Book Review: The Stepford Wives

Anyone who does not already know the story of The Stepford Wives should skip the introduction by Chuck Palahniuk that opens this edition and read it at the end. It is a thought-provoking opinion piece but gives away key elements of the plot. I picked up my copy of the tale having seen the film (the 1975 version) so was familiar with what would unfold. As is often the case, the book offers a much more powerful depiction than that shown on screen.

Given the way many men, and also certain women, are currently regarding today’s young women, this is a story that deserves to, once again, be widely read. Have we gone backwards from 1972 when the book was first published? Palahnick writes in this 2011 edition:

“In The Nannie Diaries and The Devil Wears Prada and Confessions of a Shopaholic, in this new generation of ‘chick lit’ novels, men are once more the goal. It’s successful women who torment our pretty, painted narrators […] women may now choose to be pretty, stylishly dressed, and vapid. This is no longer the shrill, politically charged climate of 1972; if it’s a choice freely made, then it’s . . . okay.”

“It’s fine. This is what the modern politically aware, fully awake, enlightened, assertive woman really, really, really wants: a manicure.”

The story opens with Joanna and Walter Eberhart, parents of Pete and Kim, settling into their new suburban home in Stepford having left the dirty and dangerous New York City. Joanna, a freelance photographer, is telling The Welcome Wagon Lady about her interests for the ‘Notes on Newcomers’ section of the local paper. Her female neighbours seem more interested in maintaining their already immaculate homes than in socialising. She hopes the article will help her find more forward thinking, like-minded friends. Walter plans to establish himself within the community by joining the local Men’s Association. Joanna is appalled that her supposedly liberated husband will consider attending a club that bans women.

Through the article in the newspaper Joanna meets Bobbie and then Charmaine. The three women get together and collectively wonder at the many beautiful and carefully presented wives in Stepford whose key interest seems to be housework. Their invitations to set up some sort of club for women have been declined with claims that there is no time for such pursuits if homes are to be maintained. And then the vocal and energetic Charmaine changes.

The gradual shift from suburban bliss to the horror of the situation is masterfully achieved. Even knowing the denouement I had to set down the book to catch my breath before finishing. The lengths the men of Stepford will go to in order to ensure their wives take more care over their appearance and become quiet and subservient may appear extreme. Swap their direct action for relentless and widespread emotional coercion and it is all too believable today.

This is a short book that packs a mighty punch with its succinct and fluid structure and language. I am left pondering just how many men would secretly prefer a Stepford Wife to a partner who is, at least, their equal.

The Stepford Wives is published by Corsair.

Book Review: Women and Power

Women & Power: A Manifesto, by Mary Beard, is based on two lectures the Cambridge based classicist gave in 2014 and 2017. It opens with an introduction celebrating how far women in the west have come in the previous century. The following chapters then focus on why women’s voices are still routinely ignored or silenced, and why any woman holding a powerful position continues to be regarded as an anomaly.

Drawing on examples from ancient Greek and Roman times, the author argues that government, business and society are all structured to ensure that it is only men who are listened to on serious issues affecting all. Politics, the economy and wider global concerns are regarded as beyond the comprehension of the majority of women, but not men. The pitch of women’s voices is described as whining, the content of their conversation trifling. The fact that they dare join any weighty debate is mocked, whatever is said. Attitudes are ingrained.

“We have to focus on the even more fundamental issues of how we have learned to hear the contributions of women […] Not just, how does she get a word in edgeways? But how can we make ourselves more aware about the processes and prejudices that make us not listen to her.”

The widespread use of social media has led to women who express opinions being subjected to abuse. Even those men who regard themselves as supportive may not be granting women serious consideration. The term ‘mansplaining’ was coined for a reason.

“It is not what you say that prompts it, it’s simply the fact that you’re saying it.”

