Years ago--back in grad school days (late 60s, early 70s) I read a popular science book called The Territorial Imperative (1966), by Robert Ardrey. I underlined it heavily. Of course, I cannot for the life of me find that book right now--hard to believe, considering the careful, fastidious nature of the arrangement of our books. Oh well. Memory will serve--or refuse (which is more likely).
I thought of that book today because of a response to one of these posts from a FB friend, a former student who became a teacher herself. I had written about my (and others') territorial behavior in coffee shops. Because I was the New Guy at Bruegger's in the morning, I was wondering if I'd displaced someone--was sitting in a spot that someone had considered his or hers. (Are guys more territorial than women? Based on coffee-shop behavior, I'm not so sure: I've seen some women who enter the shop, then beeline for the place where they always sit--and look grim and even homicidal when it's not available.)
|The story is in this|
Ardrey and O'Connor (and countless other writers) have, in one way or another, pointed out the effects of that aggressive territorial gene that still reigns in our chromosomes. In local and geopolitics, of course, it's bloodily patent. This land is mine; no, it's mine!
But my FB friend had noticed it as a teacher. And so, probably, has just about every other teacher with his or her eyes open. When I taught in public school, I almost always assigned seats--for a variety of reasons (cutting off potential discipline "issues," forcing folks to get to know one another), but one of the most important reasons was to preempt the scuffles (and sometimes more) that broke out and quickly escalated when someone took someone else's spot. (I changed the arrangement every quarter--what a guy!)
Later in my career--at Western Reserve Academy--I did not assign seats at all. I didn't need to: The students did it. After a day or two (while things sorted out) they always sat in the same places, every day, all year, altering only when friendships and loves and alliances changed. Occasionally there would be some ... discomfort ... when more than one person craved that spot, a discomfort eventually relieved when one or the other arrived earlier to class every day.
Often, too, I would have a sort of Lone Ranger kid, one who had a weak territorial gene (or a perverse sense of humor). He (yes, invariably a guy) would arrive early and sit ... wherever. The "owner" of the seat would arrive--and sometimes complain: He's in my seat! If it was early in the year, I would say, I don't assign seats--so you can't--a response, in retrospect, that was kind of facile and very ridiculous. Later on, I would say, Billy/Billie always sits there--so ... And the usurper would move on to annoy another.
I may have told this story before (?), but when my dad was in his final years (and no longer driving), he liked to get to church at least 45 minutes before the service started. Why? Because another guy liked the same pew and position that Dad did. One day (visiting--Mom and Dad were living in Pittsfield, MA--Mom was out of town) I was a little late on Sunday morning to pick up Dad, and when I got to his place, he was standing outside--in the rain--waiting for me. He moved as quickly as I'd seen him move in years and he got in the car with alacrity (dispensing a few choice words the while about the vast importance of filial devotion and promptness). We zoomed off to church. I dropped him at the door, and after I parked, I hurried back inside, where I found him, in "his" pew, in "his" place. I sat beside him just as the Other Guy (another older gentleman) was moving down the aisle toward us. They nodded silently to each other. Dad's tacit message: I got you this time! The Other Guy's: There's always another Sunday!
The reasons for our territoriality are obvious: If strangers arrive, then food supplies become stressed, our women become vulnerable, our other resources dwindle ... yadda yadda yadda.
But it's a bit depressing, isn't it (just a bit?), to think that this gene (so territorial itself that it will not surrender its spot, its dominance), this ancient, once-useful gene, still reigns within us, even in such amiable places as coffee shops and classrooms. And, of course, on international borders where bullets fly and people bleed.