I’ve been standing in line so long
I’ve been wondering what went wrong
I’ve been weighing the shape of things to come
— Steve Taylor, “Waiting in Line”
All my life, I’ve been waiting for permission. I’ve raised my hand. I’ve waited until I was called on. I eagerly sought approval from whoever was in charge.
At home, I needed my father’s permission to do anything. My world was tightly controlled. I couldn’t even arrange my own drawers or closet as I pleased. He gave me rigid instructions for those things.
At school, I was quiet and didn’t cause problems. I did what I was told, for the most part. I never defied instructions. I learned whatever was placed in front of me, whether it interested me or not. I dutifully spit the information back out on tests. And I waited for the teacher’s approval as proof that I was a good boy.
I’ve recently realized that I’m still waiting for permission, long after I thought I had rebelled and broken free of that programming. I’ve been so proud of being a rebel and not doing things the conventional way. I thought I was free of all that.
But I realize now that I’m still sitting here waiting — for some unknown someone to give me permission to do what I need to do and be the person I’ve always wanted to be.
I’ve been reading a book for the last few days which has forced me to see this. I finished it tonight and it’s left me feeling a little shaken, because I’ve seen myself in a new light. I’ve seen something which explains something which has puzzled me for a long time.
I’ve been wanting to read John Taylor Gatto’s well-known book, “Weapons of Mass Instruction,” for years. I’ve watched video of Gatto and read articles in which he was interviewed. Some of what I’d read by him had been important in leading me to become an advocate for unschooling. But I never realized until I read his book just how much of my childhood programming was still with me when it comes to personal initiative and “permission” to do what I want to do.
Gatto was a New York City school teacher for 30 years. He taught in some terrible schools in Manhattan, but he was known as an innovative teacher who got remarkable things out of his students. He finally became so disgusted with what he had experienced — and with how hard he had to fight the system to do what was right for his students — that he finally quit his teaching career in his mid 50s. At the time he quit, he was New York state’s teacher of the year.
I want to talk about our system of compulsory schooling — and why this system is setting children up for failure — but not right now. I’ll save that for another time. Right now, I want to look at how my authoritarian childhood — both home and school — left me waiting in life for someone to give me permission to do what I needed to do.
It wasn’t until I was in high school that I started rebelling against my school. Even then, it was a very subtle rebellion. I did what I wanted to do, but I found ways of manipulating situations to get the permission I needed to do what I wanted.
I had the mindset — one which is built into the DNA of the school system — that I had to fit into a framework that someone else built. I had to obediently find the place where I fit in that system. Once I was given permission — by the system and by whoever I saw as having authority — I could do novel and interesting things.
But I was afraid to tell the system, “No.” I was afraid to say, “You have no authority over me.” It somehow never occurred to me that I didn’t have to wait for someone’s approval.
Even as an adult, I can see how that unconscious thinking subtly affected the things I did. Yes, I started a company when I was in my mid 20s — typesetting, then newspaper publishing — but the only way I did it was with my father’s approval. Remember, he’s the one who invested the money I needed. I never realized until this week that I got permission from him in this way.
When that failed — and I broke away from my father for the first time — I went to work for another company. I didn’t go out and raise the money to start something new on my own. I didn’t have anyone’s permission to do that, even though I didn’t want to work for anybody else.
When I got into politics — quite by accident — it was only because of a friend who was wealthy and influential who needed my services. I never would have pursued that on my own. Essentially, I got permission from that friend to pursue a lucrative political consulting career — and then people started coming to me.
There were other ventures I wanted to start in subsequent years, but I never actually started any of them. I still have detailed business plans — complete with operating spreadsheets — for ventures that could have made me wealthy, but I never pulled the trigger on any of them. I’ve never understood why.
I understand now that I was waiting for someone — I have no idea who — to give me permission. I was sitting here in class with my nice, shiny proposal — and I was waiting for a teacher or an authority figure to say, “You’re a good boy and you’ve done a good job. You have permission to do this.”
But there was nobody to give me that approval, so I did nothing.
I’ve told you before that I finally made a short film because I met a woman — someone I wanted to impress — and she was enthusiastic about me making a film. In effect, her approval and excitement gave me permission, so I made the film — even though I had little money and had no idea how to do it.
Even now, I’m waiting for someone to give me permission. I have things I want to do, but I do other things instead. I’ve had no idea why until now. Though it makes no sense from the outside, I see that I’m still passively waiting for someone to approve of my plans and give me permission to do things.
I’m appalled by this realization. I’m also not sure what to do about it. I just know that something has to change.
I was trained — in ways that were both direct and subtle — to obey quietly and wait for someone in authority over me to give me permission. Somehow, I have to find a way around this.
I need somebody to give me permission to pursue the things I want. Ultimately, I need to learn how to give myself permission, but for now, I need a crutch of some sort.
I’m still sitting here quietly — eager to show the world what I can do — but I need someone who believes in me to say, “You can do this.”
And it angers me that I still feel that need.