While creating a Socratic middle school program at an inner city Anchorage public school, one of the students I was working with was Seagram. Already by 7th grade, 13 or so years old, he was six foot two or more, with broad, powerful shoulders and long, flowing black hair. He was an Alaskan Native who sat in class angry and attentive, his energy razor sharp, but always silent. In our conversations I had gotten all of the other students engaged after a couple of months, but despite an extraordinary range of topics, I had not been able to get Seagram involved.
Finally one day I asked him if there was anything we could do to bring him into the conversation. “No.” Did any of our conversations interest him. “No.” Did he enjoy just sitting there listening? “No.” What would he prefer to be doing? “Nothing.” Is there anything you really love to do? After a long pause he said, “Fighting. I like to fight.”
I was delighted to have gotten through to him at last, and he and I began to have a conversation, while the rest of the class watched, on why he loved to fight. It became clear that he lived for the time after school when the kids would gather around the playground or parking lot and watch boys challenge each other to fist fights. It was also clear that he won, all the time, and he loved to be challenged and beat up whoever dared to try to take him on. He didn’t care if he got hurt, and was proud of the various cuts and bruises he had received in the course of his battles. The other kids clearly stood in awe of him, and some of them piped in about this or that time that Seagram had walloped a much older or bigger kid. He was a hero, a Native American brave, brilliantly doing what he was made to do. And he loved it, he felt alive, he was happy when he was fighting, no matter how much physical pain was involved.
His classroom teacher, whom I was training to teach Socratically, was a feeble older woman, both physically and emotionally weak. She was conscientious and had a good heart, and clearly loved teaching English. But she was afraid of the students, and half afraid of life, and they could tell. I realized then that no matter how well I “trained” her to lead Socratic discussions, there was no way that Seagram would ever listen to her or respect her. She could give him detention when he misbehaved, a punishment that served as a badge of honor in his circle. He was willing to give me a certain amount of respect, as an adult male who was confident about who I was and what I did. But when I looked at her and then looked at him I saw that the very fact of having a weak older woman command the greatest of the young braves would never work. When a weak old woman gives a powerful young man a grade of “F” and a week’s worth of detention, millions of years of evolution shout out “NOOOOOOOOO . . . . ”
In the moment he puts on a show of bravado, and his classmates reward him. But in reality he feels humiliated, and develops a bitterness towards her, towards the school, towards learning, towards the society of the white man.
The white man transformed Alaska only in the second half of the 20th century. Seagram’s grandfather, or great grandfather, most likely used his prodigious strength to hunt and fish and keep the family protected and alive. The great hunter would have been respected by the entire tribe, and for good reason – survival itself was at stake. And then the white man came and gave them snowmobiles, welfare, alcohol, and public schools.
And today, if he is still alive, Seagram may well be drinking his namesake, fighting no more, after having dropped out of a school system that is an absurd mismatch for who he is as a human being.