The second chapter opens by looking at a work of fantasy fiction in which a nation of women have existed alone for centuries until three American men stumble upon their utopia. By exploring how these women regard themselves and then their uninvited guests, wider questions may be asked about the cultural underpinnings of misogyny.

“How and why do the conventional definitions of ‘power’ (or for that matter of ‘knowledge’, ‘expertise’ and ‘authority’) that we carry round in our heads exclude women?”

Powerful women, to fit into the role they have attained, adopt tactics that make them appear more like their male counterparts – lowering the timbre of their voices or dressing in suits. Any weakness is regarded as a female trait. The structures of power have been built with the expectation that they will be populated by men. When women gain access they are treated as interlopers. When mistakes are made these women are subjected to prolonged public humiliation.

This is a short book written with the author’s trademark wit and wisdom. By looking back to ancient times and teachings she shows just how ingrained attitudes are and always have been. There are no easy answers offered to the problems presented. In recognising why such issues exist, the silencing of women can be challenged with affirmative action, calling out those who denigrate the contributions of half the population.

Women & Power is published by Profile Books. This review is of the hardback. A paperback edition, containing additional material, was released on 1st November 2018.

Book Review: All Grown Up

“They tell you that you grow up, you get a job, you fall in love, you get married, you buy a home, you have children, you do all that, you get to be an adult. […] But you can’t be something you’re not. You can’t.”

All Grown Up, by Jami Attenberg, introduces the reader to Andrea Bern, an intelligent and independent woman on the cusp of forty, living alone in New York City. Andrea is single and child free by choice. She has a decent job, even if it isn’t the one she once dreamed of, and lives in an acceptable apartment. She carries emotional baggage but isn’t convinced therapy will help. She drinks, enjoys sex, and ponders the direction her life is taking, if this is what it is to be.

Told in a series of vignettes, the book explores Andrea’s relationships with family and friends as she watches many of them settle into the lives society expects – marriage, babies, discontent. There is much humour in the telling but what stands out is the raw honesty.

People come and go from Andrea’s life. Their experiences affect them and all they interact with as needs and desires progress. Individual choices don’t always segue with those made by loved ones. Is it possible to ever truly know someone when time only moves forward and disparate actions, especially within one’s varied relationships, auger personal development?

Andrea has no interest in children. She distances herself from those whose lives now revolve around their offspring. She observes how others regard her, some chafing against how she behaves. Whilst she recognises that her life is not ideal – she feels lonely sometimes, frustrated by her job – those who have chosen to follow society’s conventions have issues to deal with too. Many struggle to accept her right to autonomy if she is not providing them with what they crave.

“no matter how much you own yourself and your body and your mind, there are men who will always try to seek power over your body, even if it is just with their eyes”

In poignant, fierce, uncompromising  prose the reader is offered insights into personal thoughts and feelings often shrouded from public consideration. Whatever one’s relationship status or occupation, life is experienced as an individual. This story portrays what it is to be a woman, sentient and alive.

Although unsparing in its observations this is an affirming read. It is powerful, perceptive and recommended.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Serpent’s Tail.

This post is a stop on the All Grown Up Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Book Review: Nasty Women

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“Take a moment and ask yourself who are the real Nasty Women? Those of us who struggle to empower all women or those of us who empower men that ensure we remain second class citizens?”

Nasty Women is a collection of essays written by contemporary women about their everyday experiences of living in the twenty-first century western world. The contributors come from a variety of cultures, their points of view percipient in reflecting the particular challenges they have encountered due to their: gender, appearance, physical ability, creed.

Each account details the daily aggressions the authors have faced from family, friends and strangers. These are both verbal and physical, sometimes well intentioned but always damaging. Women of colour have their hair touched as though an animal in a petting zoo. Curvy women have their bottoms pinched, their waists grasped. Fat women are berated for eating, advised of a new diet plan, told how good they looked that time they lost some weight. Muslim women are required to defend themselves by those whose perceptions of their beliefs are certain yet skewed.

