You Get What You Need

January 7, 2008
Imagine that you’re confined inside a tiny cage with only your hands and feet protruding between its rusty iron bars. Meters away a cruel tormenter dangles the cage’s keys from her pants pocket, all the while mutilating your most prized possessions. You are overcome with frustration, helplessness, and anger, yet can do no more than vainly flail your limbs. You scream and cry, but to no avail. Everything you value and love is taken from you before your very eyes. Powerless. Tormented. Overcome with the pain inflicted upon you by another.

Speculation leads me to assume
that few people can relate to this experience, however, most have suffered some form of persecution, tyranny, or oppression. While you may not have been imprisoned in a cage and made to watch the destruction of your most valued possessions, you’ve probably undergone psychological subjugation at one point or another. I know I have. But what happens when you finally escape from the cage? What kind of person are you after you’ve broken free of tyranny? Overcoming oppression results in invaluable personal growth.

My first experience with an autocratic authority figure occurred when I was ten-years-old and faced with a tyrannical elementary school teacher. Fifth grade was as alien to me as moving to Mars would have been, seeing as I’d relocated thirty miles north of my hometown the summer before. New house. New school. New world. To top it all off, my fifth grade teacher served as the first real despot I’d ever had the displeasure of knowing. Ms. Jordan was a stout woman in her sixties who wore her straight black hair in an unusual asymmetrical cut. She only ever wore black. In retrospect, I suppose her shady fashion sense should have alerted me to her dark personality. But I was young, and naïve, and had never been subjected psychosomatic abuse. Soon all that would change.

Within the first few weeks of school I began to notice a difference in the way Ms. Jordan acted when adults were present and when she was simply in the company of the class. Her polite, gentle facade faded, and out crept an angry woman who shouted and made students cry. I couldn’t understand why this transformation occurred, but it troubled me. I started suffering from insomnia, and school became the subject of my nightmares.

By November I’d had enough. I was sick of being made to feel stupid. I was tired of seeing my classmates emotionally distressed. But mostly, I felt robbed of something that I’d always taken for granted: my happiness. One day, during one of our routine journal write-and-share sessions I resolved to make my contempt known. When my turn came to read my entry aloud to the class, I declared my criticisms with confidence.

“I have a problem with Ms. Jordan’s shouting,” I stated calmly, glancing up to see the surprised faces of my classmates. “She may not be hurting us physically, but she’s hurting us emotionally. It needs to stop.” There. I’d said it. I could barely breathe in the deafening silence that followed. Suddenly she spoke, and without looking up I envisioned fire accompanying her hateful words.

“Speak for yourself, Kari. Do not include the rest of the class in your petty complaints.” Without thinking I turned to my classmates, my helpless peers, and asked a question that would forever unite us in our fight against our despotic fifth grade teacher.

“Who agrees with me?” Twenty-two hands shot into the air, metaphorically slapping Ms. Jordan across the face in her attempt to silence me. A meek smile spread across my lips, but I dared not look at my livid teacher, her eyes drilling a hole in the side of my skull. I heard her draw a deep, odious sigh, then say,

“This is completely inappropriate, Kari. I’m very disappointed in you. This conversation is over and will not be discussed again.”
I knew I hadn’t won in my first battle against oppression, but I’d stood up to it. In retrospect my methods may have been immature or misguided, but they’d been methods, nonetheless. I’d stood my ground when the earth was crumbling beneath me, and I’d grown stronger for it.

My second encounter with oppression occurred four years later when I was forced to endure a power-hungry lacrosse coach. Lacrosse was something I’d held close to my heart since I’d joined my first club team in the sixth grade. I loved that it required practice, and wasn’t something that a non-player could pick up in a matter of minutes. It was relatively new to the west coast, and I felt proud to be a pioneer.

