I’ve learned a few stomach-flu related German words this week. Diarrhea is ‘durchfall’ which literally means ‘to fall through.’ So logisch, this German language. “Kotzen” is to puke. Anyway, now you’re all set in case you visit and get sick. 🙂
We’ve all taken a turn with it since Monday and since I’ve been feeling so funky, my thoughts have reached out to other things that generally make me want to vomit. Like, canned green beans. (The fresh ones are fine.)
Another one that comes to mind is student teaching. I’ve been reflecting on that a lot, lately, and I’m not sure why.
At the time, I was twenty-four years old. Talking to a class full of students terrified me. And, you know, that’s sort of a thing you need to feel okay with if you’re in the profession.
To meet the requirement, I had to complete two placements, six weeks each. The first was in a ‘suburban setting’ and the second was in a ‘city setting.’ I’m assuming this was because it’s important to know how to teach equally well in a place characterized by fences and in a place where doors have multiple locks.
It was obvious the suburban setting cooperating teacher, Kathleen, wasn’t impressed with me, and in hindsight I can see why. I think she was expecting someone to come in and give her a break for a while. After all, aren’t student teachers supposed to be gun-ho? Eager to try out all the latest methods they learned in college? Ready to create bulletin boards that compete with London Harrod’s window display?
Well, that wasn’t me.
I followed her around like a lost puppy and she had to tell me what to do, step by step. I took no initiatives. I constantly had little red blotches of stress on my neck. Counted down the hours until the day was over. I felt so different from the other student teacher down the hall who took a central spot in the staff room to eat her lunch and bantered with the other teachers like she’d been part of the staff for years.
The kids were nice to me; I think they sensed something human in my vulnerability. I did a poetry-writing unit with them, and when I read out a poem I’d written about the color blue my voice shook uncontrollably and a rash bleated out from my chest.
When I was done they all clapped. Soon after they started saying, “Can you stay and be our teacher, rather than Mrs.___?”
I don’t think they intentionally meant to hurt Kathleen’s feelings; it’s more that they were trying to compliment me and didn’t know how to do it without insulting the other one.
I remember I wanted to show them a scene from The Dead Poet’s Society and there was a swear word in there. So, I asked Kathleen’s permission and my student teaching coordinator’s permission and I just about wrote to the President of the United States of America to ask his permission, too, because that’s just how taboo I thought this was.
As guided, before playing the clip I said, “Now, I’ve chosen to show you this scene because it directly relates to what we’re doing today. The only problem is there’s one inappropriate word and by the time I fast-forward it you’d miss the main part of the clip. So, I’m going to show you and I trust that you can all be mature about it…”
I believe the word was ‘damn.’ Or possibly even a higher level explicative, like ‘shit.’
These kids were in seventh grade. I was totally out of touch with the fact that they weren’t like me when I was in seventh grade (i.e. still tempted to play Barbies and playing this game we made up called Pupil’s Court at lunchtime and making crank calls to 1-800 numbers on weekends.)
(Fast forward sixteen years, and I showed my grade 12’s a clip from ‘The Wire’ that consisted entirely and repeatedly of the word ‘fuck.’ We were doing a unit on Language and Taboo, specifically swearing, and looked at the contexts for communication the word is used for. How times change.)
Anyway, the six weeks dragged on, and Kathleen stopped hiding her annoyance at having to shepard me around.
On September 11, 2001, I was in Kathleen’s classroom dreading an observed lesson on the parts of a story when the planes hit the World Trade Center. She tried to explain what was happening and I didn’t get it. I thought some planes had lost their way and bumped into a building, as much as planes “bump.” To be completely honest, I wasn’t even sure what the World Trade Towers were. (And I’d been in the city a week before visiting a friend, mind you.)
Mid- explanation she got too upset and left. Apparently her brother worked in or near one of the towers.
(As part of the editing process, I had Todd read this post and he looked up at this part and said, “You didn’t know what the World Trade Center was? You’re from New York!” In my defense, I’m from upstate New York and have only been to the Big Apple once or twice. And my knowledge of important buildings, key historical events, and current news is sometimes…patchy.)
It was the one and only time I had the classroom to myself, and it was the only day of student teaching that I semi-enjoyed. I didn’t watch TV until I got home, so I had no idea about the jumpers or the dust or that America had just reached a major historical intersection. I just knew I had control for a couple of hours.
I taught the kids the arc of a storyline using The Three Little Pigs, and it was the first lesson where any semblance of humor came out of me. I even started to rethink my hatred of the major I’d chosen. But, any positive associations of having Kathleen leave for the day plummeted circa 4 p.m. when I turned on the TV.
