Early Life: Elementary School
In my early life, I was very much inside the box. I didn’t step out until later during my psychiatric training when I saw how cruel psychiatry can be. I learned two lessons in elementary school that are worth passing down. I worked hard and got good grades, which proved important, as I shall tell. I was not, and am not brilliant, so I had to work hard to get good grades. If you want good grades, or good anything, you have to apply yourself and work hard. The girls in my class were brilliant, worked hard and regularly got good grades. I was very impressed and inspired by them.
The second lesson I learned is that the atmosphere of the school, or any organization, is created at the top. In my school, P.S. 105, the principal was Mrs. Goodwin, a dignified woman with whom the students, uniformly white and Jewish, could identify as a grandmother. She required the students to dress in green and white on Fridays. The boys had to wear white shirts and green ties, and the girls had to wear white blouses and green skirts, no pants allowed. Wearing uniforms one day a week helped the students to identify with each other and with the school. On Friday mornings, Mrs. Goodwin called assembly, over which she presided. All the students gathered in a courtyard between two wings of the school. Mrs. Goodwin stood on the roof of a one story high wing, a royal figure who spoke to the assembly from on high. Her message was inspiring. She pointed out that all the students were related as brothers and sisters in the same school family. She urged us to be kind to each other and said that, if we were all kind we would all feel kindly treated. She warned against bullying and cheating and promised that bullies and cheaters would be expelled. She closed by telling us that she loved us all and that, if we had any problems at home or at school we could come to her and she would help. Then we all milled around chatting until the bell rang announcing our next class. The lesson here, I believe, is that obligatory curricula devised by distant bureaucrats don’t work, but principals and teachers who can relate to and inspire the students, and with whom the students can relate and identify, do work. It makes no sense to me to have a white principal and white teachers at a school where the students are mostly African-American. They need African American leaders and teachers, even if, or especially if, they are ex-cons. At the sixth grade, the students graduated and were assigned to a middle school. The brighter students were allowed to skip a grade and were assigned to a special, advanced school, Olinville Junior High School, P.S. 113. I was, fortunately one of those and it shaped my life
The author, Ron Leifer, MD, MA, is a psychiatrist with more than fifty years’ experience as a nonmedical, noncoercive psychotherapist. In 2001, Ron was awarded the “Thomas Szasz Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Cause of Civil Liberties”