Public Schools and Rage
Natalia J. Garland
How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the
causes of it.--Marcus Aurelius.
Today's essay is a
follow-up to Public Schools and Narcissism. I will
use the same format as that essay, again drawing from a book by
James F. Masterson, M.D., The Narcissistic and Borderline
Disorders, as well as using some inspirational quotations from
other well-known writers and thinkers.
One of the
characteristics of narcissistic people is rage. Most
psychotherapists have probably encountered reactions of rage from
their narcissistic patients within the therapy session or perhaps
on the telephone. Therapists, however, have a clinical knowledge
of narcissism as a disorder and are trained to treat their patients
who exhibit these personality traits.
But what about
public school teachers who find themselves at the receiving end of
such rage in the classroom? What about young students who react
with anger or rage, in a narcissistic-like fashion, over everyday
routines such as being asked to turn in their homework, or to
correct the grammatical errors in their English composition, or to
come to class on time? Why do some students seem to react so
negatively to school rules and classroom instruction, a reaction
that might be called defensive rage?
Anger is a
killing thing: it kills the man who angers, for each rage leaves
him less than he had been before--it takes something from
In Masterson's book,
he discusses the similarities and differences between borderline
and narcissistic disorders. In the quotation below, Masterson
begins to focus on the narcissist's vulnerability to emotional
wounding, and the narcissist's reaction to real or perceived
failure at empathy from the therapist. That is to say, when the
narcissist's sense of self-importance is not validated by another
person, the narcissist cannot tolerate this perceived lack of
appreciation and will react defensively in order to protect his
sense of self-importance.
Despite these basic similarities, the narcissist's extraordinary
vulnerability to narcissistic wounds, his/her intolerance of
depression and the continuing activation of his/her defenses
dictate important differences. The continuous activation of the
grandiose self/omnipotent object defense and the parallel need to
avoid, deny or devalue realities that do not resonate with this
defense explain why confrontations must be used sparingly and
cautiously, as the patient will react to them as an attack which
will only further activate defense.
Having to deny the destructiveness of his grandiose behavior to his
best interest, the patient will also have to deny the
confrontation that brings it to his attention. His ability to
perceive his rue interest is overridden by the need for defense.
How does the therapist gain entrance to this solipsistic system in
order to open it to therapeutic change and influence? How does the
therapist help the patient convert transference acting-out to
transference, therapeutic alliance, and working-through? The
therapist must rely primarily on interpretation of the patient's
narcissistic vulnerability as it emerges in the relationship in the
interviews. even so, the patient's exquisite, microscopic
sensitivity to real and imagined failures in empathy (or perfect
mirroring) on the part of the therapist must be kept constantly
in mind; also, when the failures are real as opposed to fantasized,
they must be acknowledged.
[End of quote.]
In the American
public school system where the self-esteem of the student is
so highly prized, it could be speculated that the system's effort
to promote self-esteem--sometimes through excessive or misguided
praise, and through a distorted concept of fairness and equality in
which inferior work is rewarded alongside superior work--has
actually caused students to develop narcissism or narcissistic-like
personality traits. These traits would include a false sense of
self-importance, grandiosity regarding the quality of their work,
feelings of entitlement to assistance (i.e., give me the
answers), and a defensive rage when confronted on not following
school rules or classroom instruction.
In order to
understand the narcissistic patient, let us read about Masterson's
encounter with a patient who reacted with intense anger after being
confronted on her responsibilities. Then, we can try to compare
this type of patient to a type of public school student--the
difference being that the patient developed her narcissistic traits
in the early parent/child relationship whereas the student
developed his narcissism or narcissistic-like traits at a later age
and outside the family dynamics (i.e., after entering the public
She expressed the negative object representation of the
withdrawing object relations part-unit (WORU) by accusing me of
being extremely critical of her, of putting her down, and the
negative self-representation by accusing me of not being
interested in her, of considering her boring, not worthwhile
listening to, etc. The issue of manipulation came to a head when
she requested a postponement of payment of her bill, as her father
had not yet given her the money. I pointed out that the
arrangement was between her and her father and not between myself
and her father and, therefore, that I would expect her to pay on
time; she should deal with her problems with her father; she was
asking me to take over her responsibility.
This confrontation led to a furious outburst of anger at my being
greedy, rigid, uncaring, etc.; she claimed that all of her friends
were in treatment, and many of them owed their therapists three or
four months' worth of bills. By the end of the session, however,
as her rage subsided, when I questioned the reason for such anger
and disappointment, she verbalized her wish to be special to me,
which led to the history of similar maneuvers with her father in
order to be special to him.
