The Brutality of School
This article is an extract from Jürg Jegge's book Dummheit ist lernbar (Stupidity is learnable.) It was first published in 1976 and has sold over a hundred thousand copies in German, but has never been published in English. Jürg Jegge is Swiss, and has led a number of extremely interesting educational enterprises directed towards helping people who have been failed by the conventional educational system. At the time of writing the book, he was teaching a remedial class in a secondary school.
Heini has been coming to my classroom for three and a half years now. He is a quiet, polite, considerate lad. For two years I hardly noticed anything special about him. But in the course of the last one and a half years he has made his mark. He expresses his own opinions and now and again also talks about his home and the problems he has there. However, there is one thing that he has never yet talked about - about what he went through, at home and at school, before he was put in the remedial class. One evening at the school camp the time is ripe: he can't get to sleep, and neither can I. We are sitting in the comfortable common-room and he tells me, hesitantly at first and then gradually more fluently and in more detail, about that time that he longs to forget and yet cannot forget. What he tells me occupies my mind all the next day. Ever since then it has been clear to me: what Heini has been through, what almost all my pupils have been through, is a brutality which is almost indescribable, let alone completely comprehensible.
Heini is a fairly typical representative of the conventional image of the 'stupid' schoolboy. He comes from an unskilled working-class family where there are many children. He has never had the attention he needed, either in terms of cultural stimulus and encouragement, or from the affective/psychological point of view. His withdrawnness and his politeness were an expression of the fact that he had no confidence in himself, had lost all courage. His bad performance at school, especially linguistically, was a result of the poverty of cultural stimulus in his background. So when he arrived at school he was already disadvantaged by his past history. Even so, at that time it would have been relatively easy to give a helping hand, to compensate a bit for the disadvantages of his background, to support his weak sense of self. Heini should have been able to depend on the school to provide the help that he had never been able to get at home.
But what happened? 'Really everything began in the first year,' so he says now. 'We always had to put words in the box, but I never quite understood. The others easily finished before me and had to wait for me. Then the teacher said,"Haven't you finished yet, Heini?" and I felt so stupid. A few times I took the box home with me. For practice. But no one had time to help me. Then I thought, you'll never learn that anyway. And it was true, too. The other children noticed. "We're always having to wait for you," they said. And when we quarreled, they called out, "Can't read! Can't read!" And on those days I ran home, hid in the coal-cellar and cried.'
I am interested in something else. 'What was it like in school, then? Didn't the teacher ever keep you back to practise with you, to explain the whole thing once again?' Heini: No, never.
Heini had to repeat the third year. Because he was so disheartened, his performance in arithmetic had deteriorated too, so he was kept down. 'This third and fourth year were the worst thing that I have ever experienced in my life up until now. From the very beginning. We had our classroom right next to the class which I had been in before. Whenever I saw one of the fourth-years I thought,"They managed it, but you, you're just stupid." I still had a few friends in that class, but I went with them less and less. I didn't get on properly with my new classmates. They knew that I wasn't any good, and they told me so, too.'
'What was it like in lessons, then?'
'Oh, not good. When it was my turn to read I knew from the beginning that I wouldn't be able to do it. I could hardly say anything, out of sheer fear. It's as if someone has tied your neck up tight. Sometimes I thought I would choke. Then I stammered one or two words, and the other children laughed. I would have liked to crawl away somewhere. But I couldn't do that. The teacher said, "You must practise!" But I knew that that was pointless. It was like in dictation. I had practised that at home, too, for two hours at least. One of my sisters had helped me, even. And then I still made twenty mistakes, and the teacher said,"If you had practised, you wouldn't have made so many mistakes." Then I knew that I was hopelessly stupid. And when the others said to each other after the dictation, "I've got three mistakes," "I haven't got any," then they always asked me too, "Heini, how many have you got, again?" When I told them then they laughed. And then when I didn't tell them, they laughed too.'
'How was it in arithmetic?'
'At first I thought that would be all right. But then we had to recite our tables as fast as possible. The teacher timed us with a stopwatch. I was always the slowest. Then I gave up. And then we went on to sums that were set in words, and of course I couldn't do them. So in arithmetic it was just the same as in language.'
'But lessons don't consist only of arithmetic and language. You had gym, drawing, singing, and in the fourth class local history as well. How was it in those?'
'You know, I didn't enjoy anything at all about school any more. Because I was just laughed at, and because the others didn't like me. Every morning, when I was still lying in bed, I thought, "Now you must go to school. You can't do anything there because you are stupid. So you'll be laughed at. If only it was already the evening again." And when I was sitting in school I always thought, "If only school were already over." I didn't keep up in anything any more. Not even in the things I might have been able to do. There was no question of it any more.'
'But you know that ...'
'Yes, now. I see that it is even more boring and shitty when I don't do anything at all. But at that time I had no idea how to cope.'
'How was it at home, then?'
