Back when I was a high-school teacher, I always sort of enjoyed the first day or so of Pre-Plan (a label that makes no sense, now that I think about it) or Plan Week, or whatever it was called, except for the meetings, of course.
On most years we got new “spirit shirts,” meaning shirts with the name of our high school on it, and usually adorned with a sort of modernist, wind-blown lion, a lion that looked to be a close relative of the Denver Broncos logo. Because teachers are a mostly monastic bunch, ascetics by necessity, this was sort of like a birthday or some other gift-giving occasion. Yay! A free shirt!
We typically didn’t have those on the first morning back when we sat for our yearbook photos, so some of us wore an older spirit shirt, others dressed up a bit, others would wear just what they’d wear to work. We wore whatever someone like us would wear. No big deal.
In my last year of teaching, things changed. Yearbook photos got pushed back a day or so. This gave us time to get our new shirts first, which, sadly, were a garish, road-worker, prison-inmate orange. The administrative team received slightly nicer, but still orange shirts, as a reminder that they were administrators and a part of their own team. The varsity, I guess, and we the teachers would be the junior varsity.
We’re used to that!
And we were required to wear those things for our yearbook pictures. Required? I was so stunned when I heard this, I raced home, unlocked my Home Security Box, and thumbed through my vital documents until I found my 1973 honorable discharge from the United States Air Force.
Having dutifully completed my military obligation, I realized higher-ups no longer got to tell me what shirt to wear. So I put the shirt in a drawer where I couldn’t see it and skipped out on the yearbook photo.
Also, we were supposed to put on some black pants with our orange shirt for our Entire Faculty and Staff Photo (EFSP). Because I was required to, I didn’t do that either. Also, I don’t have any black pants.
Later, those of us who “missed” the first round of photos were told we could get our pictures taken when our students went in for re-takes. But, we would not be photographed unless we wore our orange shirt.
(Back home for another look at the discharge papers. Yep. Still not in the Air Force, thank God.)
Seriously?! If any of us, including your beloved author, had possessed the kind of courage that is often likened to certain male organs, we would’ve walked over with our students and caused a scene. We would’ve said, “Hey, I’m here to get my picture taken for the yearbook and I insist you take it. Either take my picture or call over whoever’s enforcing this thing, and we’ll have a discussion about what’s important.”
And our students would have looked on with envy and admiration, and they would’ve learned there is a time to resist trivial, meaningless orders, something we likened to poultry droppings back in the Air Force days. No one at my high school was going to fire us for doing that or even make us do 50 push-ups or clean an entire john with a toothbrush.
What poultry droppings we all were! How I regret it! Missed teaching moment!
Now to be fair to those who required the shirts, there was method in their rigidity. They wanted it to be a show of teamwork, and maybe even family, even though many families don’t require all their kids to wear the same clothes to show they’re part of the family.
So I gave serious (for me) thought to the teamwork concept. Who would benefit from our being a team? And does doing what you’re told when it’s a violation of your freedom – not so much as an American, but as a grownup – make you a team? Does conformity equal teamwork?
And what would you call a team of grownups who have next to no say in changes in policy, what text(s) they use and how, how many students they have in a class, how to discourage students from taking advantage of soft make-up policies, how they actually teach in their own classrooms – the poor folks’ last refuge of autonomy – and how and by whom they are evaluated, how often they are yanked out of class for something with the faintly obscene name of “pull-outs,” so that continuity, coherence and rapport are all damaged?
And what do you call a team of grownups who have survived off piddling, pathetic pay raises over the last seven years and who have had a good portion of their retirement pension plundered by politicians?
What possible difference does it make that all of these well-meaning, hard-working grownups, drawing menial wages while they do their damnedest to educate Florida’s youth, i.e., protect them from the wildly incompetent shenanigans of the feckless boneheads who’ve forever tarnished the Muskogean word “tallahassee” – what difference does it make if they all form a team wearing orange shirts?
I hate to think that that kind of team is just meant to placidly go along with every outrageous directive that gets channeled through in-services and department meetings. “Where’s your spirit? This is a team! We’re family here!” That, my friends is an ad populum fallacy, and every student who’s sat through my AP Lang classes would recognize it as such. There’s another term for it, and it has to do with bovine droppings.
Speaking of bovines, this particular team incident brings to mind the days of my youth, milling about in my granddad’s cow pasture. There were about 50 Black Angus out there, all, so to speak, wearing the same black shirt and pants. They were a team.
One of them, a female, would decide to be the Head Cow, and the rest of the bunch would be all “Whatever. But you don’t to get wear different clothes.” The Head Cow’s main job – I swear she was working for The Man – was to make a cow path. She would walk up to the water trough or under the shade of a pecan tree or over to the next pasture, and the rest would follow exactly in her footsteps.
Soon, there would be a narrow dirt path winding through the grass, weaving and winding as if the herd had elected a tipsy leader.
So when it came time for them to be hauled off to you-know-where, she led them to the chute and they followed.
So as a little kid, I learned what “herd mentality” meant, and for me it wasn’t a metaphor. And I learned that being a team with no power doesn’t help anybody, even if it has a leader.
At my school, it was just another freaking distraction to prod frustrated, financially vulnerable grownups to tough it out for another year.