Many of the authors ponder the cost to their mental well-being of the expectations in which they were raised. Women are required to be good and this equates to being considered attractive, compliant and subservient, especially by men. White male privilege and those who uphold it, fearful perhaps at a perceived threat to the benefits they take as their due, requires that women abide by their definition of the ‘natural order’. Arguments for change are granted validity only if men suffer too.

Much of the harassment detailed is blamed on the survivor for the way they act or look. They are told that if they would only be good then they would be safe, with little thought by the advisers and accusers as to what they would be safe from. Why it is considered acceptable that women are required to live their lives under constant threat of attack?

The accounts by women who suffer different experiences to mine were enlightening. By listening and responding appropriately to such first hand experiences, conduct may be adjusted. Those that gave voice to ordeals I have suffered offered comfort. So ingrained is the demand that women cope and remain silent, it is rare to find discussion let alone acknowledgement of how widespread and damaging these accepted behaviours are.

It is not just men who perpetuate the patriarchy and silence dissent. In her essay, Choices, Rowan C. Clarke relates how her mother instilled in her the belief that she was abnormal because she did not appear concerned enough about losing weight, being pretty and desirable to boys.

“I hated myself. My mother has always been very opinionated and everybody’s actions were judged through her particular morality lens. It was hard work to please my mother. She would get so enraged when I didn’t act the way she wanted me to. […] Why couldn’t I just be normal and make her proud?”

In the age of Trump and his ilk it seems more important than ever to recognise and share experiences and to call out the damage that attempting to silence women will cause. If speaking out for tolerance and equality makes me nasty, then I wear that badge with pride.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, 404 Ink.

Book Review: Wonder Women

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“There are so many attitudes that need to be adjusted, so many biases that need to be addressed”

Wonder Women, by Sam Maggs, is not the book for anyone who believes that a successful woman is one who is slim, beautiful, amenable and capable of snagging a husband. Successful women, like successful men, are individuals who achieve things for themselves, and this book introduces the reader to dozens of ladies whose work added significantly to their area of expertise. They were innovators, inventors and trailblazers despite the ire they encountered from the patriarchal system. Naturally, many of them were denied credit for their work. History grants accolades to straight, white men as if they are the only people born with brains and the ability to use them. As is demonstrated within these pages, that ability was often lacking when it came to dealing with the opposite sex.

The book is divided into chapters introducing the accomplishments of women of Science, Medicine, Espionage, Innovation and Adventure. Within each chapter, five women are profiled followed by a couple of paragraphs on seven more. Each chapter is rounded off with a Q&A from a current expert in the area discussing their experiences as a women working in a male dominated field.

To achieve their aims, women often had to use subterfuge. Sisters worked with their brothers, wives with husbands, professors with lesser qualified male colleagues. Ideas were willingly shared for scientific advancement leading to men claiming credit for discoveries. Papers by women detailing the exact same research and results, sometimes published years before, were ignored.

“I’m not surprised at what I’ve done. I’m only sorry I couldn’t have had as good a chance as a boy, and have been put to my trade regularly”

Men in every time, place and discipline underestimated their female colleague’s skills. In one example, a morse code operative training for a new role was magnanimously offered a booklet by her superior, that some of his boys had found helpful, as she may need its advice to proceed. He was unaware that she had written it.

I most enjoyed the chapters on areas where I have a personal interest – Science and Medicine. In Espionage and Adventure some of the women came across as morally suspect, although being nice has never been a prerequisite for achievement. There are plenty of men lauded for their contribution to the advancement of learning who may not have made the best of friends.

One statistic that I noted was that, of the 5 million US patents granted since 1790, only 5% have a women’s name on them. A sizeable number of the 95% resemble inventions conceived and developed by women that were rejected as the patent office could not believe a women capable. Expensive court cases proved that accepted ideas had been copied and stolen by male acquaintances. Many patent requests avoided mentioning gender to circumvent the ingrained belief in a women’s lack of ability.

