Wednesday, May 19, 2010
The Student Stupor
I believe that most educators go into teaching because somewhere along the way, they really enjoyed being students. If you ask a teacher why they went into it, they will usually tell you something about a teacher or a class who once meant something very special to them.
I loved my education. I wasn’t always very happy with my fellow students, and there were a few teachers who I didn’t care for, but on the whole, I truly enjoyed my teachers in elementary school, high school, and especially college. English teachers were usually my favorite. They took the literature so seriously, and they would use big words like, “epiphany,” and “epitome,” and phrases like, “but I digress,” and “bear in mind.”
I had one high school teacher, Mr. Richmond, who constantly spoke in an East Coast accent and was completely obsessed with Hester Prynne, the anti-heroine from The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. He spoke about her as if she were some actual living, breathing woman who he was in love with. Mr. Richmond had graduated from Brown University and seemed to me to be the epitome of culture. I found out later that he was raised in Bakersfield, but had picked up the East Coast accent during his time at Brown and never let it go. Somehow this epiphany made me like him even more. It taught me that I could pick any accent or culture I liked and just start acting like that if I wanted to.
I’ve had some very dotty female English teachers, the sort of teacher who always seems a bit frazzled, and is always losing her students’ papers. They were fun, enthusiastic teachers. They would share interesting stories with the class all about their families and their tiny yappy dogs and trips they took to England. These women seemed almost as infatuated with Shakespeare as Mr. Richmond was with Hester. They would talk about Shakespeare as if he were some witty friend they had had drinks with the evening before. And they somehow knew things, like what the inside of the Globe Theatre looked like, when you should use semi-colons, and what Madrigals are.
I like to think that my English teachers liked me almost as well as I liked them, probably because I would sit in their classes and act interested, unlike many of the other students who thought British literature was something Americans should have left behind when we revolted.
But I digress. The point is, I became an English teacher because those teachers taught me to love literature just as much as they did. But now when I stand in front of my classes, sometimes all I can see when I look out over their faces is something I think of as the, “student stupor.” Their eyes glaze over and lose focus. Their mouths hang open and little puddles of drool drip onto their desks. They slouch and seem to have entered into a different mental plane, perhaps one where they are playing video games in their head. I try to share my enthusiasm with them. We act out “Romeo and Juliet,” and discuss the Harlem Renaissance in depth. We read poems, we write poems. We discuss, we practice. But still most days, all I get is the Student Stupor staring back at me.
My first year teaching I tried to read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, with one of my English classes. I passionately loved that book in Junior High and High School. Every few years, I read it again, and I am swept away by it every time. To me, Jane is the epitome of strength, dignity, and liveliness in female form. I especially wanted the girls in that class to get swept up in the story and to learn the lessons that I had learned from Jane.
truth and righteousness are more important than romantic love;
you have to choose what’s right for you, no matter what anyone tells you;
it’s important to forgive people no matter what they have done to you;
follow God's will for your life no matter what.
I tried to instill all my fervor about this book into them, and yet, when we read and discussed it together, I was met with nothing but resistance, and the deadly Student Stupor. I doubt if I will ever try to teach that book again. It hurt too much to watch them trample on something that I see as lovely.
Last week, we read some Irish poems in honor of Saint Patrick’s Day. I read them out loud to the students. Bear in mind, I have been to Ireland, I read all the Irish literature I can get my hands on, and I have several Irish television shows I love to watch. So although my Irish accent may not be perfect, I think it sounds pretty cool, and it’s certainly better than any of my students’ Irish accents. I read the poems in my best Irish imitation with all the emphasis and inflection I could muster.
I stopped after, “The Wearin’ O’the Green,” and looked at them, hoping that there might be the faintest glimmer of interest in their vacuous eyes. A moment passed. A few drops of drool fell from one of their mouths, and the others blinked dully. Somewhere in their brains they were killing aliens or terrorists or pedestrians in some bloody video game fantasy instead of thinking about Irish poetry. I, their teacher had just spent five minutes speaking in a completely different English dialect and they did not even notice.
Oh, Student Stupor. Out of all my struggles and battles as a teacher, perhaps you are my worst nemesis. At times like this I wonder, what would Jane Eyre do? And then I remember that she was after all, a fictional character. Of course, not every day is like this. Some days, my students do seem to enjoy what we’re discussing. But this has been enough for one article. I’ll write about those days another time.