Sometimes an unclean spirit finds its way into the classroom and the students refuse to speak. It seems education has become hateful to them. There they sit, locked in their resolve to remain locked in their resolve.
They don’t seem to realize that you, good teacher, are somebody’s baby, and the love of someone’s life, and a child’s hero: specifically Batman, and Wolverine, and not Aquaman ever.
You’re a wonderful teacher. They called you a rising star at your grad-school. And you are. You glow with the warmth and power of a main sequence star with low mass, capable of bringing warmth and the light of knowledge to billions. You’re still decades from becoming a red giant star, red and giant from the medicinal booze; and many decades from having your supernova burnout event, after which, you become a black hole, a bottomless pit (your bottom long gone after so many years of sitting behind that big desk with the gravitational weight of worlds on your shoulders) a tenured, black hole, whose negative-charisma is so powerful, you can bend space-time, making 50 minutes feel like eternity without parole.
Again, you are a young star, rising, in the summer of life, or maybe late summer, yet still, the students are not responding today. Their desire to better themselves has turned to mush. They are avocadoes rotting in the same brown bag, each one daring its neighbors into greater states of moral decay.
You try all your tricks. You have two:
- You put them in groups, then different groups, then different groups.
- You throw mini candy bars at students who raise their hands.
But the group work isn’t working. You’ve formed and reformed the groups so many times the students have lost the ability to tell the difference between each other, so when you say, “Okay, time for a new group,” they don’t move. They believe they already are in a new group.
And the mini candy bars you brought to throw have been in your pocket, stewing. The students know this and refuse to raise their hands. They don’t want to become the target of little plastic diapers loaded with liquid nougat.
My Great Idea
Once, after trying everything and still losing the class, I received a wonderful idea from God, the kind of idea they make movies about.
See the young, hot teacher sent to a rough neighborhood. No one can reach these kids. But then the teacher tries something no one would ever dare to try, something that would break most teachers, something they use at teacher-training academies all over the nation as an example of what you should never, ever try…
But it works, and you become a legend. The American government calls you and says, “We need these inspirational, unifying tactics of yours to help us with our government. It’s a mess up in here.” So, you go to wherever the government meets (the White House?) and work your magic, and your magic works. Therefore, they attempt to make you the king of the government, and you reluctantly do it.
A wall had formed between me and my students, and something needed to break it down. I couldn’t use extra kindness or the class would transform into reptiles and eat me alive; and I couldn’t use sternness, because I cannot be stern. I simply don’t have the control. I go from Mr. Softy to a level-11 lunatic, my voice changing without any transition from gracious to The Exorcist, and then I throw kids out of the classroom like they’re packing peanuts around a nuclear device I’m dying to get my hands on.
So, instead, I decided to go with the idea that fell into my head straight out of heaven.
It tried it on an English 101 class.
ME: Okay, guys, here’s what I want you to do: go up and down the rows and insult me. Really let me have it. Swear if you like, any swear you can think of. Drop F-bombs, A-holes, D-heads, S-for-brains, whatever you want. Give me some creative combos too. Fire curses my way that no one’s ever heard before. Ready?
The students stared at me.
They didn’t understand how poison works, that when you’re full of it, the poison needs to come out, and sometimes it takes a hero to help you do it.
I had to explain what I wanted several times in a row before it sunk in, but once it did sink in, the room filled with the energy a person must feel right before they get struck by lightning. Your hair stands on end. The world goes deathly quiet. The ground at your feet feels like it’s lifting you, as if the earth is holding you up like Rafiki holding up Simba, if Rafiki was holding up Simba to make him the highest point, and this was a public execution of a child by thunderstorm.
They started tame:
STUDENT ONE: You’re not nice.
STUDENT TWO: Damn you.
STUDENT THREE: Damn you to hell?
The whole class giggled after each one. By the time we got to the end, twenty or so students later, the guardian angels watching over the room had thrown up in their mouths, and I had been accused of intercourse with my mother more times than is humanly possible.
Did my method work?
Yes it did.
When it was over, students had tears of joy in their eyes. The popular kids had fellowshipped with the losers, and the snobs had come down to earth, muddied themselves with the groundlings and had come away human. We all did. And the semester was saved. Every time the students began slipping from sentience to reptilian stupors, they woke themselves up with a reference to my unique relationship with my mother.
Because my plan went so well, I could hardly wait for next semester. I hoped for a bad class, the worst, so I could work my miracle.
