In seventh grade, our science teacher – because she did not know the identity of the guilty party – decided to punish the whole class for the mischief of one student. Our punishment was to make the most words possible out of a sentence that went something like this: An aquarium is a tool for scientific study, not a repository for a bologna sandwich and Cheetos.
That was our assignment for the class period. But while my classmates dutifully pulled out their pens and paper, I did nothing – which my teacher soon noticed. “Scott, why aren’t you writing?” she asked. “Because I did nothing wrong,” I said. Even as a young teen, I cared little for the biblical observation that the rain falls on both the just and the unjust.
My refusal to suffer an unjust punishment surprised my teacher, who was apparently unaccustomed to anyone challenging her authority. She appeared briefly rattled, much like my mother when I refused a spanking after my two brothers broke a lamp while fighting. But my teacher quickly regained her composure and threatened severe consequences if I continued my defiance. I told her I couldn’t do the assignment. She then left the classroom.
A few minutes later, she returned and told me to come with her. Soon, we were in the school office, where the principal told me that unless I accepted the punishment, I would not be allowed to take part in the upcoming eighth-grade graduation.
I caved to what strikes me now as an egregious abuse of authority – extortion, really – because I knew my mom and dad would be disappointed if I got booted from commencement. My brother was graduating from eighth grade to ninth, and I was a marshal for the ceremony.
My teacher and principal got what they wanted – a briefly defiant teen doing their authoritative bidding in front of his classmates. But I wonder if they really won; it took me years to regain respect for authority.
I recalled this story from my youth after learning that Allen Wellons, the Smithfield lawyer and former state senator, is among those who have been arrested this year during the Moral Monday protests at the N.C. General Assembly in Raleigh.
Mr. Wellons and I are on the opposite sides of the political divide. However, I have nothing but admiration for a lawyer – an officer of the court – who is willing to get arrested for what he believes in. I wish I had had his resolve when I was a seventh-grader. The world would likely be a better place if we all held to our beliefs, without fear of the consequences.