If You Don't Like My Gate Don't Swing On It

Mencken’s Birth Day!

The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most easily adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.

The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

~ H.L. Mencken (1880—1856), Writing for the Baltimore Evening Sun on 26 July 1920, in an article entitled “Bayard vs. Lionheart” (and reprinted in the book On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe)

I never set out to become a curmudgeon, but I have steadily developed into one as time has gone by — decades in public schooling as a student and as a teacher; years observing the breakdown of the family and the disintegration of the culture. Each State intrusion into private lives adds to my growing dismay. Being set in my ways is my method for survival in a world that so often offends my senses and values; a world populated by too many people who act increasingly stupid, shallow, childlike, and irresponsible.

My mother taught me not to live my life trying to second-guess the opinions of others. When I heard the phrase, “I’m not who I think I am. I’m not who you think I am. I am who I think that you think that I am,” her advice made even more sense. Since then my motto has been, “If you don’t like my gate, don’t swing on it.” If you don’t agree with me, fine. If you want to lie and gossip about me, have at it. If you choose to waste your time gathering converts to some anti-Linda cause, be my guest. If you would rather that I work someplace else, just say the word. It makes me no never mind. Or, as today’s young people tend to say, “Whatever!” My life goes on, with or without detractors.

I wonder if Mencken’s parents gave him similar advice, or if he just developed wisdom naturally…

My opinions, and my approach to life have been honed by conflicts that I have had to face: as I have had to protect myself and my students from bad educational policies; as I have had to work against great odds to educate my special students within the counterproductive structure of bureaucratic public education.

If I allowed myself to be silenced, changed, or defeated by criticism, my teaching would become as ineffective as the instruction given by those who — rather than honestly evaluate and speak out against the destructive progressive educational policies they are ordered to inflict upon children — just spin in circles of worry; reel from the never-ending whirl of fads. Such teachers are ineffective because they never question the establishment. They only question themselves and react to issues as seaweed reacts to waves: What will the bosses think? What will others say? Will I get tenure? Will I be nominated as teacher of the year? Will other teachers like me? Will others believe that I am effective? Will I understand new-new-fuzzy-wuzzy math enough to explain it to children? Which teachers should I hang around so others will think me smart? Will I be able to fool all of the people, all of the time?

As cold as it may sound…I don’t worry about what most people think of me, and I trust that Mencken felt the same way. My busy life goes on, and my pleasant ‘to do’ list — of books to read; articles to write; thoughts to ponder; friends to call; places to travel; family to visit…knows no end.

I read that Mencken was once observed through a window as he wrote a column following a day at a political convention. He would type furiously, pause to read what he had written…then throw his head back, slap himself on the thigh, and roar with laughter at his craftsmanship.

My dream is to be like Mencken. I want to not take life so seriously, and I want to be able to laugh at myself and at my reactions to the craziness and the scariness of the world. I want to develop a sharper wit, and I dream, hopelessly, of someday being able to write as Mencken did.

Basically, I want to enjoy being the curmudgeon that I have become. Oh, that Mencken were alive to be my mentor, my model, my teacher.

“It is inaccurate to say that I hate everything. I am strongly in favor of common sense, common honesty, and common decency. This makes me forever ineligible for public office.”

~ H.L. Mencken

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