She freely admitted that this behavior was not spontaneous and
self-expressive, but was put on to get the desired response, that
what she really felt about herself was that she was bad, ugly,
disgusting, of no interest, underneath which lay feelings of
hopelessness and helplessness.
[End of quote.]
Now, what if a
teacher experienced a similar type of person in the classroom? As
an example, let us look at the imaginary case of Dillon who is in
the 10th grade. The following is a compressed account of Dillon in
which I have imagined some classroom incidents and teachers and
put them all into one day in the life of Dillon. I have also
included some family background on Dillion to suggest that he may
have already had narcissist tendencies, but that the school system
exacerbated rather than extinguished these tendencies. I felt
that some family background was necessary to: (1) show that
parental involvement assists educational achievement, and (2) to
show that teachers can have a powerful influence on the child's
emotional, ethical, and personality development--perhaps especially
on the dysfunctional child's potential.
Whatever is begun in anger ends in shame.--Benjamin Franklin.
The Case of
Dillon arrives ten
minutes late to his history class. He strolls in with no concern
for his tardiness or for the disruption that his entrance causes.
In fact, he enjoys the attention as all eyes turn to him. He feels
important. He offers flimsy yet guilt-inducing excuses for his
tardiness so that the teacher will feel sorry for him and not send
him to Tardy Sweep. Dillon is also quite charming. The teacher
overlooks his tardiness so that he will not miss today's important
lesson. Dillon feels special.
The students are
working on a group project. The class divides into groups of five
or six per group. In Dillon's group, two intelligent and motivated
girls are doing all the work. Rosa researches their topic on the
internet while Tiffany researches the textbook. The two girls know
they are being taken advantage of, but they accept this as the way
the system works. They start working immediately and without
complaint. Dillon chats with the other group members. While
the teacher tends to students in another part of the classroom,
Dillon and his friends look at photographs on their cell phones and
send text messages.
When the teacher
approaches Dillon's group, he and his friends pretend to be
working--improvising a discussion on how they will arrange the
paragraphs in their report, and telling the teacher they are
waiting for the two girls to finish the research so that they can
organize the information and begin writing. This is all a lie, as
the two girls do both the research and the writing. When Rosa and
Tiffany finish the report, everyone signs their name to it since it
was a group project. Everyone gets the same credit. The teacher
gives the report an A-grade. Dillon feels a sense of superiority.
Next, Dillon goes to
biology class. Today the students are having an open book test.
The teacher instructs them to complete their bellwork before
beginning the test. Dillon never does his bellwork. Bellwork is
collected each Friday. Dillon copies Monday through Thursday's
bellwork from another student on the bus. On Fridays, he manages
to copy from someone in class and is able to turn in a week's
worth of bellwork. When Dillon begins the biology test, he knows
that he can find some of the answers in the book by looking for
boldfaced words with definitions. Also, the biology teacher does
not monitor the class during tests. While the teacher is busy at
the computer, catching up on paperwork, Dillon copies another
student's test. Students never refuse Dillon, especially the
girls. Dillon feels entitled.
Then, Dillon goes
to English class. The students have been studying poetry, and
today the teacher instructs them to write three Haiku poems and to
draw a picture to illustrate one of their poems. She instructs
them to work quietly and independently today, to express their own
individual creativity, and to enjoy the process. She provides a
large box of markers and tells them to use color in their drawing.
Dillon offers a deal
to the homely girl, Stephanie, sitting behind him. He will do her
drawing if she will write three poems for him. Deal. Dillon makes
a simple stick-figure drawing. The English teacher walks around to
observe class work and offer suggestions. She sees Dillon's
stick-people. "How will you use color?" she asks.
Dillon is offended. He thinks his stick-people are cute. "I
can't work without music," complains Dillon. "Can I
listen to my iPod?" The teacher says yes, hoping this will
result in better productivity. In reality, Dillon has manipulated
her. He sits at his desk and bounces with the beat of his music.
Dillon feels omnipotent.
When there are 20
minutes of class left, the English teacher tells the students that
they should be in the editing stage of their work--they have 15
minutes to work and then 5 minutes to clean up. The teacher
notices that Dillon has not done any written work yet. "Where
are your Haiku?" she asks. "I'm not in the mood
yet." answers Dillon. "I can't be creative on
command." The teacher attempts to explain that part of the
writing process is to be disciplined, to get started and then more
words will flow. However, Dillon cannot write (or draw) very well.
