or extreme mental pressure to confess to bad acts (often acts which never happened), will raise their sense of self - it will only destroy what little self-possession they have. If such students had fragile mental faculties to begin with, their ability to adequately process reality in any context would have been utterly demolished by a school which puts such stock in destroying a person’s previously held sense of self. So no, Hyde is not the Soviet Union. It may have ruined lives, but Hyde never killed anybody. Though if laws had permitted them...

This is not a post to document its various crimes and abuses Hyde committed, though I’m sure that post will one day come. I’ve already written about those years in certain ways before, though never in great detail. Hyde is like the proverbial elephant in the room of this blog, the experience of which stalks every post in ways I probably still can’t even imagine. Doubtless, had it been about any other subject, Hyde would have told me to document every single abuse, and denounce them all in the most humiliating and public possible voice (“The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable” was one of the most oft-repeated, and most terrifying, cliches which they parroted ad nauseum at their students. When I was a student, they even had it printed on a banner in the senior lecture hall.). But most of what happened there is so much stranger than fiction, so utterly bizarre and often in the most disturbing ways, that I couldn’t possibly do it justice unless I am operating at the very peak of my ability as a writer - something I’m sure I’m still a long way from achieving, if I ever do.

But the point of bringing Hyde into this post is to talk about one, particularly strange, facet of its culture - no stranger than any other of its many strange aspects: the radicalism of its views toward the outside world. Because Hyde School was a place which viewed the outside world as a beef stew of disgustingly corrupt influences, it naturally attracted people who agreed with their view of the world to work there. And because there were so many disagreements among the teachers about what was responsible for the corruption of the world, there was a seemingly unique agreement among adults who numbered themselves as members of both the Hard Right and the Hard Left to leave each other’s political disagreements alone in the classroom (at least we never saw them). English classes would be routinely interrupted by a teacher’s discursion about the plight of the Chilean minor against American imperialism, speakers would be brought in from local progressive organizations (and there are many in Rural New England) to talk about the existential importance of pacifism, history classes would be interrupted by a teacher’s frustrated digression that the contemporary world seems so intent upon oppressing Catholics, and our German-educated civics teacher would find nothing creepy or ironic about the innocuous fun of of beginning his class by calling role and making every student stand up and shout confidently “ICH BIN HIER UND BEREIT!”

Hyde was like a magnet for fanaticism of every stripe and every breed. And because it found something so admirable in fanaticism, it (rather amazingly to me now) tolerated fanaticism in its students, including some times when the fanaticism went against the ethos of the school. But then again, did it?...

There were two strands of high school teacher who found a perfect outlet for their convictions at Hyde. One was a typical right-wing fanatic: intellectually lazy, temperamentally belligerent, unthinkingly cruel and authoritarian - and they made up the lion's share of the long-term faculty. They believed in institutions, they believed in tradition, and attributed everything wrong with the students who came to Hyde as a case of a decadent world that granted them too many rights, too little responsibility, not enough discipline, and not enough punishment.  

But there was a second strand of fanatic, a left-wing fanatic, that was attracted to Hyde as well. At the time, these were my absolute heroes, and I worshipped the ground every one of them walked on even if they couldn’t (wouldn’t?) do much to protect me and others from the cruelty to which their smartest students were routinely subject. They were everything these other teachers weren’t; intellectually glamorous, rebelliously thoughtful, willing to see that some students needed a simple confidence boost and an ear to bend, and - most importantly - willing to concede that the methods of the school were extreme and unproductive, no matter how good the intentions of their administration.

And, clearly, these teachers gave something important to the school that none of the other teachers could have, or else they’d have been fired on the spot for their public disagreements with school policy. What they gave the school was intellectual credibility - miles of it considering just how dumb some of the other teachers were. These were bookish men and women who were intimidatingly well-read and often amazingly charismatic. Some of us often wondered what the hell they were doing teaching at Hyde when they should have been running for public office or writing books. And because Hyde didn’t have enough good teachers to oversee a real curriculum, the school gave these teachers the lattitude to teach in whatever manner they liked. Against all Hyde’s efforts to subvert it, students ended up receiving bits and pieces of a real education. Compared to the red tape they had to cut through in public school, a Hyde classroom must have seemed like paradise itself for those teachers. At least for a time...

These teachers tolerated the methods of the school, at least for a couple years, because they believed one and all in Hyde’s basic mission - which was, allegedly, the teaching of moral character. And like all fanatics, these teachers believed in themselves enough to believe that they could change the school’s entire ethos, an ethos which, with just a few tweaks could be a light unto all other schools in America (and make no mistake, when I was there, Hyde had extremely national ambitions). To teachers like them, a school like Hyde is corrupt only in its methods. But every one of them seemed to leave the school in a huff, completely disillusioned by years of their best efforts to reform the school into something more ethical coming to absolutely nothing. Somehow, these teachers could teach at Hyde for years, or even decades, without it occurring to them that the belief in the specialness of Hyde’s mission was precisely what sanctioned its teachers and ‘best’ students to act as cruelly as they did.

And the longer these teachers stayed there, the more appetite for fanaticism they clearly had. By staying at Hyde for years or decades, they’d made an unthinking, Faustian pact to sell out all the principles of tolerance and open-mindedness they claimed to hold dear, thinking that only by compromising on those standards could they receive their investments back in spades.

And the radicalism of those teachers absolutely rubbed off on their brightest students. Most of the students at Hyde were as dumb as their dumbest teachers. But the smartest among the students, we prized ourselves like an elect who, having been through hellfire, had scores of wisdom beyond our years and understand the world in a way nobody else did (though how wrong we were...). It was not unlike the bond of soldiers.

Radicalism was the one outlet we had - moderation, apathy, uncertainty, were banished from our lives. At Hyde, skepticism was virtually synonymous with weakness, so better to be lauded for having causes to unthinkingly believe in with our whole hearts than to take the time required to think through what we believe. It is a dangerous, slippery slope, and many people who start young down the path to radicalism can never expand intellectually beyond the person they were at 17. Once you’re taught to disbelieve impartial facts, facts which hundreds of thousands of people in every generation devote their lives to collecting as best they can, you can invent whatever facts you like. If you read no books, you can still be a member of the Hard Right. If you read one book, you can still be a member of the Hard Left.

And so many of these students started down the path to radicalism, some of whom formed a political discussion club with us. Woe would have been the right-winger who’d have joined the club, because even I was often shouted down for having beliefs that weren’t sufficiently extreme. But fortunately, the political right wing students at our school were usually so uncurious and so dumb that that never happened. I’ve often wondered what happened to those other politically active students in the in the intervening years. Did their minds ever get past the infantile rebellion stage? Did they ever realize that the extremity of our beliefs set back the very causes we claimed to struggle for? Did they ever reach a point when the anger subsided and rational discourse found a home in their minds? I can’t imagine it did for too many of them, because Hyde created yet another obstacle in that all-important process.

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