my experience in school and the failure of the Left

I re-read Mariarosa Dalla Costa’s and Selma James’ classic Marxist feminist pamphlet, “The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community,” a couple of months ago with the rest of Unity and Struggle in our year-long organization and patriarchy study.  Unity and Struggle is a small national group of organizers who are trying to develop a libertarian or anti-authoritarian Marxist tendency that forefronts race and gender as integral to our thinking and practice.  We draw a lot of influence from the work of the above two authors in our understanding of gender, race, and class.

Their use of the Marxist method, specifically the category of “totality,” allows them to have a holistic analysis of gender instead of a partial or one-sided one.  For instance, they see education and schooling not unto itself but as an institution (in other words a social relationship) that is the result of a historic process of the separation of productive and reproductive labor.  This meant that, in the earliest period of capitalist accumulation, those who weren’t sent out to work in fields and factories for wages were forced to stay at home and take care of their waged counterparts.  This separation had a gendered division where female-bodied people labored at home while male-bodied folks labored for wages.  As part of this process, all those whose labor was not in immediate service of labor power and its reproduction were expelled from the home.  This included the elderly and children.

Children were torn from their families, their social milieu, and forced due to the dictates of capital and state into schools were they were taught not just the content of bourgeois morality and virtue but its form via the discipline of the clock where timely arrival and completion was highly valued.

It was this narrative that hit me like a bolt of lightening and brought me back to what was so alienating about my school experience.  It was largely the later experiences I had; the cliques, the fashion show, the bullying, the school-produced hierarchies, the discipline, that reminds me of what I hated of school.  But it was specifically how Dalla Costa and James situate the earliest resistance to school–the emotional shock and trauma of being separated from your organic social environment and left with total strangers so that your family can fulfill the requirements of capital and the “instinctual” resistance to this process–that really touched me and challenged me to think hard about those earliest experiences.  And after thinking about it, I’m struck by the reality that this initial feeling and resistance isn’t so foreign to me now.  I still continue to feel it everyday at work, in the unemployment office, filling out applications for work or benefits, in line at the grocery store, etc.  I live with that initial moment everyday when my Mother first left me at the daycare and I didn’t understand why.

Here’s what I remember about school from about age four (my earliest memories) until around age 12 or 13: Cramps.  Debilitating stomach cramps.  The drive on the way to school that wore on for years, the feeling I had was always anxiety-induced stomach pains.  In first grade I was taking a test and suddenly I lost total vision.  I couldn’t see anything but I was still conscious.  By way of light and dark I made my way to my teacher’s desk and I asked if I could go to the restroom.  She told me, “Tyler, we already took a bathroom break.”  I replied, “Okay,” and immediately fainted.  In second grade, I had another episode of vision loss.  Falling to the floor of the classroom as everyone else was departing another teacher entered the room and in true disciplinarian tone demanded, “What are you doing on the floor?”

I remember fear.  I was afraid of school, of teachers, of classmates, the paddle with the holes in it.  I met the paddle when I was a six-year-old in the 1st grade.  A student made up a story that I was throwing rocks (which was a big offense) on school property and they believed her.  Funny thing was, even though I knew I didn’t do it, I still felt wrong about it and refused to tell my parents.

I did okay in school until about the 4th grade.  The 4th grade was a key year where I went from passive compliance to unconscious resistance.  I began to intentionally leave homework at school.  I went from being a ‘B’ student to a consistent ‘D’s.’  I would feel guilty; I would feel fear of the consequences.  I was called lazy.  I felt lazy.  I remember wanting to do what I wanted to do, ultimately.  Usually this looked like staring at political maps, memorizing the cities, capitals, and borders while the rest of the class discussed fractions.  I began failing.  My anxiety gave my Mom anxiety.  I was sent to counseling.  I took EEGs.  I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder.  I was drugged which made me still more anxious.  All possible options were discussed–save for those which meant a critique of capitalism, the school structure, and resistance to it.

Sixth grade.  It was the year I went through D.A.R.E., the then-required government sponsored drug prevention program facilitated by individual police officers weekly visiting classes.  It was March 1991.  Rodney King had just been ruthlessly beaten by four LAPD officers.  The D.A.R.E. officer arrives and begins talking about King.  “Rodney King is scum.  I’m sorry.  Had I been there I would have shot him on the spot.  He is not a victim but deserved everything he got.”  I was shocked.  Not because I necessarily had the sense that what happened was wrong but because the cop felt so strongly about it.

At home that evening I relayed what the cop said to my Mother.  “That’s bullshit!  He was an unnarmed man beaten because he was black!”  I was just as shocked by my Mother’s reaction as I was by the police officer’s.  My Mom’s word was gospel then.  I believed her.

My grades continued to slip and my habits of either refusing to pay attention or losing focus became normalized.  By age 12 or 13 another shift occurred.  The fear was morphing into anger.  Donnie Darko was so right.  The entire spectrum of human emotion is not reducible to fear and love.  Had that been the case, I would have remained afraid of my teachers, school administrators, and their discipline which was a combination of physical violence, threats of physical violence, punishment (which always meant more labor through additional homework or writing sentences), and psychological terrorism, “If you don’t pass this test you’ll fail the class.  If you fail the class you won’t go into the next grade.  If you don’t go to the next grade you will never complete school.  If you don’t complete school you won’t find work and you will die poor and lonely.”  There was a rupture in form.  I broke with the practice but not yet the thinking.  I began intentionally ignoring, intentionally refusing to do homework though for a time I remained afraid.  What if they’re right?  They are right.  Accept your choices.  I began to daydream of becoming a monster who would ruthlessly kill everything and everyone who dehumanized me.  I remember being very angry and resentful and I wanted to get even.