As a freshman in high school I knew that I’d sign up for the Redwood lacrosse team. It was my sport. I never thought that anything could change that. But, within the first few weeks of practice a dilemma presented itself that could never be solved with more practice or hard work. My coach, Kendra Mesa, was a tyrant. It became clear to me that an important motivation for her coaching Redwood’s team was the power it gave her over the players. I truly believe that the weak paycheck she received was nothing compared to the twisted satisfaction Kendra got from swearing at us and making us feel insignificant. I remember one occasion when our team beat the Drake lacrosse team by fifteen points and Kendra sat us down after the game to berate us. Her vicious comments crushed our victorious spirit, and left us feeling weak and disgraceful.
“Never before have I seen a team play such crappy lacrosse. Our ground balls were disgusting. And, do you girls even know what a good pass is? I don’t care if we won a hundred to one. Bad lacrosse is bad lacrosse, and that was bad lacrosse.” No one could think of anything to say. We were stunned – we’d won yet we felt like failures. It then became clear to me that we could never please this perverse woman. But, that was only the beginning of the abuse.
Kendra’s style of coaching had nothing to do with teaching us to be better lacrosse players, but instead focused on giving us one chance to perform perfectly or else fall victim to her cruel humiliation. In the first few weeks of practice Kendra noticed that my best friend, Gwen, had an unusual style of throwing. Immediately, she began to prey on my powerless comrade, disparaging her daily with insults like, “Unless you have some weird fetish with that ball, get it out of your damn stick!” “Did a turkey teach you how to throw?” and “I don’t allow amateurs on this field.” Gwen would leave practice everyday with tears threatening to burst from her eyes. I’d never seen her cry until that second week of the season. And, although Gwen’s pain manifested itself inside me as well, I couldn’t find the courage to stand up to our nefarious coach for fear of her wrath. Weeks of torture ensued, and eventually I started dreading practice more than any test or assignment school could ever present. To put things plainly, it was hell on earth.

Regardless of my despondency, I could see no other option but to stick out the season and take the torture. There would be no standing up to Kendra, seeing as doing so would practically be a death sentence carried out by whatever pain she could inflict on my already over-trained body. After only a few weeks I found myself surrounded by the exhaustively wrapped and bandaged shin splints and stress fractures of my teammates. Finally, Kendra’s harsh coaching got to me too, and resulted in the development of a herniated disk in my lower back, which sidelined me for the last month of the season.

I spent that month miserably agonizing over the fact that Kendra had ruined lacrosse for me. She’d taken a sport that I’d loved with all my heart, and caused the very mention of its name to conjure feelings of trepidation and pain. This self pity lasted until the following fall when I got an idea that had the potential to revive my love of lacrosse. I decided to coach for the same Southern Marin Lacrosse Club that’d I’d played for prior to high school. I would not return as a tortured player on the Redwood team, but instead devote my energy to giving young girls the positive lacrosse experience that Kendra had deprived me of. I would fight oppression by becoming a coach myself and therefore prevent it from occurring for the handful of girls that would be on my team.

That Spring I was the proud head coach of a fourth-grade girl’s lacrosse team. They won the majority of their games, and I won back my love of lacrosse. Two weeks into the season, after a particularly tough game in which the other team’s coaches yelled and shouted at them throughout, one little girl on the other team said to me,
“You’re so nice to your players – you make them feel good when they play. I want to be on your team.” It struck me then that Kendra’s oppression had taught me an invaluable lesson; if you can’t change the tyrant, change the situation.
My girls’ compassion and gratitude made all of Kendra’s cruelty worthwhile. I learned from the experience she put me through; it gave me the strength to prevent other girls from being put through the same malice. I changed the circumstances, and therefore changed my players’ and my own physiological outcome.

My third despotic experience was inflicted by the strict depravity of my tenth grade math teacher. Math has always been one of my fortes. While it can’t be categorized as a favorite pastime and I wouldn’t say that it’s “close to my heart,” it’s something that I’ve always been good at. Math serves as a subject that teachers have used to classify me as “advanced.” This being said, I never expected it to change during my sophomore year at Redwood High School.

