Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Sanctity of the Classroom

The Sanctity of the Classroom
Originally uploaded by Peacebang.
I remember when Chris, a tall, shy, arrogant, pimply blonde high school junior in my creative writing class, submitted obscenity-filled blood-fests in lieu of assignments.

In each case, I told him his work was garbage and insisted that he re-write the paper.

He came to see me after class one day, red in the face and coldy furious. You can't make me rewrite this. This is creative writing class. I'm being creative," he told me, his face seething with adolescent tension and hatred.

I had had a lot of experience at that point with the testosterone poisoning that can come in the teen years, and I knew Chris to be a generally good kid but with some mood swings -- probably exacerbated by his geekiness and shyness. He was most definitely not one of the popular kids, but he did have a buddy, Justin, with whom he spent the class snorting and snuffling around over their superior wit and intelligence. Justin was a "fat kid" in a school full of preppy clones, and genuinely funny. He could be disrespectful and disruptive, but had none of Chris's hostile edge.

I told Chris that he could be creative all he wanted, but within the parameters of the assignment. He was there to learn, I told him, not to just spew his violent fantasies onto the paper and then expect me to take them seriously as academic work. I told him I was disturbed by the content of his paper and that I felt it was a violation of appropriate student-teacher boundaries. Furthermore, he knew it.
I told him to straighten up and fly right or I'd send this paper home and see what his parents had to say about his"creative" writing.

Chris muttered some inarticulate complaint under his breath, grabbed his paper from my hand and left. He resubmitted a new paper the next day. He was, above all, a competitive student and his desire to get into a good college overrode his need to rebel against the tyrannies of Miss W.

If my memory is correct, we went back and forth with this nonsense a few times before he finally decided to behave himself and take the assignments seriously.

This was before Columbine. It never occurred to me that this kid would ever harm anybody; that sort of thing was beyond our teacherly imagination in 1990. I had gone to suburban Minnesota from Proviso East High School in Maywood, Illinois -- a school that was truly dangerous and where violence was a daily fact of life. I was concerned for Chris, but I trusted that he'd outgrow whatever demons were plaguing him.

English teachers are privy to some of our student's deepest wishes and most secret fears. I still treasure some of the confidences shared with me by my students. I remember M., who was in love with her step-brother and who included that plot detail in a marvelous short story she wrote for my class. When I called her in after class to ask her if her story was based in truth, she dissolved in tears. She was a painfully lovely young lady and I loved her. I still think of her.
I remember J., whose parents were so caught up in their careers they almost never saw their daughter, who mourned their neglect terribly and begged for their time. I remember B., who "thought" she might have been raped at a school party one weekend but who refused to report her assailant, also one of my students. I could get her to say no more. She never sought counseling or reported it.
I remember T., who was gay and felt he couldn't tell anyone. I hope T. has come out by now, and that he's happy.
I remember J., who had been beaten so badly as a child that his back was a mess of raised scars. After I saw his back and heard the stories of his childhood, I understood why reading and writing -- and even speaking -- was so hard for him. I think of him often, too.
I remember N. -- so sweet, so ambitious, who came to school early to run track and whose breath was so bad from malnutrition that her track coach brought her breakfast every day. It may have been her only meal.

I remember T. and S., handsome twins whose parents so badly wanted them to get out of Bellwood that they hired me to tutor them. They were absolute gentlemen even in their teens. I wish them well.

I remember so many of them.

I remember the classroom as a sacred place. I was blessed to be there with them.

Our classrooms should be sanctuaries. If it takes total gun control to assure that this can be the case, then I'm for total gun control.

Whatever it takes.


Blogger tinythinker said...

Thanks for that. I think in the minds of many the classroom has become a store where students are considered consumers, especially at the college level.

Blogger Ruth said...

Thank you. Very well put; I'd never thought of a classroom as sacred space before, and it fits so perfectly.

Blogger Comrade Kevin said...

Few teachers, unfortunately, see their students as human beings. It's easy to see them as mere numbers. I never had any sort of feedback in high school--no teacher who pulled me aside and mentioned any of these things to me. When I was depressed, their own response was a sense of detached perplexment of what to do.

Regarding gun control, I'm deeply ambivalent on the issue. There are societal issues at the forefront which have contributed to our ultra-violent society, but then again, our society has always had an undercurrent of violence beneath it. Gun control is a band-aid that does not address the larger issues at stake--the anger and alienation of so many young people, particularly in their late teens.

Blogger Earthbound Spirit said...

I don't think I've ever commented, but I read often - and appreciate what you say. I've tagged you with the Thinking Blog meme, you make me think so much.

Blogger Mrs. M said...

This is really beautiful. Thank you, PB.

Blogger Brian said...

As a professor who feels in the classroom both the sacred space aspect and the fear of "will it be my death to give an F to this student" aspect (every professor I know has felt this at some point), your piece was much appreciated.

With one small exception ...

As per your later blog, Imus and Baldwin were over the line. But is a phrase like "testerone poisoning" which you used in this blog really that much better? Why is it that even in places which put the most emphasis on mutual respect and tolerance for other people broad-brushed, stereotyped male bashing are still condoned (as per NPR, my UU pulpit and this example in this blog amongst recent examples).

To take something that is an inherent part of one's gender identity (such as testosterone) and turn it into a put down is over the line. "Testosterone poisoning" is really exactly parallel to the 19th century term "hysterical" being derived from the Greek word for uterus and applied only to women which is now rightly considered highly incorrect.

Its important to acknowledge some facts. Teenage males are often moody, quick to extreme emotions, difficult etc. However, there is great variation between people in the biological degree and the maturity level in coping with this. And, but wait - teenage females are equally moody, quick to extreme emotions, dificult etc the last time I checked so why is ths gendered?

A more difficult issue is that there is no denying that statistically teenage males (and all age males) are more violent. I don't recall any school shootings by girls, and wild car accidents, homicides etc all tell the same story. But they are statistical averages. I'm a male who has never done any of those things. I don't have any male friends who have ever done any of those things (or many associated lesser things). Meanwhile, the rate of violence among girls and women is definitely on the rise - it may be another century before we can really separate nature vs nurture on this one, but I'm willing to stipulate some of this is hormones. That said, its not like the female half of the race (to the extent it is even OK to deal in sweeping labels for half of the human race) don't have serious shortcomings too. For example there is beginning to be more talk (and books) about just how cliqueish and nasty teenage girls can be to each other. Grown women break down crying when they start remembering about these experiences. Homicide is huge but rare; day-in-day-out meanness to fellow human beings is quite ugly and far more common. I don't even want to go further on this line since I don't agree with this mode of thinking - there are some vague generalities about genders that are true in a statistical "on average" sense, but they aren't really appropriate to talk about in such glib, all encompassing fashions as a point scoring phrase like "testosterone poisoning"

Hope this doesn't come over as a rant and I've gotten long-winded, but I am really wondering when the dialogue will start on why such slams are considered acceptable in our liberal intellectual culture if they go one way and completely inappropriate if they go the other?


Anonymous Brian2 said...

I have to agree with Brian. Your use of the phrase "testosterone poisoning" is a slam at the whole male sex. It's use implies you hate men for being men. Were I to use the phrase "estrogen poisoning" in the presence of my colleagues or students at the university where I teach, I would be immediately accused of sexism, and probably be hauled up before a kangaroo court of "professional misconduct." As a parent of a son, I've raised hell when a teacher showed an attitude like yours. Be careful someone doesn't pull your teaching certificate - you might deserve it.


Post a Comment

<< Home