Defying unjust authority is an instinct to be nurtured
Guest blog by Robert Karl Hutchinson
Founding Director, Alachua Conservation Trust
County Commissioner, Alachua County, Florida
On this Throwback Thanksgiving Thursday, I woke up dreaming of sixth grade in 1963-64, the most memorable year of my youth. Yeah, yeah, yeah there was the Beatles, and The Assassination, and the Civil Rights movement, and the mysterious new attraction of each gender to the other.
But I didn't dream about any of that.
I dreamt of a dog, whose name I can no longer remember. And of a school teacher, perhaps the wisest teacher in a life blessed with incredible educators all along the way.
I was raised in The South. And on the first day of sixth grade, we were at recess and a beagle wandered into our playground, a magical place that included a creek full of crayfish and enough good climbing trees for every boy to have his own; the be-skirted girls didn't climb trees because they had not yet gained permission to wear pants to school.
This was an era when dogs ran free, and so did we.
The dog followed us back into the classroom, which had a door directly to the outside, and simply flopped down in a sunny spot, and our teacher, Mrs. Williamson hardly took note as she continued with her lesson. This became our routine, the dog arriving to school from a nearby house when he heard us, then spending the day with us and leaving when we did. I don't think we ever really knew whose dog he was, and he wasn't particularly playful and didn't mooch our lunches -- he was just comfortable being around 30 kids in a classroom.
One day the school principal stepped into the class unannounced, saw the dog, and blustering about The Rules, banished Dog from the classroom. Dog sat outside the rest of the day looking balefully in at us, and I'm sure the sad glances from my classmates were not lost on Mrs. Williamson.
The next day was business as usual -- Dog was under the pencil sharpener snoozing and twitching in the sun, Mrs. Williamson said nothing about it, and everybody was happy. And so it continued until a few days later, a voice crackled on the two-way intercom from somebody in the main office saying something about a "special teacher's meeting" and Mrs. Williamson moved quickly to grab the dog by his collar and shepherd him into the supply closet. She resumed her teaching, just as Mr. Principal stuck his head in the room, looked around, and was undoubtedly pleased at the class full of well-behaved students paying rapt attention to their really interesting teacher. For the rest of the year -- and a complex year it was -- the co-conspirator in the main office always signaled the potential for a visit from The Man, and we had an unspoken code with our teacher to defy The Authority.
Now that I'm an adult, I know how brilliant this lesson was. Keep in mind that this was in the small-town segregated South when the authorities were defying moral law and common-sense daily. And it was the same time that Stanley Milgram was observing volunteers "shock" strangers in experiments because the authority figure in a white lab coat simply repeated, "the experiment must go on." And the defense of Nazi collaborators, that they were just obeying orders, was still in the forefront of conversations about morality, such as in my Sunday school classes where lessons often included anecdotes from WWII, not even two decades old yet.
I have so much to be thankful for, but high among these is that scruffy dog and this brilliant teacher who spontaneously conspired to teach, in the most subtle yet indelible way possible, the lesson that defying unjust authority was an instinct to be nurtured, that defiance could be part of everyday living, and that it was as important as any of the lessons in our History of America textbook.
-Robert Hutchinson, "Hutch", is a County Commissioner in Alachua County, Florida, home of the University of Florida and many wonderful natural places. Many years ago, Hutch helped found and was the first Director of Alachua Conservation Trust, a non-profit that has brokered deals to preserve tens of thousands of acres of environmentally sensitive Florida lands. I am certain that is what he would point to as among the most notable accomplishments on his resume.
BTW: I didn't ask Hutch for permission to post his writing. We are old friends and if he doesn't like it he can sue me or at least cuss me out. But this piece is the perfect first-thing-in-the-morning on Turkey Day to help remind of the many blessings in my life, in all the lives of people who read my blog.