Dedicated to a seven-year-old boy called Maxim.
Perhaps it’s simply my circle, but these days, all about me I see disgust for The System. The way the world is set up. The way the majority of the world’s people are used as toilet paper for the minority that can pay for it. The wars in Africa and the Middle East which boost a number of G7 economies via arms sales. The environmental havoc being wreaked so that CEOs can watch numbers on a bank balance rise. The media tripe specifically designed to pit one group against another. The amount of people who seem to swallow that tripe.
Strange. Over here in Mudland, that System seems no more than a bad dream I slip into whenever I venture online. Right now, the December sunlight is gracing the tips of the trees. I’m watching the pines rise in feathery clusters. A metre from my window, a star agama has thrown his blue head back to grab a ray of extra UV. Dragon flies and butterflies flit over the remaining marigolds. It’s another dimension.
As I absorb the clear breath of nature, I remember something. Someone. A small Taiwanese boy called Maxim. I think about him whenever I consider The System.
I was a teacher for about 15 years and it taught me a bit about controlling groups of people. A traditional classroom is a type of mini-state; a nation of thirty small(ish) beings and a non-elected adult manager wrestling with a largely meaningless curriculum in a concrete box that wouldn’t normally be deemed large enough for a couple to cohabit. It’s actually a microcosm of the greater System it is part of.
Over the years of classroom teaching one thing always baffled me; the students never revolted. There were 30 of them and one of me after all. Sometimes they were teenagers and towered over me. It should have been anarchy. It never was. You see, teachers learn something airily termed ‘classroom management’. It used to be called ‘discipline’ or ‘classroom control’, which was at the very least more honest. And I’m ashamed to say, it was something I was good at.
Yes, I’m a recovering autocrat.
Any trained teacher knows, one of the most effective ways to ‘manage’ students is to divide them into teams and make them compete for a paltry prize. Yup, Machiavelli lives on, even in 21st century education. I can attest that the strategy works brilliantly. You experience very little dissidence, and it’s cheap. In Taiwan, a few stickers or a packet of pencils was all it took for students to do almost anything. In the UK boys school I worked in, it was a fantasy football league. It’s basically party politics in a classroom. Divide and rule, it never fails.
Another convenient method for ‘directing’ 30 free-willed souls is to offer them limited choices. You never ask; ‘What would you like to do today?’ Instead, you put forward two or three choices. The students are so busy debating the optimum choice, they forget all other options. Like rats in an alley, they are forced along the paths the teacher assigns.
I was taught both these strategies (and plenty more) on a PGCE, and it was at a very progressive university in London.
As it goes with schools, so it goes with populations. Give the poor saps a vote, offer them three ropey candidates, keep them busy squabbling over it, throw them a few meaningless rewards if they slog their guts out their entire life, meanwhile . . .
My last experience with classroom teaching was in a primary school in Taiwan. It was the end of my career. I hated The System I was now once again a part of, and did my upmost to controvert it. I began to experiment. Instead of managing, I had a bash at liberating.
Initially, when I discussed my ideas with my students, I was surprised none of them wanted to hear they weren’t free. Sometimes, out of sheer frustration, I began to ask older classes, ‘Do you think this school is a democracy?’ Most were adamant that it was, even when I pointed out that they had no say in what they did for the entire day, no say in who taught them, no say in the classroom management rules, and no say in whether to attend the class or not. They were legally bound to be there. Of the few that did consider the implications of this, most looked as though the foundations of their universe had dissolved. When the truth is unpleasant, folk generally opt for denial.
And yet, happily there’s always an exception, isn’t there? You can always find one or two little gems in a class who see through the ruse. Back in Taiwan, one of these was a Grade 2 boy called Maxim.
Maxim was small for his age, quiet but not shy, and he loved animals, especially pigs. He would resolutely sketch animals all over his Math book, his Science book and his English book. He thought the rewards were stupid, and didn’t participate in the class unless it was about animals. If you made him stay in at break, he didn’t care, because he would just draw more animals. One day, I was standing at the blackboard chalking up team points, and I finally realised there was nothing I could do about it.
