10 October 2008

Why We Do It

The other day, after running into two disgruntled students, I was wondering if I am doing anything useful as a teacher. Today I remembered what I love about teaching.

This week in my World Literatures class we are reading Abeng by Michelle Cliff. This is a coming of age story of a creole girl in 1950s Jamaica. It has three (at least) story threads running through it: the childhood and sexual awakening of Clare Savage, the protagonist; the story of Clare's plantation owning ancestors on the eve of independance in the mid-1800s; and the fight for freedom by the "maroons," escaped slaves under the leadership of Nanny, an Ashanti woman who escaped slavery in the 1700s.

The thing that is interesting is that I have a primarily white classroom full of very suburban kids. But I also have one African-American male student and one Muslim female student. I sometimes worry that I shouldn't draw attention to differences--the very P.C. thing to do these days is to ignore the differences we have. Politely pretend they don't exist. But that also allows us to ignore the very real problems that arise out of not seeing people as they are, which allows us to later see them as "other." Today I called on the black man in my class and asked him to give us his take on the slavery and racial issues in the text. He hemmed and hawed a bit, then he said "Oh, I just read the books for what they are. It is just literature." So I didn't push him anymore, but one of the themes I have been pushing the class to look for in the texts are the similarities between ourselves and other cultures. So I called on the women in the class to look at the choices the character, Clare, is facing--whether to embrace her mother's black heritage or her father's white culture, live within the middle class life of the paternal family or embrace the rural poverty of her maternal grandmother's culture, accept the docile domestic roles offered to women or choose masculine roles and with that embrace her nascient lesbianism.

The character of Clare is torn between two worlds. She visits the maternal poor black culture in the summer, but can return to the safety net of the middle-class paternal culture at any time. Her black friend Zoe has nothing before her but poverty and the drugery of a life of "woman's" work. Clare will go to college and leave Jamaica, Zoe has no such chance, limited as she is by the color of her skin.

As we are talking about this, suddenly my black student wants to speak. He makes the comment that many of these same students in this class are in his African-American literature class, too. And there they also discuss the issues of race and social class and the disenfranchised vs. the priviledged. But the thing that strikes him is that all the white students can close the book and go home. Maybe they have felt some empathy, but in the end they are the recipients of white priviledge while he will always be judged by the color of his skin no matter what he does.

I see people around the room looking uncomfortably down at their books. I see some nodding in understanding. And I think that, no matter what else we say about this book, nothing will compare to this one young man's courage to say what we all know but rarely acknowledge--that in some way we are all complicit in racism by not only our deeds, but by our lack of doing.

After class he hangs around for a moment and I thank him for speaking, and he thanks me for making him want to talk. Also hanging around is the Muslim woman. She wants to talk about her up-coming paper, she says, and we discuss the options for that. But as we are walking out together she very quietly asks: do I know what she needs to do to become a teacher? Who should she talk to about her major? She thinks, she says, that she'd like to someday teach a class like this, on literature from the non-western world. She wants to do what we do in this class--find and appreciate the similarities between the many different peoples of the earth through the beautiful things--the literature, the art, the music. Because, she says, she can see now how we are all more alike than we ever are different.

And suddenly I am reminded of why I love teaching.

08 October 2008

Perceptions and Realities

You ever run into someone you know doesn't want to see you and you don't really want to see them, but there is no way to avoid it? I had two such (maybe one and a half) run-ins today. First was in a hall of the student center. A girl I had a year ago in a literature class. A kid with problems... shy, had a stutter, couldn't write her way out of a paper bag. Somewhere some high school teacher, or maybe the grad student who taught her composition class must have given her high marks for using "big" words. What she wrote sounded impressive on the surface, but it was a lot of what I call mental masturbation--the "scholarly" voice that tries to sound impressive but really says very little and even that very little would be more impressive if it had been said honestly and straight forward. The kind of voice that calls a housekeeper a "domestic sanitation engineer" or a mail carrier a "publication communique delivery specialist."

Of course my line to students is..."I know there is a horse in there somewhere because I see a whole pile of manure... don't make me get out a shovel to dig for the pony."

So in this class I get this student. Not at all socially "ept," in fact as inept as they come. And she thinks she can write. And I tell her to cut the bullshit out and do the paper over. I remember telling her I thought she had a good idea, I remember praising her effort. I suspect what she remembers is not that I met with her a half dozen times and worked with her to get that paper reasonable enough to earn her a B- in the class. What she remembers is the first F, and the criticism of her language. She thought she was doing so well with words on paper and saying there what she couldn't articulate in voice. And I stuck a big fat pin in that balloon.

And today I see her coming straight at me down the hall at the student center.

I smile, she doesn't. I stop, she wants to keep walking, but I am in her way. I say "Hi" and "how have you been?" She is inarticulate. I see her struggling to say something. I see her scowl and I suddenly know she wants to call me terrible names and tell me what I did to her self image. But she says "fine" from between clenched teeth, and moves around me, moves on. And suddenly I remembered for a moment an English teacher I had in freshman year in college in the seventies.

In a debate in the class (was it a real cockroach or just a metaphorical bug in Kafka's "Metamorphosis"?) he embarrassed me in front of everyone. I said it was a metaphor for something else. He said no. Told me I was wrong and didn't know anything. So I argued with him. He told the class not to listen to me. Or at least that is how I remember it. And suddenly I am wondering... Was he really the mean, obnoxious asshole my memory has painted him all these years. Today he would be in his 70s. Probably retired from teaching. I could probably look him up somewhere on the internet. I could ask him what he really thinks of Kafka. I could lay that ghost to rest--if I could remember his name.

I was so upset back then by what he said to me that I didn't go back to that class for two weeks. Nearly failed because of that little "attendance problem." I suspect even if I found him, told him that after all these years I forgive him for damaging my critical view of myself as a "scholar"--lo, those many years ago--he would not really care, would not really know who I was. I am sure he forgot all about me a semester after I was gone out of his class. If he did remember me at all I am sure I was "that kid with all the unexplained absences."

How funny and how fragile we humans are. What little it takes to hurt. What little it would take to avoid the hurt. Should I not have critiqued this girl's paper? No. That was my job as a teacher. But perhaps I could have been gentler in my delivery of the bad news. Should she not have taken such offense? Probably she couldn't help but take offense. She reacted just as she had to as the product of her own preset self perceptions, reacted just as I did those many, many years ago. And if she looks me up in ten or twenty or thirty-eight years and one semester later, I hope I remember her. I hope I say something nice.

The other, much smaller, encounter wasn't much of an encounter by comparison. It was mere minutes after the first one. It was another girl who had been in one of my classes two years ago. A girl who I failed because she stopped coming to class. I didn't say anything to this girl. I saw her coming, she saw me coming. I prepared to say "hi." She turned abruptly and went out the side door. Avoided me entirely? Or just needed to go that direction? I don't know. But I had to think about it. And here is the thing that made me think: for the life of me I could not remember her name. I just knew her as that kid with all the unexplained absences. Now I am wondering why.

Sometimes perception is everything.