The Narcissism of Minor Differences
Part 1. Wherein the author describes independently theorizing NoMD in 9th grade and getting an F for it.
Part 2. Wherein the author applies the NoMD theory to recent group experiences and gets censored for it.
A decade ago during the first weeks of 9th grade I got my first and only F on a paper. Of course I was livid when I got the paper back, especially because the only comment on the paper was “I don’t agree.” Ms. Montgomery was a novice history teacher and a pinko socialist, and I had already embarrassed her during the first week when she compensated for her own ineptitude and lack of preparation (no lesson plan) by making us watch irrelevant movies and color in maps with crayons and colored pencils.
Her running a high school class like a kindergarten was degrading and especially insulting to a precocious freshmen who was eager for a more mature classroom experience than he had in Middle School. It was her first time teaching, but it was hardly my first time running into an idiot teacher. The issue came to a head when I refused to color in yet another photocopy of a map of some part of the world that I already knew and wasn’t going to get credit for, to “prepare” for a quiz I could already ace, opting instead to read our as-of-yet unused textbook figuring that Ms. Montgomery would eventually use our classroom time for teaching instead of babysitting and scrambling to do preparations she should have done on her own time weeks before.
One class she finally looked up from her desk long enough to notice that I was reading my textbook instead of coloring and decided to make an example out of me. “What are you doing, Christopher?” “Actually learning something.” “Put that book away and get to your map. This is a history class and I won’t have you doing your homework for another class.” “This isn’t for another class, this is the textbook for this class, don’t you recognize it?” “You’re going to fail the quiz if you don’t study, now get out your map.”
“Ms. Montgomery, we colored maps in elementary school. I learned the names of all the countries in middle school. This is a waste of time. We’ve spent the entire week coloring maps and you’re not even going to give us credit for it. I’m ready for the quiz, coloring isn’t going to change that.” “Really? You’re ready? Let’s see.”
Montgomery walked over to the board and fumbled with the world map. When she finally got it to stay down, she had already lost the whiff of authority and momentum the teacher has in such a situation, but she insisted on making an example. She grabbed a yard stick and started pointing to countries.
From across the room I started, “Morocco, France, Greece, Jordan, Mongolia, Laos, Philippines.”
She chimed in with glee, “No, that’s Indo-ne-si-a. I told you that you needed to study!”
“Um, no, that’s the Philippines. Indonesia is south and west. Look again.”
As she leaned into the map I couldn’t resist. I noticed that she needed to confirm where she was pointing by actually reading the country names, she obviously didn’t know the map. “Maybe you should color in a map.” She retaliated by blitzing through Africa with her yardstick, but I didn’t falter (I had been there a month before) and she only reinforced to the entire class that I knew the map better than she did.
I didn’t get 100% on the quiz… until I brought it to her attention that she had botched the grading of Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, probably because she couldn’t read her teacher’s manual answer key. The gauntlet had be laid and it didn’t take her long to get even.
The assignment was to watch the Dolly Parton movie “Nine to Five” and do at least a one page analysis. We wasted three full class periods watching the movie and I handed in my paper on the last day, two days before it was due. I did a finely written three page analysis where I argued that social identity comes as much from one’s in group as it does from one’s out group, comparing elements of the film with historical events. My hypothesis was that “I am not” is a crucial to identity as “I am.”
Ms. Montgomery was looking for mindless pap along the lines of conspiracy to commit homicide, false imprisonment, aggravated kidnapping and assault are justified when your boss is a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” and you sing catchy tunes while perpetrating your criminal revenge. It didn’t matter to Montgomery that my essay elegantly linked a lousy comedy that had no part in a high school history class to more pressing and relevant historical issues. It didn’t matter that I bit my tongue and didn’t discuss how a movie about women botching the murder of their boss was about as useful in effecting change in the workplace as Fonda sitting on a Viet Cong anti-air turret was to ending the Vietnam war.
It didn’t matter that I keenly observed that the difference between the in group and the out group need not be vast differences, and often it was very small differences that lead to the most atrocious warfare. The War of Independence, The Hatfields and the McCoys, the split families of the American Civil War, the Fascists an the Communists, the Protestant Reformation and subsequent sub-fracturing, etc.
Even when I approached her after the papers came back to inquire about why I had an F, her only comment was that she didn’t agree that people behaved like that. Such thinking was supposedly negative and bigoted. She denied that she ever made such assessments and was above such petty behavior. Then I asked her if she was popular in school and her world fell apart. No, she wasn’t one of the rich popular kids, and n
o she wasn’t a nerd. Point proven, she wasn’t this nor that and what group she wasn’t was as significant to her identity as what she was.
I handed her my book and told her that I would not be coming back to her class. And I never did. I marched into the head of the department’s office and demanded that Miss Montgomery be fired and that I be transferred into a real class with a teacher who wasn’t a hack. Mr. Kempton read my essay, saw the one comment “I don’t agree. F” in red, and listened to my beef about her lack of preparation, lack of real teaching, and horrible liberal bias that infected her grade book. He agreed that the grade and her justification was wholly inappropriate, apologized for her lackluster performance and assured me that she’d be reigned in and informed of the appropriate way to grade and teach. Best of all, he transferred me into his class and I earned an A+.
It was a pivotal moment in my high school career even though I didn’t appreciate it at the time. Not only was it the first time that I truly took control of my own education and didn’t call in my parents to deal with a stupid teacher, it led directly to many opportunities that wouldn’t have existed if I sucked it up and pandered to the pinko. Mr. Kempton’s U.S. History class was an inspiration and I took his AP US Government and AP Comparative Government classes (and scored 5s on all three AP exams). He recommended me for the American Legion’s Boys State program as well as local program called “Colorado Close Up.” While attending the former I became involved with the American Legion’s speech contest which led me to take Speech and Debate and later become a team captain. In the later program I got my first taste of being a trial lawyer which inspired me to join the Mock Trial teams in both high school and in college at Stanford.
When I acquire my JD/MBA, part of the credit for the JD belongs to that F and the idiot pinko who did more for me by not teaching than she ever could have done by doing her job.
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