Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Stand For Liberty, However Small

When I was a child, many things had to be contended with. My parents' punishments, often given out arbitrarily, without full knowledge of the incidents that had occasioned them, and in a manner grossly incommensurate with the offense commited, were a constant burden on our lives.

Social plans with friends could not be made, lest they be broken because one of us had been grounded for questioning a rule or momentarily yelling at a sibling. At the age of thirteen, I was being made to go to bed at nine o'clock on weekdays and nearly that early on weekends.

I was still, at some points, subject to the humiliation of corporal punishment. In our household, any disagreement at all ran the risk of earning an excessive response. I could not, despite having entered my teen years, have any control over my own life. My clothes; my hairstyle; the food that I ate, when and how much; were all rigidly regulated by my parents.

Repeated attempts to wrest autonomy from my mother and father were met with explicit threats of physical violence, and for a good time we lived in fear.

This post is not about the difficulty of those struggles, though, but rather how we responded to them, in a way that I regard to this day as noble.

The old way of life, which we eventually came to call the System, was showing definite signs of strain by the time I entered eighth grade. Powell and I, he on the verge of adolescence and I in its earliest stages, were beginning to think and clearly see the world around us. We became aware, acutely, that other people our age led far more liberal and happy lives, faced few of the same dangers and limitations, and were afforded much more in the way of basic respect and dignity.

Thomas was six then and Pie hadn't been born, but their lives would be radically affected by what my closest sibling and I were about to do.

In September of 2001, our home in Dirty Town sold on the early cusp of the infant housing bubble. This left us, with the new house in Beautiful Town not due to be completed until December, in the awkward position of having nowhere to live.

Thankfully, my mother's friend, Mom's Old Best Friend, stepped up to the challenge of helping us, offering our family room with hers. Mom's Old Best Friend, then married and pregnant, lived at the time with her parents and two adult siblings in a single-family home, a situation into which my own parents, two brothers, and I were soon injected.

The System very likely could have perpetuated itself for several more years had we remained in Dirty Town, but the cramped conditions soon imposed on us made that impossible. The tremendous tension that the System placed on our everyday existence already, combined with our crowded living quarters, created a poweder keg. The two things, System and living situation, were too much to endure at once.

The voiceless anger that had simmered for well over a decade among our family's children found furious articulation within a very short period of time.

When we moved in with Mom's Old Best Friend, Powell (then eleven), Thomas (then six), and I (then thirteen) were made to share a single room where before we had each slept alone. Predictably, daily fighting over sleeping positions quickly broke out, there being only two bunks and a futon between which we rotated in a semi-regular fashion.

My parents responded to these minor scuffles with punishments that can only be described as absurd. Very occasionally, the implementation of these punishments escalated into beatings, made all the more mortifying by the fact that an entire other family was in the house with us and could see it all.

During this time, I was still attending Dirty Town Middle School and being callously bullied by everyone around me. My only hope, the only thing I cared about, was December, and Christmas, when we would at last be gone.

It was my mantra and my worst fear during the three months at Mom's Old Best Friend's house, the thing I repeated to myself while getting ready each early morning before the sun had risen: soon, we'll be gone.

The move gave me optimism by allowing me to break with a very painful life, but also filled me with horror; if I were rejected in Beautiful Town as I had been in Dirty Town, there would be no escape.

My heart then was full to bursting with a curious mix of sadness, anger, hurt, and ferocious, white-hot hope.

My brothers, younger than I but living under the same conditions, were beginning to boil over with rage.

One day, Mom's Old Best Friend approached me in the foyer and said, "BB, I want to tell you something. I just want you to know that I see what happens, I see the way you get treated, and I know it's not fair. If you ever want to talk, you can talk to me."

This woman never particularly liked me, had in fact clashed with me on occasion, and her words, acknowledging the inadequacies of her best friend no less, were a comfort.

It is only in adulthood that I fully appreciate the significance behind that statement; I can now see in restrospect that I was a very difficult child, arrogant, haughty, demanding, and maddening, even if essentially right in my arguments.

The fact that a close companion of my mother's, one who had no special fondness for a boy many regarded at best as annoying, could see through her natural inclinations to underlying truths speaks powerfully to the injustices of our situation.

The punishments, threats, violence, and degradations (my father once spat at me, "You're thirteen; you don't have an opinion") piled on and on.

On November 29, 2001, a seemingly innocuous action touched off one of the greatest and far-reaching events of my childhood, one whose echoes still ring fortuitously across our family landscape.

That evening, weary from school and homework, I stripped off my clothes and got into the shower. I remember nothing about what happened earlier that day, other than that by the time my jeans and tee-shirt lay on the floor I was very tired and wanted nothing more than to feel the warm water coursing over my thin body and through my short blonde hair.

