Finding the limits of the rules

By Ande Jacobson

Amid the ongoing circus of seeking accountability for those breaking the rules at the highest levels of our society, I think back to my school days when I learned something about how limits might apply. As children we all push against the boundaries imposed upon us in some ways which helps to define our sense of right and wrong. I’m reminded of two particular incidents from my grammar school days that affected me beyond the simple situations at hand.

The first defining incident happened in fifth grade. One of the rules by which we had to abide was that we were to be quiet in class. We also weren’t supposed to tease each other. While these were separate rules, they collided at one point in an unusual way. Normally I was the kid who was picked on and teased mercilessly, but that year, we had a new classmate who somehow received more of the teasing. Her family had just moved to the U.S. from Australia for a one or two year rotation with Quantas Airlines, and she ended up in our class. I can’t say that I was completely innocent in any of this, and the whole situation taught me a needed lesson.

One day, three of us were called out by the teacher to meet with him after class. He lined us up, Danny C., Danny D., and me. He then proceeded to list our transgressions en masse including such things as talking in class, picking on our classmate, being disruptive, and so on. He then went down the line saying that when it came to talking in class, he always knew when it was Danny C. He was loud and obnoxious, and it had to stop. Then he said when it came to Danny D., he knew he was talking or doing something he shouldn’t, but he could never catch him in the act. Danny D. was sneaky, and he too had to stop. Then he looked at me. He said that I was all those things and more. I could be loud, I could be quiet, I could be sneaky, and I could be quite the smart aleck (albeit fairly witty), and I had to knock it off and pay attention. He also told us in no uncertain terms to stop teasing our classmate. He went on to describe the harm that such teasing could do. This one struck me more personally given Danny C. and Danny D. often teased me as well, so I understood the hurt that it could inflict. I understood that what our teacher was telling us, however obliquely, was that our actions affected others in ways that we couldn’t always see or feel, and we all needed to provide a better example.

In sixth grade, I ran into another situation with a teacher who was quite fond of making students write sentences as punishment. Many of the same rules applied along with a few others, and I tried very hard to follow them, although I also had a bit of a passive resistance streak when it came to rules that made no logical sense. In some cases, I followed the letter of the law while twisting it just inside the boundary for my own amusement. Another thing I enjoyed doing was breaking a few unwritten rules that weren’t particularly enforceable but also caused no actual harm either way.

Although schools no longer tried to convert left-handers into right-handers, educational practices at that time desired students to demonstrate a dominant side. I was somewhat ambidextrous and had learned how to write with both hands, something that would come in handy much later in college. In grammar school, I would often switch hands as the teachers walked by because I knew that it annoyed them even though it didn’t specifically break any rules.

One day, we were working on an assignment when the kid behind me kept trying to ask me a question. As in years past, we were generally not supposed to talk in class, so I ignored him for several minutes until I finally couldn’t sit still any longer. Just as I turned around to shush him, my teacher caught me before I had a chance to say anything. He assigned some sentences to me for that night even after I explained that I was only going to tell the kid to be quiet. He wrote on a page what he wanted me to write 100 times to be turned in first thing the next morning. I stuffed the paper in my book without reading it at the time. Later, when I took it out at home to write the sentences, I saw that my teacher had written:

“I will turn around in my seat and not talk.”

Interestingly, that’s precisely what I had done although I knew that what he meant to write was:

“I will not turn around in my seat and talk.”

Still, I followed the letter of his rule and copied exactly what he wrote 100 times. Sort of.

Our next door neighbor was also left-handed. Sometime before this incident, he had taught me how to write backwards, something that he said every respectable left-hander should know how to do. When I sat down to write out my punishment assignment, I proceeded to write my sentences copying exactly what my teacher had written, but I wrote them backwards 100 times.

When I arrived at school the next morning, I stopped at the teacher’s desk on my way in and handed him my punishment assignment. He looked at the papers and immediately claimed that it was gibberish. He shouted that I needed to sit down right then and write my sentences. I snatched the papers from his hands, took the first sheet, flipped it around, and held it up to the light.

“See, they’re all there,” I said with a satisfied smirk.

He looked at the papers again grumbling something unintelligible. After a few moments, he angrily told me to get to my seat while crumpling up the sheets and throwing them into the round file.

I can’t be certain, but I think these two incidents helped solidify my worldview going forward where rules are concerned. A lot more happened during these particular years that also contributed, but these two incidents have always stood out in my memory as formative. I respect the law, but I’ve always wanted it fairly applied. When it isn’t, or when those who clearly think that the rules don’t apply to them manage to avoid consequences, I wonder what we could all do to make things fair. I also wonder what childhood incidents gave them the idea that they have no limits.

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