Sunday, April 26, 2009

Unexpected Stars

Education is undoubtedly changing: the texts we read, the assignments we assign, the demands of the children, the demands of the parents and the ever changing societal landscape that calls forth new skills from these burgeoning citizens. Change is a constant - a simple known, but change can happen in mediums we may never have seen coming. These are the elements that prompt me to share this recent anecdote with you.

I had taught a child two years ago, after she and her family had had a disruptive experience with a fellow teacher. This teacher, whom I will call Mr. English, is beloved by many - if not all of his students as well as his peers. He is, in my mind, a compassionate and supremely intelligent individual. He was know - and revered - for his ability to prompt children to deconstruct whatever was in front of them - a media myth, a Greek tragedy, what have you. He was also know for showing his students the all too common preoccupation of English literature with the phallic symbol. With these components in mind, he taught Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle with Dr. Strangelove - to which this particular student felt uncomfortable. Saying that the content was irreverent and inappropriate. This student then went on to analyze the 1988 play Zooman which was apparently the last straw. The student was moved from an upper level class, into my classroom where she would finish out her year and return to a higher level class for the next academic year. All of this background to say that I had a precarious situation on my hands. I taught most of the same material as Mr. English, perhaps not in the same style as each person presents their own flare - but nevertheless I had never objected to anything that Mr. English taught, in fact I looked up to him, so I was not sure what this new arrangement would bring.

Suffice it to say the the year with this student went exceptionally well. I steered clear of an direct reference to why she was in the class, held her to the same, perhaps a little higher in certain departments to ensure her growth, expectations and the year ended, not with a bang but a whimper.

Fast forward two years, the previous student's brother lands in my honors freshman class. He is delightful and witty, just like his sibling and perhaps it is just the altered circumstance, but he is a bit more outgoing than his sister. The year continues all is well. This past month I decided to teach Zooman, the play that caused the outcry previously with Mr. English. I decided that the conversation around the play was worth having and we would continue onward; I did, unlike Mr. English, send a letter home stating my case.

It is an interesting argument, the asking for permission, the inclusion of the parent in the classroom. On the surface it appears a no-brainer. But every teacher knows that there are more intricacies there. For one, there is the organic discussion that is timely and appropriate for the students to interogate, but perhaps the topic becomes more mature than you intended? Or perhaps it is a topic that is seen from a widely varying perspective based on culture or creed? These are issues for the novice teacher, especially, but the seasoned teacher as well can always learn from the delicacies and the lastest horizon of such issues. All this being said, the letter from the aforementioned family came back signed, and I was good to go.

Two days after I started the play, I was sitting down to eat my moderately interesting lunch of homemade macaroni, when the school phone rings. I walk over, interupting my conversation with the other teachers that used my room as a safe haven from the drab skepticism of the teacher's lunchroom, and answered the phone. It was the school secretary, informing me that the mother of the aforementioned family was standing in the office wanting to know if I was free to talk.
Crash. There it was.
I stalled and stammered; it was my lunch, my one respite from all things negative or taxing for the day, but I was never a good liar and quite frankly, I didn't see the point. I now knew a conversation was to be had, so I might as well have it now.
I swallowed my macaroni and headed down the hallway. Grumbling across the linoleum. Why had I chosen this play? Was it even going to be worth it in the long run? Why? Why? Why!

By this point, I just crossed in front of the nurse's office, three-quarters of the way to the office and I decided to change my tune. This woman had a right to voice her opinion. I had the right to my decisions, and I decided, right then and there, that this would be a productive meeting - a fine meeting - no matter what happened. I walked into the office, up to Mrs. _____ and provided a genuine smile. Truly.

What transpired next, I never saw coming. This woman had come to school, to thank me. She wanted to thank me for taking in her first child. She wanted to thank me for reaching out with her second child and making her feel, "Included in (his) education. Your letter let me feel a part in my child's classroom and helped me to understand your motives and trust that the proper care was given."

I was floored, as this woman continued to talk I was reminded that even in the predictable unpredictability of teaching, there is still room for the unexpected. As I tuned back in, I realized that tears were welling in her eyes as she recounted her incident with Mr. English and that she "didn't regret her decision, but the fallout was regrettable and not at all what [she had planned]." She then opened up a bag and brought out two books; I am pretty sure that this point my jaw was literally on the floor. She wanted to "give these to [me] -- just - just as a thank you." And atonement - was what I saw in her eyes. Gratitude for me, which I was humbled by, and forgiveness for her from the notorious uprising of a few years ago.

In that moment, I learned many things. I learned to set your expectations for the best outcome and trust that they will happen - perhaps there won't always be gifted books, and some of the gifts may look like problems, but it is your choice to see them as gifts. As an educator, I was reminded (even though it is truly something that I try to remind myself of) that the beings that fill my classroom chairs are special star creations in their own right; the very best of their parents formed and betrothed to my ramblings and my curriculum choices- my instruction both planned and tacit. I will never forget the preciousness of this woman's generosity or take for granted her trust.


walktalkhealth said...

Beautiful story, skillfully written.

Wisdom of One said...

Why thank you