Saturday, May 21, 2011

That Old Deluder Satan

1647, Massachusetts:

"Kids today, I tell ye."

"I know, no respect."

"It's that damned old deluder, Satan. He hath got hold of 'em."

"That's it!"


"The young are clearly being misled by the Devil. He must be stopped! And the children must be controlled."

"But we already force them to go to church three times everyday. If the bible doesn't scare them back in line, I don't know what will."

"Aye, and we already beat them..."

"When we're not making them do hard labor."

"So, what's left? What hathn't we done to them?"

"What if there were some place where we could send all of them for the day... some small room they can't leave all day? Somebody there to take them off our hands for a nominal fee?"

"But what'll they do there? They can't even read..."

"Precisely! We will educate the little shits!"

"Hmm... all of them?"

"All of them."

"Even the Negroes and the Indians?"

"Oh. Well, no, don't be silly. Obviously not them. But everyone else!"

Look at those little heathens!
Thus, the Old Deluder Satan Law of 1647 was born and with it the foundation for public education in these United States of America. As it was written: It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures, as in former times by keeping them in an unknown tongue... It is therefore ordered that every township in this jurisdiction, after the Lord hath increased them to fifty households shall forthwith appoint one within their town to teach all such children as shall resort to him to write and read...

This law really was historically significant as the beginning of public education in America. Each member of the township was required to contribute to a pool of money used to pay for the schoolhouse and teacher, all in an effort to ward off the Devil by way of literacy. I just love the phrasing... That old deluder, Satan. It's so quaint! Fucking 1647, man... there were people then!

Now, in the year of our Lord 2011, I stand in front of a class full of jaded, skeptical, end-of-the-school-year-big-guys-on-campus-attitude-having 14-year-olds. I need help! They are staring at me... waiting... waiting... waiting for me to entertain them. Waiting for me to amuse them in some way. If I can, I might live. If I can't... well then, it's all over. They will rise-up and turn on me en masse and that'll be the end of me. They won't even remember I ever existed. They might have some vague memory of a beard and glasses, but it'll be as if those things were floating around in the ether, not attached to a person. "Mr.Kodish?" they'll say, when asked about my whereabouts. "We have no idea what you're talking about. That name sounds made up. Haven't we been alone in here for the last few weeks? There was a teacher in here? I don't think so. I think we would have known if a teacher was in here. No, it's been just us 14-year-olds. Pretty sure we're the only people alive on the planet right now."

Imagine, if you dare, the faces of
23 disaffected youths staring blankly in those desks
But, no, they have not been alone in that room. Believe me, I have been there everyday. Oh, have I been there. For I am their 8th grade English "permanent sub" for the last weeks of their middle school careers. I have been there about five weeks already, now there is just under two weeks to go in the school year. Their real teacher fell off his roof and messed himself up pretty good. He's OK... but not OK enough for teaching. At least that's the official story. Is it crazy to suggest that his "fall" was really a push? That one or all of his students were up on that roof with him? I'm telling you, these kids are put on the earth to push out the old (figuratively at least, literally if they can) and they know it. Put nothing past them! It's a teenage wasteland! We're all wasted! Only a matter of time... 

Alas, however, my own survival instinct has remained one step ahead of the teenage horde so far. I have managed to fend them off and maintain some modicum of sanity. I wouldn't go so far as to say that I am a good teacher. Heavens, no. Don't be ridiculous. In fact, looking back, I think I have fooled every person who has ever hired me, including the principal of this school. I am expert at faking it until making it. But, while I'm faking it, I am learning... learning more than the students, for sure. And I refuse to let them win. They may be younger, bigger, better looking, and more popular, but I still have my wits about me and can go toe-to-toe in the ring of the classroom with any of them. I'd love for it not to be a me-against-them situation, but it seems that is the way most of them want it. So be it, I am prepared to meet them on their own battlefield. I am prepared to mix my metaphors to the death!

Notice the movie posters.
That was my "big idea" attempt to engage the students.
Actually, it really hasn't been that antagonistic. I'd even say a lot of them like me, and I like a lot of them. Some of them, sure, are total assholes. Some may even be, in fact, possessed by Satan. But most aren't. They're just, ya know, 8th-graders. I forgive them that weakness. Plus, do you remember how you felt during the last couple weeks of a school year? Did you give two, or less than two shits about schoolwork at that point? I can certainly remember being mentally checked out and expecting nothing but parties and watching movies during the last week. Well, now I am on the other side of the equation and can tell you that the teachers feel the same way. But, we're still obligated to try to educate up until the last bell rings... and I already have a constant, newbie-teacher guilt that I am not actually teaching enough. I mean, how much do they expect me to teach, anyway? How much can you teach a brick wall? For that is what the kids are at this point... a brick wall with eyeballs and a Justin Bieber haircut.

The author and former teacher Frank McCourt (of Angela's Ashes fame) expresses all this in words better than my own in his memoir Teacher Man. Outlining his 30-year teaching career in New York City high schools, he describes what it's like to be in a classroom as a new teacher much better than I have, or probably could. So, let me stop ripping him off and let him sum up this post in his own words:

Facing dozens of teenagers every day brings you down to earth. At eight a.m. they don't care how you feel. You think of the day ahead: five classes, up to one hundred and seventy-five American adolescents; moody, hungry, in love, anxious, horny, energetic, challenging. No escape. There they are and there you are with your headache, your indigestion... You still have that bag filled with the papers of the one hundred and seventy-five students, their so-called compositions, careless scrawls. Oh, mister, did you read my paper? Not that they care. Writing compositions is not how they intend to spend the rest of their lives. That's something you do only in this boring class. They're looking at you. You cannot hide. They're waiting. What are we doing today, teacher? The paragraph? Oh, yeah. Hey, everybody, we gonna study the paragraph, the structure, topic sentence an' all. Can't wait to tell my mom tonight. She's always asking how was school today. Paragraphs, Mom. Teacher has a thing about paragraphs. Mom'll say, Very nice, and go back to her soap opera.
I was more than a teacher. And less. In the classroom you are a drill sergeant, a rabbi, a shoulder to cry on, a disciplinarian, a singer, a low-level scholar, a clerk, a referee, a clown, a counselor, a dress-code enforcer, a conductor, an apologist, a philosopher, a collaborator, a tap dancer, a politician, a therapist, a fool, a traffic cop, a priest, a mother-father-brother-sister-uncle-aunt, a bookkeeper, a critic, a psychologist, the last straw.
If you bark or snap, you lose them. That's what they get from parents and the schools in general, the bark and the snap. If they strike back with the silent treatment, you're finished in the classroom. Their faces change and they have a way of deadening their eyes. Tell them open their notebooks. They stare. They take their time. Yeah, they'll open their notebooks. Yes, sir, here we go opening our notebooks nice and easy so nothing falls out. Tell them copy what's on the board. They stare. Oh, yeah, they tell one another. He wants us to copy what's on the board. Look at that. Man wrote something on the board and wants us to copy it. They shake their heads in slow motion. You ask, Are there any questions? and all around the room there is the innocent look. You stand and wait. They know it's a forty-minute showdown, you versus them...
Here they come.
And I'm not ready.
How could I be?
I'm a new teacher and learning on the job.

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