Location: St. Vincent & Grenadines

You were driving home in the dark on one glass-slippered heel, window sliced open and bathing in the snowliquor of the night air. We heard you singing, and couldn't bear to wake you.

16 September 2006

I'll freshen the blooms at your sea-rusted altar.

I have established a ritual whereby students entering my classroom at the start of a period go to a filing cabinet, retrieve their composition book, sit at a desk, and respond in writing to a prompt on the board. The prompt is called "bell words", not because our school has bells -- it doesn't -- but because I have a small singing bowl that I purchased in Kathmandu some ten years ago, which lives in my classroom and which I strike with a little stick after ten minutes or so. Usually, we proceed to discuss the bell words.

Tomorrow morning, the bell words will be these:

You are sentenced to life in prison. It doesn't matter why.

For the rest of your life, you will be locked inside a cube that is twelve feet high, long, and wide. There is no light. No matter what happens, the door will never open. Once every eight hours, a slot will open in the wall and food will come through -- just enough to keep you alive.

You will never escape.

What are you going to do?

I try to make the bell words difficult to answer. The responses are not graded, though the students don't know that; I come around with a little stamp and mark their entries after about five minutes, so they think I'm keeping track of something. I'm not. The purpose is the struggle, which is so subjective and particular as to make formal assessment -- in my humble opinion -- rather inappropriate.

Tomorrow's puzzler has tendrils that intertwine with other vines I'm planting for the year. In the long term, we're looking at speculative fictions that postulate a number of grim scenarios for human society: first Golding's Lord of the Flies, then Orwell's 1984, and finally Murphy's The City, Not Long After (which is the one you probably haven't heard of, and should by all means read.) People are intensely, deliberately cruel to each other in these books, as indeed they are in real life; and alternatives to (and resistances against) cruelty exist as well, or neither books nor life would be worth the trouble.

Cruelty is unpleasant to contemplate, and the temptation to ignore its existence can be very seductive. Why focus on all that negativity? What does it really have to do with me, anyway? I am teaching children whose lives are, by and large, blessed with good fortune and gentle circumstance -- smart, mostly kind young people whose understanding of suffering and deprivation is about a millimeter thick. I do not begrudge them their blessings, although I wish that more people in the world shared them. I do not believe they need to feel guilt about anything except for their own deliberate acts of cruelty. I do, however, feel obliged to invite them to contemplate the malice of which people -- all people -- are capable. Some people ignore the presence of cruelty because they are afraid to draw attention to themselves, and a few -- a fortunate few -- ignore it because they are insulated from it. If it isn't brought to their attention, they'll never know it's there.

That's my job. Bringing attention.

So, kids: let's imagine for a moment that all of your safety has been stripped away. You are alone. You have nothing. No help is coming. What would you do?

There is no right or wrong answer to that question, just as there is no right or wrong response to torture. You do what you must to survive.

Another, less intense reason for tomorrow's bell words is that I want to move the discussion toward the nature of my classroom's ethos. The view of schools as containment facilities, internment camps for not-fully-human beings, is nothing new; lord knows I felt it when I first tasted public education. (I have a distinct memory of sitting in Bob "Big" Diehl's keyboarding class as a high school freshman, producing green characters on a black screen, typing over and over a line from Peter Gabriel's Wallflower: They put you in a box so you can't get heard...) But that's not what I want for my students. There are alternatives to cruelty. Moreover, there are alternatives to boredom, and even alternatives to escape. Because sometimes you can't escape your circumstances. Sometimes, you can't avoid what's in front of you. And what are you going to do when that happens?

Pay attention. Pay attention. Pay attention.

Stop trying to escape. Stop trying to be somewhere else. Be here now, even if here looks like hell and now feels like forever. Be present.

I wrote a statement of principles for my classroom last night, and by the end of the day tomorrow, my students will do one of two things: write a statement of agreement with the principles, or write an explanation of why they cannot or will not agree with them. Either is acceptable.

The principles:

In this class, we do not ignore each other.

In this class, we do not hide from each other.

In this class, we give each other our full attention.

We are kind and helpful to all people in this room, including ourselves.

We are not here to wait until something interesting happens.

We are not here to indulge in boredom and passivity.

We are not here to avoid our present circumstances.

We do not concern ourselves what is going to happen later.

We bring all our energy and attention to what is happening now.

Our search is for those moments and situations in which we are most alive.


Blogger Jemaleddin said...

Ipecac Aperitif: making you resent the half-ass job your english teachers did.

Exactly how do I enroll in this school?

I did book reports on "LotF" every time they let us pick our own books between 5th grade and 10th grade. My parents bought me the Norton critical edition after the third report. It's not that it's such a great book, but at that age it's something you can get your mind around. I haven't read it since my 10th grade teacher (who spent more time lifting weights than reading and was fired for trying to seduce a student) accused me of plagiarism saying, "There's no way a 15-year-old wrote this." I kind of feel bad that I no longer even own a book that was such a big part of my childhood. But I feel worse that I didn't have teachers like you.

So, my question to you: given Golding's position that society is what civilizes us, why are we (Americans) as a society so violent, cruel, and intent on exporting our incivility? Or should I be writing up my own essay to be graded?

4:00 AM  
Anonymous fred said...

You know, I'm very opposite of you as a teacher - I don't post anything, only hope that they will discover the meaning along the way -- but I think we could work beautifully together at the same school. My students also aren't very priviledged and try to torture each other, sometimes during my classes. I may be sick and twisted, but I don't know that I would give them up too easily. I've only known them a couple of weeks and I already feel that way.

Anyway, your class sounds wonderful.

5:20 PM  
Blogger Felix Helix said...

Resentment of half-assed teaching is half the reason I got into this gig in the first place. I spent a lot of time in high school stewing in my little plastic chair, going I could do so much better than this... Well, the reality of the job is humbling. Even being a sucky teacher is a hell of a lot harder than it looks. I'm just lucky to be working in a place where they actually let me do stuff like this, rather than forcing me to insult my students' intelligence.

LoTF: I totally agree: not a great book so much as a great tool -- an entree into symbolism and philosophy that most kids can access, be they intellectuals or otherwise.

So, my question to you: given Golding's position that society is what civilizes us, why are we (Americans) as a society so violent, cruel, and intent on exporting our incivility?

I don't think that Golding is saying that society civilizes us. I think he's saying that human social behavior runs the gamut between civility and barbarism, but that the impulse to barbarism is primally seductive and ultimately more popular. I was about to add "if history is any guide", except that you don't need to delve any further back than yesterday's newspaper to find ample evidence to support his position.

I think Golding is mostly right, and I think that it's most useful to interpret his book -- like Orwell's 1984 -- as a warning rather than a pessimistic cry of despair. Not "the human species is unavoidably cruel" so much as "cruelty exists in a powerful way, and ignoring it won't make it stop, and if you don't like what you see here, GOOD; do something different, for fuck's sake".

At least that's where I'd like my students to go. Except for the expletive, probably.

There has been some pretty staggering cruelty at my school, already, and we're only in week four. 13-year-old kids can be that way. Ain't nobody can say my curriculum is irrelevant, that's for sure.

10:51 PM  
Anonymous Frederika said...

We were actually talking in the teacher's lounge today about how we should just have a class on kindness and respect in middle school. We should make it a subject, give it importance.

3:48 PM  

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