Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Teachers: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly (plus the Sexy!) Part 3b

(This is the final section of the third installment of a post on teachers. See Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and the first part of of Part 3 here.)

The Sexy, Part B

It was near the end of September, not long after the discussion about the Vietnam War, that I began to linger in Mr. S's classroom after dismissal. At first our conversations were trivial and impersonal—discussions of assignments or continuations of classroom debates—but they soon evolved into more relaxed, personal exchanges about all manner of topic. I took these conversations seriously, occasionally even prepping for them! They had become the highlights of my week and I consistently skipped math class so that I wouldn't have to forego them. At some point, Mr. S expressed concern about my math grades but after I reassured him that I was doing well, he stopped worrying and accepted my decision to skip. I can't imagine a teacher doing that today, but it was a different era, one whose spirit was more conducive to respecting kids' inclinations and choices. Even then it was a Zeitgeist on its way out, but Mr S, with his irreverence for convention and rules, seemed to embody it perfectly.

In our after-class chats we talked a lot about books, with him recommending and lending, and me acting like an eager sponge. In the first few weeks alone, he introduced me to Susan Sontag's I, Etcetera Joan Didion's Play it as It Lays and The White Album, Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus, Proust (whom he adored but recommended I hold off reading until I was over thirty), and poetry by Rimbaud, Verlaine and √Čluard. One day he brought in his copy of Violette LeDuc's classic of lesbian lit,  La Batarde; I'd asked to borrow it after reading about Simone De Beauvoir's interest in Leduc. As I flipped through it, I jokingly said I was going to show it to my parents and ask them what they thought of his taste in literature. He grabbed the book out of my hand, tore out the page where he'd written his name and handed it back to me. This gesture (which I assured him was unnecessary) was a springboard to talk about homophobia, a new-ish term at the time, whose meaning he explained to me. This in turn led to a discussion of "projection"—a concept that interested him. People who fear homosexual urges in themselves, he explained, will often project that fear onto another, thus relieving them of the burden of confronting the true source of their fear.

Books were not the only conduits to such discussions. Music and movies played a similar role. Mr. S would recommend movies that were playing at the local rep cinemas, alerting me to foreign films that he thought might interest me, especially classics of the French New Wave. (He shared my Francophilia, though in his case it was more understandable—his mother was Swiss French.) But he surprised me by praising certain popular movies as well. I remember him pronouncing Saturday Night Fever a "well-made movie." At the time, I was firmly in the "disco sucks" camp; such praise coming from him was a significant challenge to my adolescent snobbery.

Other topics I remember discussing included: the legalization of marijuana—I was in favour, he did not disagree; the jock-ish culture of high school; Canadian and American politics; and suburbia, against which I chafed but which he defended as a quiet place where people understandably chose to raise kids. "How can you defend it?" I asked. "It's soul-destroying." He shrugged. "Living here is part of why you are who you are." But the next day he brought in his copy of Cheever's Bullet Park for me to read: "My favourite suburban novel," he said.

What surprises me when I look back on those chats is not their breadth and occasional depth, but that they occurred at all. My own participation is not particularly surprising: the student "crush" is a familiar trope in both popular and literary culture, though I would argue that the trivializing term (often applied to unsanctioned attractions, especially those of the young) does not do justice to the potent mix of sexual and intellectual attraction I felt towards Mr. S. More difficult to understand from my perspective is Mr. S's motivation. I wondered then and I wonder now why he was willing to forgo so much of his prep time to engage in an ongoing conversation with a student. The more I think of it, though, the more I realize that what is important is not that he didn't feel anything inappropriate—though I believe he did not—but that if he did, I didn't know. He did not let it show. There was no physical contact between us, with one minor exception. On a spring day when I was the last to leave his classroom, he followed me out, and as I moved through the doorway, he took hold of my braid and let it run through his fingers. It was in all likelihood an innocent, affectionate gesture—which didn't stop me from wandering around for the rest of the day in a thrilled daze, thinking to myself, he touched my hair, he touched my hair!

But the point is, regardless of what he may have felt, and what I clearly did feel, nothing (beyond hair-touching) happened. Or rather what happened was entirely positive, from a pedagogic perspective: feelings rippling beneath the surface of our interaction acted as a catalyst for engaged teaching and learning. It's no accident that I produced better work and learned more in Mr. S's class than I had in the previous three years of high school English.