The next morning Kathleen told me to help the kids cover their textbooks using brown paper bags, and I wandered around the room passing out scissors and tape and casting little nervous looks her way.
“Um, can you show me how to do it?”
Kathleen snapped her face towards me. “Are you kidding me? You don’t know how to cover textbooks? Didn’t your parents ever teach you how?”
I felt all the kids stare, and my eyes filled with tears that I beat back with my eyelashes.
Kathleen rapidly covered a textbook and spoke all the steps out loud, slowly and asynchronously with the task. The room was silent. I couldn’t follow a single step she showed me. The kids ended up helping each other out and one boy even led me through the process, his voice full of teenage static and cracking.
Later, during the break, Kathleen told me off. I only remember the gist of what she said, but it was something about how it would be difficult to write me a good recommendation unless I ‘came up to bat’ a bit more, and that the kids could read my fear and I had to be the one in charge, etc.
I started crying; I couldn’t help myself. Kathleen looked at me like I was a new breed of insect perched on the table.
“I’m sorry,” I sobbed. “It’s just that my uncle was in downtown New York when the planes hit and now they can’t find him, so I’m just feeling extra sensitive today.”
I’m ashamed to admit that was a lie. My uncle had been hard to reach at first, but he eventually made contact with my aunt. It just came out of my mouth in a sudden need to not let Kathleen know that she could impact me so much.
(When Todd got to this part he looked over at me, horrified, and asked how I could have lied about something like that. I was about to delete the whole paragraph, but it’s the truth. I did lie about that. So, I have to leave it in. Why did I do that? Ugh, I don’t know. I was young, scared, insensitive, and my nerves were shot. Not proud.)
On the last day we had a party and every single kid in the class, all twenty-something of them, brought in desserts. We let them blast Alycia Keys and compare sugar highs for the duration of class, and Kathleen even left the room for a long time to hang out with her teacher friend down the hall.
The kids kept saying, “We’re going to miss you! Can you teach us instead?”
I felt like maybe I hadn’t failed as much as it seemed.
The next placement was in downtown Buffalo. I took the bus there every day, along with all the outpatients at the nearby psychiatric ward. There was one guy, I remember, who sat next to me and struck up a conversation. We talked about the weather, the blackened snow along the curbs, and the Taste of Buffalo. Then he brought up a recent experience buying at groceries at Wilson Farms.
“So I went up to the cashier to pay for my stuff. And, I heard the craziest sounds coming from beneath the counter. I was like, what is that? It almost sounded like something was saying my name. So, I leaned over to check it out and saw the cashier’s legs beneath the counter and I swear to God she was not a human. She was an alien. I mean, she looked human up top. But from the waist down she was an alien.”
Yes, interesting times on the Buffalo public transportation system.
If I thought I was uncomfortable during my placement with Kathleen, my urban setting placement was a whole new level of torture.
The teacher, who we’ll call Fred, was well respected by his students. When he walked in, it was clear he owned the room. He was a cranky grizzly bear of a teacher, the type where kids do their homework for his class first because they’d never consider showing up to without it for fear of death.
But he had this great sense of humor that cracked through his scowling veneer. And, he knew his stuff. When the kids challenged his interpretations of things, he cupped his chin between his thumb and pointer finger, listened, and then stripped down their argument in a way that managed to both credit them for being thoughtful, but make it clear that in the caste of Disney they were all extra fish drawn in to The Little Mermaid and he was Walt.
On day one Fred handed me a stack of ten books, and told me I’d be teaching Hamlet to one grade level and The Scarlet Letter to another. I’d never read either book. (Thank you very much Kenmore school district.)
“Now, what I want you to do is study as much as you possibly can about both of these books. You need to know them backwards and forwards, okay? And then you’re going to present the chapters to the class starting a week from now.”
As I taught, he sat at a desk in the back of the classroom with his hands folded, squinting at me, the left side of his lip curled up. It was a facial expression that said, “What are you doing?”
On the second day he offered me a chair and said I could teach sitting down, if that made me more comfortable. Sure, great.
On the third day he said I asked the students too many questions. “It interrupts the flow of the lecture. Don’t do that.”
“This is really tough for you, isn’t it?” Fred asked after my first week in front of the class.
I didn’t answer. It wasn’t necessary.
“How about I take back the grade 12’s and you just sit and take notes on what you see. Would that make you feel better?”
So, I did that for a while, but Fred must have felt self conscious having me in one of the desks rapidly writing in my notebook for the hour (after all, if I couldn’t actually teach the class, I wanted to look eager to at least fill up several pages of observations on what Fred did.) Or, more likely, maybe he was just sick of me invading his space.
