“Do the Math” column originally published in Arthur No. 26
BLANK IN THE FILL by David Crosby Reeves
“For those who stubbornly seek freedom, there can be no more urgent task than to come to understand the mechanisms and practices of indoctrination.” —Chomsky
In the days of President Carter, a fluoride program went through the public schools called ‘Swish and Spit.’ First grade students were given permission slips and told to bring them back with a parent’s signature. I was a good kid then, eager to prove myself. I took my permission slip to my mother. She put it aside and didn’t sign it.
The day the ‘Swish and Spit’ program was implemented, Ms. Goldie brought out a bottle of red fluid and told everyone, ‘This is fluoride, and it tastes good.’ It looked like cherry Kool-Aid. I never got to taste it because I didn’t have my permission slip.
I was left alone while the other kids went to the sink and did the Kool-Aid. ‘Swish and Spit’ was just that. Everybody came back with red tongues like they had eaten a Slushy.
Ms. Goldie came to me, wanting to know where my slip was. I had a sense that this was one of the first tests of this new thing called School, and I was eager to be good. I wanted to drink the Kool-Aid to commune with the other kids, the kool kids, and become one with the institution.
So when I get home I told Ma, ‘I got to get this thing signed!’ ‘What is it for?’ she wanted to know. I explained that the ‘Swish and Spit’ was good for me, harmless, and probably cherry Kool-Aid.
‘What did I tell you about people coming to you with candy?’ my mom asked me. She went on about how the product was manufactured to look like candy so that I would want it, but we didn’t know what was in it.
My argument was, Sure we know what’s in it: fluoride. It makes strong teeth. But Ma wasn’t signing it because she said the government should not be giving you anything, nor should you trust them to give you anything. It sets a bad precedent. And why would a government that cares so little about your health that I can’t afford health care suddenly care so much about your teeth?
I know now that my mother was reacting to the Jim Jones disaster, that the specter of someone handing out cyanide-laced Kool-Aid had driven her to a state of paranoia. Or sense. Or sensible paranoia.
When I went back to school with no permission slip Ms. Goldie got on me about it. I told her that my mom wouldn’t sign it because I shouldn’t trust the government. ‘What is she?’ Ms. Goldie asked. ‘What does your mom do?’
When I came home asking my mom questions like this, she told me, ‘Don’t tell those people anything about us. It’s nobody’s business what we do.’
When I told my teacher that she treated me like a bad kid, and so I was.
School went on, and it became apparent that I should have taken my first grade communion, because school wasn’t happening for me. I was bored. Public kids like me were taught to take standardized tests, fill in the blanks, and actively discouraged from asking too many questions. Real answers take time, and there was a lot of material to cover and we would lose our state funding if our school filled in too many boxes wrong.
When I got to high school, they had the DARE To Keep Kids off Drugs program going on. In my school the DARE program consisted of a gladhanding cop named Ray standing around in the halls, buttonholing the crazy haired students. ‘Let’s go out and get some pizza,’ he’d say. ‘You know, go to dinner.’
I don’t know if anybody took him up on it, I doubt it. At that time, in the rural South, people still knew better than to be seen with The Man. Snitches became bitches with stitches, as the saying went.
Ray the DARE cop started taking time out of our fill-in-the-blank education by coming into class with bags of drugs to tell us specious facts and figures. Ray’s pitch was that he was a dog of war, unleashed to save our wicked souls. There was no price too great to pay in this war on drugs.
Ray would come at me at lunch, sit down at my table and buddy up like he knew me. ‘Where’s the party tonight?’ he’d ask. I was too nerdy to go to the bad parties without someone trying to kick my ass, really, but this cop thought I was dangerous enough to be monitored. As a freshman in high school (where seniors naturally hated freshmen on sight), having a DARE cop acting that familiar with me brought rumors of snitchery. One day Ray got me cornered. Did I know who had written ‘Satan’ in the art room carpet? I said I didn’t know, which was for the most part true. But Ray wouldn’t take no for an answer and he started invading my space, leaning on me a little. Touching me on my arm.
He asked me, ‘If you did know who did it, would you tell?’ I had never been confronted with the ‘are you for us or against us’ bit. A flash of anger went through me when I realized that I was being preyed upon. I told the cop, ‘When you put it that way, no. And fuck you. Forever.’ And that was the last nail in the good kid coffin for me. Ray became a constant presence, blending in the halls, chatting everybody up with a big cheesy grin, asking, ‘Where’s the party at?’ No one thought much of it until the pogrom of party busts started. It became a common scene: exit the party or the football game, and be confronted with roadblocks of armed junior college graduates standing in the night, their lights strobing out of synch. A cop disco, with no beat.
The operative slogan was zero tolerance, so they came down hard as they could. Kids that got busted for a quarter ounce were sent to juvie or hoods-in-the-woods discipline camps. The rumor that there was a snitch among us became fact. Snitch begat snitch until everybody had a knife in their backs. Distrust balkanized the high school. On a weekend, it was smarter to stay at home and watch Miami Vice than risk catching a buzz in the great outdoors.
We seethed in factions at permissive parents’ houses, sneaking drinks and plotting waves of vandalism against all cops, all snitches, all enemies, all friends of enemies. Quickly we developed our own little forms of what would today be classified as ‘light terrorism.’ On school nights we’d disguise ourselves in some parent car and tear up everything in town. We called ourselves the ‘Roll Patrol’ because suspected snitches had their houses rolled with so much toilet paper you could see them from space. We got the master key and changed the lock on every locker in high school. It took a full week for them to straighten that out. We painted every Santa Claus in town black until it drove the bigots crazy.
We let the air out of Ray’s tires. Egged his DARE car. Who was he to cut off us off our birthright of bonfires, drinking Milwaukee’s beast and trying to talk to girls? The Roll Patrol laid chaos on that town to let them know that roadblocks and snitches only made us worse.
Recently, word got to me that a friend of mine named Steve killed himself. Steve was Roll Patrol because his parents were dead and his grandfather went to bed early. Nobody cared what time Steve got home. He was that child the village was supposed to raise. Steve swished and spit and filled in the blanks on the tests like he was told. He was a lot like me, except at some point he got picked to be a cool kid, and was invited to the beer bashes.
Steve’s suicide note said he was the snitch that ruined high school. It said Ray caught him with some weed after a party. Ray offered Steve the choice to go to juvie or become a snitch and get molested. I can picture him in the car with the lights blinking and the cop all over him, ‘Steve, this is a timed test: A, B or C.’ Steve was probably scared of waking his grandfather with a call from juvie when he made his choice.
According to the note the abuse went on for a while. All these years later it was still eating him up. When Steve shot himself in the ear, he chose ‘none of the above.’ He blanked that fill. What else was he going to do? Call the cops?
Why would a government that routinely smokes whole neighborhoods want to educate us about the danger of a smoking a bunch of dried flowers? I’ll tell you why: so it seems okay when the bullies check your pockets real good, hoping to find something and fill in your little blank.
The Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Magna Carta were manifested to guard against this type of zealotry. It’s no secret that giving absolute power to badge bullies enables perversions of justice, fomenting unstoppable insurgencies which are punctuated by the show suicides of those who refuse to be preyed upon any longer.