As I mentioned in Part A of this post, Eros has been recognized as an inducement to learning since antiquity. In the Platonic model, however, love or desire for a person is only the beginning of a process which, if all goes well, ends with the learner transferring her affection to Beauty or Knowledge itself. Human love, of the sort a student might feel towards a teacher, is merely a means to a "higher" end. (See the Ladder of Love.) It's a nice idea, but I don't think one has to view this progression as inevitable or necessary, in order to appreciate the role that Eros can play in learning. A love that remains focussed on a person or that is mixed with desire is a feeling that can produce intense and pleasurable learning. What is there to object to in that? (I'm not saying this is the only way to motivate students!) Love between student and teacher cannot be acted on under most normal circumstances; but it needn't be denied or suppressed either. As long as there are teachers like Mr. S, there will be students who love them. I say let the kids love and learn.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Teachers: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (plus the Sexy!), Part 3

(This is the third installment of a three-part post; read part 1 here and part 2 here.)

The Sexy, Part A [that's right, a part divided into further parts . . . ]

I confess that the writing of this segment of my three-part post on teachers has been a bit of a struggle. Like all of you, I'm aware that we're not supposed to mention teachers and love, or teachers and sex, in the same sentence—not supposed to do so outside the context of porn, that is. (Google "sexy teacher," and see what comes up.) Which goes to show how deeply conflicted we are as a society, not only about teachers as human beings, but also about human beings (including teachers and adolescents) as sexual beings. All I'll say here, as a preface to my story about the "sexy" teacher in my life, is that there is a rich history and philosophy going back to ancient Greece concerning the role of Eros in teaching. Eros as a concept (derived form the god of the same name) is much more broad and powerful than sex. It is conceived (by Plato, for instance) as a primal force and motivator, which incorporates but is not reducible to love, desire, passion. Its role as a spur to learning has been recognized in both ancient and modern educational philosophy, but it remains unacknowledged and controversial in our culture. And yet . . .

There he was on the first day of class, the epitome of English-teacher cool, in black shirt and tight pants, book in hand, leaning back in his chair with one knee bent, foot against the edge of the desk. A cynosure. I hovered by the entrance of the classroom affecting an attitude of bored indifference, but I was secretly excited. Mr. S's reputation, and that of the unusual course he'd designed, preceded him. Pretending not to notice him, I picked up a piece of chalk and wrote in a corner of the blackboard, "Make the rich pay!" Just as I finished writing, Mr. S stood up. With a flick of his longish, dirty-blond hair, he surveyed the space and the kids occupying it. He glanced briefly at what I'd written on the board and reached for the blackboard eraser; as I took my seat at the back of the class, he shot me a ghost of a smirk that seemed to say "really?" then put the eraser down, leaving the Marxist-Leninist party slogan on the board. "This course is World Literature in Translation," he said in a voice that silenced the room. "I'd like to start by reading a poem by Sappho."

The material in the course was rich and eccentric by today's standards. We began with the Classics: Aristotle's Poetics; plays by Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles; poetry by Sappho, Horace and Catullus; excerpts from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Then we jumped to pre-modern and modern lit (I don't remember studying anything in between), reading short stories by De Maupassant, Chekov, Kafka; plays by Ibsen, and Jean Anouilh; essays by Camus and Simone de Beauvoir.

Mr. S expected us to read these texts carefully and write serious responses in the form of essays or reviews; but the selections also served as conduits to some of the most exciting discussions I'd ever had in a classroom setting—discussions about philosophy, psychology, art, feminism, politics. Mr. S moderated these discussions expertly, encouraging open, flexible discussion amongst the students, but he was also willing to express his own opinion as the need arose. He almost never lost his cool, which is probably why I recall one occasion early in the school year when he did. I can't remember the literary context, but we were talking about about war, specifically the Vietnam war. A boy commented that "if the US had won the war, we wouldn't have had to deal with the problem of 'boat people' in North America. Mr S said, "The problem of the boat people. Hmm. Are we all a 'problem' then? Aren't we  all immigrants in this country?" "No, sir," the boy said. "Oh, I see," Mr S said." So way back before the English and French arrived, there were the native peoples—and the Johnsons. Just your family skating around on the glaciers with the Inuit, right?" "No," the boy said.

An awkward silence followed this exchange, but I remember being secretly thrilled. For the first time in my life, I'd witnessed a teacher challenging the unthinking, petty racism that I saw and heard daily in high school. My half-Jewish, WASP-resenting, self-hating white soul was stirred. I was in love.

Next: The Sexy, Part B

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Teachers, the Good, The Bad, the Ugly (plus the Sexy!), Part 2

(This is the second installment of a three-part post. Read Part 1 here.)

