Saturday, May 30, 2009


Or: Tears, Part 2

Five minutes before class: A student is standing solemnly outside the staff lounge. I am heading out of the room, going up to the auditorium where this girl and two classmates will present their "Senior Symposium."

"I have a problem," she says nervously. "I'm not ready."

"Sure you are," I say as I brush past her, knowing full well that she's probably not. She's one of my weaker students, working with two other weak students. Today's the first day of the Symposium, and the three of them got the unlucky break of being selected to go first. "You go on in five minutes. I'll see you there."

Three minutes before class: I've peeked into the auditorium; everything seems to be in place. A table and three chairs, plus a podium on stage. Lights on. Students are wandering in casually, filling in random seats. Two of the presenters are at the door; unprepared girl is not. I step out, see her standing in a corner by the stairs.

"I lost most of my presentation," she says as I approach. "I can't go on. Can the two guys go on without me? I'll take a zero."

"What do you mean you lost your presentation?" I ask, pretty much knowing what she'll tell me. All year long, whenever an assignment has been due, at least one student was bound to tell me something about a computer crash or lost storage device or some sort of technical snafu.

The girl pulls out some typed-up notes and mumbles something about working all night and not saving it properly.

"Looks like you have something," I say. "Just present that. Even if it's not great, even if you get a terrible grade, it's better than nothing. Remember what I've said all year, an F is better than a zero." (It's true: an F will not drag down an overall average like a zero does.)

She doesn't look convinced, but I turn away, distracted by some silly seniors asking questions about the Symposium. It begins today, and they still don't know exactly what's expected of them. It's not that difficult. In groups of three, they've all read and analyzed independent novels, linked by author or theme. Today, groups must present that author or theme. Each group member chooses something that links the three novels and speaks about it for ten minutes. Afterwards, there's a question-and-answer session, group members defending their conclusions.

The symposium has been a tradition here for at least 15 years. It's something every twelfth grader endures in the weeks before graduation. But I guess it hasn't hit them until here and now. They are graduating in less than 20 days.

"Does everyone have to dress formally, or just today's presenters?" someone asks. As if I'd tell her to leave if she wasn't dressed properly.

One minute before class: Unprepared girl is now a total nervous wreck. Tears are streaming down her face. She's probably wondering why she's here, cornered, why she didn't run somewhere, anywhere instead of showing up. I should let her off the hook, let her take a zero, fail the fourth quarter, possibly the semester, not graduate. I should. But first I need to trick her onto the stage.

"Let me ask you something," I say. "What do you think of me as a teacher? Am I OK? Or terrible? Or somewhere in between?"

She looks up. Wipes some tears away. "You're a very good teacher," she says.

"Thanks," I say. "Now let me tell you a story. Are you listening?"

I tell her--in as few words as possible--about my time student teaching, back in the early 90s. I was having a terrible time. I got along well with the students, but I just wasn't ready to teach. I quickly realized that I had blown off my entire four years of college. I hadn't learned a thing about teaching. I didn't know how to write a lesson plan, how to teach, how to assess. I didn't even know my subject well. When the university supervisor asked me specific questions about what I was doing or why, I couldn't answer.

So I decided to quit.

There was about a month to go, and I was in pain and agony. I realized that I would never actually work as a teacher. I didn't know what I would do, but I knew I'd never teach. One evening I told my parents that I was quitting. They were upset, but for the first time ever, they didn't attack my decision. They listened. And when I was done, tears streaming, they said something like this: "Maybe you won't ever teach. But just finish this. And if you decide to teach in the future, you'll have the degree, the qualifications."

I did finish that semester of student teaching. It wasn't great. But my cooperating teacher was encouraging, and the university supervisor gave me a pass.

"My point," I tell unprepared girl, "is that I'm glad I finished what I started. If I had quit back then, I wouldn't be here right now."

She agrees to give it a try.

30 seconds before class: As nervous girl walks into the auditorium, I smile and give her a final word of advice: "I promise you, you will not die. It might not be great, but you will not die."

