I put large poster portraits of great men of History and Literature on the walls of my classroom: Ernest Hemingway, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Albert Einstein, William Shakespeare. These men changed the world! Of course, I also have an equal number of great women who changed the world: Maria Sharapanova, Miley Cyrus, Megan Fox, Kim Kardashian. My goal is that someday my old mug will hang on classroom walls or perhaps the walls of a virtual classroom because my vision is to tear down walls and replace our outmoded Education model with a completely new idea, an idea where everyone is a giant in his or her own mind. My posters remind me that revolutionary reform is inevitable and that my efforts to end Education as we know it will triumph!
Usually when I wake up in the morning I sit on the floor and meditate. I will chant, “I am great! I am great! I am great!” for five minutes or until I get bored. Then I go out and be great. After a while I noticed that I was losing my edge so I upped my chant to: “I am the greatest!”, which felt like more pressure but pushed me back into greatness for most of the day. One time I got experimental and chanted: “Kill the system! Kill the system!” because I am a radical revolutionary teacher and feel that innovation often follows rebellion. But on that day I ended up screaming at my third period that the world was a mean horrible place filled with loneliness and heartache, and that they should all drop out and become hobos–then I went to a bar at lunch and didn’t come back, which got me into some trouble. So I stick to my original chant now.
Two Right Feet
I have this girl in my class who doesn’t talk, doesn’t do any of the work, never participates or even bring a book. All she does all day is draw unicorns in her notebook and blink at me. Usually I leave these kids alone. I have no idea what trauma, what horror has left the poor wretch such an empty shell unable to relate to others. Usually its prolonged bullying or some unspeakable physical abuse or a really bad divorce which they internalize for the rest of their miserable lives. But since girls are statistically unlikely to bring a gun and mow us all down I tend not to uncork the genie. But yesterday I said, “Veronica, May I ask you a question? What the heck is wrong with you?” She blinked at me and I said, “You have an opportunity to change your life right now! I don’t know what that man did to you or if he is still doing it to you, but I do know that escaping into a fairyland fantasy of unicorns and butterflies will never make you happy!…Do you want to be happy?” She looked down and continued to add shade to her purple unicorn who was, ironically, breaking through a cloud toward a rainbow. I grabbed her wrist and shook it. “Veronica! You can’t live like this any longer! I’m here to help! Come out, Veronica! Come out of that rainbow-unicorn world and join us in the here and now! We will not let the bad man hurt you, I promise!” The entire class was quiet, stealing looks and few snickers, but Veronica didn’t look up from her drawing (though she did flail her arms spastically and screech a little). I was on my knees, starting to cry. The bell rang and Veronica packed up her supplies and left with the rest of the class.
I learned later that Veronica had been wandering away from her special day class and into my class because she is severely autistic. I guess I need to check my roll more often.
I got a call from a parent who was unhappy about something I said in class. Sometimes kids will take your words out of context or twist them up to make you look like a creep or a monster. This parent thought I had told her son that he should commit suicide because nobody would ever love his ugly face. Which is NOT at all what I said. In fact I told J. that he was bright and sensitive and a good listener who sometimes didn’t hear things the way they were really meant, and that, besides, there is a lid for every pot and that eventually some day he would find the right person. J’s mom insisted that the whole class heard me say it and that she has seen a video recording taken by another student, but I explained that I might have muttered a sarcastic joke, but that nobody listening could think I was sincere: “I make fun of everybody,” I said, “Including myself. I’ve told myself to kill myself many times, but I knew I was kidding so of course I didn’t do it!…Most days I just muddle through…” I guess I was crying a bit, and she hung up on me.
What invigorates me? Wonder. Like last Thursday I found a pool of blood under a desk in my classroom and I wondered: Who lost his (or her) blood? And does he know that he lost it? I dipped my finger in it and wrote my daily agenda on the white board in blood. Then I covered my hands and face with streaks of blood and told the class that I had murdered a student because she had stopped wondering about the world. “I was doing her favor,” I told them. “Once you’ve lost your sense of wonder you are dead.”
Of course I was making a joke in order to make an important point, but I heard later that a Freshman forgot her pad and had an accident, so it really wasn’t the teachable moment I had thought.
Embrace the Ick
We were reading Beowulf and the kids were slumping in their seats. I bellowed and spat the epic poetry with all of the Viking force I could muster, but the lines formed a lot of saliva due to the strong alliteration and the kids scooted their desks to the back of the class and covered their faces with hands and notebooks. I took this as a sign that we needed a break and said: “Instead of reading Beowulf, lets PLAY Beowulf!”
“Beowulf” the game is wildly popular in my class. It’s a version of reverse tag where a single “Grendel” gets a 20-second head-start out the door before the rest of us–“Beowulf’s Army”–hunt him down. Sometimes the hunt for Grendel takes us through several classrooms and restroom stalls and administrative offices (and often on-campus security has become inadvertently caught up in the game), but it is a great way to invigorate a boring lesson. I try not to have other rules, but last week our Grendel ran home, made herself lunch and took a nap for the rest of the day. So now we have a rule about that.
The kids elected me to be “Grendel” so I took off, scaled a gutter pipe and laid down on top of the roof off my own classroom. Then I waited for ten minutes, but weirdly, nobody left the classroom to come search for me. I crawled to the edge of the roof and peered through my own windows. All of my students were just chilling and playing on their phones–they had forgotten about the game!
I whispered to myself: “I am a pointless, ridiculous monster, crouched in the shadows, stinking of men, murdered children, martyred cows….” That is what Grendel would have said.
Then I asked myself: “What would Grendel do if Beowulf’s Army never left the great meeting hall?” Answer: He would wait for darkness and then attack! But since I had no darkness I settled for the element of surprise. The passing bell rang and just as the kids were exiting the classroom I leapt from the rooftop to land in front of them, intending to yell: “I will destroy you Hrothgar!” But sadly I landed awkwardly, rolled an ankle and couldn’t yell–just a whimper: “Pity the miserable wretch, Grendel!” I said, as the kids stepped over me.
Yesterday we entertained numerous friends of K–none of whom are educators– for New Years, and found that we had nothing in common to talk about. Michael S. told several stories about fighting in Vietnam during the late 60’s, how he lost his leg, how he coped with losing said leg and overcame severe depression and other stuff I can’t remember because I tuned out; Stewart R. had just returned from a humanitarian mission in Brazil where he was negotiating the release of child hostages from guerrillas in the jungle and we were all supposed to be riveted by that, but I took the opportunity to retreat to the bathroom with my Iphone and set a new Critter Crunch record. Peter G. told a long boring story about riding a bus with Merry Pranksters and his involvement with Tim O’Leary and Bucky Fuller—whoever they are. I could not contribute anything to these conversations because my life is consumed with solving actual educational problems in the here and now. I tried to interject stories from the school trenches–you know, the fight over homework, the funny spellings on their essays, the theory behind my progressive tardy policy that really has changed the culture in my classes, but people just kind of nodded, took a swig of beer and continued chittering about their own lives. Finally I got drunk, finished off the pie in the fridge (K got angry about that) and pretended to fall asleep in the recliner until they left. Can’t wait to get away from these boobs and back to class!