The brutality of school
Jürg Jegge is a Swiss teacher who worked first with a remedial class in an ordinary school and then as one of the teachers taking part in an experiment in the canton of Zürich called Schulen in Kleingruppen, schools in small groups. Each group contained six children who had been excluded from all other places of education. They were placed in the care of a single teacher in a building that was nothing like a school. Jegge wrote two books about these experiences, Dummheit ist lernbar (Stupidity is learnable) and Angst macht krumm (Fear screws you up). What follows is a passage from Dummheit ist lernbar. There are no illustrations, because no illustration could match the despair described.
Heini has been in my class 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 last year and a half he has made his mark. He expresses his own views, and now and again also talks about his home and the problems he has there. But there is just one thing that he has never yet talked about – what he went through at home and in school before he was put into the remedial class. One evening, at a group camp, the time is ripe. He can't get to sleep, and nor can I. We are sitting in the comfortable common-room and he tells me, at first hesitantly, then gradually more fluently and in more detail, about that time that he longs to forget, but cannot. What he tells me there occupies my mind all the next day. Ever since then it has been clear to me: what Heini went through, what almost all my pupils have been through, is so brutal that it can hardly be described, let alone fully understood.
Heini is a fairly typical representative of the conventional image of the 'stupid' schoolboy. He comes from an unskilled working-class family with a lot of children. He has actually never had the attention that he needed, either in terms of cultural stimulus and encouragement or from the affective/psychological point of view. His withdrawal, his politeness were an expression of the fact that he had no confidence in himself, had lost all courage. His bad performance in school, particularly in literacy, was the result of the lack of cultural stimulus in his background. This means that when he first arrived at school he was disadvantaged by his past history. Even so, at that time it would have been relatively easy to give him a helping hand, to compensate a bit for the disadvantages caused by his background, to strengthen his low self-esteem. 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 right in the first year,' he says now. 'We always had to make words in a rack, but I never really got the idea. The others easily finished before me and had to wait for me. Then the teacher said, "Have you finished at last, Heini?" And I was ashamed. Sometimes I took the rack home with me. For practice. But no one had time to help me. So I thought, you'll never learn that anyway. And I didn't. The other children noticed. "We're always having to wait for you," they said. And when we quarrelled they shouted, "Can't read! Can't read!" And on those days I ran home and hid in the coal-cellar and cried.'
There was a question I wanted to ask: 'What was it like at school, then? Didn't the teacher keep you back to go over it with you, to explain the whole thing?' Heini: 'No, never.'
Heini had to repeat the third year. He had been so disheartened that his number work had also fallen behind, so he was kept down. 'This third and fourth year was the worst thing I have experienced in my whole life. Right from the beginning. Our classroom was right next to the class I had been in before. Whenever I saw a fourth-year I thought, he's managed it, and you – you're just stupid. I still had a few friends in that class, but I went about with them less and less. I didn't get on well with my new classmates. They knew that I wasn't any good, and they said so.'
'What was it like in lessons?
'Oh, not good. When it was my turn to read I knew straight away that I wouldn't be able to do it. I could hardly say anything, I was so scared. That happens, when your throat goes all tight. Sometimes I thought I was going to die. Then I stammered one or two words, and the other children laughed. I would have liked to crawl away somewhere and hide. But I couldn't. The teacher said, "You must practise," but I knew that was pointless. It was like in dictation. I had practised at home, too, for a good two hours. One of my sisters had even helped me. And then even so I had 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 after dictation when the others said "I had three mistakes," "I had no mistakes," then they always asked me, "Heini, how many did you have again?" And if I told them they laughed. And then if I didn't tell them they laughed too.'
'What was it like in arithmetic?'
'At first I thought, this'll be all right. But then we had to say our tables as fast as possible. The teacher measured the time with a stopwatch. I was always the slowest. Then I gave up. Then came the sums set in words, and I couldn't do them anyway. So it was just the same in arithmetic as in reading.'
'But lessons don't consist entirely of reading and arithmetic. You had PE, drawing and singing, and in the fourth year local history as well. What was it like in those?'
'You know, I didn't enjoy anything at all at school any more. Because I only got laughed at, and because the others didn't like me. Every morning while I was still lying in bed I thought, now you've got to go to school. You can't do anything there, because you are stupid. And you'll get laughed at. If it was only the evening again already! And when I was sitting in school, I always thought, if only school was already over! I didn't keep up in anything any more. Not even the things that I might still have been able to do. There was no point any more.'
'But you know – '
'Yes, now. I can see that it is more boring and shitty when I don't do anything at all. But then I had no idea how to cope.'
'How did you get on at home?"
'That was much worse than at school. Whenever I brought a bad test home, to get it signed, my father swore. And it happened more and more often. My brothers and sisters laughed at me, particularly the younger ones. When we quarrelled 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 more than me, and that was the worst.'
