“When writer Sir Terry Pratchett died in 2015 he was working on one last story: his own. … Back in Black reveals that Terry’s road to success was not always easy, from his troubled school days to being dismissed by literary critics, to his battle with Alzheimer’s.”
This is how BBC 2 introduces a documentary exploring the life of Terry Pratchett on their website. This narrative highlights three very different events that marked Pratchett’s life: bullying at school, his talent not being recognized, and a terminal disease. According to a Guardian article, this is how Pratchett describes bullying in his “incomplete biography”:
“I had a mouthful of speech impediments that left me with a voice that sounded like David Bellamy with his hand caught inside an electric fire. But it was not the kids that really got to me, it was the crushing of my boyhood dreams by someone 3ft taller. … The headmaster of Holtspur School in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, took a “rather vicious dislike to me” and thought “he could tell how successful you were going to be in later life by how well you could read or write at the age of six.”
Can you imagine this? An old man on the verge of dying with Alzheimer’s describes something that has become part of his self-narrative here: the bullying, his bully, the headmaster of a school. I imagine that he doesn’t need to make an effort to remember this. He knows it all by heart; it is part of his identity. It is not forgotten. Yet.. When Pratchett looks back on this experience, what does he see? Rage? Shame? Humiliation? Puzzlement? Perhaps, at that time he wasn’t able to articulate any of those but could name them years later, when he became an adult.
What Pratchett experienced as a six year old boy was emotional violence at its very best. It was violence because, as Palmer argues, it violated somebody’s integrity, his sense of self.
Emotional violence is, and has been, happening in our society, in families, communities, and in our institutions, in the north and south, west and east and the middle. I believe often times we confuse it with “tradition” or we simply don’t recognize it because it’s quite well disguised. When a teacher tells a black student excelling in maths and science that she should go into a career in sports because that’s what she’s naturally good at, that’s abuse. It closes down possibilities for a person and imposes a top-down, often times false and misinformed, identity.
bell hooks writes about the detrimental effects of emotional abuse in education; she tells the stories of young women and men who end up leaving formal education because they become paralyzed with racism, hatred, and simply ignorance. Her stories are familiar, and, yes, I can relate to most because although I’m not a black American, I can recognize oppression (i.e., “prolonged cruel or unjust treatment or exercise of authority”) when I see it. I’ve known advisers who crashed their students’ spirit with cruel remarks. I’ve known teachers who openly scolded students because they were in a position to speak with authority. I’ve known many teachers in my life whose presence simply meant fear and shame for their students.
In an authoritarian educational system, emotional violence can easily occur because authority feeds from violence. The heads exercise their power over teachers, teachers exercise their power on students, students exercise their power on weaker ones–it’s a vicious cycle. If you are questioning whether authority exists to a great extent in our educational institutions just reflect back on your own education, think about those around you – you’ll find examples.
I believe that by opening up education, we have a better chance of moving from fascism to democracy because the structures of learning and teaching become explicit; they are open to debate and change. Opening up education certainly doesn’t mean everything will be and should be public and online. The kind of openness I’m talking about is not about a change in the delivery method; it’s a change in structure: the structures of thinking and operating.
I talk about these open structures in my next post.