Sister Jean Marie

James Lileks has a post up at, “Who was your favorite elementary school teacher?” It got me thinking about the Catholic school I went to for fifth, sixth and seventh grades.

I remember Sister Jean Marie most of all. I had her for sixth and seventh grade math. Other teachers called her “an institution.” We called her old. We figured she’d probably taught Galileo math. We also figured she was probably the person who turned him in to the church.

She was mean. I don’t just mean strict, although she was certainly that. She enforced a rigid discipline in her class that no kid dared to defy. And we had some serious trouble-makers. We had one kid, Chester (no, that’s not his real name. I’ve changed the names of all the kids.), who was… troubled. Chester had a real-life pinball machine in his bedroom and lived in the French Quarter with his mother and our cross-dressing school music teacher, Mr. B (Opal to his good friends). Chester’s Mom and Mr. B didn’t live together so much as share rent. And I don’t mean to imply that Chester’s mom didn’t enjoy the company of men, because she did… extensively, maybe even professionally. (I do mean to imply that Mr. B also enjoyed the company of men, very much.) It was an odd house.

Chester was the kind of kid who, when the class was tasked with coloring in pretty little bunnies on Easter cards for the Children’s Hospital, would fill the bunnies on his cards entirely with black crayon and black magic marker . “Jungle Bunnies,” he called them. (Nice, I know. He had a lot of jokes that ran along similar lines; I’m unlucky enough to remember a few of them.) I remember that Mrs. L disapproved strongly. I’m pretty sure Chester got whacked with a ruler for that one. Of course, I think the cards still went out. There was a quota, after all.

Chester tortured poor Mrs. L. She was an old woman (aren’t they all when you’re in sixth grade?) with a giant, slate gray beehive hairdo. She wore giant faded muumuus with brown and yellow floral prints and taught history and social studies. And she had a glass eye. The eye would wander. Sometimes you couldn’t tell who Mrs. L was yelling at. It could just as easily be you or the kid across the room… there was no telling who she was looking at because she was staring both of you in the eye. Sometimes the glass eye would roll up toward the beehive… and then just keep on rolling on back until it was looking out the back of Mrs. Ls head. Then she’d stare at us with the one pale white eye, looking completely alien and vaguely reptilian. Until Chester would gently point it out, “Hey Miz L, yer eye has gone all freaky. Y’a looks kinda like a gater.”

But Chester was quiet as a mouse in Sister Jean Marie’s class.

Sister Jean Marie wasmean. Not just hard and tough and stern–although she was all of those things too. A dog that’s been beaten all its life can get mean: all spite and venom and filled up with a nasty desire to hurt. Sister Jean Marie was like that. Especially at the blackboard. Doing problems in front of the rest of class is never fun, but in her class it was torture and humiliation. “What’s wrong Lucy?” “It’s an easy problem, Lucy.” “God you are so stupid, Lucy.” “You have a brain like a sieve, Lucy.” “It’s a wonder you can remember how to stand up, Lucy.” “Go sit down Lucy. Let someone else do it right.”

I remember a friend and I going back to visit her when we were in High School. Well, OK. We didn’t go back to visit herso much as visit generally, but she was there and we spoke to her. It had been four years since we’d been in her class. She asked about Lucy. Lucy had gone to a different high school, neither of us knew her anymore. Sister Jean Marie told us again that Lucy was the stupidest girl she’d ever seen.

I know. It’s not funny anymore, I’m sorry.

I remember when Bobby didn’t do his homework. “Where’s your homework, Bobby?” “Lost it or forgot it, Bobby?” “Don’t lie to me, Bobby.” “Forgot it or didn’t do it, Bobby?” “I thought so.” “Do you think I’m stupid, Bobby?” “Of course you do.” “Now you’re crying?” “Why are you crying, Bobby?” “Are you a little baby, Bobby? “Crybaby Bobby.” “Don’t be a little crybaby.” “Crybaby Bobby. Why don’t you go sit in the corner and cry, crybaby?” “Of course you are. Go sit in the corner if you’re going to cry. Crybaby.”

