Friday, February 12, 2010

How we are made into slaves

What does it mean to rise up? First and foremost it is an internal process. An inventory of the control mechanisms which have been placed within one's psyche and then reinforced for 20 or more years. I thought of a new one today, a new reinforcement mechanism that is.

When I played football in college we ran sprints at the end of every practice. The coach would call out the name of the person who crossed the line first. This had a strong motivational effect on those of us who still had some energy to spare but I realized today, over twenty years later, that this was a very subtle and pernicious form of Pavlovian conditioning.

To hear one's name called as the victor is very enjoyable. In a state of physical exhaustion, suffused with adrenaline, surrounded by armored comrades with whom one has just been doing battle, to hear one's name called out as the victor, is arguably as pleasurable for a human male as eating some dog food is for a dog. Indeed it is rewarding on a much deeper psychological level than the mere food reward of standard Pavlovian conditioning.

This then begs the question "why"? I was always under the impression that I held my football coaches in the same contempt as every other authority figure in my life but did I? Of course I secretly craved their approval, there was a feeling of discomfort in hearing my name called; the sensation that I was being exposed, as a kiss-ass, a boot-licker, a lap dog.

So this negative feeling, stacked with fatigue and every other disincentive to run hard after practice was not enough to deter me from the reward of hearing my name called. Why?

In kindergarten we love our teachers, I loved my teacher, I thought she was pretty, and I still remember her name. I wanted her approval, I wanted her to call my name as the winner. There was a slot in my brain for her to slide into, and that is the same slot that coach Kelly resided in 12 years later. I had reasons to dislike my kindergarten teacher. On the first day of school in my life she took the box that I had carefully selected to contain my eraser and other precious learning utensils and violently ripped the top off.

In what could only have been a predetermined strategy to cement her authority in our four and five year old brains she did this to every single student as we filed passed her table on the first day of institutional learning in our lives. As our mothers stood impotently by and watched, she ripped the top off of each box that she had instructed our parents to purchase for us.

Would it not have been more practical and less cruel to simply tell the parents in advance that the box should not have a top, that an old cigar box or chocolate box, or children's shoe box would be perfectly acceptable? But this would not achieve the desired effect.

The box itself is meaningless. But the box as a metaphor for hope, anticipation, excitement is brutally effective. We walked through the store, holding our mother's hand, carefully selecting Aquaman over Batman and aligning our new treasures carefully inside, a bright green eraser, a dull yellow pencil sharpener, our little scissors with the round ends, a small bottle of Elmer's glue. We took our small package of dreams to the desk and RRRRRRRIIIIIIPPPPPPPP. Mrs. Fitzpatrick tossed the box back to me, the contents wobbling around, their precious placement ruined forever, their sacred container defiled and issued the first command "sit here" as she pointed to an arbitrary place on the carpet.

And I obeyed hoping to hear my name called.

No comments: