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Public Schools and Rage

Natalia J. Garland

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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 him.--Louis L'Amour.

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 school system).


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

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.

The teacher's 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 generate ideas).

Meanwhile, Stephanie 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 control.

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."

Nonetheless, the 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 stand firm.

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.

Mrs. Netcost 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.

Dillon's mother 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 lifts temporarily.

How Many Other Students?

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.

Anger and jealousy can no more bear to lose sight of their objects than love.--George Elliot.

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 disastrous.

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 again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2010 Natalia J. Garland