There was a chair that faced a corner in the back of the room. It was where crybabies went to sit until they stopped crying. When they were done they had to ask permission to return to their desk. I sat in that chair. Not as much as Lucy or Bobby did, but I sat there. We all did. It wasn’t really math class unless some poor kid, desperate, humiliated, and mocked by the teacher, broke down sobbing; Lucy was usually the first to break. But at some point, we all did.

Sister Jean Marie had supernatural reflexes. She could stop a hulking 12 year-old boy charging at a dead run with one hand and flip him around like a paper doll. I saw her do it. The kid’s name was was Blake, and he was charging at me with evil intent. I can’t remember why, maybe it was a Tuesday. Sister plucked him neatly out the air with one hand and dropped him, meek and quivering, down in front of her. She spoke quietly, but firmly. It was at least a week before Blake bloodied my nose again–and never again anywhere near Sister Jean Marie. Not that I was a teacher’s pet, mind you. Sister Jean Marie was discipline incarnate, and running in the halls was simply not allowed. She didn’t care if I got caught, so long as it was a neat and orderly beating… with no running.

I had her for homeroom in sixth grade too. Some mornings she’d come in with little pieces of toilet paper stuck to her chin and cheeks. I kid you not, the woman shaved. She was tall, maybe six feet and rail thin. Her hands were like vice grips and her stare was hot and furious. She was lighting quick and razor sharp. And she was old school; she wore the habit and the blue dress. Always. Some of the other nuns, like Sister Lee, wore the habit at school, but took it off when they went… wherever it was that nuns go. Back to the nunnery, I suppose. Sister Lee was fun. She taught religion and drove a black Firebird Trans-am (complete with giant decal). She called me “Red” for an entire year. Sister Jean Marie didn’t drive a car. We all figured that she lived in the cloakroom and ate spiders.

But she taught me math. I remember once I failed a quiz. As punishment, Sister Jean Marie told me to write out the names of all fifty States and their capitals. I didn’t do it. So she doubled it. “Write them all out twice.” I didn’t do it. “Double it.” This went on daily for some time. It was like a ritual, we’d all file into class and sit down. She’d read attendance, (Yes, that’s right. She’d read attendance. There was no calling out at any time in Sister Jean Marie’s class.) she’d double my punishment. The days wore on. It was a kind of math lesson. By the end of the year, my punishment was to write out the States and their capitals over 16 million times. I remember figuring it out with a friend. If I wrote one word a second, nonstop, 24-hours a day, everyday for fifty years, I still wouldn’t finish.

I learned more math in her class than in any math class I’ve ever taken. She scared it into us. She made us fear her like I imagine she feared God. She instilled in us a biblical, old-testament kind of fear. We quaked in her presence and we obeyed, and we did what she said and we learned the Law and we lived the Law. If she said to sit the corner, we sat in the corner. If she had told us to wander the desert for forty years, we’d have done that too.

My favorite High School math teacher was Miss P. Miss P was the nicest, kindest, sweetest teacher I ever had. She was about four feet, six inches tall tall and must have weighed eighty pounds soaking wet. She ran the math club and carried a pearl-handled single-shot .22 in her purse. She was the math teacher that made me like math. She made math fun, and she made it exciting and competitive and entertaining. Heck, I went on out-of-state math club trips with her; I looked forward to the annual math convention every year. I played inter-scholastic math games every Tuesday and I liked it. (We played On-Sets and Equations… I’d love to hear from anyone else who’s played these games!)

Miss P had taken high school math from Sister Jean Marie. She said the same thing everyone said, that she’d learned more in those classes than anywhere else. She also said she owed her life’s work to Sister Jean Marie. She said that after that class she’d never wanted to do anything but teach high school math.

I’m glad I had Miss P for math. And I’m happy that she’s still teaching; she runs the math department in my old high school. I’m sure that that Sister Jean Marie must have retired from teaching by now.

