New Castle News

April 2, 2012

Lisa Madras: Are you listening to the monkeys ... or the Voice of Reason?

Lisa Madras
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Where should I break the rules?

I can't say that I'm typically a rule-breaker. I am, however, a boundary pusher. Call me a victim of a childhood spent in the 1970s but I've been gleefully questioning authority since I first laid eyes on the bumper-stickered back panel of a 1978 Buick Skyhawk.

Question Authority.

A simple little phrase that eventually clichéd itself into white noise, but virtually fused itself into the DNA of a 6-year-old girl just beginning to test the waters of the establishment (also known as Mrs. Ringgold, the teacher of my small kindergarten class in the little coal-mining town of Coal Junction.)

It was fortunate in a way that I was sick to my stomach on the first day of school. To this day, I'm still not sure if it was nerves (the monkey-mind had a firm grip on me even back then) or if I legitimately had the flu. But I'd been told straight off the bat by the teacher that I couldn't go home ... the first day of school was picture day, after all!

("Question authority!" shouted the monkeys. "Listen to your teacher," countered the Voice of Reason.)

I returned to my seat with my stomach forming a rebellion that my mind still wasn't ready to join. Soon after, Mrs. Ringgold announced that she had to leave the room, and that NOBODY was to get out of their seat for ANY reason. I remember these exact words, spoken with that exact inflection, 33 long years later. But at that moment, all I could think of was that I really had to throw up.

("Question authority!" shouted the monkeys. "Listen to your teacher," countered the Voice of Reason.)

It was fortunate as well that I was wearing a blouse that had billowy sleeves. I pulled open one of the wristbands and threw up right down that sleeve. (Not surprisingly, I remember these details as well.) When the teacher returned, I calmly raised my other hand and asked to be allowed to go to the bathroom to empty my sleeve, only to be met with her incredulous reaction at my clear act of stupidity. "Why didn't you go to the bathroom???" she asked. "Because you said we couldn't," I replied.

(I should have listened to the monkeys.)

I'm pretty sure the birth of the boundary pusher occurred at the exact moment the tears started rolling down my cheeks. Up until this very moment of my life, I’d had little reason to suspect that adults might sometimes simply be wrong, or that sometimes rules had to be broken. So far, I’d learned everything I knew from the grown-ups around me — how to eat, walk, talk, survive. Could one of these all-knowing creatures really be wrong?

It seems odd to me sometimes that I learned such an invaluable life lesson at such an early age. I’m not sure when most people come to the realization that there are incongruences in the things we’re being told, inconsistencies in the rules. When do the doubts start creeping in, the questions start cropping up?

Sadly, some people go their entire lives blindly accepting authority’s word as the inalienable truth, perhaps because they’ve never had their own personal rights trampled by majority rule.

I spent the remainder of that long year of kindergarten in a heated battle over my right to be left-handed. I’m not bashing poor Mrs. Ringgold … she was a good teacher in many ways, and her beliefs were simply the accepted thinking at that time. But each and every time she tried to force a pair of scissors or a crayon into my uncooperative right hand, the rebel in me grew a little more, and a little more. Perhaps I owe her a debt of thanks for making me who I am — a woman who writes left-handed, eats right-handed, and still can’t figure out which hand to swing a bat with …  but who will never accept the answers “because I said so” or “because that’s the way we’ve always done it.”

Real growth requires us to question things. We have to understand that just because a rule is followed by everyone around you, doesn’t make it right. If it did, we’d still be practicing slavery and child marriage, and we’d still be convinced the earth is flat and that the universe revolves around us.

It’s easy to always follow the rules, but we have far too much potential within ourselves to live our lives like that. If it seems wrong in your heart, question it. And as Martha Beck (the author of this list of questions) says: Sometimes you have to break the rules around you to keep the rules within you.