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(North County Advocate, 1982)


            It was just about this time of year [spring], and the students were seniors in an urban high school, serving out their time until graduation. I was their substitute teacher, armed with nothing more substantial by way of a lesson plan than the name of this American history course: Problems in Democracy.

            “All right,” I said, looking from one anonymous, sullen face to the next. “What problems in democracy have you been studying?”

            Silence. A dull waiting for me to go on. No one took the question mark in my voice as either an invitation or a challenge.

            “What are the problems in a democracy?”

            Silence. I looked out the window at the cemetery behind the school.

            “Can anybody give me an example of a problem in democracy?”

            Silence. Young and impatient, I wanted to be taken seriously; so I repeated my question in a stronger, less amiable voice, not to be put off.

            Finally a hand went up, as anonymous as the faces, in the middle of the room. I called on it: “Yes?”

            A voice near the hand said, “Drugs,” and subsided into silence again.

          “Okay,” I said, thinking any old port in a storm, “How are drugs a problem in democracy?”

            This was too much. The silence now was adamant. In just a few minutes, I thought, I had learned a little about these students, a lot about their regular teacher, and not enough about myself. At least they’re not noisy or violent, I thought, retreating into the negative success of substitute teaching.

            At that point I became a problem in democracy myself. Faced with a superficially passive audience, I lectured energetically for the rest of the period about Problems in Democracy, taking off somehow or other from “Drugs.”

            Then the bell rang. The students filed out to graduation and employment, to presidential elections and corrupt town managers, to the Ku Klux Klan and Exxon, to community colleges and kids of their own. I collected my pay and went off to a regular job at a wealthy, suburban junior high school, where I remained for several years a problem in democracy.

            That incident has stayed with me all these years, and only slowly have I come to understand that the lack of interest those students acted out was not deficiency of wit or intelligence, nor was it my own inability to engage their minds.

            They were not interested in Problems in Democracy because democracy was as foreign to their experience as Latin. Although we trot out the word on high occasions, it remains the plaything of intellectuals and professional politicians — because democracy implies power, and those high-school seniors knew themselves to be, in any real sense, powerless. Nothing they or I could say in the classroom would make a difference.

            There are, of course, many problems in democracy — not so many, I happen to believe and hasten to add, as there are without democracy — but the greatest of them all is the people’s sense of power or their lack of it. When we believe ourselves powerless, democracy is only window-dressing. If we exercise what we call equal power over others without their having the opportunity to exercise equal power over us, we are helping to undermine democracy. A teacher in a classroom, for example, can lecture all s/he wants, but the students know where the power lies, permanently. Even if I had conferred “rights” on those students, allowing them to do anything they wanted during the class period, I still kept for myself the power of revoking those "rights" at any moment I chose. Or the bell would ring, and it would be all over. They knew that.

            I am not suggesting that all teachers resign what little power they have in the classroom. Democracy is larger than the classroom and chaotically imperfect. If those students of Problems in Democracy believed (as did my later students in the wealthy suburb) that they would, someday, come into power of their own, they could better tolerate the teacher’s and perhaps be more energetic in their own participation. But they saw themselves as powerless forever (however hopeful their dreams) and I did nothing — could do nothing — to disabuse them.

            Occasionally — when I see a cemetery, for instance, because that classroom incident occurred in the middle of a war — I wonder where those graduating seniors are now. According to statistics, only one third to one half of them vote. They get their news from television and from their neighbor on the unemployment line.

            They praise or gripe about the government as if it were the Red Sox or the Celtics— somebody else’s game to play, win or lose. They place their bets and pay up or rake it in.

            Their sense of their own powerlessness is as deadening as any drug. They have become, in one way or another, a Problem in Democracy.

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