I think of my children and I think of their teachers. They’re all Miss Ps (packing less firepower) and Sister Mary Lees (without the hot ride). I haven’t seen any of their music teachers, male or female, stumble drunkenly down the street wearing a pink wig, stilettos and a wedding dress. There have been no reports of glass eyes or beehives. And there’s been nothing to compare to Sister Jean Marie. I’m very grateful for that. As much as there is that bothers me in modern pedagogy (the incessant, pointless testing; the political correctness; the lack of academic rigor), I am happy to consign the systematic humiliation and ridicule of eleven-year olds to history.

I haven’t seen Lucy or Bobby in over 20 years; I hope they’re both well and happy and healthy.

And I don’t care how much math they learned.


Diversity Matters

I’ve been thinking a little bit about diversity lately. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the value that real diversity can bring to an organization, whether that organization is a school, a magazine, a major corporation, a shoe store, or the U.S. Senate.

We hear about diversity all the time. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen standard stock phrases that extol a companies commitment to “diversity in the workplace.” Or notices that “Minorities are strongly encouraged to apply!” But racial, sexual, and ethnic diversity is ultimately a pretty shallow kind of diversity. It very rarely makes any difference to me whether my co-worker, boss, senator, plumber or teacher is a straight Catholic Asian man or a gay Hispanic Jewish woman. What usually matters most to me is whether or not the person is competent.

It is true that in some cases, there’s more at stake than mere competence. I certainly want more than a detailed knowledge of parliamentary procedure from my senator, and I’d like my child’s teachers to have a greater commitment to truth than to mandated curricula. In those cases, a person’s basic ideology makes a difference. A conservative senator can be equally as “competent” a law-maker as his liberal colleague, but the laws they enact can be markedly different.

Ideology doesn’t–or shouldn’t–matter in every occupation or circumstance. I don’t care what the ideology of my plumber is, so long as my pipes don’t leak. In fact, I’d be alarmed if I had cause to know my plumber’s religious beliefs. But ideology does matter in some cases. An art teacher committed to representation and life-drawing and an art teacher committed to abstract expressionism, for example, may be equally competent educators, but the effects on their students will be markedly different.

In many cases, access to different ideologies can be enormously beneficial. In an art department it helps to have faculty with different emphases and inclinations. The scientific community benefits enormously when scientists test competing hypotheses. Likewise, a polity benefits from a certain amount of ideological diversity in its politicians. Different ideas and different points of emphasis can help hone arguments, winnow fiction from fact, expand opportunities and helps to prevent tyranny and despotism.

But that’s ideological diversity. The extent to which racial, ethnic and sexual diversity has value is the extent to which race, sex or ethnicity is a determining factor in an individual’s ideology. (And I would think that we’d all hope to see those kinds of correlations diminish over time.) Too often, a commitment to “diversity” is a sham–a commitment to a simple racial/ethnic/sexual diversity can mask hard, ingrained prejudices that serve to keep organizations ideologically homogeneous.

Take for example, the two highly visible struggles that The New Republic has had with false journalism.

I don’t mean to pick on TNR, nor do I mean to pick on their bias, or suggest that a liberal conviction necessarily implies poor judgment or an abandonment of critical thinking skills. There are slavish dogmatists across the political spectrum. But both the Stephen Glass affair and the Scott Thomas Beauchamp debacle point out the dangers of an ideologically homogeneous environment.

In both cases, reporters for TNR fabricated stories that confirmed the ideological bias of the magazine’s editors, staffers, fact-checkers, and owners. In both cases, the factual evidence for the stories was flimsy and largely unsubstantiated. Had TNR committed itself to rigorous fact-checking, the articles in question would have been discarded before they were published. But the articles benefitted from confirmation bias. It’s not that the editors or fact checkers at TNR were dupes or rubes or dishonest, they simply trusted people who told them what they already believed: that soldiers are crass and uncouth, that republicans are boors, that corporations lie, etc….

Whatever commitment TNR makes to “diversity,” they make no significant commitment to ideological diversity. Of course, they’re not alone. The National Review makes no significant commitment to ideological diversity either. And to a certain extent, these magazines exist as participants in a broader collection of opinion magazines, and there is ideological diversity amongst the magazines. In that sense, a dedicated reader can pit the competing positions against each other within the “marketplace of ideas.”

