“We don’t chew gum in first grade!”Posted: 27 February 2014
I’ve told this story to my shrink many times, which says it all. It’s 1950, I’m 6 years old, and it’s the first day of first grade. I am chewing bubble gum at morning recess, and I go back into class chomping away. The teacher—a stern woman, exactly what you’d imagine for that era—looks at me and asks, “What’s in your mouth?” I say, “Gum!” She growls, “We don’t chew gum in first grade! Go back to kindergarten until you’re ready to be a first-grader!” She opens the door, I step out into the hall, and she slams the door behind me.
My first thought was, Injustice! I was actually a good boy. Yet there I was, standing in the hallway all alone. I didn’t even remember where kindergarten was, because the summer had gone by. Even if I could’ve found it, I thought, I can’t walk into a strange room and say, “I’m not ready for first grade. Can I stay in kindergarten?” It was just too terrifying. So I left.
I lived two blocks from school. As I was walking, I was thinking, Well, I thought school was going to last a little longer than one day. I thought maybe there might be some college in there. But even then, I knew I’d rather give it all up than go back into that classroom. I wasn’t crying. I wasn’t upset. It was just a decision: If school was that crazy, if people were that cruel and intolerant, I didn’t belong there.
When I got home, my mother called the school. Apparently, there had been a mad search to find me. The teacher had stepped out into the hall after a few minutes to see if I was sufficiently humiliated, and I wasn’t there. I don’t remember having any further trouble from that woman, or any other teacher. My mother was pretty tough.
That experience made me suspicious of any kind of institutional authority, and that view has never changed. It made me identify with outlaws (even though I never really acted like one). Being from Chicago didn’t help with authority issues. The great history of labor unions and anarchy are all tied up with Chicago, and I was more sympathetic to that history because I always felt like one of the outsiders.
Then I started college in ’62, when the fun began: the free-speech movement, the civil-rights movement, the antiwar movement. It was us against institutional America. It wasn’t new for me—I’d always had that attitude. I’d felt countercultural and alienated long before the Summer of Love.
But an interesting thing happened in those college years. I realized that my first-grade experience accelerated a major aspect of maturity: the capacity to embrace ambiguity. I tell my kids about this, because I think the earlier kids can wrap their brains around that, the better. Things were allegedly black-and-white in the ’60s, but even then I was aware that not everyone with long hair was a good guy, and not everyone on the other side was bad.
From there, many other long-entrenched lies became clearer. I mean, kids are lied to from day one just so they’ll feel safe in the world. We tell them our government knows what it’s doing, that all policemen are good, that priests and ministers are divine and above moral reproach. One of my favorite history books, Lies My Teacher Told Me, looks at high school history texts and the distortions they contain. I live with the assumption that nothing is true just because the government or the media or your teacher says it is. Today, we face problems with no solutions, but you’ll never hear that from a politician. I wish someone would stand up and say, “There will always be poor people, disease, and injustice. We will always be at war with somebody, probably for good reason.” I’d vote for that guy.
Finally, the gum episode gave me a jump on taking responsibility. I see life as a series of moral, ethical, and creative choices, and I started making those quite early. Did that lead me to become a director? Maybe. Decision-making created an aura of leadership that has rewarded me for a long time.
So maybe an intensely negative experience evolved into a positive. I’ve become a history buff over the years, but sometimes the most interesting history to learn from is your own. Even more important, you want your kids to learn from it and—if he’s not tired of hearing about it—your shrink.