Recently I read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a volume I’ve had on loan for about 6 years (shout out: jill). I watched the movie years earlier and expected this novel to stir those old, anti-authority sentiments that were an integral part of my English studies. What I didn’t expect was the existential backlash that came from the stirring of these feelings in conjunction with my job as a teacher.
As a young teacher, I have struggled to be taken seriously both by my students and professional peers. Because I look like the high school students I teach, I am often mistaken as a member of their cohort rather than the equal of my colleagues, creating in me a sort of “little-man” syndrome ( sometimes called by those post-Kesey as imposter syndrome). I feel because I don’t look the part of an authoritative presence, I must act it. This rubs against much of what I believe about authority. I am still in my 20s and, you could say, still very much against “the powers that be.” However in my classroom, I am the authority and I directly represent the powers that be.
So as I’m reading Kesey’s novel, I sympathize with Nurse Ratched. She, like me, is attempting to control unpredictable people. She, like me, is a cog in a machine (what the Chief calls “the combine”) that inevitably moves forward, a machine that crushes her charges with or without her. She, like me, is in need of power to maintain order, to do the job assigned to her, and to make it through the fucking day.
I firmly believe, from my experience in the classroom, that students need order. They need a clear authority and rules with consequences. But when does that authority cross the line? When does that authority forget to take into account the essential and healthy need to rebel? When does resentment for and opposition to authority indicate a real problem within the practices of authority?
Of course, the real question I had while reading has more to do with me and less to do with those that suffer from an abuse of authority:
How can an authority figure question the ethics of their own authority?
I have no answers for these questions, but I feel as if I stand on a divide between being “the man” and being “the people.” Each year I feel myself slipping closer and becoming more cozy with “the man.” It would be easier to create space between myself and my students. It would be easier to ignore their grievances and criticism as part of their litany of complaints. It would be easier to become Nurse Ratched.