Determined women created their own opportunities. Some disguised themselves as men, others travelled abroad to gain the training denied them at home. One women who persuaded a college to allow her to attend seminars was required to sit behind a screen lest her presence upset the roomful of men, poor lambs.

The writing is light-hearted and brisk but carries a serious message. It offers a reminder that delicate little lady brains simply need the education and experiences routinely afforded to men in order to equally achieve. Perhaps at some level men are aware of this, and that is what they fear.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Quirk.

Book Review: The Arrival of Missives

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The Arrival of Missives, by Aliya Whiteley, is set in a small West of England village in the aftermath of the Great War. The families of the village have lived here for generations, each taking an interest in their neighbours’ lives and playing the role expected of them in occupation and village life.

The protagoinist, Shirley Fearn, is the only child of an increasingly successful, landowning farmer. She has been raised to be of interest to someone who would be willing and able to take over the family farm. Shirley has other ideas. She believes herself in love with the village schoolteacher, Mr Tiller, a badly injured veteran of the war. Her ambition is to gain her own teacher’s certificate from the nearby training college in Taunton, to marry Mr Tiller and then teach by his side.

When Mr Tiller learns of her plans he shares a secret that she must never divulge. He believes that Shirley can avert a catastrophe, but to do so she must trust him and do exactly as he asks. Shirley finds herself caught up in a personal conflict between helping her idol and following her own desires.

All her life Shirley has been expected to comply with the wishes of others. Her parents will contemplate no other future for her than that of the wife of a farmer on the family land. Shirley is headstrong and articulate, yet finds her voice ignored as the men of the village make decisions regarding her future. She receives little support from her mother who has learned to cope by hiding how she feels and pandering to her husband:

“He is an enormous tyrant baby to whom she will be forever bound.”

Shirley is a fascinating character, a young woman with opinions and desires who wishes to wrest control of her life from those who are convinced they know best. She observes that men’s plans rarely consider women, yet all men are born of a woman and therefore their participation over time is required.

The village May Day celebrations bring matters to a head as Shirley exercises the small power she has been granted. In the aftermath she comes to realise that her destiny is still being controlled. She acts to thwart the plans of the men intent on dictating the course of her life. She is unwilling to submit to village expectations, to comply with their skewed demands.

I enjoyed unpicking the surreal aspects of the story which came clear by the end. The denouement is intensely satisfying.

This is just the sort of book that I enjoy reading with its complex, recognisable characters whose well intentioned prejudices still resonate. I am grateful that, through the ages, there have been women like Shirley willing to step out of line.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Unsung Stories.

Book Review: Girls Will Be Girls

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Girls Will Be Girls, by Emer O’Toole, is an exploration of identity, gender and social conditioning. It starts with the premise that “all the world is a stage” and that “gender is an act which has been rehearsed”. The reasoning behind these assertions are well articulated in the opening chapters making this a thought provoking, challenging but never difficult read.

By drawing from her own life experiences, and sharing many amusing if sometimes poignant anecdotes along the way, the author looks at how people are conditioned to act out the part prescribed for their gender from birth. This is more than just dressing girls in pink and boys in blue. It looks at the way adults treat little girls (isn’t she pretty?) and how women are admired for attaining an acceptable aesthetic (thin, tanned, long hair on head, no hair on body).

The author talks of how she would feel social love and acceptance when she conformed, and how difficult it was to be seen in public with a more natural look.

“Why does so much embarrassment and shame surround women’s bodies?”

“it made me see how deeply engrained body policing really is”

I remembered the furor in the media when Emer appeared on breakfast television with visible underarm hair. Women grow hair on their bodies at around the same stage in their development that they grow breasts. How differently these natural protuberances are treated. Visible body hair, other than on the head, is viewed with disgust. Female breasts are so desirable that they must be covered, particularly in a professional setting, for fear that men will lose control, poor dears.

