teach

Posted: January 1, 2011 in teach
Tags: , , , , ,

 “No Lennie. I ain’t mad. I never been mad, an’ I ain’t now.” I read the line slowly and looked up at the the class, some students with their eyes in their books, some just watching me, all of us entranced.

“Why isn’t George mad at Lennie?” I asked. We were reading Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, the novel I had picked out for my eleventh grade American Literature students.

I knew the answer, of course, on several different levels, school and home, and so did most of my students in this minority isolated high school with the worst scores in the San Diego School District. They got Lennie, and loved him like George did, and when we read on, and reached the part where George shot Lennie to protect him from the people who didn’t understand mistakes by the people whose brains didn’t work quite right – they got it.

It was personal, in the room, in that moment, for some of them, and for me too. To teach is to “get it,” and help others do that too, print and the real world that fuels it.

Then there is my daughter Rosalind. How many times have I not been mad at her when she has ”done a “bad’ thing,” because I understood that she didn’t understand, and couldn’t have done any better. And sometimes I have been mad, and shouldn’t have been, at her, but should have that the world has turned out like this. I don’t get it, and yet, we cope, in my house, a dropped glass, shattered on the floor – ”Hey, it’s just a glass. Here, I’ll help you clean it up.” 

What are teachers? They are people who get it, and help, but sometimes they pretend  not to. Teachers are people who ask questions that they already know the answers to.  And the longer they know the answer, and practice it, perhaps the better a teacher they are.

It’s interesting. Why did I pick Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men for my students? Why did I pick any of the novels, short stories, poems or essays I chose to teach to my students? I’m not completely sure.  Respect for the literary canon, a choice from within what was available and approved teaching at this level, what I thought my learning-challenged students could handle, what made my heart pound and my eyes water? Print that gets at the core of the core. That’s more it.  The longer I have taught the more I have wanted to get at the thing within the thing, the profound universal in the everyday particular. I love the ”I ain’t mad. I never been mad, an’ I ain’t now.” I’m not mad, about disability, mostly.

I look in the rear view mirror. We are driving home from the movie. In the back seat, I can see Steve’s huge smiling face, grinning crazily, and he is signing to me. Now he is pounding on my shoulder and yelling “Ma, ma, ma, ma!” I smile and nod. I don’t have a clue what he is trying to tell me. Rosalind interprets. “His mom will drive us to bowling tomorrow morning.” Right. Good, it’s all good. I know. I know. I know, know and know. As a teacher, I must always know, and also know how to know.

Learning to teach did not come easily to me. It was painful because of my reserved personality. I think that if I had possessed $20 at when I was doing my student teaching, or had a knack for stealing or was good at quitting, I would never have become a teacher. The other day I watched a mom in a medical center waiting room trying to control her three small boys. They had ruined her body; now they were ruining her mind. It was an endless parade of her saying, “Stop it!” and “No more!” as they beat each other with magazines and lay in down on the floor in front of  patients who were trying to get to the nurse when their name was called. I wondered if she didn’t think, “If I wasn’t so far in …” This is how I felt my first few years of teaching.

My first student teaching role at Southwest Junior High was a nightmare and every school day a stomach ache, and not very good for the students either. I was a flagging instructor there. My master teacher, who was a committed authoritarian, very old school with discipline, instructed me right off to take authority over the class. I didn’t, because I didn’t know how, and because I didn’t feel like abusing young children. Of course she was right, in a way, “Take charge,” but I wasn’t good with it at the time. I wanted my students to want to learn, not to be made to learn. I suppose one might argue for both, but I know the want-to-learn is best. I love Kipling’s “insatiably curious” little elephant. He is like me; he is my literary brother. And so I let my first students be, and I got my trunk pulled hard for this, but I discovered my own preference for how to control a class. I don’t like to play the authoritarian in the classroom, although I have at times, and it seems clear to me now that to have authority over a class, it helps immensely to actually be an authority over your subject.

A few years ago, I took a dance class with my wife. It was interesting to be the student, not the teacher. Taking dance is the kind of thing you do in order not to have it said, henceforth, to other women by your wife, “He wouldn’t.”  My wife and I danced the tango, some swing, a bit of salsa and some waltz. These dances are magical and fine – and we danced them with a hint of schmaltz and a touch of fire. Dancing is good — if you can dance, and even if you can’t, at a wedding with wine, for fun – “one song … okay, one more.”

The best thing about taking dance is after the class, when you leave and brag shamelessly that you are learning to dance. People are impressed, and they think that you are above them. Many people aren’t brave enough to take dance, although they have always thought that they should. They probably shouldn’t.

Truth be told, we lied; we didn’t dance. We made movements with our feet and hands, in a variety of directions, with another person facing us, who was also making movements, but ones unlike our own, and there was music playing that had absolutely nothing to do with the movements either of us were making.