I turn out to be right. Her group does fine. She does fine; in fact, she's better than her more confident group members. And the audience is approving, asking loads of serious questions. It's not the greatest 40 minutes of anyone's life, but nobody dies, life goes on, and maybe someone has even learned something.

Friday, May 29, 2009


What is the bravest thing you have ever done?

I personally don't know if I have ever done anything brave in my life. Definitely never as brave as what one of my twelfth graders did today.

For the past two weeks ago, the twelfth graders had been talking about staging a senior skip day. "Tell us when you're going to do it so we plan accordingly," we teachers would say. "We haven't decided anything," they would reply. Well today was the day. At morning assembly, the seniors were noted for their absence. They were simply gone. Where to, nobody knew.

One girl, though, was there, sitting and smiling when the school principal stood on stage and said, "I take a dim view of this action at this time of year."

"Why aren't you skipping?" I asked her after assembly. She was going to be the only student in my first class.

"Because I don't feel like it," she said. "I have nothing to rebel against." She said the same kind of thing to other teachers, with slight variations. "I know it sounds cheesy, but I want to go to my classes." This girl is not in the running for valedictorian, nor is she going for a perfect attendance award. She just didn't feel like skipping.

Turns out she took a lot of heat from her peers. Apparently, she got all sorts of nasty phone calls and text messages telling her how big of a bitch she was, how she had ruined skip day, how the whole class would suffer because of her actions. Thing is, the principal did drive up to the top of the hill, where the seniors were congregating, and told them they'd either come back to school and face minor consequences or stay away and face major consequences. Almost half of them came back.

"It was the scariest thing ever," one of the returnees said. "He came up, delivered one sentence, and got back in the car and left."

Meanwhile, the lone holdout was reeling from the attacks.

"Basically we were all blackmailed by the class governors to say we'd skip school today," she said. "I signed something saying I'd skip, but then I didn't feel like it."

At the end of a grueling semester, at the end of four long years of high school, the senior class isn't very united. Most of the kids just want to get out of here and get on with their lives. Today's failed attempt at unification won't make things better.

"The whole thing's so stupid," holdout girl said.

Finally, one of the returnees approached. "You're my hero. You really are," the returnee said to holdout girl. "I wish I had been smart enough to say 'screw it' and come to school like you did. But it was so hard."

The pressure was on. And one girl was brave enough to push back against the weight of all of her peers. It took guts.


Or: Tears, part 1

"Did you really write this? Is all of this true?"

It rarely happens, but every once in a while, a student writes something so good that I have no choice but to ask. I'm in the English office with one of my eleventh graders, reviewing his personal essay.

"Yes, everything is true," he says. "Well, I'm not sure about all the dialogue, but I think that's what he said."

"This is pretty incredible," I tell him.

High school students have the hardest time writing about themselves. Many claim that they've never experienced anything worthy of an essay, that their lives are boring, that they are nobodies. Or they write too much about the most minor point, or a negative trait that they really shouldn't be revealing. But with a little digging and a lot of prodding, most produce some really interesting stuff. Back in Chicago, there were plenty of stories of survival--from gang warfare, drugs, bad parents. Here, at an elite boarding school full of well-to-do Indians and other Asians, there are stories of success and tradition--the uncle who became a billionaire, the grandmother teaching Tibetan ideals.

One kid, though, really blew me away. I probably shouldn't reveal too much--it is a personal essay after all--but maybe he wouldn't mind.

One boy found out at some point in elementary school that he was a quarter Jewish. Living in Germany at the time, he was given a new nickname, and a game called "Catch the Jew" was established. He thought it was all hilarious (his emphasis, not mine).

Then, about a year ago, he met his one remaining Jewish relative, his grandfather. The boy laughed so hard he cried when he saw the old man's big nose. Then, the grandfather told a story about the time he left an orphanage after the war, after four years in a concentration camp, when all he wanted was an ice cream cone.

That's the sparknotes version, missing the emotion and cleverness. But trust me, the essay is incredible. If it's true.

