Blog / 2010 / The Small But Effective Act of Rebellion

September 12, 2010

I was a senior in high school when I got my first and only detention. I had forgotten my textbook for a class one day, and, though the teacher had been repeatedly lenient with other students, he decided to punish me.

I won’t make any assumptions about what made the teacher give me a detention. It could have been that he didn’t like me or that he was having a bad day. It could have been any number of things.

The problem was that I was one of the few kids in the class who understood the coursework. We were supposed to be learning Biblical Greek, but, day after day, the class time would drag as the teacher asked question after question that no one could answer. (I guess the other students weren’t as interested in becoming Indiana Jones as I was.) When he was tired of calling on people who failed to respond correctly, the teacher would call on me so that we could continue with the day’s lesson.

I was keeping that class moving, and the teacher gave me a detention.

high school self-portrait by Gwenn Seemel
Gwenn Seemel
Self-portrait
1997
acrylic on canvas board
14 x 18 inches

In high school, I was a good kid and I got good grades. I stayed out of trouble and expected my math teachers to ignore the fact that I was reading novels during class since I always did well on quizzes. I had intended to graduate without a detention and I wasn’t about to let the injustice of this one go unremarked.

That said, in the last few years, I had figured out that high school was a game, and I was beginning to suspect that adult society was one too. I wasn’t going to lose the game—I wasn’t going to do anything to endanger my grade in the class—but I was going to get even.

The next time the class was flailing, the teacher called on me to get the right answer and keep things moving. Instead of doing as I was expected, I responded pointedly with “I don’t know.” My heart was racing: I had never openly defied an authority figure. The teacher didn’t get it right away, but I only had to answer in this manner one or two more times before my mutiny registered with him and he stopped looking to me to get through the coursework.

It was brilliant. Except that the class stopped going anywhere and I never did learn much more Greek. (Or grow up to be an archaeologist.)

high school self-portrait by Gwenn Seemel
detail of Self-portrait

In the years since high school, I’m not sure I’ve mastered the small but effective act of rebellion. It’s a delicate art, striking out on one’s own without shooting oneself in the foot, and I’m guessing it will take a lifetime to refine the required skills.

That said, with this first taste of subversion, I did learn one important lesson. Other people and society as a whole may have power over us, but only insomuch as we let them. And, while we may have to stay within society’s lines in order to reap its benefits and rewards, there’s no reason to allow anyone else pretend as though they can tell us how the game has to be played. As long we keep within certain broad boundaries, we’re each qualified to make our own way if we can find the courage to do so.

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