He lacks skills and motivation, having always relied on his charm
and temper to get his way. He feels he is being treated unfairly,
that the teacher has singled him out for criticism. "You hate
me," shouts Dillon.
instinct is to reassure Dillon, to comfort him, but she remains
firm this time. "There is still enough time for you to
complete at least one Haiku before class ends. Start working."
But Dillon counteracts her firmness. "I don't know what to
write about," he whines. "Give me an idea." Again,
for the sake of productivity and out of displaced maternal pity,
the teacher gives Dillon special personal assistance (even though
all instructions are written on the board and she gave verbal
instructions at the beginning of class, including steps on how to
has finished six Haiku and gives three of them to Dillon. She
delights in Dillon's attention, and is willing to pay the price
to be connected to this popular boy. If only she knew how envious
Dillon is of her and of all females who have skills, then perhaps
she would have more self-respect. As the students pass forward
their completed assignments, Dillon personally presents his paper
to the teacher, making sure she acknowledges that he turned in
three well-written Haiku. "You see, Dillon, I knew you could
do it! Good job! Just think what you could do if you utilized the
entire hour!" The teacher idealizes Dillon and believes she
had a positive influence on him. Dillon feels invincible.
After lunch, Dillon
goes to Spanish class. As he approaches the classroom, he notices
a substitute teacher standing at the doorway and greeting the
students. He quickly decides to take advantage of the situation.
He turns around and heads back to the lunch area, finding friends
who have second-lunch hour. He brags about how he is making a fool
of the stupid substitute. Dillon feels quite clever and in
Dillon goes back to
Spanish class, 15 minutes late. "Hola!" he says as he
struts to his desk. The substitute replies, "Hola, chico,
what is your name?" Dillon, feeling self-satisfied and
thinking he can entertain the class by flirting with the female
substitute, says, "You can call me Yo Daddy!" The
substitute asks Dillon if he has a pass to excuse his tardiness.
Dillon lies and says that he was in biology class, helping his
teacher. The substitute, who suspects manipulation, tells Dillon
to go back to biology class and get a pass.
Dillon is outraged.
He devalues substitutes because they are not real teachers; in his
mind they do not have the right to take charge. Spanish class is
his territory, not hers. However, the substitute gives Dillon a
choice: either go get a pass or go to the cafeteria and report for
Tardy Sweep. Dillon feels personally attacked. "This is
sh_t," shouts Dillon. "I'm not gonna do this sh_t."
substitute remains firm--not an easy thing to do because of the
continued disruption to today's lesson. Dillon starts to leave,
slamming his Spanish textbook on his desk, and kicking other
students' desks as he stomps down the aisle. At the doorway, he
gets out his cell phone and says, "I'm going home. I'm
calling my Mom to come and get me." He anticipates that the
possibility of parental involvement will intimidate the substitute.
But he has underestimated her, and the substitute continues to
Finally, Dillon says
triumphantly, "My Mom is a lawyer and I'm gonna sue you!"
As he departs, he kicks the classroom's trash can into the hallway.
The substitute calls the Security Office and reports that Dillon
appears to be leaving campus without permission. However, Dillon
does not call his mother. It was all a bluff. He goes into the
boys' restroom. He stays there for the remainder of the period.
He gets out his cell phone and texts messages to his friends. The
restroom is his private office, and he feels like an executive in
charge of his own texting network. The more texts he receives in
return, the more validated he feels. In his fantasy, he is the
most important boy in the school. He is the center of the world.
When the bell rings,
Dillon bursts out of the restroom and goes to business class.
Although Dillon would like to own a company and make a lot of
money, he hates business class because the teacher is task-focused
and does not permit his antics. At the beginning of the year, Mrs.
Netcost had given him detention three times. This resulted in a
parent-teacher conference. Dillon's mother, who owns a small
housekeeping service, had to take time off work--that's what she
got so upset about. She worked long hours to provide Dillon with
nice clothing and all the technological items he wanted. She was
seldom home. And when at home, she was always tired and would
just watch television. Dillon often felt abandoned.
instructed the class to continue working on the annual budget for
their proposed businesses. The assignment involved math, graphs,
and charts. Most students, under Mrs. Netcost's careful
supervision, were serious about their work. Some students had
internalized Mrs. Netcost's expectations and would begin working
even before the bell rang. Dillon likewise applied himself in this
class. He had no choice. Sometimes, in order to break the
intensity of the work, he would mentally drift in and out of
grandiose fantasies about his future company.
wanted him to work for her after high school graduation: he could
take charge of the payroll, employee schedules, taxes, ordering
supplies, and advertisements. That was why Mom devalued Dillon's
performance in academic classes. She wanted to keep him under her
thumb. Even when Dillon tried to study, Mom was not really
impressed. Dillon felt disappointed and depressed. Emotionally,
it was not worth the effort to study--and Dillon was not able to
connect academic excellence to his fantasies or to the practical
realities of success. Dillon felt condemned to fulfill his
mother's personal needs, yet he believed in the magic of his own
personality to get whatever he wanted.
