I’m back in my sophomore year of high school. I walk into my English class, dragging my backpack as I drop into the last seat at the end of the row. I lean back against the wall behind me and close my eyes. The last bell rings and the teacher moves to the front of the room. This is one of my favorite classes of the day, where I can actually expect something thought-provoking and different to happen. He announces that today we’re doing an exercise. He turns on the overhead projector and without another word, sits down behind his desk.
We openly stare for a few second before turning our attention to the assignment reflected on the screen: Today we are in charge of the class, and must work to create a teaching plan. This includes a typical schedule of the class period, topics to cover, examples of homework assignments, a discipline policy, and a grading rubric.
The class is silent.
I start to wake up and begin to smile, craning my neck to see how people react. Some kids continue to stare at the teacher, waiting for him to explain or to stand up and say it was all a joke. Kids start to whisper, to laugh, giving obscenities to show how incredulous they feel. Finally, one girl stands up and announces, “Well, let’s get this done.”
She saunters to the front of the room, takes a seat on the stool and picks up a marker. She begins to write the teacher’s plan, asking the crowd for their opinion as she goes along. A few people yell out answers, but as time goes on, everyone begins to speak at once. The room fills with noise, and she turns in desperation to recruit a few “smart” students to help her. A small, chosen crowd begins to cluster around the projector at the front of the room, trying to gain control of the class.
I sit in the back, slightly amused at how ineffective their efforts are. After plenty of yelling and pleading looks at the teacher, the group realizes that they’re not getting any help. They turn inward and begin ignoring everyone else. The excitement of the exercise quickly dies. I frustratingly twist in my swivel chair, yelling while heads turn but no one listens. The group in front moves on to homework assignments. They begin listing, “one story a night, a short writing assignment, vocabulary tests:” “Why don’t we vote on it?” the boy next to me yells, half the crowd swiveling to listen while the other half ignores him. “What about democracy?”
I turn to the kids in my corner and vent. We crack jokes about walking out of class just to see how they react. We create plans of rebellion that lead to nowhere. One student a row over stands up and makes a rebellious comment, leading the first girl at the overhead to send him out of the room. We look at each other and sit back, frustrated. I give up. I spent the rest of class silent, kicking the wall and glaring at everyone else.
Somehow, the group managed to finish their plan and finally returned to their seats. The teacher stood up to regain control of his class and told us to write down our observations and feelings on the exercise. Who took leadership? How was it decided? How were decisions made? I vented about the lack of democracy, the people chosen to make the decisions, and the fear and difficulty of creating a rebellion. Of course, the point of the exercise was to make us question our own behavior and think about the position of power in the classroom and in society. Why didn’t we follow true democratic principles? Why didn’t everyone in the class have an equal opportunity to contribute?
I’m sure that some students argued that everyone did have a voice, and that everyone was capable of contributing. It can even be said that this was simply an exercise given to a group of sixteen-year-old students, and cannot be used to make further conclusions. Somehow, I think that what happened in the classroom that day uncovered leadership principles that we were raised to believe are normal. Just ignore people who don’t agree because it’s easier to make decisions that way.
Even though this event happened two years, I can still feel resentment at my situation. What would have happened if I had stood up first? Would I have done the same thing?