But if a broad spectrum of journalists are biased in the same direction (as many people believe), then the overall debate will become more and more homogeneous over time. And as it relates to journalism, we do seem to see a trend in that direction. The major media coverage of the Duke Rape Case, the Jena 6, and of course scandals like Rathergate all contribute to a growing sense that journalists are increasingly less likely to rigorously check their own assumptions and instead accept the narrative that best fits with the prevailing ideology. Hence statements like, ” the facts were wrong but the narrative was right” or “ fake but accurate.

This problem, unfortunately, is not limited to journalists. Ideological bias and homogeneity is also a growing problem in American education . The faculty at American colleges and universities overwhelmingly self-report as liberal as opposed to conservative. And they do so in such stunning numbers that even some self-described liberals have begun to wonder whether there isn’t some institutional bias against conservative faculty members.

But it’s only a growing problem to those who recognize that some degree of ideological diversity is a net social benefit. To the dogmatists, ideological homogeneity is a sign of virtue and pride–but that way lies folly. In the absence of sustained criticism, people have the tendency to reify their beliefs. When a mass of people begin to think alike, they begin not only to casually dismiss alternative views, but they more easily dismiss the people who hold different beliefs as ignorant, lazy, stupid, or ill intentioned. This is what happens to people who immerse themselves in dogma; they tend to dehumanize nonbelievers. It’s easy to see when the dogmatists are religious fundamentalists, but it can happen with any ideology, from environmentalism to domestic policy, from foreign policy to privacy rights. The idea that your political/social/scientific opposition must actually be morally corrupt simply because they hold differing views is inherently dangerous.

Now, I’m not a relativist. I don’t think that we should tolerate any and all ideological positions, regardless of their merit, simply for the sake of a healthy debate and vigorous ideological criticism. Some ideas are actually wrong and some ideas are actually right. But the point is that we can only really be sure of which ideas are right and which ideas are wrong by examining those ideas in critical detail. And that examination is impossible without some oppositional position.

It is true that while some belief systems and ideologies will wither quickly away, and some others survive far longer than most people would wish. But for a truly pernicious ideology (like Aryan supremacy) to survive requires that large numbers of people get together to reify their absurdities and actively suppress oppositional ideas. The only way to effectively counter genuinely perverse ideas is to bring them into the light, subject them to criticism, and watch them wither and die under scrutiny. Open and honest debate is what drives the scientific quest for truth, and it’s what drives political, social, and spiritual quests for truth as well.

The hallmark of a crippled belief system is an aversion to criticism. Anytime you hear an advocate ridicule his opposition simply for having the temerity to disagree with “accepted” conclusions, you’re hearing the voice of a dogmatist. It makes no difference what side of the aisle the dogmatist is sitting on, nor does it matter how many people the dogmatist can rally behind his banner–or how pretty and exciting the banner might be. Dogmatists can’t stand dissent, criticism, or sunlight. Dogmatists thrive in homogeneity, but they wither in a ideologically heterogeneous society. And they know this, which is why they’re the first to crucify the heathen, the first to crucify the heretic, and the first to try to silence their critics.

The essential answer to dogmatism, of course, is free inquiry and free speech. But in addition to free speech, society requires a certain level of ideological tolerance–a real commitment to real diversity. Many talking heads have bemoaned the current political strife in America: the degree to which political disagreements seem to have “divided” America. To a certain extent I agree. Although the viciousness in political discourse is nothing new, there seems to be an increasing amount of vitriol from the rank and file, and that smacks of dogma. But there is also a sense in which a society with less political division is itself more averse to change and challenge–and more likely to reify it’s worst tendencies. The biggest problem is not that the Democrats and Republicans don’t get along, it’s that they agree on so many issues and conspire to marginalize criticism of institutional flaws (log rolling, pork barreling, corruption, scandal, fiscal irresponsibility, and general sleaziness). It’s bipartisan agreement that’s the real threat.

So let’s bring on the diversity! But let it be meaningful diversity. I don’t really care how many Transsexual African Mormons there on the masthead or on the faculty, but I would like to see more ideological diversity among the reporters at the New York Times and among the faculty at Brandeis University.