“The taboo on breasts successfully convinces us that women’s breasts are provocative, that men cannot possibly come into visual contact with them without losing all reason to a degree that we actually blame women who are attacked for failing to sufficiently hide their bodies.”

The chapters on sexuality were explicit but written to inform rather than titillate, a refreshing change. Women perform their socially influenced, learned behaviours in public and in the home, but even more so it would seem in bed. And that is what is expected, especially by men. The influence of porn is discussed, as is the lack of knowledge of the functions of the female anatomy. This is not an anti male text in any sense but rather an eye opening account of the roles society expects the genders to play, roles which are often painful as well as degrading for women.

The author writes of experiments she has carried out with her looks and how these have been received. She has shaved her head, grown her body hair, dressed as a boy and a girly girl. She reports on how each of these incarnations have been treated by friends and strangers, of the confusion and anger that can be induced when a women strays from what is considered the norm.

“My experiment […] was a visceral reminder of just how socially unacceptable the unmodified female body has become”

“we regularly punish those who fail to do their gender right”

The sociology and psychology are fascinating. I would love to put this book into the hands of so many people, yet I suspect that those who could learn most from it would dismiss the reasoning as feminist ranting, political correctness gone mad. Why should the beneficiaries of a system try to change it?

Personally I did not need to be convinced. As an over 50, overweight woman who eschews make up I am often reluctant to leave the house knowing how I will be viewed by society. I currently sport body hair because of comments regarding my size that have been made when I have gone to be waxed. I have suffered my share of sexual harassment in the workplace and socially.

In one chapter the author talks of how expectations change over time, and where this might lead. She ponders if the next generation will consider surgical changes a necessary element of their beauty regime, a real possibility given the direction in which our culture is moving and one which, as the mother of a daughter, terrifies me.

And this is why books such as these matter and must be put into the hands of young adults. If the patriarchy see no reason to change then the catalyst must come from elsewhere. Society is not just made up of boys and girls but also of those whose gender cannot be so neatly defined. Difference is natural and normal. Accepting this will require a radical shift in learned behaviour.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orion. 

 

Book Review: The Awakening

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The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, is a powerful work of literary fiction that was condemned in its time for suggesting that a women may want more from her life than a husband, children and a comfortable home. Published in the USA in 1899 it tells the tale of Edna, a wife and mother who awakens to desires that polite society refused to acknowledge in its female members. From a life spent acquiescing to the wishes and expectations of family and acquaintances, Edna starts to consider her own thoughts and feelings and, most shockingly, to act in a manner of her choosing.

There is so much in this book that reads as depressingly timeless. Her husband is materially kind and generous to his family, but cannot comprehend how this may not be enough for his wife. The men they mix with talk incessantly of themselves with little regard for the women so long as they are supportive and act as required and expected. The women gossip and flirt but rarely converse, even amongst themselves, with candour.

Upon observing with some chagrin the changes in his wife, Edna’s husband’s first reaction is to ponder her state of mind:

‘It sometimes entered Mr Pontellier’s mind to wonder if his wife were not growing a little unbalanced mentally.’

Concerned by the unexpected instability in his comfortable and ordered life, he consults with a doctor who asks:

‘has she been associating of late with a circle of pseudo-intellectual women?’

The insertion of pseudo rang so familiar. Over one hundred years later, too many men still struggle to regard women as mentally and intellectually their equals.

Despite the risks of association, Edna entertains men to satisfy her desires, a shocking idea at the time and one which led to her book being condemned as ‘immoral’.

‘[He] meant absolutely nothing to her. Yet his presence, his manners, the warmth of his glances, and above all the touch of his lips upon her hand had acted like a narcotic upon her.’

Edna did little to hide from others the change she was undergoing. A friend cautioned her:

‘The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.’

In the end though, the object of her imaginings turned out to be not so different to the other men, only able to regard her as a woman and not as an intelligent being.

