My son is having a hard time at school. (He’s having a hard time at home, too, but at school there is less tolerance for such things) His latest offense, for which he was sent to the principal, was to make an ugly face at his teacher. Initially, I laughed when my husband told me. I know that face well and often wish that I had a principal here at home to which I could send him when he turns it on me. Yet I understood her complaint, for that face—eyes screwed up, nose crinkled in disgust, tongue out—is as much of an assault as a blow.
I know that face well, for it is only with great self-control that most of us learn to stop making it. It is the face of the powerless leveled at the powerful, a face that would never be used if one had other means at one’s disposal to enact one’s will. I see it when I compel my oldest daughter to do something against her wishes—clean her room, do her homework, not snack right before dinner. She wants to rebel but cannot. Finally, the only action left at her disposal is to scrunch up her face and roll her eyes at me. It’s the face that many adults turn toward the door after their boss has left the room or make when we hear a quote from our least-favorite Presidential candidate. We wish the situation were otherwise, that we could change it somehow—the non-existant pay raise, the foolish busy work, sexism, racism, global warming—but we cannot. All we can do is screw up our faces in derision.
My son, the youngest and physically quite small, has plenty of opportunities to feel powerless. His classmates can read circles around him. Lifted out of the world of play, he sits down at his elementary-school desk before seemingly endless worksheets. He gets told what to do by just about everyone—his sisters, his teachers, his parents. At times he must feel like a guy on a chain gang, shackles dragging. He has tried to push his classmates down to show his frustration, but as you can imagine, this form of expression, too, the school rightly discourages. All he is left with is his “ugly face.”
In her letter to me, his teacher observed that no one wants to feel disrespected, and of course she is right. To receive that face is to be slapped. Like an ape, before that face I feel instinctive rage, a red haze and poisonous tingle that make me want to respond with violence. We can’t have that reaction in the classroom or on the playground—the teacher or the recess monitor slapping the child who pushes their evolutionary buttons. In a novel I read, a parent expressed it thus: “That’s not how people treat people.” Well, it is, but it shouldn’t be. And school, more than any other place, is trying to model the “shoulds” that underlie a harmonious society.
Certainly, the ugly face is not only a weapon of children. Our current election cycle offers us multiple images of demeaning scowls and grimaces—both on the faces of those behind and in front of the podium. Supporters of one candidate jeer partisans of the next, while the candidates mock each other. Immigrants, both here and abroad, often meet Xenophobic ugly faces on those who fear them. Racial tensions on our campuses and streets contort yet more.
That many of our debates now occur digitally changes nothing. Comment bubbles become a new kind of “ugly face,” reflecting a general collapse of civil civic discourse. Even when our faces cannot be seen, we are often unwilling or unable to express our positions respectfully, with a give and take of calmly-presented evidence.
The letter from my son’s teacher continued: “Most children his age have learned ‘how’ to act in public.” A stinger. For the implication is that somehow my husband and I have been derelict in teaching our son this. We have certainly tried, yet it has not been easy to teach our children to govern their impulses. We are the receptacles of great passions—desire, rage, and jealousy. Many an adult struggles to keep these tamped down. Presumably as he grows to manhood, my son will add to his toolbox substitutes for the “ugly face.” He will go for a run or a ride, lift weights, play furious basketball, whack boards with a hammer, mow the lawn, dash off an indignant letter, or talk to a friend. If he’s lucky, he will avoid the more destructive ways that people suppress it—drugs, alcohol, violence directed toward some scapegoat.
Clearly my son has need of a tutorial in stoicism, a pocket Marcus Aurelius to carry with him in the schoolyard. The next time he is pushed down, he can take it out and read: “Put away from you the belief that ‘I have been wronged,’ and with it will go the feeling. Reject your sense of injury, and the injury itself disappears.”
We can both enroll in the same Stoic tutorial as this is hard going even for me. I often struggle to reply “no” and retain my composure when asked: “Does this thing which has happened hinder you from being just, magnanimous, temperate, judicious, discreet, truthful, self-respecting, independent, and all else by which a man’s nature comes to fulfillment?” Learning to step outside our ego in conflicts and stop letting it rule us like a puppet master is a lifetime’s work.
My son and I can practice together.
Devon Balwit is a teacher and mother of three teenagers, ages 14-19. When not at work teaching adult ESL, she’s throwing frisbees to her dog, walking beautiful Portland Oregon, or writing.