Today, I ate a cupcake.
I know, you're thinking "Great big deal", right? True, the eating of cupcakes is not, in itself, usually a noteworthy event, though cupcakes are sometimes present at noteworthy events. In this case, the cupcake itself had no special significance, except that it triggered a memory.
Cupcakes, in my childhood, were a rarity. My own mother baked cakes frequently. I was always involved in the baking and frosting of these cakes, always got to lick the spoon afterward, and my access to the cake itself was never restricted. But cupcakes were a special thing, something I usually got at school or at other people's houses. Thus, I never encountered cupcakes until I was about six, and unfortunately, my earliest cupcake-memory is not a happy one.
For being only six, I remember it pretty clearly. I was in kindergarten, and it was some kid's birthday, which was always a happy occasion because it meant the afternoon could be devoted to a little party if the kid's parents felt like dropping by. In this case, they had brought cupcakes, more than enough for everyone. The condition for receiving cupcakes, as per my teacher's requirements, was that we had to finish our after-lunch work, in this case coloring a picture of McGruff (you know, "Take a Bite Out of Crime", that McGruff) teaching us about fire safety. For most kids, this was an easy task, but I had a pure, unadulterated hatred for coloring. I would frequently get back papers on which I had gotten all the answers right but lost points for refusing to color an irrelevant drawing of a puppy, or whatever, at the top of, say, a math sheet. Even being a small child, I knew this was unfair bullshit. So I was generally determined to color as little as possible, and that McGruff thing was no exception. I knew the fire safety rules. Why couldn't I just answer questions about those? Why did I have to color?
Well, on that cupcake day, I wasn't coloring. I was just going to sit there, because in a few minutes we were going to go sit on the sidewalk and eat cupcakes and celebrate that kid's birthday, and McGruff wasn't going to matter anymore. Except when it came time for the party, and I tried to join my classmates in filing outside, my teacher stopped me. She told me in a stern and unsympathetic tone that I must finish my coloring sheet or I was not going anywhere.
Though I wanted to cry, I didn't. This teacher had broken me of crying on the first day of school, when she threatened me - a child who had just walked in the door and had not previously been away from my mother longer than an hour - by saying she would send me to the principal's office if I didn't stop crying, and that I would be in Big Trouble. I had learned that school was a scary, unsafe and mean place, and I learned that crying was only an annoying weakness in my teacher's eyes. So I rarely cried in kindergarten, even though I frequently had reason to.
I don't know how long I sat there staring at McGruff and wondering why I didn't deserve to have a cupcake. It was probably only about 15 minutes, but to me, it felt like hours. I still wasn't coloring. I was too upset to color, and anyway why should I give in to someone who hated me so much? I could hear the other kids outside, laughing happily and saying that the cupcakes had silver "BB's" on them. Silver BB's were my favorite kind of sprinkles. The kid's mother took pity on me, and told me gently that when I finished coloring I would be welcome to join the other kids.
"Yeah," said my teacher with a sarcastic snort. "When and if."
I was not too young to understand the meaning of that if. "You don't know this kid," my teacher was implying. "We'll be lucky if she gets her shit together before they invent flying cars." I knew, then and there, that I was my teacher's least favorite student. I knew that the person who was solely responsible for my care for six hours a day, during which I had no access to my own mother, thought I was too stupid to color a goddamn picture.
Do you know how fucked up it is to do that to a six-year-old?
Let me be clear. It is not fucked up because six-year-olds are somehow entitled to free cupcakes. It is not fucked up because coloring a picture is beyond the grasp of your average six-year-old. Neither of those things are true, I will grant you that. No, it is fucked up because six-year-olds are just beginning to form their concept of what kind of place this world is. It is fucked up because six-year-olds have just reached the stage of development where they are noticing differences between themselves and other people. And you are teaching them that their willingness to color a picture of an anthropomorphic dog in a trenchcoat determines whether or not they are as worthy and deserving of enjoyable experiences, even of inclusion in important cultural rituals (in this case, a birthday), as other children their age. I did not learn any lessons about the value of hard work or following directions. Instead, I came out of this experience believing I was less-than, stupid, an outcast, a burden, and unwanted by one of the main people I had to trust to help me meet my basic needs. I believed that I was not as good, on some fundamental level, as the other children.
At the age of six. Six. Long before I was old enough to do anything but accept my inferiority as objective truth. Because I didn't like to color.
If this were just my whiny story about how my childhood sucked, I wouldn't bother telling it. But this sort of thing is done to children - by teachers, and also by parents, the people who are supposed to make a child feel loved unconditionally - every single day. And in those moments, what the caregivers are communicating to children is that their willingness to comply, to obey, to complete a task which serves no relevant purpose in the child's life, is more important than whether the child feels loved, safe, or worthy. It communicates that the child's access to such things as food, drink, exercise, and affection - essential human needs* - are contingent upon the child's performance. When such treatment is given to a circus animal, it is investigated by the ASPCA. When it is given to children, it is called education or discipline. The taskmasters are praised for a job well done, and given cooing sympathy - the kind they refuse to provide to their own small children - from other parents if the child proves difficult to train.
*That* is fucked up.
*I am not suggesting, of course, that cupcakes are an essential human need. But they do fall under the category of food, which a child understands to be an essential need. Indeed, it is a longstanding tactic of parents to deny their children real, life-sustaining food as a punishment - e.g., "going to bed without dinner."