The Classroom Is Not A Factory

G-g-g-good m-m-m-m-morning. It’s a nice time for a warm fire, a hot cocoa, and some snuggling. It’s freezing out there! No, it’s worse; it’s in the 20s with a wind chill hovering around 10!!. What’s going on? My sprouting amaryliis are wearing mufflers! Yesterday I was traveling the pre-dawn streets bare-chested in shorts bare-chested happlily thinking about planting in my garden. This morning I could barely stand the cold in my long grubbies and am ready to shovel snow. If it wasn’t cold enough, all along this trek through this arctic, I kept thinking about a chilling discussion I was having with a “virtual” colleague throughout this week in response to my use of gold mining as a metaphopr for teaching. At one time, he had written: “Apart from being respectful of our students as people just as a matter ‘of course,’ of trying to carry out our duties with some sense of humor and a perspective that reaches at least a little beyond our discipline and our institution, WHO HAS TIME TO DO MORE?” (his emphasis). As I thought about these words, once again I began hearing a racket inside me. It was a dull, monotonous rythm of strange sounds that kept pace with my steps: boom, bang, hiss, clunk, clang–out comes a student; boom, bang, hiss, clunk, clang–out comes a student; boom, bang, hiss, clunk, clang–out comes a student; boom, bang, hiss….over and over again that maddening cadence. While this cacaphony persisted I began imagining noisy, oily, greasy, smelly vats and cogs and wheels and pistons and presses and conveyor belts of a massive, impersonal factory assembly line mass producing students as if they were tin cans.

“Who has time to do more?” To do what? More than merely going through the motions? More than merely giving a passing wave? More than offering a perfunctory smile? More than uttering a hurried, expected “hello?” And leave it at that? Excuse me, but I think it’s funny that I seldom hear anyone raising that question when it comes to a commitment to bear the demands on time and attention and energy of preparing grant applications, writing conference papers, attending conferences, offering consultancies and workshops, researching and publishing, doing whatever is needed to enlarge a professtional reputation, heighten academic prestige, get a salary increase or a promotion or tenure.

Excuse me, but after reading hordes of student journals quarter after quarter and constantly talking with students, I know we delude ourselves if we really think students–in elementary, middle school, high school or college and universityy–are so naive that they don’t see the difference between sincerity and lip-service, they are so dimwitted that they don’t know the difference between image and reality, they are so inept at distinguishing between rhetoric and practice, they aren’t watching closely to see whether our performance is a bunch of bull or whether it reflects who we really are as people.

This professor went on to say, “Let’s face it: What with the way we’re pressed to do a good job with the limited time we have in our courses, the emotional life of our students can generally only be a distraction and source of inefficiency for us.”

Excuse me? What do too many of us think our job is? Maybe, part of the issue is that too many of us think of the classroom or allow others–”The System” or “The Institution”–to forces us, like submissive hirelings, to treat the classroom as that not-so-serious-I’ve-got-to-put-food-on-the-table job. If not, if we feel truly have our finger on the pulse of students’ need and are in command of our own destiny, why, then, are we surprised when we hear students say, as I recently have heard students, who have contacted me on the interent, say: “survival is to play the damn game”; “must tailor ourselves to the distant professors”; “need to give their egos a wide berth”; “groveling to them–when I see them”; “‘yes, maam’ing’ and ‘yes, sir’ing’ has become almost second nature”; “to complete my schooling has to come before my education”; and “few care and back it up.” Maybe our surprise that so many students don’t believe so many of us teachers care about them supports their indictment. But, what do students know.

Excuse me? Students are a source of “distraction” and “inefficiency?” Well, let me tell you, as I told him, about a “distraction” and “inefficiency” who I think explains that our MISSION as educators is not to move students along an assembly line in a factory-school setting; that our interest in the students should be beyond both the confines of the subject and the classroom; that teaching is not just something to be conveyed, but some emerging one to behold; and that our interest in being in the classroom should be to be with the students. Let me tell you about Lenny (not his real name).

Lenny is in my first year night class that meets only twice a week the student of whom I am having a difficult time, more than usual, connecting with. But, Lenny stood out because of his unusual number of absences during the first half of the quarter. My eagle eye–my “blueberries”–caught the disinterest written all over his smileless face and virtually inert body as he sat aimlessly in the back corner of the room with the two young ladies of his triad . He wasn’t the most enthused and involved person in the class; he didn’t really interact with the other members of his triad; he came into class and never looked at them or talked with them; his journal was never complete; when it came time to get involved in skits or do a shield, he was at best a reluctant partner. I hadn’t talked with him. And to be honest, I felt guilty about that.

A couple of weeks ago, class presentations for a scavenger hunt project dealing with the early 19th century reform movement were due. Lenny meandered into class empty handed. The other members of his triad tried to cover him, but it was obvious he was totally unprepared. Then, one of those unexpected, mysterious, inexplicable events, which always awe me, occurred. The time had come to present a symbol depicting the significance of Dorethea Dix. One of the members of his triad began to rise. He put his hand on her shoulder to stop her. In her place, he rose, struggled would be a better description, and said, “I present myself as an example of her efforts to reform treatment of the insane because I once tried to commit suicide.” The laughing stopped. The noise abated into deep silence. After what seemed like that proverbial eternity, I forced myself to say, “Now let’s see what we’ve come up with for Mary Cady…..” All through class I kept looking at Lenny without trying to be obvious.