I had probably been in there between ten and fifteen minutes, and was really beginning to relax, when a fierce pounding shook the bathroom door. My mother's angry voice demanded, in a tone that carried every subversive threat one could imagine, that I get out of the shower right then.

I quickly obeyed, and then dressed myself.

When I left the bathroom, either my mother or my father, I can't remember which, informed me that for taking a "fifteen-minute shower" I would be grounded for a day.

That was the last straw. Not even bothering to wage an argument I knew would be lost, or at the very least would terminate the moment I started to get the upper hand, I returned to our shared bedroom and began to scribble lines on a sheet as my brothers played video games.

"Constitution of Rights" I wrote at the top.

I have kept this flimsy piece of paper in the seven years since then, put away in a scrap book. For about thirty minutes, I wrote out and divided what I considered to be mine and my brothers' most fundamental rights, basing the document's contents largely on my parents' most frequent and egregious violations of common decency.

"Powell, Thomas," I said. "I have to talk to you."

The conversation that followed proved that I was by no means the only one who felt a steady rage welling inside. We had reached a critical break.

Powell was looking over the paper, reading the guarantees it provided, when I wondered aloud, "But how will we enforce it?"

The Constitution forbade our parents from doing a number of things and declared that we had certain inviolate rights, but as of that moment they existed only in print.

"No chores," my brother responded.

"What?" I asked.

"No chores," he repeated. "If they break it, we won't do any chores."

I looked at him, nodding in agreement at the necessity of what he'd said. It was the only way, of course, that it could ever work.

The three of us breathed deeply, staring at one another. The chores rule, what would eventually come to be known as the Embargo Clause, was indispensable. At the same time, by placing it in the Constitution, we were putting ourselves in direct physical danger; because my parents would never willingly relinquish their iron grip on our lives (something none of us had any illusions about), there was no doubt that the Clause would be invoked.

The outright defiance that such a move would constitute, as we knew from prior experience, would very likely provoke violence on the part of both parents.

"The worst they can do is hit us," I told Powell, who looked as worried as I felt. "That's the worst they can do."

"Yeah," he nodded.

I think he'd realized what I'd already come to, that with or without this Constitution, we would live under the constant threat of physical harm. At least in this way, that harm could be incurred in the defense of our beliefs and liberties, rather than in the infliction of pure terror.

We would stand for our rights, fall before a leather belt for them if need be. And, if we tried hard enough, maybe we just might change something.

My mother's reaction to these developments was swift.

Within days of the document's passage, she had threatened us with a beating for some obscure and inconsequential action.

Resolutely, I replied, "That violates Article V--"

Before the words were even out of my mouth, she'd slapped me in the face. I didn't care. After she actually administered a beating, with a belt, my brothers and I met in what we called the "Constitutional Council."

We voted and declared an embargo. We were faced with all kinds of threats and exhortations, all sorts of nasty promises about what would happen to us.

Mom's Old Best Friend called it, albeit in a way that betrayed worry for our safety rather than condemnation of our actions, "Insane."

Yet we would not budge.

We held rigorously to the standards we'd applied, enforcing them whenever and however we could. Eventually, my father even bowed to our demands to have disputed punishments judged in a child court system.

By 2002, I was judging "cases" between parent and child on a regular basis and making my decisions based on the little piece of paper on which we'd codified our basic human liberties. Sometimes I sided with my siblings. Sometimes I sided with my parents. Powell, when he judged for me, varied likewise.

But, to my amazement, the verdicts in these trials were adhered to by all involved.

This process was not perfect. There were times when, in the face of fists, we quailed away from defense of our rights. The Courts system did not last, with my father eventually withdrawing and my mother never even considering participating. Occasionally, the System reared its ugly head and we found ourselves powerless to oppose it.

Yet we never wavered from our principles, and we pressed on with a strong belief in them through easy and difficult periods.

I can honestly say that, had it not been for that document and our commitment to it, the tyranny we'd been subjected to for over ten years would have continued in Beautiful Town.

Thomas, age six when the Constitution was signed, was to receive its full rights upon his twelfth birthday (in 2007, which seemed at the time like a distant year). By the time that date came, much of what our Constitution prohibited had faded away, in large measure because of the zeal with which we applied it.

Thomas and Pie now live in a home that is free, welcoming, happy, and devoid of fear. They will never know, will gloriously never know, the hardships that we did. Thank God.