‘He looked at Edna’s book, which he had read; and he told her the end, to save her the trouble of wading through it, he said.’

The Awakening is beautifully written, telling an insightful story that provides a social commentary which could almost be contemporary. Having said that though, I was disappointed with the denouement. I regretted that this woman, who had shown so much strength and insight, could not avoid the trappings of expectation, of a wish to be with a man.

As an early feminist work it is well worth reading, not least to consider the furore its publication caused. It has interesting characters, a compelling plot and is a true page turner. Such a shame that its protagonist could not, after all, find contentment living with herself; that she felt the need for the presence of another to make her life feel complete.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by Lizzie from These Little Words.

Gig Review: How to Build a Girl

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So, yesterday evening my daughter and I jumped on a train to Bristol for a girls night out. I say jumped on a train. Husband actually drove us to the station and came inside to buy our tickets, because manned ticket offices are just so last year and I am utterly inept when it comes to machines. If I ever have to face a cyber army that demands I remember any sort of number or password under pressure then I am doomed.

Prior to setting off on this latest adventure I had Googled the hell out of Bristol centre, plotting and memorising our journey from station to venue. Wonder of wonders, I broke the habit of a lifetime and did not get lost. We traversed that mile across the city like pros. Can I say that? Do you now have a picture in your head of a different type of street walker? Moving swiftly on…

I had promised daughter food, but when it came down to it was rendered useless in the face of vast quantities of people, buildings and traffic. Realising that there was a risk she may not be fed, daughter took me in hand and marched me across streets filled with street art and and an eclectic mix of people such as would never make an appearance in our sheltered little corner of Wiltshire. It was fabulous. We found a supermarket, stocked up on picnic items, and went to sit, eat and watch the world go by. I had never before realised that, just as London has its black taxi cabs, Bristol has blue. Simple pleasures.

Suitably sustained for the evening ahead we made our way to the venue, Colston Hall, where Caitlin Moran was due to take to the stage to tell us How To Build a Girl.

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What can I say about Caitlin Moran? She comes across as outrageous, irrepressible, hilarious, rude and slightly bonkers. She is also as real and inspiring as any entertainer I have had the pleasure to go see live. Within the first half hour she had the 1769 women and 53 men in the sold out venue standing on their chairs shouting “I AM A FEMINIST!” My daughter and I were right there, seven rows back. The only members of the audience who didn’t join in were the ones who fell off their flip up chairs, victims perhaps of the lure of the bars on such a hot, summer’s night.

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The evening was such fun. I loved the fact that the audience, although mainly women, were of all shapes, sizes and styles. Theatre attracts the affluent, music gigs the fans, Caitlin attracted women in all their incarnations. It was refreshing to feel at home, not to have to even think about what I looked like despite being out in public. It was a rare and thought provoking experience.

And my daughter loved it too, she even thanked me for taking her. At seventeen she was amongst the youngest in the audience, which I thought a shame. Young women would benefit from hearing this message presented in such an amusing and irreverent way. Woman are normal even though we are not men, we should not allow ourselves to be conditioned to feel shame.

A great night out was completed with a slow exit from the hall during which we saw Caitlin taking more photographs of the crowd with her phone. I loved the thought that she was as blown away by the camaraderie as the rest of us. Daughter and I made our way back through the buzzing city streets of Bristol, avoiding the leers of passing men, to catch our train home.

Thank you to My Independent Bookshop for providing us with tickets to this event. Daughter was most impressed that I was on a gig guest list, and very much enjoyed being my plus 1.

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When others speak my mind

One of the aspects of blog writing that I really enjoy is the exposure it gives me to other blog writers. Sometimes I read a post and feel as satisfied as I do after eating a good meal. To find some vague thoughts that I may have been pondering expressed clearly and succinctly is a delight.

