Friday, October 14, 2011

Aimless Reading: The O's, Part 11.1 (George Orwell)

1984 by Michael_Kelleher
1984, a photo by Michael_Kelleher on Flickr.
Orwell, George

I am not sure where this came from. My best guess is that I used it to teach at LaSalle Academy in New York. The edition, however, is a bit older. It dates to, yup, 1984. It could be from college, or even from high school, but I doubt it. I seem to remember not having a copy during college for some reason, so my original guess is likely the most accurate.

I remember teaching this novel during my second year at LaSalle. I had been given my own classroom that year, and so set about redecorating almost immediately. My first order of business involved removing the crucifix from above the chalkboard and replacing it with a poster on which a black-and-white illustration of man stared out at the viewer, his head framed by the caption, "Big Brother is Watching." That the school was run by the Christian Brothers made this all the more hilarious, at least in my mind. I was certain they would ask me to remove it in the first week. Strangely, they did not, though things did get weird pretty soon thereafter.

I and a fellow teacher, an ex-priest who was now an openly gay teacher at an all-boys catholic school, began to organize the faculty ahead of the first major faculty meeting of the year. Many were concerned about the current principal's capricious vindictiveness, our fear of which was exacerbated by the fact that no one had much more than a handshake as a legal contract to protect them from this guy if they got on his bad side. So, we organized a few meetings and created a simple listed of demands: a written tenure policy, an updated faculty handbook, and representation at meetings of the board of trustees.

We brought these to the attention of the principal and the president and asked that part of the all-day meeting be set aside to address our concerns. We were given fifteen minutes out of a six-hour meeting. It took place in the gym on a Friday morning. The principal, dressed in his soutane, sat beneath his bald pate, his legs crossed, leaning backwards on a folding chair in an awkward attempt to look casual. He faced five rows of chairs in which the faculty were seated, about forty in all.

When the moment arrived to discuss faculty concerns, one teacher after another stood up and voiced their frustrations. They got angrier and angrier, until it started to feel like it was getting out of control. I remember raising my hand to say that I felt that there existed between the faculty and the administration an atmosphere of distrust. He pretended he couldn't hear what I said. Cupping his hand over one ear, he told me to repeat myself.  I did, adding that I thought this was most clearly apparent in the new security system added to the faculty copy machine, which required us to "punch the date of our conception into the universe into a machine in order to document how many copies we make. It's like Big Brother is Watching...Brother Patrick"

The meeting dissolved in acrimony, and the following Monday, each of the "ringleaders" was summoned to the principal's office to have their jobs threatened. Being the youngest faculty member, with the least job security, I was dressed down the hardest. Somehow, he had the text of everything I said written verbatim in a notebook, despite the fact that he had no such notebook at the meeting. He first showed me my contract and told me he could take my job away. He told me that if I had a grievance I should take it up with him personally, not in front of the entire faculty.

And then he read my words back to me, with emphasis on the Big Brother comment. He asked if that had anything to do with the poster hanging in my classroom. I realized that he had no idea that the poster or the comment came from 1984. I replied that the poster was "a reference to a classic literary work that my students had been studying VERY closely." He left it at that for the moment.

Starting the next day, though, he set out to make my life so miserable that I would quit my job. He began appearing in the doorway of my classroom to scold me for various petty things in front my students. He polled many of them about what I taught, asking about the books we read and so forth. He never bothered to read any of the books, several of which contained content that would have been grounds for dismissal at a Catholic school. I guess he didn't like to read.

Finally, he resorted to the path of least resistance, informing me in April that my contract would not be renewed. I vowed to fight him, and did for a time, but since I had no seniority or tenure, there was nothing I could do.

Our little movement ended with his removal from the position, though our union failed to gain the necessary votes the following year. It was a pretty bitter lesson in local politics, all in all. Especially the discovery that morons like that often manage to ascend to positions of power. Usually, they get to keep it. I guess in that sense we succeeded, though I and about half the faculty departed at the end of the school year. A pyrrhic victory if ever there was one.

from 1984

"We are the priests of power," he said. "God is power. But at present power is only a word so far as you are concerned. It is time for you to gather some idea of what power means. The first thing you must realize is that power is collective. The individual only has power in so far as he ceases to be an individual. You know the Party slogan 'Freedom is Slavery." Has it ever occurred to you that it is reversible? Slavery is freedom. Alone-free, the human being is always defeated. It must be so, because every human being is doomed to die, which is the greatest of all failures. But if he can make complete, utter submission, if he can escape from his identity, if he can merge himself in the Party so that he is the Party, then he is all-powerful and immortal. The second thing for you to realize is that power is power over human beings. Over the body-but, above all, over the mind. Power over matter external reality, as you would call it-is not important. Already our control over matter is absolute."

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