The Havisham Syndrome: Why Children Haters Become Teachers

art  by Steve Messa

art by Steve Messa

Don’t know about you, but whenever I see a colon in a title, I think, okay, this essay’s not likely to be all that whiz-bang exciting, but it’s probably well researched and well developed. If I’m interested in the subject matter — e.g., the elopement of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, vintage Bengalese pornography, or the psychology behind wives of professional golfers wearing skinny jeans with factory-installed rips — I’ll check it out. What I expect from a title with a colon is serious, academic exegesis.

In the case of this essay, however, despite the title’s colon, my conclusions of what factors impel child-haters to enter the teaching profession rely on intuition, not research, so, strictly speaking, it’s about as scientific as a Discovery Channel documentary on the search for Noah’s ark. Nevertheless, intuition is a powerful mental force, a subconscious storehouse of forgotten events. Intuition is like a precocious child tugging at the sleeve of your consciousness, trying to get your attention to point out something important you’re too tall to notice.

One more caveat: the following theory is based only on one incredibly callous individual who made two years of my early adolescence the educational equivalent of the Bataan Death March. But I suspect that if my theory is true for her, it must be true for others as well. So bear with me as unveil my explanation of a phenomenon I have dubbed “the Havisham Syndrome,” which answers the question: why would a child hater choose to spend the working years of her life surrounded by children.

Choosing the Teaching Profession

Perhaps because I considered each school day a prison sentence and spent as much time glancing up at clocks as I did down at my work, I always shake my head in wonderment when someone tells me she knew she wanted to be a teacher for as long as she can remember, so obviously, for some, certain aspects of the profession override its promise of poor pay, tons of take home work, and low social status.

Many teachers, for example, go into teaching because they love children. They find very young human beings adorable, so they don’t mind spending their days herding miniature but toweringly egocentric bipeds to and from art class or to the dining hall where the teachers’ lunches go cold while they clean up spills, break up arguments, or try to cajole the little Brittany to take at least one bite of something nutritious.

Other teachers, believe it or not, love middle school students. They find seventh and eighth graders endearing and early adolescence ripe — and I don’t mean ripe in the olfactory sense — I mean ripe as in propitious, a time conducive for instilling life-long habits that will produce solid citizens.

Others are drawn to teaching because they love their subject matter and think it’s important, that a knowledge of history, math, or art is life enriching.

Still others, like me, stumble into teaching through a combination of happenstance and incompetence.

And then there are those who choose teaching because it’s an undemanding major with fairly good job prospects (i.e., if you don’t mind teaching in an impoverished school district with sub-Saharan murder rates). Whatever the case, the motivations of most teachers are neutral at worst and very positive in most cases.

However, in my career both as a student in Summerville schools and as a teacher elsewhere, I’ve encountered hateful, sometimes cruel people[1] who seem to have been drawn to the classroom to make young people’s lives miserable. There’s a sadistic streak in some teachers, teachers who make out multiple-choice questions like this:

Which of the following doesn’t fit?

A. mobsters                       B. gangsters

C. hipsters                         D. bankers

I bet you chose D, right? You idiot. The answer is C. Hipsters aren’t obsessed with money.

Even if these teachers are obviously wrong, they can’t admit a mistake. They have favorites, usually popular, brilliant, or rich kids, but treat the average or slow student with undisguised contempt.

Take my 7th and 8th grade English teacher, for example.

A Case Study

ted's tattooEven though the chances of this woman’s still being alive or her one offspring’s running across this post are about as remote as Ted Cruz’s opting for a Che Guevara tattoo next time he gets smashed on tequila in a South Texas Barrio, for the sake of discretion, I’m going to refer to her as Mrs. Choakumchild, after M’Choakumchild from Charles Dickens’ biting satire on Utilitarianism, Hard Times.)

It’s my belief that Mrs. Choakumchild entered teaching because of deeply rooted psychological problems, problems arising from her own experiences as child in the classroom. Let’s face it, children have an inherent pack mentality that prompts them to single out weird, unattractive, and/or socially clueless kids and turn them into the class pariah. Young Mrs. Choakumchild – let’s say her maiden name was Gradgrind — no doubt hit the hat trick here.

Of course, when I had her as a seventh and eighth grader, I couldn’t have told you how old she was. She did have a daughter a year older than I.  In any case, Mrs. Choakumchild was significantly overweight, had stringy, poorly dyed orange hair and a withered right arm that dangled at her side. Her sharpening a pencil in the wall-mounted pencil sharpener was a terrifying experience. She would claw-like grasp the pencil in her right hand, cross over with her left hand, and vigorously crank the handle as if grinding meat.