The Bad

Trust, of the sort that teachers earn and students give, is always fragile and provisional, based as it is on a delicate negotiation of the inevitable power imbalance between adult and child.  It took one bad teacher to destroy that trust for me. Mr J, my grade seven teacher, was everything the "good teachers" I'd had before were not: dour, humourless, needlessly authoritarian. Unlike Mr H, he seemed to have no passion for teaching any subject at all, though I do remember him frequently extemporizing on the topic of the superiority of the Scandinavian peoples. This memory raises red flags in my adult mind, especially when I consider that he seemed to take a particular dislike to me, the only child in the class who stayed home for Jewish holidays. But at the time, I was more alarmed by the way he massaged the shoulders of the "developed" girls as he moved through the rows of desks while supervising our work. Also disconcerting was his temper, which he often seemed to direct my way, even though by the second week of Grade 7 I'd transformed myself from mild shit-disturber to taciturn rule-follower. One day, he saw me working on a speech in what I thought was my free time; he swooped over to my desk, grabbed my only copy, crumpled it into a ball and threw it in the garbage can. "I did NOT say you could work on your speech!" he bellowed. The class was silent; I fought back tears. After class, I snuck back into the room (hurray for open classroom design!) and retrieved my manuscript from the garbage can. To him, work done at inappropriate times was garbage; my stealth retrieval of my work implies that I didn't quite buy that, but I do know that Mr J had the power to make me feel like garbage. I felt like garbage every time I walked into his classroom for the entire year.

The Good, Redux

By the time I entered Grade 8, I was greatly changed. The cheerful, mischievous child who told a classmate that she foresaw a sex change in her future was gone. In her place was a mopey, mildly depressed young teen who professed a profound dislike of school. By sheer fluke that miserable young person was placed in a classroom run by a teacher who was in many ways the polar opposite of Mr J. Mrs L was an exuberant woman of Dutch origin with a passion for grammar. As it turned out, she was passionate—in a non-creepy way—about her students as well. One afternoon in late September, when I was the last kid to leave her classroom, she surprised me by asking a rather blunt question. "What's your deal, K?" (She had the neo-hippy lingo down pat!) "Why so down on school? Did someone give you a bum deal? A teacher, a kid?" This last question shocked me; it implied that she thought my bad attitude stemmed not from some defect of mine, but from an experience I might have had in school. I was a typical enough teenager to hide my true feelings and to offer only the most perfunctory of responses, "I just hate school." Mrs L looked at me as if she wanted to interrogate me further, but said only "Well, don't."

This conversation, brief though it was, had a profound effect on me. It wasn't so much what she said, but the fact that she'd said anything at all, that she had seen me, read me correctly. I perked up almost overnight. I took an interest in my school work, including the grammar that Mrs. L was so enthusiastic about, becoming in the course of a few short weeks her "best grammar student." (I confess my retention of this material has been sub-optimal.) Slowly I recovered my rebellious streak as well, possibly because Mrs L, while not encouraging it, did not discourage it, either. Somewhere in the middle of the school year, a friend and I staged a mini-revolt against the reciting of the Lord's Prayer during announcements, refusing to stand for it, as was the custom. Mrs L was tolerant, but arranged for us to talk to the Vice Principal. The VP was also tolerant; she urged us to stand during the prayer to show respect, but did not insist that we say the prayer ourselves. (Such a compromise seems unsatisfactory in a public school—but at least we were not punished!) I remember many things about Mrs L, including the fact that she was the first teacher I encountered who discussed homosexuality in a positive way (amid a chorus of snickers). I also remember the hug she gave me while handing me my Grade 8 diploma, and her whispered advice: "Don't hate school anymore." But what stands out for me when I think about my year in her classroom is how important the personal—the person—was to my ability and willingness to learn. When I hear educators wax enthusiastic about tech or flipped classrooms or YouTube learning, I can't help but think of the look of genuine interest and concern on Mrs L's face when she asked, "Did someone give you a bum deal?"

Next upPart 3, The Sexy!

(See also, Part 1, The Ugly and the Good)

Teachers: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (plus the Sexy!), Part 1

I promised several people (including my kids) that my next post would be about the sorry state of sex education in Ontario schools, but between the time I first thought about writing it (after being interviewed by a local newspaper on the issue) and now, I've become less motivated. Maybe sex just isn't on my radar as much today as it was a month ago, or maybe events have conspired to turn my thoughts elsewhere. But what I've found myself thinking about recently is teachers. And I've found myself trying to reconcile the two types of writing I've been engaging in: i.e., blogging, which for me means viewing the personal through a theoretical and political lens, and fiction writing, which is . . . well, something else entirely. The reconciliation I've settled on is a kind of personal creative non-fiction, which is quite a departure for me in this space. But bear with me. The personal—be it parenting or aspects of one's own educational history—is still the soci-political for me, as I hope will become clear.

First off, I should clarify that I want to talk about my teachers, teachers who affected me for better or for worse (but mostly for better) during the long years of my student-hood. The differences between teachers (and teaching) in the past and today are part of what I think makes the topic interesting, but of equal interest are the parallels and resonances between "then" and "now."

