Why Do We Say 'Rubber Room'?

Andrew Simonet, author of "Wilder," explores the origins of the phrase "rubber room," a key setting in his book. 

Andrew Simonet, The Conversation
4-minute read

Branch Four: The High School

Until my research, I didn’t know "Degrassi," the high school television series, also had a rubber room.

"Degrassi’s" rubber room kids are a group of students who must take classes in the remedial room. Students stuck in the remedial room, nicknamed the rubber room by Degrassi students, are thought to be troubled by the Degrassi staff.

In 1988, the "Milwaukee Journal" described a less charming rubber room:

“Waupun High School students who misbehave are sent for full school days to the in-school suspension room, where they are forced to sit bolt upright on a wooden bench and are forbidden to speak, move, read or study. They must empty their pockets before serving their time and wristwatches are also taken away. Students spend from 9 a.m. to 3:25 p.m. in the room.”

The Waupun article also introduces False Etymology #3: “Students call it the “rubber room” because it has rubber wrestling mats on the floor. After school it is used for wrestling practice.”

Parents and students complained: “Prison inmates could not be subjected to such a stringent form of isolation.”

Waupun’s assistant principal summed up the ethical and aesthetic debate with this haunting epigram:

Which brings me to my rubber room. I’ll let Jason, the narrator of "The Rubber Room" "Wilder," describe it:

Asylums, unions, Studio 54, and "Degrassi": a lurid past for the alliterative rubber room. The slang reinventions of “rubber room” do ask a pointed question, one that Wilder is obsessed with: do we restrain people because they are unstable, or does the restraint itself make them unstable?


About the Author

Andrew Simonet, The Conversation Grammar Girl

Andrew Simonet is a choreographer and debut YA writer in Philadelphia. He co-directed Headlong Dance Theater for twenty years and founded Artists U, an incubator for helping artists make sustainable lives. He lives in West Philly with his wife, Elizabeth, and their two sons, Jesse Tiger and Nico Wolf. Andrew is the author of "Wilder."