I have had a running battle with schoolmarms for over half a century, and I’m quite certain they would have put me on Ritalin as quickly as they possibly could have, had I been born later than I was. Had I been born earlier, I would have been caned on a regular basis. However, as luck would have it, I was born in a sort of loophole, in terms of child abuse, and the only abuse I can whine about is that I was too often left alone and neglected.

Looking back, my battle with schoolmarms revolved around the fact I preferred to attend to things which were not the things they wanted me to attend to. They wanted me to attend to the chalk squeaking across the old-fashioned blackboard, but I wanted to attend to the clouds out the window.

I think it is arrogance, on the part of schoolmarms, for them to think what they deem important actually is all that important. As things turned out, most everything that turned out to be really useful in my life were things I learned outside of school, and most of the time I spent in school was time wasted. It is little wonder I spent so much time gazing out the window, for that was where life was.

It is a further arrogance to call the ability of a boy to think for himself a “disorder.” It is actually not a deficit of attention, but a surplus. It takes a strong will to stand up to a schoolmarm several feet taller than you are, and it demonstrates a surplus of attention, rather than any sort of deficit.

When one looks at the boyhoods of strong minds such as Einstein, Edison, and Churchill, one sees schoolmarms would have fretted about them.

Einstein stated he first began contemplating Relativity when he wondered about what life might be like in a falling elevator, at age eight. I don’t doubt that displeased the schoolmarm trying to teach him the geography of the (now defunct) Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Edison couldn’t be bothered learning how to talk until after age four.

Churchill dismayed his friends, for when his teachers told him to be quiet, he would scowl, ball up his fists, and refuse to be quiet.

Woodrow Wilson didn’t learn to read until he was over ten years old.

And you can go on and on about the boyhoods of historical figures.

Undoubtedly it would be a royal pain to have such strong minds, as mere boys in your classroom, but if drugs must be doled out, should not the schoolmarms take them? They seem to be the ones in need of tranquilizers.

This is not to suggest a lot isn’t learned through strict discipline. After coasting through high school, and (barely) graduating at age 17, I spent a post-graduate year at a tough, no-nonsense school in Scotland, and learned more in a single year of schooling there than in all my time in American schools. I hated it at the time, but even before I left I recognized I ‘d learned a lot, and that this meant I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was, earlier..

In Scotland I learned about the discipline of focused attention, however that is not the only sort of attention there is. Focused attention is a sort of attention that wears you out and exhausts you, however there is another sort of attention that refreshes you and reinvigorates the mind. It is simply to be fascinated, even enchanted. It is like listening to music that holds you enthralled; there is no effort involved, and afterwards you are more able to grit your teeth and focus your attention onto more mundane matters, which exhaust you.

As a boy it always seemed to me that schoolmarms were big on exhausting you, and down on anything that refreshed you. They seemed to feel that exhaustion was good for you, and the cure for exhaustion was to exhaust yourself further. Intuitively I knew this was bull, but lacked the intellect to battle in an intellectual manner, and therefore resorted to all sorts of boyish subterfuge and sabotage. If there were a way to dissolve a well-run and orderly classroom into chaos and laughter, I’d find it. Rarely did I actually flee, by playing hooky, for the penalty for truancy was steep at my school (and in my home,) however there were all sorts of other ways to shatter the monotony, freshen the staleness, and puncture the bagging balloon of boredom. While I did wind up in detention hall fairly often, at class reunions I’ve learned my efforts did not go unappreciated, by my peers.

I’m fairly certain that nowadays a boy like me would be drugged. The schoolmarms wouldn’t think twice about silencing a nuisance. However I myself have thought twice, thrice, and on and on about the subject, for over fifty years.

My conclusion is that the mind needs reinvigoration. Just as a coach wouldn’t constantly pressure an athlete, without allowing time for rest, schoolmarms ought not expect boys to constantly concentrate without ever being fascinated.

This is not a new idea. The psychologist William James wrote about the difference between fascination and “directed attention” back in 1890. Surely we should have learned by now.

The problem seems to be that schoolmarms, (even when they get it into their heads that boyish minds need R+R,) feel the R+R must occur in such a structured manner that it hardly qualifies as any sort of freedom, and freedom is what boys crave and need.

There is actually some awareness that children, and especially boys, need time outdoors, and studies have been done. (While I myself deem psychology a sort of pseudoscience, and their “studies” subjects for spoofs and laughter, I always find myself reading the studies, because the results of their studies so often contradict what they expected.) One study noted that the benefits of being outdoors were less, when boys were in controlled settings and groomed gardens, than when they were out in the wild.

I myself have noticed the same thing. No man-made garden can match the beauty of what nature pulls off without man’s help, and therefore the benefits of freedom, and the natural fascination boys feel when running free, are greater when they escape orderly gardens and organized sports.

I sometimes wonder if schoolmarms are not a little bit afraid of the open sky, and the disorganized lushness and lavish disorder of forests and fields. Could it be nature seems a bit too wanton, and they are prudes?

I had one little boy in my care that was a definite hellion, a small one-man-wrecking crew. The day he went off to kindergarten he was deemed a “special needs” case, and soon he was arriving back from kindergarten in a small “special needs” bus. Whatever discipline the schoolmarms were subjecting him to at kindergarten put him in a very foul mood, and to immediately plunge him among the other children caused swift problems. It was as if he had a chip on his shoulder, and wanted nothing better than to knock someone’s block off.

I happened to be off-duty at that time, during those days, and my solution was to avoid plunging him among the other children. Instead I’d take him for a walk, which lasted a little more than a half hour. Very rarely did it last an hour. The transformation that occurred was definite, and somewhat amazing.

I myself did absolutely nothing, except steer him in a general direction. I let him do a bit of boyish vandalism, such as push down a dead tree or shatter the pristine surface of a lake with thrown rocks, but he didn’t do much of that, and for the most part poked about, looking at weeds and seeds and slugs and bugs, with his tremendously grouchy expression slowly melting into a look of serenity.

One image is engraved in my memory, and it is of the young thug waving milkweed pods in the air, in the autumn when the seeds float as gossamer parachutes, and of him watching them float away on the wind, and chuckling to himself.

After these walks he was able to rejoin the other children with very little trouble.

I reiterate that I do absolutely nothing. I am not the one fascinating the boy. It is nature doing the healing.

And it is absolutely free. For example, the January Thaw ended yesterday with a five-inch snowfall. The dark greens of the pines and hemlocks, and stark skeletons of the leafless maples, oaks, ash and poplar, are loaded with snow so white the wood-smoke from chimneys is a most definite blue, in comparison. The sky is dark blue, filled with the icy artwork of cirrus mare’s tails, as the cold seeps back down from the north. When the wind rises, the snow dumps off boughs and branches, so that at any given moment there is just a bit of snow drifting in the air, mostly a scarce, glistening powder, but occasionally a misty avalanche.

The way the trees shed their burden of snow is a sort of visual symphony, and even if a child isn’t focused on it, it is like a music in the background. It is a healing, and a much better way to “decompress” than zoning out with a video game, and much better for your psyche than a tablet of Ritalin.


  1. Pingback: ATTENTION SURPLUS DISORDER — PART TWO | Sunrise's Swansong

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