I haven't had to think about that Constitution in a very long time. Recently, though, Thomas asked me to provide him with a copy so that he could revive it. I could only have had one reaction; while the threats necessitating the Constitution in the first place have largely evaporated, the rights therein enumerated are still sound, reasonable, and just. I immediately printed off the seven pages. There is nothing to be feared in them.

They are the opposite of that.

The Constitution mentions the creation of states to administer it, and has a clause allowing children from outside of our family to sign onto and be protected by it. Eventually, seven states would be admitted to a Constitutional Union.

Those states evolved later into something decidedly undemocratic, but what started them was a bulwark of rights, and continued to be even after the states had been perverted from their original purpose.

Today, of course, there is but one state, the one that my brother has deigned to form.

Those seven pages changed so much.

Whatever they were, they were responsible for a large amount of good that I doubt would have come about without them.

Below is the document in full, with an addendum at the top that Thomas asked me to attach. Some of the articles have been amended significantly since they were originally written, but the spirit of it is the same. Make of it what you will:

We, any and all children who shall choose to band together under this creed of liberty to which we shall abide, hereby reaffirm and reestablish the Constitution of Rights first enacted on November 29, 2001, and hold its rules and guarantees to be applicable to us and to all future adherents and signers.

Let it be known, to all Persons whom it may concern,

Article I

Section 1
That BlackenedBoy has reached his coming of age at thirteen years old. Let it be known that upon his coming of age he has reached, or has started to reach, a certain level of physical and mental maturity, and will soon begin attendance in high school. Rights that other young adults were handed as mere children he believes he has now earned over a course of seven years, through academic and social excellence.

Section 2
Some of said excellence includes:
•Achieving Honor Roll status
•Having a poem published and complimented by many worthy adults and learned persons
•Being recognized by many as passionate, intelligent, and involved in academic and extracurricular activities
•Being a young man of an age when many people have these rights

Section 3
Children seeking protection under and agreeing to the precepts of this Constitution shall be citizens of the Constitutional system.

Article II

Children shall be able to enjoy a reasonable bedtime.

Section 1
On weekdays, children shall be obliged to go to bed no earlier than ten o’clock at night unless they so choose.

Section 2
Children shall be allowed to choose their own bedtime on weekends and whenever school is not in session the next day, with no limitation placed on that choice.

Article III

Children shall be able to live in harmony and civility with no threat or actions taken in the name or in intention to enforce corporal punishment. All forms of corporal punishment are henceforth banned.

Article IV

Section 1
Children shall be obliged to perform within reason all chores of which they are physically capable. Any demand placed upon a child that does not conflict with the principles of this Constitution is the duty of the child to honor and obey.

Section 2
The rights enumerated in this Constitution, however, are not contingent on the performance of such chores, and those rights shall not be invalidated by a child’s failure to carry out household responsibilities.

Section 3
The rights deemed periphery by the Courts may be temporarily suspended by parents in the exercise of fair and legitimate punishment.

Section 4
All punishments shall be commensurate with the offenses for which they are given; no excessive punishments shall be permitted.

Article V

Upon reaching the age of twelve, a child shall have all of the rights listed in this Constitution, fully and without exception. Children who are of age may participate as judges in the Courts and may have a say in voting for Constitutional amendments and actions of the Constitutional Council.

The Courts and the Constitutional Council shall decide which rights are applicable to those children under the age of twelve.

Article VI

Section 1
All of the rights and regulation in this Constitution shall apply to all immediate family members of children who have sought protection under its precepts.

Section 2
Any adults, whether they be related to citizens or not, shall be bound by this Constitution when interacting with children governed under it.

Section 3
Only one parent or guardian in any given family need authorize this Constitution, but once authorized by one the Constitution must be obeyed by all.

Section 4
If this Constitution shall be violated in any way by a citizen’s parents or legal guardians, an Embargo of Household Duties shall immediately be declared, and all chores will come to a halt one day per each violation.

The Constitutional Council may enact other retributive measures as it sees fit.

Article VII

All of those protected by and/or signing this Constitution shall be allowed to express themselves, through their bodies or in any other way, however they may please, so long as they express nothing sexual and nothing else deemed inappropriate by the Constitutional Council and so long as they do so using a budget independent of their parents’ or legal guardian’s.

However, a child shall not be obliged to accept against their will anything pertaining to self expression (such as clothing, a haircut, or anything else) that a parent has offered to pay for.

Article VIII

Section 1
The child or children aged twelve or older in any family operating under the Constitution shall form a Constitutional Council, which will decide issues of Constitutional law. A Chief Justice should be elected to lead proceedings. This Chief Justice does not have any power exceeding that of any other Constitutional Council member, except that he or she will usually judge cases in the Courts.

