Piaget says that children do not move from one phase of development to the next until they experience too much discomfort in the stage where they are. I like to say that I thrive on change and that I am fed by being in environments where I must grow. At least I said that until I moved from the comfort of Charlotte Country Day School to the chaos of Juvie Prison. When I made that move, I moved way outside my comfort zone and modest adjustments to my behavior were inadequate to meet the challenges of juvie. Small adjustments I made to my teaching certainly helped me adapt to teaching adjudicated boys, but it was my very survival inside the walls of that place that lead to a deeper and more valuable growth experience for me. You see, even though my mother was raised in a Communist home and was extremely liberal, her goal for me was to be a Lady.
From the time I was very young, I was molded into the tight confines of lady-like behavior. Almost every instruction I received from my mother stated with the words, “A Lady doesn’t…” Listed below are some things a Lady does NOT do:
Cross her legs
Eat with her mouth open
Contradict her elders
Raise her voice
Appear too smart
Call a boy
Sit with knees apart
Call attention to herself
Wear tight clothes
Wear revealing clothing
Lead when you are waltzing
Talk about money
Engage in sex before marriage
Stay single, especially if a doctor wants to marry her
I’m sure there were other rules, but these sprang easily to mind. From time to time I have forgotten these rules, but they are deeply ingrained and make me feel discomfort if I violate them.
Being a Lady and teaching at Country Day were not in conflict with each other. The students were all raised to be polite and were all eager to succeed. Occasionally a student would cause a ruckus and I would feel stymied about how to handle the situation, so I normally just laughed it off. Sometimes the kid went too far, and against my better judgement, I had to be a disciplinarian. Bryan Johnston, who is now in his forties, still brags that he was the only kid I ever kicked out of my classroom, and I still feel a little bad about it! Another boy, Lance Campbell, frequently clowned around and disrupted the class . I would politely ask him to behave himself, but his actions disturbed the other students. TJ Thorne, an amazing and perceptive boy, said, “Ms Wilder, you can discipline your students and we will still love you.”
I realized that my passive behavior was getting in the way, but just wished that the kids would monitor their own behavior. Mostly, though, they did.
Then I moved to Asheville and began teaching at the Swannanoa Valley Youth Development Center. On day one, I was jeered, cussed, robbed, insulted, and ignored. I drove home in tears, realizing that I was going to have to change because those boys had vowed never to change. What I realize now was that this extreme situation was the prodding I needed to learn to assert myself. Now I am fearless.
An example: there is a loud drunk who lives behind the Bi-Lo in Black Mt. He is a big, dirty guy with no teeth and minimal clothing. He walks around town yelling at imaginary enemies and pan-handling. He always has a bottle of rot-gut protruding from his pocket. The other day he came into the store while my friend Nancy was visiting. I let him stay for a few minutes, but I could see that he was making her uncomfortable, so I told him to leave. I didn’t ask him, I told him. He moved tentatively towards the door, but continued to beg me for “a dollar for a hamburger.”
I told him that if I thought he’d actually buy something to eat, I might just give him a dollar, but I knew he was just going to drink. He still wasn’t leaving so I walked over to him, took his arm, and pushed him out the door. He ranted and raved a bit, but soon made his noisy way up Cherry Street.
Shortly after he left, a volunteer from the Depot Store across the street came over to see if I was all right. Apparently, he had been in their store and had scared her and the male volunteer to death. They called the police and decided that the volunteers at the depot would always be there in groups in the future. They watched him cross the street and enter my store, and worried about me.