As class comes to a
close, Dillon has accomplished a fair amount of work. He feels
both proud and depressed. He was not special in business class.
He was just one among many students who were doing the same thing
as he. He lacks internal motivation and, with nobody at home to
encourage genuine effort, he feels blah and average and these
feelings are intolerable.
Next, Dillon goes
to guitar class. Upon entering the classroom, he is thrilled to
find another substitute teacher. This is his lucky day. The
substitute, who knows nothing about music, tells the class that
today's assignment is written on the board. The students get out
their guitars. Meanwhile, the substitute takes a couple of
magazines out of his briefcase. He sits at the teacher's desk,
props his feet up, and reads his magazines.
There are only
three girls in the class. One of them practices industriously. The
other two socialize and giggle. A group of five boys practice
together. The other boys play games on their cell phones or listen
to their iPods. Dillon and another boy begin playing tennis with
their guitars. Dillon takes off his sock, ties it into knots, and
uses it as a tennis ball. The boys whack the sock back and forth
with the backs of their guitars. Dillon feels exhilaration at this
extravagant rule-breaking. He feels special again. His depression
How Many Other
Well, perhaps that
is enough of Dillon's day. I think you get my point. In many
schools, someone like Dillon might be classified as having ADHD or
a conduct disorder. It would probably never occur to the school
authorities that Dillon has a narcissistic tendencies (including
defensive rage) and that the school system itself has greatly
contributed to his dysfunction.
jealousy can no more bear to lose sight of their objects than
Now, as shown above,
it only takes one Dillon in a classroom to disrupt the educational
process and to frustrate and dominate the teacher's efforts. Just
imagine a classroom in which there are several Dillons, perhaps
between 40 to 60 percent of the students and at various degrees of
severity. Imagine how many generations of Dillons have graduated
from America's high schools over the years. The impact of large
numbers of narcissists on society and government can only be
Lately, we have
witnessed the massive firings of teachers who were regarded as
incompetent. While there are indeed incompetent teachers, we must
question if some of these terminated teachers were simply doing
what they were trained to do in today's hardcore liberal
universities--that is, to use teaching strategies designed to
build the self-esteem of the student, strategies which instead may
have promoted narcissism. We must also question if the use or
misuse of teaching methods such as cooperative learning, multiple
intelligences, and open book tests has diluted academic standards
and enabled students like Dillon to graduate without earning it.
We might further
speculate that in some schools--and this would vary from school to
school and from teacher to teacher--the only students who receive a
genuine academic education are those in honors classes or in
advanced placement classes. That means average and even
above-average students (e.g., students like Rosa, Tiffany, and
Stephanie) are mixed together with the below-average students as
well as the narcissistic-like students. While this may seem normal
or indiscriminatory, it means that the non-honors students will
not be sufficiently challenged to improve and excel--a situation
resulting from classroom socializing and disruption, dilution of
standards, the ineffective emphasis on self-esteem, and the
narcissist's claim on the teacher's limited time.
In summary, the
narcissistic-like student is not able to fulfill academic standards
or behavioral expectations. However, when confronted on his lack
of productivity or cooperation, he feels wounded and cannot
tolerate the underlying emptiness. Therefore, if he cannot get his
way through charm or guilt-inducing manipulation, he reacts with
defensive rage in order to get what he wants and to restore his
sense of grandiosity and specialness.
Although it is
beyond the scope of this essay to discuss school violence and gang
violence, it would be a worthy area of study--if my account of
Dillon is accurate--to investigate any relationship between
narcissistic defensive rage and violence. (This may or may not be
a separate issue from bullying and the consequences of
bullying--still another area of study). One would have to
differentiate between narcissistic and antisocial disorders (and
possibly paranoia), as well as understand any overlap of symptoms.
Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around
in awareness.--James Thurber.
[NOTE: The names,
people, and situations in the essay are fictitious. Any
resemblance to actual people, places, events, including schools or
business establishments, is coincidental. Also, it is recognized
that many teachers and other school personnel diligently and
impartially enforce school rules regarding tardiness, cheating,
classroom productivity, cell phone usage, and student safety.
Furthermore, it must be added that references to Masterson's book
involve an adaptation of his work and do not reflect Masterson's
personal views on this essay's topic.] (Written 03/22/10: bibliography available.)
Until we meet