Dealing with Deliberate Demoralization

I went to college to be taught by some of the worst humans in the history of academia. They were bad men, mainly because their goals were not even based around apathy or laziness, but actually actively trying to demoralize and dishearten all of their students they felt any amount of threat from.

This included “bad” actors, vocal students, anyone who ever consider himself a director, ugly people, playwrights, and those who expressed interest in musical theatre. They took ownership of certain things—“You can’t be a director! I am a director!”—and didn’t want to be bothered with the actual teaching aspect.

The only people they were supportive of—I’m sorry, I mean, “supportive” of—were those they could get things from. Because they wanted to make the shows they wanted to make, they needed actors, and the ones who could pass as remotely talented were favored and complimented, while the rest of the peons had to be told, “You’re never going to be an actor because you’re not white.”

Okay, I, being white, was not told this. In fact, being one intimidating bitch of a woman, I was not told anything.

While in the theatre department, my demoralization came by the same tact of a middle school gaggle of girls. I had never before experienced the whole mean-girl problem until I was in college amongst a group of 50 year old men. The students and I decided they, for whatever reason, were scared of me, which is why they never thought they could get away with the whole, “You’re a character actor, so you’re not going to get a part until you’re sixty,” thing. They just waited until I left the room before using my projects as an example of what not to do.

It’s been about a year and a half now since I graduated, and until recently I thought I would never get over the depression and anger I felt towards them. It was all consuming. I never believed them when I heard word of their claims that my self-produced play was, “just bad.” The really unfortunate thing was I never even thought for an instant it meant anything about my abilities or if I was likely to do it. I knew, from experience, that they said the same things about many other students, of whose projects would range from terrible to some of my favorites. I knew they were mad because they didn’t like students producing work—my recognition of which being what allowed me to manipulate my way into getting anything done. I knew they were bitter, opinionless reputation junkies, and that my play, whatever the quality of it was, wasn’t “just bad.” I didn’t believe their insults. But they still affected me.

It wasn’t until a few days ago in which I realized just how much the hurt has finally died down.

During my time at school I knew other students were experiencing the same things as me. Many of them much worse, actually, because jerks attack those who won’t react, who will just stand there and take it. But part of that, “standing there and taking it” made it appear at times that the victim didn’t even realize what was going on. Not only did they not say anything when someone passive-aggressively trashed them, but they took it to heart—they believed them—and even went to the extent of defending them.

One of the biggest problems of the department was that the students bought into their cruelty. It was the first time some were exposed to an adult who would actively be trying to hurt them, so they didn’t know how to recognize it. Others would find such relief that they weren’t the ones being attacked, they would try to use the moment to get into the teacher’s good graces (“Well, I for one love how you spring an audition on the freshman the week after school starts. I learned so much.”) There were few who would go so far as to prolong the suffering of others to keep the heat off of them.

Though the atmosphere breed treacherous and a dog-eat-dog mentality, the students themselves were not that malicious. Sure, they would stab you in the back the moment they thought they could get away with it, but usually that was to keep themselves afloat. The worst part, for me, was to see when these students, usually the kind, albeit gullible ones, would look up to these men who deliberately told them, “You’re never going to succeed,” and believe it.

As for those of us who knew to take it with a grain of salt, I think we faired better, yet the lack of motivation was still there.

The other day I got on Facebook and was talking to a current student about his senior project. He asked if I wanted to hear his horror story of dealing with the department. I said, “Hell yes.”

As he began to describe their passive-aggression, their refusal to answer their emails, their rejection of every play he wanted to do, their personal attacks, and all their lies, all I could think was, “Wow. Déjà vu.”

It was exactly what happened to me, what happened to my friends, my boyfriend, and many people who came before me.

Again, I felt I had been lucky because my experiences happened over the course of four years. While most students had no interest in producing projects there, I had been proposing and being rejected since freshman year. I had already learned that their basic principle was, “If I can say no, I will,” and that you don’t give them the option. I knew you walked in there and said, “Here’s what’s happening,” and though they would try to talk you out of it, they would never actually say no.

They would hate you for it, but, for most of us, that didn’t seem to change how they treated you.

As I said, they never personally insulted me. I was too stupid at the time to realize that all they wanted was yes-men, so I would never hold by my tongue when I disagreed with them. Knowing that I’d argue on neutral subjects, they didn’t want to deal with me on personal issues. They never told me anything negative directly to my face.

Before I had that talk with the student, I had already known that the men who demoralized me were doing the same thing to everyone. I watched them do it. I watched as they would tell six individuals in a row the exact same insults. The students were lucky if they were tailored to something personal.

Because I was a obvious outcaste, as explained to me by my teacher in one laughable session, because I did not fit in within the cultish hierarchy the department had developed, people with problems would often come to me. They couldn’t tell their friends. In the same way that old Soviets could never be sure their neighbors weren’t informants, the students couldn’t trust one another not to betray them when it behooved them.

My bonding with my fellow classmates came out of our mutual bitching.

So I heard things, probably more than the others, about how repetitive the tactics of our professors were.

Yet I never truly understood just how meaningless their demoralization was until I was fully parted from the situation, giving a fresh look on a world I was no longer a part of.

Deliberate demotivation has nothing to do with talent.

While it contains some sort of truth, or maybe just a personal fear, when someone tells another that she can’t be what she wants, it isn’t a form of advice. Quality of work is very much about perception, and often times we’re not confident in ourselves enough to be able to say, “That’s bunk!” Especially when the judge of the piece or our capabilities is someone we respect. The teachers never out and out lied, their reasons behind our certain failure always being something that an outside student wouldn’t be able to disagree with.

Most forms of demoralization came from physical appearance or past actions. Whether it be you’re too fat, too brown, too short, too blonde, too pale, too goofy looking, the teachers could always find something wrong with you. They would say, “Well, you quit all the other shows, so you can’t be counted on to produce your own.” Or, “You didn’t get any help because you haven’t helped anyone else!” To an outsider, especially one who would like evidence as to why he’s more likely to succeed than his fellow students, this seems legitimate. Meaning that while discussing Student C’s downfall, Student B will believe it is truly Student C’s fault, whether it is or not. This means that when Student B is subjected to the same ridicule, the knowledge that Student C went through the same thing would seem like a confirmation not a negation of the “advice.”

Simply because many of the students were new to theatre and, for that matter, new to not being told exactly how to think, judgment of art became easily influenced by those they respected. As it is in the real world, quite frankly. The problem arose that there were those who would reject their instinctive feelings after being told they were wrong, and they would believe that not only did their own projects suck (which, granted, some did), but so did their friends. This meant that even those who were inclined to see the merit in their own work wouldn’t be able to recognize the teacher’s pattern of demoralization. They would perceive it as truth.

As I look back on college, I realize I did learn a lot. I came to terms with dealing with the worst kinds of jerks I could possibly encounter. Which, in all honesty, is probably what best prepared me for the real world.

I can’t say that knowing the people who say awful things are doing it to say awful things would prevent the depression and hurt; I knew that they were wrong when I first experienced it. But I can say that, for those who are still insecure about their talent, no one who says you can’t do it is trying to help you. They aren’t being unique to you, they are doing the same thing to everyone else who crosses their path. They are miserable and they want you to fail, because it might explain why they are too.

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