She had absolutely no friends, ate her lunches alone in her room. I never remember her smiling once during the two years she taught me. Nor do I remember her ever saying something positive about my work. I was in the advanced section, and once she informed me in front of the entire class that I was “an error in classification,” that is, I didn’t belong in the class. Later, in my senior year, when I had won a school wide award for a piece of fiction, my mother, who was a substitute teacher, showed it to Mrs. Choakumchild, perhaps wanting to show her how well she had taught me. After reading it, her only comment was, “He still can’t spell ‘government.’”

My Theory

Obviously, Mrs. Choakumchild was not a people person, nor did she seem at all fond of children. So we can rule benevolence out as a motivation for her becoming a teacher. She may have during college developed a great love for sentence diagraming (it seems that’s what we mostly did), but part of that love for a subject entails wanting to share it with students, not cram it down their mental feeding tubes. On the other hand, it is possible she went into teaching for the reason that women had much fewer job opportunities in those days, and I can’t rule that out.

I think, however, that it’s possible that she went into teaching for the same reason Miss Havisham adopted Estella in Great Expectations, to exact revenge. You’ll recall that being jilted at the altar, Miss Havisham decided all men were evil and reared Estella to be cruel so she could punish boys who fell in love with her. Likewise, Mrs. Choakumchild came to the conclusion that all children are inherently cruel, so decided to gain control over groups of them and to get her revenge. Of course, if true, this behavior would fall under the category of sadomasochism, because it she hated children, being around them couldn’t be pleasurable.

Could this be true of other teachers as well?

Of course not. The theory is preposterous. (Note the post is classified under satire). However, teachers do possess an enormous amount of power, and they need to be extremely careful in what they say. Obviously, I remember all too well Choakumchild’s comments on my intelligence, and she really did make me think I was stupid. Also, I know that over the years that I certainly have said things to hurt students’ feelings, and the thought of that makes me sick.

[1] Once one of my PE teachers yelled out as at obese boy was running the hundred yard dash, “Hold your arms up, X, so I can tell if you’re running or rolling.”


4 thoughts on “The Havisham Syndrome: Why Children Haters Become Teachers

  1. But really, for the comparison to be apt, it is the outcast young Miss Choakumchild who needs to have grown up to be a cruel teacher. She is doubtless on Facebook; to friend her and find out would be the easiest of tasks.

  2. It seems to me that there are also teachers who don’t hate all kids, but rather tend to take a very strong dislike to one or two kids at a time. I had one of those. I don’t recall that anyone else had a problem with her – some kids seemed to like her – but she plainly HATED me. As far as she was concerned, I was utterly incapable of ever doing the right thing – if I was taking notes, she’d bark at me to pay attention; if I was looking at what she was writing, she’d snap that I needed to be taking notes, and perhaps add that she guessed my struggles in her class must be the result of my insufficient notes. (As opposed to having a teacher who was a harpy from hell, I suppose. Because, surely, that couldn’t have had anything to do with it.) She claimed that I was terribly rude and disrespectful to her. (I can recall only one time when I was ever intentionally rude or disrespectful to a teacher, and that was outside of class and after I’d just been screamed at, in public, for no reason; I smarted back, then stalked off, crying. Ironically, that teacher had been one of my favorites.) She also said that I clearly didn’t care about school, I obviously wasn’t smart, I would never be able to pass her class or any other class in that subject, and I should plan to fail it in college – all of this in class, in front of everyone. I never saw or heard her treat anyone else so terribly, but she was so awful and so obviously unfair to me that several of my classmates apologized to me for her behavior – and this was at PG, where most of my classmates treated me abominably. (Her hatred of me didn’t abate even after she was no longer teaching me. The year after I passed her class, she caught me in the hall one day, pulled me into her classroom, and began berating me; she did it again when I visited once after I’d graduated and she happened to see me.) Every day, my heart sank as I entered her classroom. The way the students treated me was awful enough; I really didn’t need to be targeted by a teacher, too. Thankfully, all of my other teachers at PG ranged from good to great, and most of them were closer to great.

    • Wow, Catherine. I’m so sorry you had to suffer such pathology. Looking back from our adult perspective, we can see that this unhinged, sadistic person suffered deep-seated problems, but as children, we lack that perspective, and it shakes our confidence – a least it did mine when “Mrs. Choakumchild” publically designated me “an error in classification.”

      Also, this person’s behavior seems self-destructive given that your father was a board member. Sounds to me as if some self-loathing might be in the mix. The good news is that behavior like that at PG would not be tolerated today.

      On the other hand, as my late mother used to say, “if you don’t have any enemies, you don’t have any character.” I don’t know if that’s true, but over the years when I’ve encountered what I consider unwarranted animus, it’s nice to think so.

      As I’ve said before, I love your Facebook posts. They’re always interesting and intellectually engaging. And you’re one student I’ll never forget and for all the best reasons.

      If you’re ever in Charleston, let’s get together.

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