Whatever the reason, he sat down with me once again and said, “From now on you can just head home after you teach the grade 9’s. Half a day’s enough.’
He awkwardly slogged my shoulder in affection.
“You know, you’re doing fine,” he said in a way that indicated the opposite. “It’s going to get easier the more you do it.”
He considered me for a second and I was on the verge of launching in to some form of an apology and promise to quit teaching and even move out of the area if that would help my case when he continued.
“What you need is to develop a persona. You can’t just stand in front of a class and expect that to be enough. They’ll run you right over.”
He rapped his knuckles on the desk.
“Develop a persona,” he repeated.
At the time I had no idea what he meant, and thought he was just telling me that I was boring, terrible, lifeless, not cut out for the profession, a failure, dog shit, and everything in between.
But, over the past sixteen years I’ve figured it out.
It took a long time and it happened naturally and only as I became more comfortable, but I have developed a persona when I teach, and I do think it improves the classroom experience and my bearing on it. Why? I’m not quite sure I can explain why. It just sort of happened the longer I taught. Maybe it’s because, in a sense, leading a classroom requires you to be an entertainer of sorts? It’s not enough to just deliver the information. Kids learn better from a relatable human being that they want to listen to for any number of reasons.
So, what is my teaching persona?
It’s parts of the real me, just amplified. It’s me 2.0. For example, time and being an expat have made me much more outgoing over the years. So, in the classroom I’m a stable extrovert, prone to dancing and singing as loudly and badly as I can, usually butchering the lyrics of songs.
(Which reminds me of a story—for the longest time I sang ‘Dream of Californication’ by the Chili Peppers out loud to a seventh grade class. I had no clue that the word was Californication. I thought they were saying ‘California-cation’ and that the whole song was about wanting to move to California and live life like as a full time vacation. Yeah. Embarrassing. The kids tittered whenever I sang it but I just figured it was because my voice was so bad.
To make matters worse, the school freaking news came around for a segment where they recorded teachers singing. What song did I choose to perform? You guessed it.
Needless to say, it didn’t make the school news. That’s when I finally looked up the actual lyrics and learned I’d been singing about western civilization becoming perverted. Which is actually a deep thought. But, still—there’s the word ‘fornication’ in there.)
Anyway, now that I think about it—quite a bit of my teaching persona has been collected piecemeal throughout the years, totally ripped off from people I admire. It’s not like I intentionally stole it. I just let it drain into and become part of me, like a lake takes in sewage. But, in a good way.
One of my favorite lines I stole from my husband. When a kid acts up, I ask, “Have you ever seen someone with two broken arms and two broken legs? Do they look like they’re having fun?” Or, I just threaten to throw them out the window. They love that.
From my mom, I got her love of ‘getting down to their level’ with humor and of preying on teenage gullibility. We like to convince kids of ridiculous things. I’ve told students I used to be a professional skateboarder, a private investigator, and a nun. They believed it all.
Also, I took on one of my high school teacher’s tendency to fall into hyper spells and pound the desks with both fists, talk fast and loud, and trip over things.
I would love to take on Ellen Degeneres’s thing of starting off each lesson by dancing. But, that would feel too much like stealing. The other stuff simply drained, which is a whole other verb.
So, why am I thinking about all of this now? Sixteen years later?
Well, puking associations aside, I’ve come to the conclusion that something I’m trying to explore throughout this whole blogging adventure is my writing persona. I’ve been referring to it as my ‘voice,’ but that’s not quite the word I want.
I’m not sure I’ve found my persona, yet, when it comes to writing.
Sometimes I feel like writing a blog post as Sarah 2.0, pounding the desks with my fists and threatening to break your arms and legs.
But, other times I want to write in a very serious or dumbfounded Sarah 1.0 type of way.
Does this matter?
That’s what I’m trying to figure out.
It does seem that Fred’s advice applies to all kinds of professions, and not just teaching or writing. Like, people are going to be more likely to flock to the dentist or the hairdresser or the botanist with an intriguing persona, right? They’ll look for it every time they visit for a floss, highlight, or discussion about plants.
So the persona has to be firmly in place, but not so much like a mask that people feel the need to pull it off.
In short, I think I’m trying to figure out how much Fred’s insistence on persona applies to my writing and if it will bring all the boys to the yard because my milkshake is better than yours. (P.S. That’s another song I terribly, terribly misunderstood the lyrics to, way back when. But, I never sang it out loud to a class. Thank God.)
So how about you? Do you have a persona, and when does he/she come out? Any song lyrics you’ve REALLY misunderstood throughout the years?