I have a lot of homeless kids in my class. Sometimes I give them the tomatoes from my sandwich or spray them with cologne so that the other kids won’t tease them for smelling like garbage. Yesterday, Jenny who is eighteen, pregnant and lives by the river with her starving pitbull got accepted to Stanford because she made a documentary about her terrible life using a camera she found in the bushes. “Let this be a lesson to you,” I told the rest of my classes. “If you fall down and can’t get up, film it. Somebody might rescue you.”
Sometimes you see a student struggling and you dedicate your entire life to helping him or her. Vlad P never said a word in my class or completed any work. I demanded a series of expensive psychological tests from the district as I suspected that he might be a candidate for the short bus, as we like to say. But alas the wheels of righteousness turn slowly in Education and Vlad lingered in my class for three months before he got his FMRI at the University hospital. Turns out he wasn’t retarded at all, but had immigrated from the Ukraine and didn’t understand English. The Psyche team joked that they’d like to scan MY brain, but I told them that I was 100% American!
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.
On Friday all of my third period Freshmen students dressed up as their favorite hero–from history, movies, books, sports–whomever they admired–and then we challenged each other to fights to see who was the greatest hero. So I was Odysseus and also the referee and I would make sure that the battles were realistic and that everyone stayed true to character. For example, when Albert Einstein fought Kobe Bryant I would tell Kobe that he could dunk on Albert Einstein or perhaps rape him, but that Einstein could actually nuke Kobe Bryant’s family. Then they would mime the battle in super slow motion (while my computer played the battle track from A New Hope) to give it that epic feeling. The kids loved it! And of course they learned that sometimes being a great scientist is cooler than being a superstar athlete–not a message they hear often in our culture.
Some battles were made in heaven. Todd S. came as his own great-grandfather who had survived Aushwitz and the death march, while Connor (who is a bit autistic and never participates in anything) slicked back his hair, glued on a mustache and came as his favorite military hero, Adolf Hitler. I allowed Hitler to beat, shoot and gas Mr. S while Mr. S could only writhe in pain and, with his last breaths, thumb his nose at Hitler, who would grow more and more frustrated. Finally, he shot himself in the head and Connor took a full minute to die, which was super funny. And of course the lesson here was that Courage always trumps Evil!
Many heroes challenged me, The Man Who is Never at a Loss, the Great Odysseus, and each time I smote them with my sword or battle ax. My favorite moment was decapitating Peyton Manning after he hurled (imaginary) footballs at my head. But then things got dicey when Hana, dressed as the Muslim prophet Muhammad, issued a fatwa on me and my descendants. Of course I easily took her out with an arrow between the eyes, but then the entire class–acting as her followers–captured me, cut my throat and paraded my corpse around the room. After that things got a little out of control and a full scale slow motion riot broke out. Fortunately the bell rang a few minutes later.
You can’t satisfy everyone all the time. Some people are happier when they have something to complain about, and as a a teacher I need to recognize when a student prefers to be unhappy so that I can be a source of unhappiness to them. For example, I have a Chinese student who does superior work, writes clearly, beautifully–all that–but she refuses to accept a compliment because within the Chinese culture it is considered improper to accept compliments or feel good about yourself in any way. If I tell her, W., you did a good job, she will shake her head and brush me off and say: “No. I no do good job, Mr Newhart. I do bad job!” Then I say: “Okay. You do bad job.” And then she smiles. It’s as if the Chinese are only happy when they are fucking things up, which frankly sounds a little evil to me, but also may explain why Americans hate and fear China. Anyway, I failed W on the final report card even though she deserved an “A” because I thought that would make her happy, but just the opposite happened. She cried and said: “Mr. Newhart. I work hard in this class and make “A”s on all my tests and essays and why you give me a bad grade?” I said: “W., you are a bad student! You do bad work! You are lazy and untalented!” These are the things that she had always said about herself and I was certain that she wanted to hear me say them back to her. Instead she cried many tears and said: “I have shamed my family,” and walked out. She has not been back to school since the end of term. Teachers need to respect student choices. Not everyone wants to go to college or be a success. I imagine that for W. dropping out of high school was, for her and her people, a great accomplishment. We don’t have to understand it, but we should respect it.
T challenged me to Trivia Crack, which is an Internet game that you play on your phone. I am not a trivia wizard because I find trivia trivial and prefer to read deep and challenging texts that feed my soul. Trivia is for people who know a lot in their head, but not in their heart. If you are good at trivia you probably have autism or at least are on the spectrum, as they say. Anyway, this particular child was in need of a boost of self-confidence after I had ripped her essay to pieces (literally, I ripped her essay to pieces as a joke in front of the whole class because I thought she had another copy and I was feeling dramatic: “This is HORRIBLE!” I yelled and ripped it into thin strips)…Anyway, the next day she challenged me to a Trivia Crack duel in front of the class and I reluctantly accepted. Mistake. T is an encyclopedia of useless information. I, on the other hand, have purged dates and names of things from mind in order to make room for wisdom. She trounced me three times in a row–the class enjoyed this–until I pretended that my phone went dead. I gave her a polite golf clap and gentle smirk, wishing her good luck in finding a career that values memorizing random facts.
I have a student teacher this semester. She is very beautiful, which tends to distract the kids, specifically the freshman boys. I spoke to her yesterday and warned her that she needed to present herself as the teacher-adult and that this might mean making herself less attractive or even a little dumpy. English teacher women are supposed to be a little dumpy, a little crazy, a little married to their jobs and I told her that she doesn’t want to give the impression that she has a life outside of teaching. I recommended that she gain a little weight, get a moo-moo or house dress and trade out her contacts for wire-rimmed glasses.
Bimberly (not her real name) wasn’t that happy with me and she didn’t want to take my advice. She said she wanted to look professional and that she felt it was completely unnecessary to dump herself down. I said that “professional” means “appropriate” and you can’t be hot AND appropriate in a high school setting. The exception would be men who are not expected to mother the kids. Men can look good and still appear professional. Look at me, I said. I stay fit, get monthly manicures, wear collared shirts–though I always button that top button!
She did not seem convinced. Or happy about hearing the truth. Bimberly, I can tell, is going to have to learn things the hard way. But that’s okay because school is for learning. She can do it the easy way or she can do it the hard way. The choice is hers.