It wasn’t the teacher’s fault. She was a good teacher, and dancer. Really, all it takes to be a teacher is to be slightly superior to someone else and to have the audacity to tell them so. But she was way above us. For a number of years, I taught people to read literature, and to write about it.  I was paid decently for this, but I didn’t earn my keep. Teaching people to write is like teaching people to dance — it works best if you are terminally chipper, given to low standards and have the gift of charity.  

On one particularly beautiful evening in dance class, my partner and I got it right  –  we stepped back, and to the side, forward, and to the side again, together, in perfect synchrony, and for a brief moment we were the dance and the music. We rose and descended as one and waltzed beautifully.

 And then there were other moments, such as during the hip swing of the salsa, when the teacher stopped us all, paused the music, and grew reflective and faintly sad, and went over the steps, gently, hopefully and we tried again. I admired her greatly.

To teach is to repeat something, gently, or not.  I have taught college students word-processing in a computer lab and by doing that, I learned this:  Anything you inadequately explained to the group, you will re-explain to each individual student, one at a frustrating time. Tough lesson.  Not getting this right will wear you out.  At the core of good teaching is getting people’s attention, telling them precisely what they need know, and then saying it again, and again, and again.  And then after you do, someone else will need to tell them again, leaning over the desk and saying, “Press control ‘P’.” “What did he say?” “Control ‘P’.” Repetition is the bitchy mother of good learning.”

When my daughter Rosalind was two we started on the flash cards. And we made Sesame Street a habit. She made good progress – “dog, cat, lion.” We played school. I loved teaching her. I read, read, read to her, “Little Chick,” over and over. Good times! I was a teacher, my wife worked in a library. We loved a campus, a book shelf, a pile of books head high, but something happened, and we had to learn to not make that the standard by which we measured value. One day, when Rosalind was one and one-half, she stopped breathing, turned blue, and started convulsing.  She is 25 now. I haven’t yet fully recovered from that shocking moment. You don’t get over such things; you just take shelter, and comfort where you can. The paramedics came, we went to the hospital. The needle in her baby spine was a hard moment. You spend your life protecting your baby, and then you hold her so someone can hurt her. It doesn’t feel right.

The diagnoses came in turn and over the next few years, “febrile convulsions,” “epilepsy,” “brain damage.” The verdict on how to play school was finally given by a neuro-psychologist after extensive testing, “Retardation.”  And with the labels came the drugs, phenobarbitol,  topamax,  depakote – a sluggish life, lots of naps. I hated it, I still do, but I learned to be okay, kind of, with it.

We kept playing school, but I switched subjects, from reading literature to watching movies, from learning to write to helping her learn not to compare herself with her intellectually capable sister. We’ve studied really hard on, “I’ll never stop loving you.” We were told one time, “She will take her cues from you on what to think about herself. How you feel about this, will probably have a lot to do with how she feels about it.”  We all teach, by how we react.

The things that happen to you in life can make you into a teacher of things you never have wanted to know about. Get cancer; you learn, and teach. My wife has become an outstanding surrogate parent, signing IEP’s for students with learning help and no parents. We find ourselves teaching other parents of students’ with disabilities stuff that we have learned, “If you request that the school psychologist test your child, legally they will have to do that.”

You learn to get by, and help others a little. In my dance class, we had various options by which we could earn our grade. At one point we were told that we could dance in a class contest, organized by our teacher, or we could give an oral presentation on dancing. No one in the class took the oral presentation – except me. I dance best with my mouth.

I stood in front of the class and said things like, “Dance can bring people together,” and “George Bush should dance with Hillary Clinton.“ And I got rude, and said that “the dance floor is the one place in the world where a man should treat a woman as a shopping cart — and push her around.” I went on to say that “life is often awkward before it is graceful,” and “that those who do not risk being awkward will never enjoy being graceful.”It was a hit, and they all clapped, and I felt like a teacher, as I do when my pedagogical attempts go well, but not like a dancer.

When you know and are able to put that out there, people listen, sometimes. And when you know passionately, students really tend to listen. And when you know through experience, and you launch into a relevant narrative, without any transition, the students sit forward then and their eyes glow, and they enter and learn. I watch them now more closely when I teach, for the glow, and I pay very careful attention to their limited attention spans. I try to work them subtly, by means of hidden elements, highly selective content, careful sequencing, a bit of timing and a forward-tending pace.

Lately, I have grown hyper-attentive, texting while watching a movie while writing on my blog while checking my Facebook page while responding to an email on my phone while having a conversation with my wife — bouncing from thing to thing like a young, hyperactive, ADD,  post-modern technophile. And when I teach and write, somewhat the same. I watch carefully over my people, those who have chosen to sit at my feet, as they listen to my jumbled narratives, and then I pull up at the end and become sane again and fall into a more steadied focus. The trick is to somehow bring the story stands together in a final, fatal noose. I story them, and when the stories work, I hang them. They think that I there to  entertain them, but I am not. I am there to kill, to skewer their minds with plot truth and per chance a bon mot, if I can think of it, at the end, nicely placed, and not much more. I’d rather tell a story any day than make one hundred nicely turned explanations. Stories tell — all. Want to be effective as a teacher? Tell stories and then let them be. This is teaching.