Section 2
The Council shall be empowered, among other things, to declare an Embargo of Household Duties when necessary and take appropriate measures to protect the Constitution of Rights.

Article IX

In the event of a child disputing a punishment levied by a parent or guardian, the disagreement shall proceed to the Courts.

Section 1
The Courts shall be composed of the child, the parent, and a child judge, usually the Chief Justice, unless he or she is a party to the case. In families with only one minor child, or only one child eligible to serve as a judge, an impartial third party, adult or child, shall be called upon to judge. Ideally, in cases when a third party judge is needed, the same person should serve as that judge as often as possible, though this is not required.

Section 2
All persons serving as judges must familiarize themselves with this Constitution and must make their rulings based on the principles therein, even if this means deciding a case in a way that conflicts with their personal beliefs.

In order for the system to function properly, all trials must be fair, and a parent entering one must be able to know that their side will be heard and given as much consideration as the side of the child.

Upon making a judgement, a judge must cite the part of the Constitution that led to their decision. All rulings are binding upon child and adult alike.

Section 3
A judge’s power extends to upholding or overturning a punishment implemented by a parent. A judge has no authority to take punitive actions against adults.

Section 4
The Constitutional government may establish higher judicial bodies than the Courts, and if such bodies exist any child or adult may appeal to them following a ruling in the Courts.

Article X

Section 1
The government formed by this Constitution shall be known as the Constitutional Union, and shall be comprised of as many states may be deemed necessary by its citizens. The purpose of the states shall be to administer the rights of the Constitution to their residents.

Section 2
States will typically consist of a single family, and each state may establish its own Courts and Constitutional Council and may elect a Chief Justice.

Section 3
In states containing more than one family, a Chief Justice of the state may be elected, in addition to the Chief Justices of each of the individual families. The state Constitutional Council will be comprised of all eligible children in the state, meaning that the Constitutional Councils of each family will simply be combined. These states may also establish state Supreme Courts where a decision from an individual family’s Courts could be appealed.

Cases in state Supreme Court should be judged by the state’s Chief Justice, unless the Chief Justice is a party, in which case another child shall be called to judge.

Section 4
All states shall be bound by the principles of the Constitution.

Section 5
Should multiple states be admitted, they may create a national Supreme Court to which cases from the state Supreme Courts may be appealed. Citizens should elect a Chief Justice of the Constitutional Union to preside over these cases.

The national Supreme Court, if ever created, shall be comprised of the Chief Justices of each states, who shall vote on all cases. In the event that state Chief Justices live far away from one another, they should be informed by telephone or e-mail of the details of a case and should then vote.

If a state Chief Justice absolutely cannot be reached, someone else should act for them.

In the event of a tie vote, the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Union will decide the case.

Article XI

All cases in the court system shall be taken on an individual basis, and the people of one state shall not be bound by a Constitutional decision made in another.

Individual family Courts, however, should take into account the prior decisions of their state Supreme Court (if it exists) in deciding a case, as it is unlikely that, when faced with two very similar cases, a state Supreme Court will reach two different decisions.

Similarly, all Courts within the Constitutional Union should be mindful of the prior decisions of the national Supreme Court (if it exists).

While strict adherence to precedent is not legally required, the court system should be consistent in its rulings on Constitutional questions so as to maintain the legitimacy of the government for both children and adults.

Article XII

Any citizen in any state of the Constitutional Union shall have the rights stated in this Constitution and shall be protected from any unjust tyranny on the part of their parents or guardians.

Article XIII

Section 1
Any amendments made to this Constitution must be voted on by the relevant Constitutional Council. Once approved by the Council, they must be approved by at least one parent or guardian. Without this approval amendments cannot be enacted.

Section 2
Any state or national amendments must be approved by the state or national Constitutional Council and then by one parent or guardian from each family affected by the amendment.

Some amendments may be passed in one family but fail to pass in an entire state, while some amendments passed in states may not pass nationally.

All amendments passed in an individual family or in a state are valid for that family or state, even if higher bodies fail to pass them. Therefore, some amendments may apply in some states or families but not in others.

Article XIV

We hold that all children are entitled to certain rights, and will uphold them zealously with or without adult approval. Those parents who sign onto the Constitution, however, will gain a voice in the system and will have rights of their own, as has been detailed in this document.

I (child)______________, agree to these terms, and therefore witness my signature on this date of____________________________.

I (adult)_________________, agree to honor these terms, and therefore witness my signature on this date of_________________________________.

Anyone wishing to benefit from, or uphold this Constitution, please sign below:__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Currently, the Constitutional Union consists of a single one-family state, the State of Our Family, but other states may be added.

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