Wednesday, October 18, 2023

A Note from Mr. Goodkin

Growing from a hippy progressive school in the late 60’s to whatever the school is now, it was decided from the beginning that the kids in The San Francisco School would call the teachers by their first names. It was a symbol of the kind of learning community we stood for, where, though adults were in charge, we all were investigating how this world works together, at different points in our developmental stages. There was an implicit hierarchy in the titles of teacher and student, but we all took our shoes off, joined hands in the circle to and explored together whatever was at hand. 


Amidst all the inevitable changes in American culture and progressive schools, this practice continues at the school. There have been times when the staff discussed the idea that kids addressing us more formally might create more clarity in our respective roles and offer an atmosphere of mutual respect that seemed to be eroding. But for better or worse, we stuck with it.


In fact, my entire adult life, very few people have ever called me Mr. Goodkin. In fact, so few, I can name the three examples:


1) A travel agent I once used. By the end, he switched to Doug.

2) An employee of a publishing company I’m currently dealing with. 

3) My daughter’s friends at Tufts University when she first introduced them to me. They were from the East Coast and this was the proper etiquette they learned. But it took me aback so much that I quipped, “Oh, you can just call me Doug. But if you want to be a bit more formal, you can address me as Lord Douglas.” Which they did, every time I saw them from there on out.


But after guest teaching at several International Schools where the students and teachers had a very friendly and casual relationship, but the addition of “Mr. or Ms.” seemed to create a clarity as to who was in charge, I thought it could be a good idea to try it out with the 8th grade at my school, where the line had gotten a bit vague. 


So tongue very much in cheek, I created a ritual beginning to my 8th grade classes, setting it up something like this:


“When you all were in preschool, you would see me coming down the hall and shout, “Dougie!! Hi, Dougie!! Hey kids, I see Dougie!!” By elementary school, you were a bit more formal and called me Doug. Now in your last year, you will have the ultimate honor of calling me Mr. Goodkin. So when you come into class, have a seat on the risers and when I turn around and say, ‘Good morning, class!’ you will rise up with your hands joined in front and say in one voice, “Good morning, Mr. Goodkin!” Then sit down and class will begin.” (You can see this little ritual in my movie The Secret Song.)


They, of course, thought it was cute and were game to play my game. I always waited for the moment when they’d roll their eyes and say, “This is stupid!” But they never did. I think they liked the feeling of it as much as I did, even though it was play-acting. And by the way, during the class and in all other circumstances, they still called me Doug. 


And so, first names and last as a cultural indicator. When I was a fledgling hippy in 1969 in my senior year of high school and looking at colleges, I was attracted to two different places. One was Antioch College, a free-wheeling radical school where you could get credit for hitchhiking to California, canoeing, wine-tasting, bird-watching and more (I indeed got credit for all these things), where you went camping with your teachers, attended protests together and in some cases (not me, of course), smoked pot together. The other was a place called St. John’s University that was based on 100 Great Books from the (at that time) Western canon, from Plato to Sartre. There was no free choice in the curriculum, everyone took the same courses in the same order. Though it was the polar opposite of Antioch, I was intrigued by it.


But the deal-breaker was something in the brochure that described a class discussion protocol in which you not only addressed your teachers formally, but your classmates! As in,“Mr. Shannon has an interesting point, but I believe Ms. Berg is closer to the real idea espoused by Mr. Chaucer.” That was just a bit too much for me. So Antioch it was!


Of course, most everything is first-name basis these days. Even in corresponding with a publisher in Germany, that most formal of countries when it comes to addressing people, I noted after I signed so many mails with “Doug,” she finally went from Frau Lahr to Anna.


Robert Bly wrote a whole book about the phenomena of moving from a hierarchal culture that showed respect for elders and formal roles in society to what he called The Sibling Society. As described on the book jacket:


“In the sibling culture that Mr. Bly describes, we tolerate no one above us and have no concern for anyone below us. Like sullen teenagers, we live in our peer group, glancing side to side, rather than upward, for direction. We have brought down all forms of hierarchy because hierarchy is based on power, often abused. Yet with the leveling we have also destroyed “vertical gaze.’ We have no elders and no children; no past and no future. What we are left with is spiritual flatness.”


Written in 1996, it has only gotten worse. Much, much worse. Children look up to—or rather look sideways to or down to—a grown man who was disguised as the Presidents throwing hissy fits like a toddler in a tantrum, insulting people like a bully on the playground, changing allegiances with his so-called friends and stabbing them in the back like a high school big man on campus or prom queen. And now, an entire party doing the same in the halls of Congress. Truly, these spoiled children in grown-up bodies are actually so much worse than any group of actual children I know, leaving the kids to wonder, “Is this what adulthood looks like? Is this who I’m supposed to grow up to be?”


Of course, I and my generation were part of this move to informality. There was Elvis, John, Paul, George and Ringo, Aretha and more. Before us was the jazz world where first-rate geniuses are affectionately known as Pops, Ella, Fats, Miles, Bags, Trane. Some were elevated to Count, Duke, Prez, Lady Day to get an inch more of formal respect, but still we felt them as friends. And indeed, unlike the Pop Star phenomena, they would come out from backstage during their break and often chat with folks at the bar. 


But as Bly illuminates, the needle moved way too far in the other direction and the ways we address each other is a minor, but significant, symptom of something unhealthy. He writes:


“Everyone seems to feel that it’s good to call strangers by their first name. When we call to get our checking account balance, we hear a chilling series of impersonal orders, such as ‘Press one, Now press six. Press the pound key. Press in the Social Security  number”: then a robotic voice says, “Robert, what can I do for you?” I say, “Mister Bly, to you!’ 


The first names make sense in a sibling way. The speaker doesn’t want to imply by using your last name that your family is different from his or hers. To omit the last name is to say, ‘Your ancestors are totally unimportant to us. You are a highly individualize individual floating in a bright ocean of individuals, and we just love your particular essence.’


I always thought that Mr. Bly’s book didn’t attract the attention it deserved and getting it off the shelves now, I'm inspired to re-read it. I believe everything he worried about—like a culture run by both literal adolescents and adults trapped in adolescent moods— has grown into a yet more monstrous form. Just flipping through it, almost any random paragraph I read has me shaking my head in agreement, “Yep! That’s exactly what’s happening and it has gotten worse.”


These today’s thoughts from Mr. Goodkin. Or Lord Douglas, if you prefer.


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