I put together my last series of posts while thinking about Easter; what it meant to me and why. This took me a few days, but didn’t mean that I stopped thinking about other issues. It was good, therefore, to find some of these being discussed by bloggers that I follow. If you think that the topics on this list sound interesting then grab yourself a cup of your favourite beverage and read on.

How to Talk to a Skeptic About Rape Culture | Rant Against the Random

Lexicon entry: animus | Butterfly Mind

Stop Telling Women to Smile | Make Me a Sammich

I am also reproducing here a speech that I reblogged on Tumblr (followthehens) because I think that it speaks for so many who question our attitude to the current education system. However my views on the world may be tarnished by the behaviour of others, while our young people speak with this voice I have hope for the future.

‘(Erica Goldson graduated as valedictorian of Coxsackie-Athens High School. Instead of using her graduation speech to celebrate the triumph of her victory, the school, and the teachers that made it happen, she channeled her inner Ivan Illich and de-constructed the logic of a valedictorian and the whole educational system.)

There is a story of a young, but earnest Zen student who approached his teacher, and asked the Master, “If I work very hard and diligently, how long will it take for me to find Zen? The Master thought about this, then replied, “Ten years . .” The student then said, “But what if I work very, very hard and really apply myself to learn fast — How long then?” Replied the Master, “Well, twenty years.” “But, if I really, really work at it, how long then?” asked the student. “Thirty years,” replied the Master. “But, I do not understand,” said the disappointed student. “At each time that I say I will work harder, you say it will take me longer. Why do you say that?” Replied the Master, “When you have one eye on the goal, you only have one eye on the path.”

This is the dilemma I’ve faced within the American education system. We are so focused on a goal, whether it be passing a test, or graduating as first in the class. However, in this way, we do not really learn. We do whatever it takes to achieve our original objective.

Some of you may be thinking, “Well, if you pass a test, or become valedictorian, didn’t you learn something? Well, yes, you learned something, but not all that you could have. Perhaps, you only learned how to memorize names, places, and dates to later on forget in order to clear your mind for the next test.

School is not all that it can be. Right now, it is a place for most people to determine that their goal is to get out as soon as possible.

I am now accomplishing that goal. I am graduating. I should look at this as a positive experience, especially being at the top of my class. However, in retrospect, I cannot say that I am any more intelligent than my peers. I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system. Yet, here I stand, and I am supposed to be proud that I have completed this period of indoctrination. I will leave in the fall to go on to the next phase expected of me, in order to receive a paper document that certifies that I am capable of work. But I contest that I am a human being, a thinker, an adventurer – not a worker. A worker is someone who is trapped within repetition – a slave of the system set up before him. But now, I have successfully shown that I was the best slave. I did what I was told to the extreme. While others sat in class and doodled to later become great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker. While others would come to class without their homework done because they were reading about an interest of theirs, I never missed an assignment. While others were creating music and writing lyrics, I decided to do extra credit, even though I never needed it. So, I wonder, why did I even want this position? Sure, I earned it, but what will come of it? When I leave educational institutionalism, will I be successful or forever lost? I have no clue about what I want to do with my life; I have no interests because I saw every subject of study as work, and I excelled at every subject just for the purpose of excelling, not learning. And quite frankly, now I’m scared.

John Taylor Gatto, a retired school teacher and activist critical of compulsory schooling, asserts, “We could encourage the best qualities of youthfulness – curiosity, adventure, resilience, the capacity for surprising insight simply by being more flexible about time, texts, and tests, by introducing kids into truly competent adults, and by giving each student what autonomy he or she needs in order to take a risk every now and then. But we don’t do that.” Between these cinderblock walls, we are all expected to be the same. We are trained to ace every standardized test, and those who deviate and see light through a different lens are worthless to the scheme of public education, and therefore viewed with contempt.

H. L. Mencken wrote in The American Mercury for April 1924 that the aim of public education is not “to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence. … Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim … is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States.”