What was crucial in the facilitation in the change from fear to anger, in passivity to open, conscious but contradictory resistance was the LA rebellion of 1992.  I owe my lineage to this assault against the state and capital.  I was not a participant in this struggle.  I was 11 years old.  I lived in a white working class town in Oklahoma, far removed in space and experience from black resistance in LA.  Chuck D once said that hip-hop was Black America’s CNN.  He was only half right.  It was also the CNN for a new layer of youth of color and working class whites in the era of Rainbow Coalition white supremacy.  After the riots, I listened to Cube’s “The Predator” which is arguably the movement’s soundtrack.  I began to see that the police, not police officers, were the problem.  The school legitimized the police and the police legitimized school.  Who picks you up for “truancy”?  The police.  This scared the shit out of my Mom who thought she had encouraged it.  She did.  But it was beyond her control anymore.  A Malcolm shirt and hat was cool.  A Malcolm shirt with “by any means necessary” scrawled across it was unacceptable because it “advocated violence.”

I began to become more hostile to the prevalent white supremacy amongst classmates.  I was called a “nigger lover” for listening to hip-hop and for my latent pro-blackness.  I experienced daily harassment for wearing Malcolm X paraphernalia which was “like a black kid wearing a KKK shirt.”  There were few black kids or kids of color at my school and more than anything I wanted to be around black folks.  I thought I was black.  My habits eventually caught up with me and I was held back in the 7th grade.  I refused to go back to school.  I told my Mom and my counselor that I would not go.  My Mom furiously looked elsewhere, using a fake address where I could to school in another district.

I converted to Islam after reading Malcolm’s autobiography.  At that time I equated Islam with black resistance and knew nothing of the middle class Arabs and Muslims in the US who used Islam to justify careerism and bourgeois discipline.  My Mom’s then-partner was incarcerated and for two years or more I spent anywhere from 15-20 hours a week in a prison visiting area.  I finally took my Shahadah with the prison Imam, brother Akbar, who has since passed away.  This was in the early 90s and there were still prisoners who were young enough to have experienced the Black Power movement.  One brother, Reginald Green, a Muslim, was a Panther from Oklahoma City who used to talk about the Party a lot to me.  My Mom’s partner, B, was a boy during the Panther days and used to deliver the Kansas City Black Panther Party newspaper, Sons of Malcolm.  He knew Pete O’Neal, who has been exiled in Tanzania for decades, very well.  In prison there was tremendous overlap with Islam and Black Power.

I began taking my Qur’an with me to class at the new school I was attending illegitimately (I was 13) and would read it instead.  My teacher threatened me with detention if I didn’t put it away.  She took it from me and I sat in protest.  By this time I was also refusing to stand and participate in the pledge of allegiance.  One teacher asked why and I responded, “Because I’m not an American.  America is a racist society.”  They called my Mother and asked if it was for religious purposes.  My Mom told them to back the hell off.  They listened.

I defied all of them.  It was a liberating feeling but I still feared that it may come back to haunt me.  One teacher, a male, tried using Malcolm as a way to say I should listen and perform well in school.  “Didn’t Malcolm value hard work and learning?” I wasn’t buying it.  Malcolm’s teacher called him a “nigger” and said he should be a carpenter despite how well he did.

Even though I appreciated the fact that the new school wasn’t all white and I developed my first relationships with black students my age, every day I resisted the school.  I spent hours in detention where I continued to daydream and read the shit I wanted to read.

Upon being expelled from the 7th grade (my second time around), my Mother’s increasing exasperation lead her to see the school as the problem, though in a limited way.  She would finally tell the school principal, “My son didn’t fail.  You failed my son.”  “You’re right, we did.  We just don’t have the infrastructure and capacity to meet the needs of your son.”  The principal half-way admitted the failure of the system in front of us both.

I would not appreciate the significance of this admission until years later.

It was in part a confirmation that I was right.  School is bullshit.  Truancy is resistance and should be encouraged.  Truancy organized is a student strike.  Had I known of communism or of black resistance in schools, such as the Black Student United Front in Detroit, I would have organized.  I needed perspectives.  I needed information on why I resisted and encouragement to not just keep it up but to give it organizational form.  Instead, I got head doctors doing all sorts of tests to tell me why I was the problem.  There are millions of students who are feeling this way and going through this shit and need organization and ideas to facilitate and sharpen their resistance.  It isn’t just what school teaches, it is what school does.  It trains us to be workers and it trains the students of the elite to be rulers.

There was no genuine revolutionary Left where I grew up.  This story is a testament to the failure of the Left and of independent organization.  There was a time where independent mass organizations of students existed to build and refine student revolt.  The last few years have seen a renewal of student revolt but there is still vast unevenness between secondary and higher education and where high school students resist, such as in school walkouts, it has been largely in valid support of teachers but has yet to raise its own independent demands and forms.

Students and young people are looking for means and explanation and had it not been for hip-hop, for Malcolm, for Islam, for prison, and, most importantly the LA rebellion, I might have been even more lost, confused, and possibly might have turned toward fascist alternatives.  We have work to do if we’re going to plant and deepen roots amongst the working class.  Let’s get to it.

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