But of course it is more than that; for teaching is an art, and a difficult art to master at that. I confess, I am still a humble student. All teachers are student teachers, and students or not, we all teach. We teach by what we do. For instance, we might instruct our children about material things – cars, clothes, food, TV’s — but what we buy and how we buy it, this is more persuasive than what we say. They are watching us, and learning, all the time — scary! Move your hand toward your wallet, you are teaching.

When I was a pastor at my former church I taught about every other week. It was too infrequent, and I couldn’t get up to speed because of it.  It was pedal and then coast when I wanted to be flat-out pedaling hard all the time, right up and over the hill, fast like a crazed, amped up, maniacal biker. Teaching isn’t a single lesson or an isolated lesson but an ongoing climb that coaches an ongoing development and skill, up and over the crest. But it didn’t matter so much at that church, because the group wasn’t moving, toward anything really. It was a good-sized crowd, but shrinking, because something was all wrong, especially toward the end. It was like we were  trying to walk through glue, a river of thick ropy glue that ran deep, right up to our chests. We moved, as if in slow motion, in different directions, going to different places. We lacked a unified focus, and passion and something else –guts, to apply what was being taught, sometimes. I hate teaching when it comes to nothing.

Once, while teaching a writing class at the community college, I got fed up with a class of adult students, who were quite simply, lazy and unmotivated. I said my piece, which was something like, “If you don’t do the work, you won’t get the grade. Prepare to be failed.” They didn’t, prepare, and I ended the semester glad to see them go their ways with their lousy grades and unimproved writing skills. The group chemistry was bad, and it didn’t get good. All teachers have experienced this kind of group failure.  Learning is a dynamic, subtle relationship between the teacher and the subject and the students, all elements mixing in the glass and coming together in a powerful and delicious mixed concoction that brightens up the eyes and makes for fun talk —  nonstop, everyone happy-drunk on knowledge.

I confess; I’ve been drunk, on words, for most of my life.  I’m addicted — to print. I get the shakes when I don’t read. And when I do, read — quickly seduced, on the spot, by language. Truth gets me in a corner and victimizes me, regularly. It’s abusive. Ideas get their arms around me and lick my ear and kiss my mouth hard and stroke my head and I’m undone, a gone little girl, and Dean is muttering crazily in my ear and we are going on down the ideological road together in his old car again with the radio blasting — cool-word jazz.

When the girls were little we read them “Mrs. Nelson is Missing” by Harry Allard. It’s classic children’s storytelling and is taught now in children’s lit classes at universities.  Mrs. Nelson is a sweet teacher; her class is bad. She tries to teach them, but they won’t listen. As all good teachers know, when it doesn’t work, you  must find a new approach. So she does; she goes missing, and the sub, Miss Viola Swamp, really Mrs. Nelson in disguise, comes to class with an iron fist and lots of rules. It’s interesting. What role does fear play in education? In this story, written with a deadpan flair, the children shape up under a strict reign, and want Mrs. Nelson back. And so she comes back, to a class completely changed, good now, for her.

This is what matters in the end, students, changed.Teaching is about truth that transforms. I love knowledge, but not simply for its own sake. I’ve been there, under that spell, seduced by beautiful ideas, beautifully put. Enlightened thinkers triumph it, truth for truth’s sake, but I want more. I want truth for people’s sake. If I teach in a writing class, how to use a semicolon,  it is so that students will use  a semicolon to nail together two independent clauses full of shared meaning, the next time they write. Semicolons must be put to work; good punctuation speaks, as loudly and eloquently as any words. A punctuation mark, nicely placed, is an eloquent statement of truth.

And If punctuation matters, then what about life.

A few days before Christmas this year, some friends and I drove a pick up truck full of gifts to a family in our church, carried all the bright packages into the house, with all the kids excited and helping. We piled them under the tree and then ate pizza together and talked about stuff. Gilbert, one of the little ones, kept grabbing  presents from under the tree, and heading for the back bedroom. I sat on the couch with Robert, Gilbert’s dad, and we talked. Last year, at this time, Robert was drunk off-and-on and the kids didn’t run from the tree with gifts, and no one danced or moved in time with anyone else in this house. “I was like a robot,” he said, “I kept running into the wall, and getting up and doing it again.” He paused, “I didn’t get it, but it’s so different now.”

 Changed.

This last year, it has been my honor to have been able to continue to teach. Robert has been, by his choice, one of my students. I told him af few days ago, on Christmas Eve,  just after the service at the church. “I have no one like you. More than anyone I know right now, you have changed.” Like a father to his son, standing in front of him, I said, “I’m so proud of you, Robert.”

We hugged.  I said, “I love you man.”

He said, “I love you too.”

He didn’t used to say that very much. Gangsters don’t, but apparently, they can learn to.

Teach.

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