After class, I got a hold of him. We sat on the steps, unwrapped a couple of Tootsie Pops, and talked for almost two hours. Some of what we said is branded into my mind and heart.

I started the conversation by telling him that I had noticed how the other members of the triad had been trying to cover for him by giving him scavenger items he should have brought in himself to discuss, but I saw he wasn’t prepared at all. I asked him what was wrong.

“I dunno” was his answer. He took the Tootsie Pop from his mouth. His head bent over in defeat and his eyes became fixed to the floor. I pressed. “I won’t accept that fifth grade answer,” I firmly but I hope compassionately replied. “What’s…going…on?” I slowly and deliberately asked.

“I couldn’t find some of the stuff in the book or think of anything to represent them.”

“Bullshit,” I replied with a quiet disbelief. “Let’s be honest with yourself. Did you try?”

He hesitated. “No, not really.” He was still gazing at the floor.

“Why? You had an entire week to work on this with the others in your triad? Why didn’t you get help from them? From me?”

“I dunno. You and they would have thought like everyone else. I’m just a nobody. Why don’t you just let me fail like everyone does. I’m gonna do it anyway.”

Silent defeat screamed out in his whispered words. The will to go on seemed to have disappeared. An invisible millstone of hopelessness hung around his bowed head. I could hear dark, sapping, upspoken words–”Quit!” “Give up!” “Beaten”–bouncing around in his deflated spirit. I so want to ask him about his attempted suicide and why he had mentioned to everyone in the class at this particular moment. But, something told me not to. And, I didn’t.

But, I did say, “The hell I will. Is that want you really want?”

“No.”

“What’s this all about?” I kept pressing.

“I just know I can’t do it.”

Then I thought I’d try something. “Sounds like academic suicide to me!”

His head bolted up. He looked at me for the first time, pained as if I had just thrust a knife into his heart. A tear ran down his cheek. I hit a nerve. He didn’t say anything, but I sensed an almost desperate, yet a daring, but reluctant, desire to reach out and grab. Well, I reached back to grab his soul.

“I ain’t just going to stand by and watch you slash your wrists. Not in my class. You had the guts to stand up in class and tell everyone about your attempted suicide. You want sympathy from me? You ain’t going to get it. You got the guts to stand up to yourself?

“Well, I failed this project anyway. What’s the use.”

As if I didn’t hear him, I said “This is Wednesday. Monday, when we’re both free, you will come to my office with items symbolizing the importance of ALL (my emphasis) 36 items! I said ALL, not just your twelve! You game?”

He muttered a, “Yeah. I guess.”

“Don’t ‘guess’ me,” I retorted firmly. I grabbed one of his shoulders and gently pressed. “You with me on this.”

“Yes,” he said with what I hoped was a bit of change in his voice. We chatted some more. I patted him on the back, wished him a good night, went to my office, unwrapped a Tootsie Pop, said a silent prayer, and walked home for a much needed hug and kiss from my wife. It was 11:15 p.m.

Monday came. I was saying a silent prayer all morning. The afternoon rolled around and no Lenny. I was disappointed. Then, I got a phone call. It was Lenny. He was running late at his job. Twenty minutes later, he was there toting a large duffle bag over his shoulder! For the next two hours, he pulled out stuff he had either made or scavenged for all over town: a brailled McDonald’s container lid for the Perkins School for the Blind; a packet of “Equal” to symbolize Mary Cady Stanton and the early feminist movement; two toy dolls joined together by a stick to represent gender equality of the Oneida Community founded by Noyes; for the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, broken hand cuffs; for Samuel Slater, “factory” soot; for the temperance leader Charles Finney, a copy of the Prohibition Amendment. With each admiring and encouraging “great”, “that’s good”, “hey”, his smile got larger and larger. After it was all over, he said with a good deal of satisfaction,

“Well, I did it. I showed ya.”

“Showed who?” I asked.

He thought for a moment. “Me?” he asked.

“Well, it wasn’t me. You didn’t show me anything I didn’t know was there already. What did YOU (my emphasis) show YOU?” I asked.

“I guess that I have the ability and when I’m not afraid use it I can…. But, what if I screw up next time.”

“Well?” I answered in the form of a question.

He thought a minute or two. “Get up, figured out why I screwed up like I did this time, do it differently and better?”

I handed him a Tootsie Pop. Now, I can’t tell you what he touchingly wrote in his journal. I can tell you that it was in the form of a letter to himself, and that it brought a tightness to my chest and tears to my eyes. I will tell you that in the last two weeks he has been nothing but smiles. His inner darkness has faded. His eyes have sparkled. His head has been high. He has had a spring to his step. He has been talking with the young ladies in his triad. He has partipated in, and once led, the discussions and games demonstrating that he has learned the material. He was down on the floor, talking, suggesting, drawing–and was the triad presenter–during a symbolization exercise of chapters. Last Monday, at the beginning of class, just as we all closed our eyes for a few seconds to listen to the music and get into spirit of learning, I walked up behind Lenny, placed my two hands on his shoulders, squeezed caringly, learned over and whispered in his ear, “You’ve come a piece.” He smiled, slightly nodded his head, put one hand on mine, and leaned his head back towards me. “Don’t stop caring, ever” he whispered back. I patted his shoulder, gave him an orange Tootsie Pop as everyone around saw me catch my breath, and turned to start class.

Yeah, real distracting and inefficient.

Make it a good day.

–Louis–

Comments are closed.