I’d signed up for Honors Advanced Algebra, and after overcoming a few obstacles, was placed in Mrs. S’s fourth period class. On the first day of school, I found myself in a classroom surrounded by thirty of some of the brightest kids at Redwood High. While the competition was a bit intimidating, the prospect of not having to deal with students who weren’t willing to put in the work was a promising concept.

After the first week of school I was already reeling from the intensity of the course. Our textbooks provided no explanation of anything we were learning. Mrs. S was in effect inventing the course with no text as a reference. In addition, she refused to answer my questions. She felt that it was better to answer my queries with new questions with the purpose of “getting me to think.” In reality, it only made me more confused.

When I asked if she could go over a specific homework question, the answer was always, “No.”
“The answers to the homework are in the folder in the back of the room. You need to come in on your free time to check them. I don’t have time to deal with things that everyone else understands; maybe you should pay better attention in class,” she’d say. But everyone else didn’t understand it – I knew because Mrs. S had become the sole subject of my peer’s venting and aggravation since the start of school. In addition, this “free time” she talked about was essentially nonexistent. With sports, family, six other classes, and a rare social life I didn’t have forty-five extra minutes everyday to compare my homework answers to those in Mrs. S’s unorganized and incomprehensible homework folder.
While my frustration was taxing, I knew that I wasn’t the only student feeling the brunt of Mrs. S’s impossible teaching method. For example, a few weeks into the course I came upon Mrs. S chastising another student by declaring,
“It’s not my job to motivate students! I don’t care whether you want to learn it or not!” But isn’t that the point of teaching? Don’t people do it because they want to inspire their students to love and want to learn more about a subject? If she didn’t care whether we learned the material or not, what hope was there that we’d actually learn it? At that moment, as I gazed upon my crushed classmate a reality donned upon me; I no longer liked math.
On the first test I scored a B, following an anxiety-ridden, sleepless night. It was the first B I’d gotten in math in two or three years. It was the B that would determine the mold Mrs. S placed me in for the rest of the year. No matter how hard I tried, she was determined to give me a B. But math was my forte! How could she take that away after a single test? By the second semester I was well aware that I’d fallen a mere point short of an A on nearly every exam I’d taken. When I asked Mrs. S how test grades were determined her answer made what kind of student she assumed me to be quite clear.
“I look at the tests. Those that look like A’s receive A’s,” she stated snidely, then suddenly pierced her cold blue eyes into my skull as she continued, “And those that look like B’s receive B’s, and so on.” That was it. I was a B student to her. I supposed there was nothing else I could really do.
A week later, after falsely coming to terms with my predestined grade, something
changed inside me. I refused to accept a B. That night I sent Mrs. S an email stating my intention to give up everything for the purpose of getting an A in her class. And I did. Family, friends, even my beloved running, came second to math. I read the entire textbook (although its explanations fell short in every subject), and spent hours upon hours studying for tests. When it came time to take the final exam I needed to ace it in order to acquire the A I’d given up everything for. While deep down I doubted whether I could actually pull it off, my determination took over and I put everything I had into studying.
The day after the final, I walked into Mrs. S’s room one last time. She handed me my A and suddenly a surge of tears flooded my eyes. But the tears weren’t for the A. The tears were a celebration of the mitigation of injustice. I’d won. And, I’d learned that when there are no other options, by digging deep I can find the inner strength to overcome an iniquitous situation.

In all three of these scenarios, I faced oppression, was forced to choose a method of overcoming it, and ultimately, became a stronger person for it. Ms. Jordan, Kendra, and Mrs. S put me through some of the most difficult, stressful, and frustrating experiences of my life. In retrospect, however, I suppose I owe them for the lesson their tyranny taught me. The only way to overcome oppression is to develop a method (direct or indirect) of standing up to it. In the words of The Rolling Stones, “You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might find you get what you need.”

Post a Comment

Be the first to comment on this article!

bRealTime banner ad on the left side
Site Feedback