To illustrate this idea, doesn’t it perturb you to learn about the idea of “critical thinking.” Is there really such a thing as “uncritically thinking?” To think is to process information in order to form an opinion. But if we are not critical when processing this information, are we really thinking? Or are we mindlessly accepting other opinions as truth?

This was happening to me, and if it wasn’t for the rare occurrence of an avant-garde tenth grade English teacher, Donna Bryan, who allowed me to open my mind and ask questions before accepting textbook doctrine, I would have been doomed. I am now enlightened, but my mind still feels disabled. I must retrain myself and constantly remember how insane this ostensibly sane place really is.

And now here I am in a world guided by fear, a world suppressing the uniqueness that lies inside each of us, a world where we can either acquiesce to the inhuman nonsense of corporatism and materialism or insist on change. We are not enlivened by an educational system that clandestinely sets us up for jobs that could be automated, for work that need not be done, for enslavement without fervency for meaningful achievement. We have no choices in life when money is our motivational force. Our motivational force ought to be passion, but this is lost from the moment we step into a system that trains us, rather than inspires us.

We are more than robotic bookshelves, conditioned to blurt out facts we were taught in school. We are all very special, every human on this planet is so special, so aren’t we all deserving of something better, of using our minds for innovation, rather than memorization, for creativity, rather than futile activity, for rumination rather than stagnation? We are not here to get a degree, to then get a job, so we can consume industry-approved placation after placation. There is more, and more still.

The saddest part is that the majority of students don’t have the opportunity to reflect as I did. The majority of students are put through the same brainwashing techniques in order to create a complacent labor force working in the interests of large corporations and secretive government, and worst of all, they are completely unaware of it. I will never be able to turn back these 18 years. I can’t run away to another country with an education system meant to enlighten rather than condition. This part of my life is over, and I want to make sure that no other child will have his or her potential suppressed by powers meant to exploit and control. We are human beings. We are thinkers, dreamers, explorers, artists, writers, engineers. We are anything we want to be – but only if we have an educational system that supports us rather than holds us down. A tree can grow, but only if its roots are given a healthy foundation.

For those of you out there that must continue to sit in desks and yield to the authoritarian ideologies of instructors, do not be disheartened. You still have the opportunity to stand up, ask questions, be critical, and create your own perspective. Demand a setting that will provide you with intellectual capabilities that allow you to expand your mind instead of directing it. Demand that you be interested in class. Demand that the excuse, “You have to learn this for the test” is not good enough for you.Education is an excellent tool, if used properly, but focus more on learning rather than getting good grades.

For those of you that work within the system that I am condemning, I do not mean to insult; I intend to motivate. You have the power to change the incompetencies of this system. I know that you did not become a teacher or administrator to see your students bored. You cannot accept the authority of the governing bodies that tell you what to teach, how to teach it, and that you will be punished if you do not comply. Our potential is at stake.

For those of you that are now leaving this establishment, I say, do not forget what went on in these classrooms. Do not abandon those that come after you. We are the new future and we are not going to let tradition stand. We will break down the walls of corruption to let a garden of knowledge grow throughout America. Once educated properly, we will have the power to do anything, and best of all, we will only use that power for good, for we will be cultivated and wise. We will not accept anything at face value. We will ask questions, and we will demand truth.

So, here I stand. I am not standing here as valedictorian by myself. I was molded by my environment, by all of my peers who are sitting here watching me. I couldn’t have accomplished this without all of you. It was all of you who truly made me the person I am today. It was all of you who were my competition, yet my backbone. In that way, we are all valedictorians.

I am now supposed to say farewell to this institution, those who maintain it, and those who stand with me and behind me, but I hope this farewell is more of a “see you later” when we are all working together to rear a pedagogic movement. But first, let’s go get those pieces of paper that tell us that we’re smart enough to do so!’

For those who are interested, this post also gives food for thought: School shouldn’t be about equality | The Grumpy Giraffe.

Enjoy the rest of your holiday weekend. xx

English: So called "New Matura" from...