Children who can’t or won’t fit into the education system have always been labelled something. These days it’s ADHD, before it was ‘difficult’ or ‘a sod’. Whatever the label, these are the system challengers, and there are two kinds; There are the protesters who disrupt the class using any range of methods from shouting to violence. Then there are the non-participaters like Maxim who aren’t rude or destructive, but simply don’t join in.
Protesters and non-participaters.
As time went by in Taiwan, I noticed something about the protester students that gave me reason to pause.They unwittingly upheld the system. They were always a tiny minority, a fringe group the mainstream didn't aspire to being, and as such were a deterrent for the rest of the students. Certainly, if the entire class had risen up and begun throwing chairs about, or run round the room screaming, there wouldn’t be much a teacher could do about it. But that never happens. Because a protester is in herself a negation, she is not really offering a creative alternative to The System, just a reaction to it. The predominant energy that the protester taps into is anger.
Non-participaters, however, are a different kettle of fish. For an autocrat, they are notoriously difficult to deal with. What do you do when someone simply doesn’t join in? Even if you resort to the most draconian measures available, they will at best be half-participating. It’s as if they are sucking the juice out of the engine of the system drop by invisible drop.
Maxim wasn’t angry, aggressive or openly challenging. He was polite and a rather cute little boy. Because he wasn't disruptive, and because even the most dogged leaders have limited energy, it was easier to let Maxim sketch animals than try to coerce him into joining the class. Without realising it, I soon found myself incorporating more lessons on the subject of animals just for his benefit. It also dawned on me that after a term of Maxim never completing his workbook and drawing animals everywhere, that it really didn’t make much difference to anything. The workbook was on the curriculum, but it was by and large nonsense. Maxim could still read and add up. Hmm.
In the end, I decided to get rid of the workbook for the others too. I chose the most useful pages for the students to work through, and let them quickly copy the answers for the rest (I was also being checked on by superiors and would be hauled up in front of a supervisor if pages of the workbook were missing). Eventually, I went the whole hog. I let my Grade 2 class do whatever they felt like. Was there anarchy? Was there war? Were there 30 seven-year-olds running wild around the class because they were bored? Did the world collapse? Did they all become stupid, uneducated fools? Nope. None of the above.
The projects those pupils came up with once the curriculum was abandoned took my breath away. Some designed huge crossword puzzles for their friends, others created storybooks and hung them around the class for the others to read, some made model rockets, others read books. One boy just sat and day dreamed. Maxim drew picture after picture of animals. And when he was done with contemporary ones, he drew dinosaurs. Brilliantly. Expertly.
Take note: Thirty students. One of them changed the system, just by not participating and doing what he loved.
This is big news for those of us who realise the majority don’t or won’t see through the ruse. Ever.
Now, I have been of an activist temperament most of my life; opinionated, rebellious and passionate about justice and the environment. I have a big mouth and don’t mind using it. I’ve taken part in protests. I have voted in every election I was eligible for, both in the UK and Turkey. Even when there has been no candidate worth a minute of my time, I’ve still voted. I’ve participated.
And that’s just what The System loves; people who participate.
After Taiwan, I took a leaf out of Maxim’s pig-decorated practice book. I donned a pair of wellies, left the world of work and began scribbling notes on the internet. Why? Because I like writing. I also like building. I love not doing a day job. I live on about £200 a month, so my contribution to those CEOs’ bank accounts is pretty minimal. I’m not plugged into a grid.
Of course, I’m not System free. I use the internet and pay a company to provide it. Maxim wasn’t System free either. He was still at school after all. And like Maxim, I do my best to only participate in what I love, and pull my energy out of that which I don’t. Every detail counts. Every moment I'm voting with my soul. Because in truth, The System isn’t some vague malign entity ‘out there’. We are a part of it. We create it. And with every single action we take, no matter how small it may look, we are changing it.
Atulya K Bingham
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