'That was much worse than at school. Every time I brought a bad test home to have it signed, father swore. And it happened more and more often. My brothers and sisters laughed at me, particularly the younger ones. When there were quarrels, they called me a dunce. Sometimes I got so angry that I hit out. But then I got beaten by my father. It is mean to hit the little ones, he said. I thought he was much meaner. I thought he liked the others much better than me, and that was the worst.'
'But you know that business about not liking you isn't true.'
'Yes, you've explained that to me. He didn't believe in me any more. He had lost courage and didn't know what to do. Just like me. I'm not angry with him about it. But then ...' Heini hesitates. Then, quietly - 'Then it was very bad.'
He goes on. 'At home I felt more and more of an idiot. When I had to help, I did it wrong. Then I was laughed at, sworn at or even hit. Sometimes I woke up in the night. Then everything would come into my head. I wouldn't be able to go to sleep again and I'd cry. For hours.
'At school it got worse and worse. Whatever I did, everything just came out wrong. The others laughed at me, and I didn't know what to do. Once I knocked someone down. He ran back into the classroom and told the teacher. I hid in the coal cellar, because I was so frightened. I was bleeding at the time; I didn't notice it till then. But I stayed down there. Until the evening. The next day I got punished in school and I had to stay on in the classroom after lessons until the others had gone. I was shaking with rage. It all seemed to be so unfair. But I didn't dare say so.
'Once father had to go to the school. When he came back he swore and said 'If you go on like this, you'll end up in the school for thickoes.' From then on I was even more frightened.'
'But wasn't there anyone who might have helped you?'
'No, nobody. My brothers and sisters and my school friends laughed at me; the neighbours treated me different to anyone else; my father didn't like me, I thought; and my mother didn't dare to contradict my father. The teacher? Yes, it was her who gave me the bad marks, the punishments; it was her who made me look like a fool in front of the whole class. And the vicar was only interested in whether I went to lessons. If I didn't go enough, he told my parents. Then I got beaten again. I had the feeling that all grown-ups were against me. You are the first grown-up who has bothered with me.'
'But now it's better.'
'Yes, now lots of people like me. I don't know why. But then I was alone, quite alone. And that was the worst of all.'
We are silent. I am deeply moved. What the boy must have felt! When things are going badly for me, when I have difficulties, I can always go and talk to friends about it. I can go back to my flat, too, or somewhere where I can build up a different world in which I feel at ease. When I feel unfairly treated, I can defend myself or I can always think 'For god's sake, they are really being a great deal stupider than me.' It was different for Heini. He didn't have those opportunities. He found himself forced to share the world's totally negative opinion of him. How much worse it must have been for him! To my comment about this he replied 'It is so bad nobody can describe it.' Long pause. Then he said, quietly and hesitantly:
'Now I will tell you something. Once, after school, when I had no idea how to cope with things, I ran into the wood. I was in utter despair. Everything was pointless. What should I do? Run away? But I knew they would find me straight away. I was so incompetent. I would have liked to take my life. But I didn't know how to. I thought about it for a long time, but I couldn't think of any way. And because nothing came into my head, finally I went home, empty, hopeless. And at home I got beaten because I was late.'
I lie awake for a long time. It is not the first time I have heard this kind of story. Bit by bit every one of my students tells me about similar occurrences: small, isolated events that seem at first sight unimportant; stories in which one single teacher once said something stupid; a few individual 'nasty' friends once laughed at them, or made a fool of them; stories about which I could always say 'Yes, I had experiences like that too, at secondary school or at college.' But every time I am told such stories along with the bigger picture, I am shattered. I see that in these cases it is nothing to do with single, separate events which might be compared with my experiences. It is something quite different: an endlessly repeated attack on the already weak and vulnerable self-esteem of these children, a destruction of unparalleled brutality. But the extent of this brutality can hardly be understood in its full breadth of application. Conversations like the one just now with Heini hardly ever happen. With Heini it was three and a half years before he reached the point of formulating what had oppressed him for so long; three and a half years during which I consistently refused to put any pressure on the boy, during which I let myself be described as a 'bad teacher' rather than in any way suppress his very weak beginnings of a foundation of self-confidence. It was three and a half years during which I had been trying to develop the boy's ability to express himself, his ability to speak. It takes that long - at the very least - before this kind of damaged, closed-away child opens up. How often that sort of time and space is permitted readers must decide for themselves.
One more point. As teachers we can hardly refer back to our own experiences. We have no experience to compare with this. If we had, then we wouldn't be teachers now. We would probably be working on an assembly line or something.
At home, publicly (with the neighbours) and at school, Heini's life was under pressure to the limits of what is bearable. But the title of this article is 'The Brutality of Schools.' Should schools alone be held responsible? Should the buck stop with the education system once again? Yes, definitely. And I will tell you why. The parents of these children are demonstrably in no position to help in this specific situation. Otherwise things would never have got so bad. But that is not true of their schools. Firstly there ought to be opportunities for comparison, so that vulnerable children can identified, and there should also be teachers available who are to some extent trained to provide appropriate help. In addition, the children should be given such help, so that their lives don't get into a total mess. But what do schools do? It's not just that they fail to make things better: they actively contribute to the destruction of these young lives.