In class, I raved about it and asked the writer if he'd be willing to read it. He agreed. He's sort of a show-off, likes being the center of attention, so he stood proudly in front of his peers. His pronunciation isn't the best, plus he started reading way too fast, so he wasn't doing any of it justice. At a pause, I interrupted, "Are you a little nervous?" He admitted he was. "Well, slow down," I said.

He did. When he got to the ice cream incident, he paused a little longer. "Just a minute," he said. He bent over, hiding his face behind his paper, shoulders heaving. Soon, he was sobbing out loud. He couldn't get a single word out, just remained crouching at the front of the room, tears and mucus running down his face.

The class sat in stunned silence. Here was a campus tough guy--someone who flirts relentlessly, who gets busted smoking and doesn't care, who influences shy Korean boys to talk to girls, who plays sports and laughs and openly admits he drinks--weeping.

I let him stay in that position, all by himself, for a minute. The longest, sweetest, most beautiful minute of the school year. I'm pretty sure the story is true.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The art of teaching

Every English teacher knows the story:

You try to discuss a novel, try to point out some possible symbols, try to get the kids to create meaning out of what's there. Soon enough, skeptical faces stare back, and finally a brave soul says, "Yeah right! How do you know the author meant that?"

"Well, I don't know he meant exactly that," you say, "but he definitely meant something. I mean, do you think that scene--or those words--are there by accident?"

"It's possible," the skeptical student says. "Why do you insist that everything has some hidden meaning? Can't things just be what they are?"

"Of course they can," you say. "And they are what they are. But the beauty of literature is that there's more to it. Literature is an art."

Anyway, if you're an English teacher you know the story. And if you've ever been a student in an English class, you know the story from the other end. In fact, you probably hate reading because of the damn analyzing you were forced to do.

My eleventh graders have been grumbling about this stuff for the past few days. The grumbling almost turned to shouting when I handed back a multiple-choice test on Parts 1 and 2 of Ian McEwan's Atonement.

Writing multiple-choice questions about literature is hard enough. Defending the questions and answers against the skeptics is almost impossible.

But today I think I made a breakthrough.

"OK, I'm working on my multiple-choice-question writing," I announced at the start of class. "Take out scratch paper and answer two questions. They're based on a New Yorker article about McEwan. You'll read the article next week, but today I want to see what you think."

This was a brilliant tactical move. I highly recommend it. The New Yorker article is brilliant, because it's not just about the author; it's about the writing process. The reporter follows McEwan as he works on his new novel.

"Question 1," I said. This was an oral test. "How long do you think McEwan worked on Part 2 of Atonement? Was it A. several hours, B. several days, C. several weeks, or D. several months?"

The kids scribbled their choices.

"Question 2. About how many words does McEwan write on a good day? Remember that he is a professional writer, and he has nothing else to do all day but write. So, is it A. 500, B. 1,000, C. 2,000, or D. 5,000?"

I asked to see a show of hands. What did they think? Mostly B. or C. for both questions. Maybe kids are conditioned to answer B. or C. when they don't know an answer.

"OK, thanks for playing. You'll find out the answers next week when we read the article," I said. This was met with groans. "What, you want to know right now?" They did. "Fine."

And so I pulled out a copy of the article and read the answer to question 1: "When McEwan was writing Atonement, he struggled for months with the Dunkirk section." And the answer to question 2: "For McEwan, a single 'dream of absorption' often yields just a few details worth fondling. Several hundred words is a good day."

"So," I said, "the answers are D. and A." Only one student had both answers correct, a girl who talked to me about McEwan after school on Monday. "Now," I said, "who can tell me why I had you try to answer these two questions?"

A kid got it right on the first try: "Because we always argue when you say that writers spend a lot of time on their novels, and that everything's in there for a reason."

"Exactly!" I said.

"Yeah, but," a skeptic said, "is this true for every writer? Or just about McEwan?"

"Well," I said, "every writer is different. Some struggle for weeks on just one sentence, trying to make it perfect. But whatever the case is, you need to believe me when I say that writing is an art."