And I got a bad class. Tombstone bad. Mad-Max. Children of the Corn. They not only disliked me, but each other, and themselves, and higher education, and the Lord. My school had given me the rebels. Word must have gotten around.
THE DEAN: Shouldn’t these students be sent straight to prison?
COLLEGE PRESIDENT: Not yet. Send them to him.
THE DEAN: But he’s too good.
COLLEGE PRESIDENT: Why is that a problem?
THE DEAN: I don’t know. I just had to say it.
COLLEGE PRESIDENT: It deserves to be said.
I delivered my miracle cure on a Friday, the fourth week of class. I had already lost them. A chill simmered my marrow as I imagined how bad it would be teaching these demons for another eleven weeks if I didn’t have my method.
I walked around to the front of the big desk and sat on it, a power-move reserved for the greatest teachers.
ME: Okay, guys, what I want you to do is this: go up and down the rows and insult me. Really let me have it…
I described the idea, the concept of combination swears, and, like the first time, I encouraged them to hold nothing back.
The interesting thing about this new group was, I didn’t have to explain my idea more than once. They understood immediately. No questions. They were ready. A few of them were even scribbling furiously in their notebooks, which I tried to feel good about.
After I finished explaining, my twenty-two students stared at me, smiling. The smiles were close-lipped and tight, the way a smile would have to be if your mouth was loaded with something foul you were saving to spew on a lovely, innocent child of God. Their eyes were steady, dark as double-barrels. It would have been nice if one of them had had the decency to blink. But the decency was something they were born without.
STUDENT ONE: You’re often late to class, and you aren’t funny.
The class laughed. They thought that was funny. And many heads nodded. Too many. All the heads.
That’s when I began to wonder if this was going to be a different experience from the first time.
STUDENT TWO: I don’t think you’re smart enough to be a college teacher.
That’s when I knew for certain this was going to be a different experience.
Only twenty students left go to.
Not a single one of them said anything about me and my mother, though I prayed someone would. Instead, they all hit me with the truth. And these students revealed themselves to be observers at the level of philosophers and poets. They dug up every last bit of hidden insecurity-treasure that I possessed, and then they peppered my face with it.
Speaking of my face, it has a tendency to go red. It went red. I begged it not to, but faces are fools:
FACE: But I have to go red. You’re being tortured, aren’t you? That’s what Mr. Heart and Mr. Guts say. They say now is the time for red.
ME: But what about Mr. Brain? He’s telling you to stop. He’s begging you.
FACE: Mr. Heart says Mr. Brain’s just noise, and I shouldn’t listen.
ME: Look, my face can’t go red. Don’t you get it? The students will see, then they’ll know they’re killing me.
FACE: What is students?
Having lost that battle, I begged my eyes to grow a pair and not cry: Please, you guys, you have to stay dry. Remember, if I die, you die.
But they didn’t listen. Eyes are even dumber than faces.
ME: Guys, don’t listen to Face or Heart or Guts, okay? You can’t cry.
RIGHT EYE: You talkin’ to me?
LEFT EYE: No.
RIGHT: Then who said that?
LEFT: No one. It’s just us. You feel like crying?
I didn’t weep, and I do thank God for that. Crying in front of your students when they’re trying to make you cry is exactly as devastating as wetting your pants when they’re trying to make you wet your pants. Teachers live by two rules. One: never let them see you cry. Two: always wear dark pants.
But my dumb eyes wet the pants of my face, which is to say they produced a crescent of dew reclining in the hammocks of my lower lids.
You would think this might squeeze a drop of mercy out of the stony-souled youths, but it did not. From student one to student twenty-two, they let fly the meanest truest things they could think of. The only mercy was when a student said, “Someone already said mine,” but that mercy was quickly undone by, “I have another one though!”
And another one, and another. Take this one, too. And take that!
You have to give it to me, though. I sat on that desk, refusing to move, and I continued calling on the eager students, students who were raising their hands for the first time in their academic careers, and analyzing data (my data) with the proficiency of psychiatrists, and respectfully listening to one another with the attention of newly converted saints who hang on the words of their prophet, all this while I hung at the front of the room, martyred in the name of education.
Though that class tore me a new one, and that new one wept when I got home, and also ate an incredible amount of pizza and ice cream, I was comforted by the fact that one day, ages and ages hence, after tenure and my burnout, I would have the honor of teaching a child or a grandchild of one of those merciless students who hurt me because I told them to. I would hazily remember a last name, faintly recall an accurate insult, and then cause time to slow down, to stop, and I would teach that kid parenthetical citations until Judgment Day.