When I was about ten, the owner of the building where my father was Super gifted me with a slightly obsolete but complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica, he’d replaced this older set with a brand new one for his children. So the Britannica soon was set up on shelves in a small basement room called my “laboratory.” I conducted mayhem, anatomical dissections on a chicken, and the like there.
Already on the outs with the New York City Public School system for being noncooperative, I now plotted further acts of non-conformism by peppering my classes with vast newfound knowledge of the Reformation, Darwin, Edmund Burke, and Athenian democracy. To astound a history teacher, I dredged up the Defenestration of Prague as an example of what could happen to authority figures who get out of control. Since my gaze wandered to the window, he interpreted this as a threat. The principal called my father and advised him I was at it again.
Finding that just a little knowledge is dangerous and intoxicating, I dived deeper into Britannica. It was like knocking on the door of a vast storehouse of knowledge and having the portal swing open wide. My teachers disagreed. I would pepper classes with requests for further information on topics based on articles in the Britannica. My father was told I threatened the basis of the curriculum worked out by wiser heads than mine. One day I came home and found the door to the laboratory padlocked.
My history teacher looked especially smug in the following weeks. My father seemed relieved that he had no further requests to visit the school. I grew silent in class, which made the teacher happier.
My father was lax in the storage of his spare keys. A Super has many locks and needs spare keys for emergencies. Therefore, the spares need to be where they can easily be found. I located a spare key hanging from a stanchion about a week after he installed the lock. Waiting till my father was occupied, I quietly made my way in and returned to my studies.
Having learned that people in authority liked to suppress inconvenient knowledge and control access to knowledge, I was careful in revealing what I knew. I also learned that authorities would use dupes to silence those who inconveniently threaten their lock on information. Finally, I also learned that all the above could be subverted; if you were careful.
Somebody once said that one of the benefits of a lousy education is the constant pleasure of discovery. But, of course, this only works if your joy of discovery survives the effort to destroy it.
7 Replies to “Britannica”
Shocking, that the teachers would not encourage your curiosity and thirst for knowledge. My husband was often kicked out of class. The principal would come along and comment about him being in the hall again, and send him to the library. School was boring for him, but he had a thirst for knowledge. What could be better?? Sometimes people in authority are the most insecure people of all.
I was told many years ago that our educational system was designed to prepare people for factory and low level office work – drone work. Don’t question, just get behind the program. Despite decades of” educational reform” I do not then that it’s changed that much.
A perfect example of the failure of our educational systems. You made me smile with your challenge to it. My children also drove teachers crazy but they were quiet about it. Having books tucked inside of books. Great story.
Écrasez l’infâme! as Voltaire would put it. Although I believe he was talking about the Catholic church the sentiment works well for all hyde bound institutions that restrict open thinking and inquiry.
You tell a great story. It’s a rare skill.
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