D.A.R.E. to know

At least six middle-school kids in St. Paul, Minnesota appear to have taken meth from a 14-year-old classmate on Tuesday. Story here.

One of the students complained of “feeling out of sorts” and ultimately the students were all sent to the hospital. The drug was apparently handed out in the school cafeteria, and although initial reports indicated that some of the children may have thought the drug was candy, it now appears that they all knew what they were eating.

The story raises obvious concerns about the availability of illegal drugs in schools and the relative effectiveness of drug education, but I think it also raises questions about drug policy.

Carol Falkowski, chemical health director at the Minnesota Department of Human Services is quoted in the article saying, “We know we live in a world where drugs and alcohol are probably more accessible to students than ever before. We also know the age of first drug use has been generally declining. The average age of first marijuana use is about 13 and first alcohol use about 14.”

“The average age of first marijuana use is about 13 and first alcohol use about 14.”

Marijuana before alcohol. Average age of first use is 13.

I’m not terribly surprised by this; I’ve long suspected (based on anecdotal evidence) that marijuana was easier for children to get than alcohol, but I am surprised to hear what amounts to an admission of that fact come from a government official.

It seems clear that we’re losing the drug war and losing badly. It also seems clear that we’re not effectively educating our children about drugs. Beyond the fact that some kids in St. Paul took meth (the principal at the school has a great quote: “We deal with middle-level kids. They make bad decisions sometimes.”), the fact that the kids ate the meth raises interesting questions.

Most addicts and regular users will smoke or inhale meth — the high is faster and more intense as the drug enters the blood stream quicker; they don’t eat it. The fact that the kids ate the meth could indicate that they didn’t know enough about the drug to know how it was “supposed” to be used (although it could also mean that they didn’t have a lighter). If the kids ate the meth because they didn’t really know much about the drug, then we’ve got a pretty tough problem. Do we teach our kids enough about drugs that when they get the opportunity they’ll really know how to abuse the drug? Or do we hope that in their ignorance they’ll go ahead and try it, but misuse it and dampen the potential harm?

Ignorance always seems the riskier option to me; not knowing will eventually get you in much worse trouble than knowing.

Several long-term analysis studies done on various drug education programs have shown that these school-based programs (D.A.R.E. in particular) are not statistically effective. (See here, here, here, here, here, here)

The studies show that while programs like D.A.R.E. have a limited positive short-term effects, they are not effective in curtailing drug use long-term. Children who take D.A.R.E. are just as likely to use or abuse drugs as children who have not gone through the D.A.R.E. program. At the very least, these studies conclude that the most common and popular drug education program in the country is not as effective as alternative programs.

So what should we do? Give up? Put meth vending machines in the middle school cafeterias? Of course not.

But if we want to start correcting the problem, we need to stop pretending that useless educational programs do anything other than salve our conscience. And we need to recognize that if children can get marijuana more easily than they can get alcohol, the drug war has been a complete and utter failure.

It’s long past time for a rational drug policy and rational drug education in America, but I’m afraid that we’ll get neither in the near future. In the meantime, talk to your kids. Be honest with them.

I’ve seen first-hand the effects of drug abuse. I’ve seen a people succumb to meth. I’ve seen friends and loved ones destroyed by alcohol. I’ve seen houses lost to cocaine, and I’ve seen people laugh at some pretty silly things while high on pot. I’ve also seen people lose their jobs while they sat on the couch, lost in a hazy miasma of bong-passing. I’ve been robbed by crack-heads and gone searching through a roommate’s stuff to find the pipe before the police showed up. I smoked cigarettes for 19 years.

But I hate pot. I’ve never done coke or smack or crack or meth or uppers or downers or rush or X. I drink moderately (in fact, my doctor keeps telling me that I need to drink ~more~ red wine).

When my kids ask me about drugs, I tell them what I know. I tell them what I’ve seen. I tell them who I’ve lost. I also tell them the truth.

I don’t want them growing up afraid of drugs, or enthralled by a mystery. I want them to grow up knowing. I want them to know that drugs are dangerous and that stupidity is deadly.