The Law of Unintended Consequences comes in many forms, which is the point of the so-called ancient Chinese curse: “May you get what you wish for.” A less dramatic way of expressing this sentiment is to acknowledge that we learn more from our failures than from our successes. The two teachers who had the most positive impact on my life were both bad teachers. One, in elementary school, was unquestionably bad; the other, in high school, was simply flawed. I am not an advocate for hiring bad teachers, but bad can sometimes be good.
I took an instant dislike to a fourth grade teacher who was far too inflexible for me. In one assignment, she gave a list of ten words and asked us to write a sentence for each. I saw the ambiguity in her request, and thought I was being especially clever in coming up with one sentence that incorporated all ten words. I expect there were significant grammatical problems with my very long sentence, but that wasn’t her objection. She punished me and made me write ten separate sentences using each of the words once. So I defiantly followed the letter, but not the spirit, of her assignment. For example, my sentence for the word “across” would be, “Across is a very nice word.” I made sure not to give a clue as to whether I knew the meaning of the word. Again, I was punished.
OK, I confess. I could be pretty insufferable. But it was the punishment, rather than the assignment or my solutions to it, that changed my life. My punishment was to do math problems while my classmates were drawing. So this obnoxious little kid was inspired by his teacher to enjoy mathematics because he saw that his teacher hated mathematics. I also had the incentive to get thrown into the “briar patch” on a regular basis, which helped me to excel mathematically. One never knows all the forces that come into play in choosing a career, but I think this bad fourth grade teacher played a significant role in my becoming a math professor. I can only hope that her math phobia didn’t turn too many other students off math forever.
The teacher who had the hugest impact on me was my English teacher in my senior year of high school, but his teaching of English was only marginally relevant. He was also our class advisor, and wanted our class to demonstrate school spirit. So he declared that each Friday the members of our graduating class would wear a tie. When I came to school tieless, the teacher asked me to sit in the back and write an essay explaining my behavior. I incorporated in my essay some unsolicited advice from another student. I began, “This jerk sitting next to me just told me to write that I forgot the tie. Well, I didn’t.” I then explained how “team spirit,” if it was important, which I didn’t think it was, couldn’t be forced. The following Friday, I again came without a tie and my teacher said nothing. He didn’t admit I was right, but the Friday tie seemed to turn from a requirement to a request. This incident must have been significant to me, since I still remember it, but I only mention it here because the teacher and I had another conversation that I know changed my life.
He asked all the seniors to write short essays. Not only would the valedictorian speak at graduation, but our advisor would choose three others to read their essays at graduation. When the winners were announced, I was not the least surprised to find I wasn’t one of the chosen three. As I was leaving class that day, the advisor told me to go to his office after school. I assumed he wanted to tell me how furious he was about what I had written. Note: my essay was not about religion.
When I got to my English teacher’s office, he closed the door behind me and said, “I wish I had the courage to choose your essay for graduation. You see, I’m in a responsible position and you’re not. I hope someday, when you are in a responsible position, that you will have the courage to do the kinds of things I don’t do.”
My teacher’s remarks both angered and elated me. My first thought was about his being a coward. My second thought was about his liking my essay. My third thought, which should have been my first, was that I had just talked to a very special teacher. He was the first teacher who had been honest enough with me to admit his foibles and regrets. He was also confident that I would someday be in a responsible position, something I had doubted about myself. I made up my mind that whenever future conflicts arose for me between respectability and self-respect, I would opt for the latter. I would take risks even when in a responsible position. I didn’t realize until years later that this wonderful teacher had taken a considerable risk by confiding in me the way he did. My one graduation memory was of my teacher and me smiling at each other while a fellow student droned on about the joys of John Keats. I felt for the first time in my life that I was on the same wavelength as one of my teachers, and that we were looking at each other as equals.
I hoped one day to be important enough to be invited as a graduation speaker at some academic institution. My title would be, “Fulfilling Your Dreams.” I would first describe the above incident, and then deliver my belated essay. I assumed it would be one of the few graduation speeches that graduates would actually remember. Alas, no such speaking invitation has yet been received.
So now the time has come for my rejected essay to be aired, at least as best as I remember it. A little background is in order. The year was 1959, during the Eisenhower years, and I was at an all-academic public high school in Philadelphia. What follows would not be nearly as shocking or as original today, though it would likely still be rejected at most graduation ceremonies.
Words are neither clean nor dirty. I still believe one of the sayings I learned in kindergarten: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Morality should be based on how we treat each other, not on our choice of words. What is so wrong with saying the word “fuck” in public? For those who do not know its meaning, there can be no harm. For those who know that “fuck” is a synonym for “sexual intercourse,” why is one term acceptable and the other not? Why are we not allowed to see people fuck (or, if you prefer, have sexual intercourse) on television or in the movies? Are we afraid this will inspire others to do likewise? On the other hand, we can see plenty of violence and killing on television and in the movies. For my part, when children grow up I would rather that they fuck than kill.
This 1959 essay, written two years before I would hear about a stand-up comedian named Lenny Bruce, was something I could not then have imagined anyone saying in polite company. Had I been allowed to deliver my essay, I undoubtedly would have shamed and disgraced my entire family. Frankly, that wouldn’t have bothered me. But I know now that I benefited more from the rejection than I would have had my essay been accepted. To state the flip side of the Chinese curse with which I began, “May you not get what you wish for.”
Herb Silverman is Distinguished Professor of Mathematics at the College of Charleston, president of the Secular Coalition for America, and a board member of the American Humanist Association.