On a Thursday at Notre Dame High School in Southport, NY, my friend and I had no classes scheduled after 1:15pm, one April in 1977. Transfer students from a public school to the catholic high school, we hated all the rules: green sweaters every day, no clogs, and prayer to start the day. We were leaving for our native public school in the fall.
Its warm out, the grass is a brilliant emerald-green, and we want to escape. “I bet we have enough money for a cab.” We dug through the pockets of our green polyester skirts and counted our coins.
“I’ll call the cab Natalie and tell them to meet us on the corner, that way we will be off school grounds.”
We walked to our lockers, stuffed some things in our book bags, and met in the hall. “I think we will be ok.” I tell Natalie, “the cab is over there and no one is around.”
School is not due out until 3 and the cab will get us home by 2:30, before our usual 4pm. We live over the bridge about 2 miles from each other and a good ten from the school.
We walked out the door across the long driveway, and between two tall pine trees. The field lay between us and our freedom: the yellow TAXI. Walking across the green grass, freedom ahead, I looked at my friend. We smiled, success so close. Then suddenly, the shrilllllll of three whistles stopped us in our tracks. ‘could those be for us?’
We turned around to see the nuns of Notre Dame marching toward us. As I recall it was Sister Carmella, Sister Edmund, and Sister Mary Walter. The nuns angry, dressed in black habits and dresses head to toe, as they walked toward us. This isn’t going to end well, we knew. It led to at least one detention and writing 100 times on the board: I will not leave school early.
Lesson Learned: if you break the rules, there are always whistle blowers.
It was also at this time that I realized that there were some rules that were just dumb. Why at almost 16, could we not leave school during our free time? Dumb as they were, I knew I would have to obey rules if there were consequences to myself or others, but on that April day, I wanted to see how much I could get away with.
In college, I later learned, that we, as a collective, need to submit to rules to avoid chaos (the social contract). What would happen, for example, if at an intersection there were no red lights or stop signs? Could the members of the society drive safely to and from work, could people survive if everyone’s right to go through the intersection when they needed, superseded the need of the common good to have a regulated stop and go pattern, could the community survive and thrive?
This week in the news, headlines abound about education reform. I am a former teacher, ten years in a public school and eight in community education, and I laugh when I see the scapegoat this time, why, it’s tenure, all those teachers sitting on their duff following rigid union rules not to work overtime, etc. and collecting their paychecks. It is true that I have seen tenure , in a few cases, contribute to lousy teaching. But, if we need a scapegoat, why not look at the elephant in the room.
The biggest problem is when there are no rules to follow. When the individual right of the student to walk across the grass supersedes the need of the institution to put boundaries in place to keep order. If the student and his or her parents fight for the right of the person to laugh even though there is a test in session which affects 32 other students; if an individual fights for her right to burp in the middle of class because after all it is after lunch, and if an administrator can not be bothered chasing down a kid with a machete pulled out in your afternoon history class because it’s not in the administrator’s assigned part of the alphabet, how can the rights of the collective student body to listen and gather information be upheld.