Tuesday, September 20, 2011

I'm back to talk about back then

From Rueters: The military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law for gay personnel is slated to run out as scheduled on Tuesday, the armed forces said, ending a 17-year rule fraught with controversy.

Likewise, I am ending a several-year ban on my blog. Chicago Teacher Man is back, but he's still in India, so it really should be International Teacher Man. But I'm in the classroom, and even though this isn't the inner city and the day-to-day events aren't as fraught with violence and anger, there are still stories that I want to remember. Some poignant. Some funny. Some memorable. Some just plain and ordinary but worthwhile in their own way.

Like last week. Students were doing a Pop Oral Presentation -- a POP, I like to call it. I had given them a famous speech to read, put them in groups, gave them 15 minutes to prepare, and had them quickly present the speech to the rest of the class. One group had JFK's inauguration speech, another Gandhi's "Quit India" speech, and another had Mary Fisher's 1992 Republican National Convention address. This one isn't as famous, perhaps, as the others, but a pretty great speech, asking Republicans to fund AIDS research.

Here's something I'm slowly discovering as a teacher: Many students are actually better at writing and speaking when they don't have a lot of time to think. Well, they perform better. Or at least I'm more impressed with the results. Give students 15 minutes to prepare a presentation and the expectations are quite low, so when they do OK, that's impressive. Give them a couple of nights to do the work and the expectations rise -- they should be much better, right? Usually they're not. So grades on formal assignments are low while in-class work gets high marks.

The first POP group was great. One girl had somehow managed to research Fisher's speech and told the class that Fisher convinced the nation that AIDS was not just a gay disease but rather something that could affect anyone. A boy in the group said something like this: "You have to remember that, back then, there was a lot of anti-gay prejudice in the U.S."

The whole class nodded thoughtfully, and I was stuck to my chair. "Back then." For high school juniors and seniors, 1992 is "back then."

I've always hated when students say those two words. It's usually used to refer to something in 1947, or 1492, or some distant time in history, a time students don't actually know or remember, so they'll make some blanket statement about "back then." Back then people were dumb. Back then people didn't know about love. Back then the world was black and white. And I'm always like, come on, do some research, don't just fall back on "back then" when you don't actually know anything about it.

This time, though, the kid said "back then" about 1992. Back then, I was a university student. This means, ultimately, that I grew up "back then." I grew up in history. Am a relic. A man from the past, a time traveler. Old. For a 17-year-old student, 1992 is ancient history, a time he doesn't know much about, so he puts statements into context by saying "back then."

In this case, the student was right: Back then, the world was more anti-gay than it is today. Evidence: The U.S. military's don't-ask, don't-tell policy, which was passed 17 years ago, ends today.

The people who think growing up in 2011 is difficult, more difficult than when they were young, are wrong. In some ways, the world today is a little better. But history will have to decide. And if history doesn't, there will be some student 17 years from now talking about 2011, and he'll say, "Back then, people still thought blogging was cool."


Anonymous said...

Glad you're back-I'm a teacher and your blogs have always made my day and made me smile -deep thanks

Anonymous said...

Back then we won the Academic Decathalon and you were nice enough to give us a ride to and from the competition because we didn't drive cars back then. I don't think we ever got to thank you. So this is for back then, Thank You!