Recent events south of the border reminded me of an experience I had in middle school.
I was eleven years old, and our grade six class occupied one of those dreadful portables that in the day had a legacy of everything from throat irritations to respiratory illnesses. The interior would have been dreadful had it not been for our teacher, Miss Churchill. She thoughtfully decorated it with artwork, book reports, and thematic projects peppered from floor to ceiling. She had celebrity looks, was smart and stern. Her disciplined way of managing the class had us all excel. She was fair and supportive, didn’t take flak from anyone and was deeply committed to every student’s success.
One Friday in late spring of 1972, she was absent. We walked into our portable that day, and a man was sitting where she would typically be organizing the lessons for the day. He looked at us and told us she was away and that he was our substitute teacher. At that moment, we all smiled, the gears turning as to what kind of crap we could get away with. Perceiving the situation as a twisted possibility. He didn’t provide us with a name like previous substitute teachers; instead, he told us to call him Mr. M. Our substitute teacher didn’t teach, nor did he offer any type of instruction. We were left to govern ourselves. He quickly immersed himself in a paperback he was acutely engaged in while we all participated in our own reading logs. The contrast in how he was behaving to what we were used to was stark and not comforting. There was a familiarity with our teacher’s routine and expectations, of which this guy had none.
Following a morning of reading, we putzed around in the afternoon tidying our desks and talking to each other while Mr. M. continued to read, staying in his world, successfully keeping us at bay. Following the last recess of the day, he stood up for the first time and leaned back in front of the immaculately appointed desk, asking us what we should do next. With the day almost over, we were surprised by the sudden desire to assume his responsibilities. One of the kids mentioned that we were scheduled to rotate the artwork in the room. He suggested we tear down what was up to help our teacher. We told him we best hear it from her as she could blow a gasket. He assured us he would notify her, permitting us to move forward and encouraging us to remove the work, knowingly misleading us.
“Don’t worry, rip it all down,” he said with deranged eyes. We could hardly believe our ears, but who were we to question him. Slow at first, one by one, we spread out through the classroom and started to remove the papers from the wall. He proceeded to sit behind the desk as the energy rose, deriving a dark pleasure as he pushed the class slowly into a mad frenzy, watching the pandamonium sweep through the classroom. Mr. M., his voice now raised, shouting, “Go for it. Tear it all down.” Before you knew it, in full out mob mentality, kids were peeling and tearing everything off the walls, from artwork to thematic projects used as reference materials.
The preexisting lessons that lived on one of the two long blackboards were brushed off for no apparent reason. I didn’t participate until I witnessed the nerdy and brown noser kids get fully engaged. The energy in the room was off the Richter scale. A motley crew, ripping, tearing, dumping, running around in hysterical laughter. Some standing on desks.
One kid got so into it; he lost his breath and had to reach for his asthma inhaler. Other kids laughed with delight; some suddenly in remorse witnessing their work on the floor being trampled on, and others were confused by what was happening. Soon after, the entire interior was blank. All that was left were a few loose papers slowly sashaying down. The desks and floor littered with what once hung on the walls. Staples half pointing out of the corkboards and a few pieces of stubborn tape remaining. A strange silence cloaked the room as the crazed heathens witnessed their destruction at their place of education.
When asked what to do next, the floor entirely scattered with every piece of paper, the school bell rang. Mr. M. replied, “Leave it.” That our teacher would figure it out on Monday. I collected my belongings from my desk, and as I left the room, I couldn’t help but notice the floor jumbled with papers, some upside-down most of it trashed, all covered in shoe prints. At that moment, I recognized that I had abandoned my good sense, and now it all seemed wrong.
The following Monday, we weren’t sure what would happen, but none of us were anxious because an adult gave us the okay. The morning recess bell rang, and we all walked into what we had left behind, except this time, the lens was different. There was no maniacal substitute teacher at the helm of the class but a teacher whose heart was broken. She interrogated the class demanding to know how this could happen. One by one, we shared with her what we were told. One student asked how we could know that what Mr. M. asked of us would be so damaging. He was in charge, not us, and he assured us that he would notify her. We were the students, not the teacher. It was not for us to question him.
She refused to accept the explanation, flat out alerting us that no one shared any such information, and we did this of our own volition, insisting we all knew better, and she wasn’t wrong. We went along with a madman. She declined to teach that day, removing herself from the room until we got the place back to how it was. We spent the entire day sorting through the debris of papers and projects, ripping tape and finding the bent push pins on the floor, attempting to recall where it all went and reattaching it as best we could. It would never be what it was as the work was in shambles. Torn, damaged, and now half-assed restored by us, not lovingly hung by her. In her absence, we were confused as to how we got here. We had an adult instruct us to do it, and we got caught up in the frenzy of something so unthinkable, believing it was good, all the while aware on a deeper level it wasn’t. A sentiment we shared amongst ourselves as we endeavoured to tape and pin the room back together again.
It took us most of the day to get the portable back to some sort of facsimile before its destruction, but it could never be what it was. Things were considerably damaged, and once it was all hung up, it felt sad and violated. We had ransacked our own place of education for no good reason. Coaxed to do it, and now we, not the substitute teacher, were paying the price. Though we were remorseful and apologized to our teacher, the damage was done. We whispered amongst ourselves, why did we ever listen? At the moment, we thought we were heroes, but in the aftermath, we were criminals. Listening to a deceptive mad man who robbed us of our good sense and left us paying the price.
Our teacher returned mid-afternoon to our sorry attempt at repairing all the damage. Until the day we graduated, we were surrounded by what we had done. Each day a cruel reminder of taking instruction from an unhinged teacher we trusted. The Ringmaster was gone, leaving us in the shadow of his destruction.
What happened south of the border was not 11-year-olds, but the behaviours and damage were similar. Following the lead of a madman while destroying a building deserving of respect. Even at eleven, we knew better.
Nothing was gained by what transpired at Capitol Hill. Instead, an unnecessary and avoidable toll of lives lost. I am reminded of Sting’s lyrics from his song Fragile. “That nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could. For all those born beneath an angry star, Lest we forget how fragile we are.”
The Ringmaster disappeared, and the damage was done. No different than what happened in my sixth-grade class, and for what? Our actions undermined our entire grade year, hurt our teacher and even the smartest of our lot lost ground due to their participation. We falsely thought we’d be somehow celebrated. Instead, we were ridiculed for our stupidity.
The dynamics within Trump’s world are no different from William Golding’s frightening book “Lord of the Flies,” casting him correctly within that horrifying narrative. With Ralph, the protagonist saying, “The world that understandable and lawful world was slipping away.” and Simon stating, “Maybe there is a beast…Maybe it is us.”