The Ugly

I start with the "ugly" because the teacher in question happens to have been my very first teacher, my kindergarten teacher, Mrs B. (She was not in fact ugly; my reason for referring to her this way will become apparent.) She was a woman in her early sixties, nearing retirement when I passed through her classroom. In those days, a requirement of kindergarten teachers was that they be able to play the piano. I remember a lot of singing, children's voices reverberating throughout the sunlit room, belting out songs like "I've Been Working on the Railroad," while Mrs B played the piano. A lot of that year is a blur, but one incident stands out in my mind. At Halloween Mrs B dressed up in a convincing (to a five-year-old) witch costume, complete with warty face mask, hat, and cape. She brought in a large cauldron, filling it with what she called her potion. She sat us around her while she stirred the concoction and handed out cups, inviting the kids to taste it. There was silence as kids inched-wormed backwards, enlarging the circle. A boy beside me trembled softly. No one accepted Mrs. B's offer. No one except—after several moments of careful consideration—me. I took a sip of what I immediately recognized as some combination of ginger ale and eggnog. It was good.

Today I wonder how kids could have been so petrified of a teacher in a witch's costume. (Would today's kids be as frightened?) I also wonder why I decided to risk tasting the potion. It may be because I had an older sister who chased me around the house pretending to be Captain Hook; that experience was far more terrifying to me than Mrs B in an ugly witch's costume. But I think it goes beyond that. Mrs B had read to us, played piano for us, led us in the Hokey Pokey, bandaged our scraped knees, reprimanded us when we stepped out of line the way a parent might, firmly but without malice. Nothing in her previous behaviour suggested that she would attempt to poison us on this occasion. So, I said yes to her scary potion, as I'd said yes to all the lessons and activities she'd offered us up to that point. Fill me up, my gesture seemed to say, with anything and everything you have to offer. The cup seems to me a perfect synecdoche for the transmission model of learning operative at the time. But even transmission is never truly one way. By accepting the gift of Mrs B's potion, I was giving her something in return: my trust.

The Good

For the next several years of my schooling, teacher after teacher proved themselves worthy of my trust. In Grade 1, there was Mrs M, who was surprised when I wrote this message on a test: "Am I right?" I remember her showing the note to my mother, and the two of them sharing a laugh about it. Both my mother and Mrs M appeared to consider it strange for a student to attempt to communicate with a teacher in a non-sanctioned way. What I appreciated about Mrs M—or what I appreciate now, looking back—was her openness to this gesture on my part. "Yes, you are," she'd written in response.

Maybe this openness was part of what emboldened me a few years later to ask Mr H, my Grade 5 teacher, a rather odd question. Mr H was a mild-mannered man with minimal control of the class, and a seeming lack of interest in anything other than music. We spent hours on end repeating our "ta-ta-tee-tee, tas" or learning solfege or singing songs like Both Sides Now. A friend who was also in Mr H's class thinks it was a wasted year. I disagree. I loved all the music and singing, and I especially enjoyed the children's operetta—His Majesty's Pie—that we staged outside of school hours, under his direction. It boggles the mind that he was given such leeway to pursue his own interests, but I don't think we were the worse for it. Watching an adult live out his passion day after day is not a bad thing for a child to witness.

But to the question: A boy and I had been talking about what we wanted to be when we grew up. I told him I was going to be a man. (In grade two, I'd told the teacher I wanted to be a nun; clearly in the intervening years I'd set my aspirations higher—or lower, depending on your point of view.) He snorted. "Very funny." "No, I'm serious," I said. "Impossible," he said.

I knew better. My older sister had a college classmate who was in the the process of transitioning from male to female. The students at the college derisively dubbed her "Nick the Chick," but my sister had told me the story in non-judgemental terms, and I was intrigued. I'm pretty sure I didn't actually want to become a man when I grew up; I did want to prove a point to my classmate. So I dragged the boy to the front of the class where Mr H stood writing on the blackboard. "Sir," I said. "I can change from a girl to a boy when I get older, right? I can be a man if I want to." Mr H swung around, an expression of mild surprise on his face. He glanced from me to the boy, then back at me. The look of surprise evaporated, replaced by his customary poker face. "Yes," he said tersely. "Now go sit down, both of you."

Mr H often used to preface answers to questions with "I cannot tell a lie." He was also fond of the phrase "Man is an adaptable animal." He displayed honesty and adaptability that day, but he also showed the boy and me that change—especially the socio-sexual change that the newly emerging recognition of gender dysphoria betokened—is not something to get worked up over. It's difficult not to marvel that decades later we (in Canada) still have governments capitulating to fringe groups complaining about the GLBT content of proposed new sex ed curricula.

(See also: Part 2, The Bad and the Good, Redux)