'You know that 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 hope and didn't know what to do. Just like me. I'm not angry with him about it. But at that time . . . ' Heini hesitates. Then, quietly, 'At that time it was very bad.'
He goes on: 'At home I felt more and more of an idiot. When I had to help in the house, I did it all wrong. Then I would get laughed at, sworn at or even hit. Sometimes I woke up in the night. Then everything would come into my head. I wouldn't go to sleep again and I'd cry. For hours.
'At school it got worse and worse. Whatever I tried to do, it always came out wrong. The others laughed at me and I didn't know what to do. Once I knocked someone down. He ran into the classroom and told the teacher. I hid in the coal cellar – because I was so frightened. The next day I got punished and had to stay in the classroom after lessons until the others had gone home. I was shaking with rage. It all seemed to be so unfair. But I didn't dare say so.
'One time father had to go to the school. When he came home he swore and said, "If you go on like this you'll have to go to the school for thickoes." After that I was more frightened than ever.'
'But wasn't there anyone who might have helped you?'
'No, nobody. My brothers and sisters and the other people at school laughed at me, the neighbours looked down on me and pitied me, I thought my father didn't like me and my mother didn't dare contradict my father. The teacher? Yes, it was her who gave me the bad marks, the punishments; it was her who made me look a fool in front of the whole class. And the vicar was only interested in whether I came to lessons. If I didn't go, 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 ever bothered with me.'
'But now things are better.'
'Yes, now a lot of people like me. I don't know why. But at that time I was alone, completely alone. And that was the worst of all.'
We are both silent. I am deeply moved. What must this fellow have suffered? When things are going badly for me, I think, when I have problems I can always go and talk to friends about it. I can also get away to my flat or somewhere else where I can create a different world in which I feel comfortable. If I feel I have been treated unjustly, I can stand up for myself, or I can say to myself, 'For god's sake, they are really being a great deal stupider than me.' It was different for Heini. He didn't have any of these opportunities. He even found himself forced to share the annihilating judgment of the people round him. How much worse it must have been for him! When I comment on this he answers: 'It is so bad that no human being can describe it.' Long pause. Then he says, quietly and hesitantly:
'Now I will tell you something: once, after school, when I had absolutely no idea how to cope with things, I ran into the woods. I was completely desperate. Nothing meant anything any more. What should I do? Run away? But I knew that they would find me again straight away. I was so useless. What I would have liked best would have been to kill myself. 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 I couldn't think of anything, in the end 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 that I have heard this kind of story. Every one of my pupils has told me fragmentarily of such occurrences. Small, isolated events that at first sight seem unimportant. Stories about a single teacher making a stupid remark at some time, or a few 'mean' friends having laughed at them or made a fool of them. Stories about which I could always say to myself, 'Yes, that sort of thing happened to me, too, at my secondary school or in the seminary.' But every time I hear single stories like this told in context, I am shattered. I see that in these cases it is nothing to do with single, separate events comparable to my own experiences. It is something completely different – a endlessly repeated attack on the already weak and vulnerable self-esteem, a destruction of unparalleled brutality. The extent of this brutality can hardly be appreciated in its full influence. Conversations like the one above with Heini hardly ever happen. In Heini's case it was three and a half years before he reached the point where he could formulate what had been oppressing him for so long. Three and a half years, during which I consistently avoided putting any pressure on the boy, during which I preferred to let myself be described as a bad teacher, rather than in any way suppressing the very weak beginnings of a foundation of self-confidence. Three and a half years during which I also tried to develop the boy's ability to express himself, his ability to use language. That amount of time – at least – is needed before a child who has been damaged and closed down in this way can open 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 events from our own lives. We have had no relevant experience. If we had, then we would not be teachers now. We would probably be working on an assembly-line somewhere.
At home, in public (among the neighbours) and at school Heini's life was under pressure to the limit of what is bearable.
. . .
Should schools alone be held responsible for all this? Must the education system be seen as the villain of the piece yet again? Yes, definitely. And I will tell you why: the parents of these children are demonstrably not in a position to help in these particular situations. If they were things would never have reached this point. But that is not true of their schools. Firstly, there ought to be opportunities for assessment, so that vulnerable children can be identified, and there should also be people available who are to some extent trained to provide appropriate help. What is more the children should be guided towards such help, so that their lives don't get into a total mess. But what do schools do? It is not just that they don't provide this help: they participate enthusiastically in the work of destroying these young lives.
Jürg Jegge, Dummheit ist lernbar, 1976
Lest anyone should comfort themselves that this was in Switzerland and a long time ago, here is an extract from the London Metro for April 27, 2010:
I WANT TO KILL MYSELF, BOY WROTE
A boy of nine found hanged by his mother told teachers 'I feel like I want to kill myself' less than three months before he died, an inquest heard yesterday. Mason Springer wrote the words on a school 'reflection sheet' – but teachers did not tell his family. The pupil at St John and St James Primary school in Homerton, east London, was found suspended from a door at his home in Hackney on January 27.