Teaching Tigers

The Life of Pi by Yann Martel is the one book that all high-schoolers universally adore. We give it to them to read at home on their own, while in class we cover the core curriculum via decontextualized slices of Don Quixote and the Odyssey, nuggets of Confucius and Dante.

I was not pleased at having to re-read the book, and found myself equally entertained and irritated by it. But I will admit to being more intrigued by its ideas than I was the first time around. Pi, the main character and predictably unreliable narrator, has two obsessions–zoology and theology. Throughout the novel, the narrator struggles to separate human aspirations from animal behavior, but they remain frustratingly entwined, all but inextricable. Humans are animals, the book says over and over, but are we just animals? Or does the power of storytelling elevate us beyond the reach of our animal bodies? Is storytelling just a complicated lie to cover our savage nature, or are we in fact capable of sublimity?

These questions are very compelling when you’re facing a classroom full of students who are half-human, half-monster.

I don’t mean that pejoratively. It’s what makes them so interesting. Like minotaurs and mermaids, they have certain human traits, but they frequently behave like beasts, easily distracted by sex and the weather and all the familial drama that is constantly fogging up their home lives. (It’s easy as an adult to forget how much the family drama affected you when you were locked up with it every single day, with only a tiny corner to call your own.) They are, in fact, quite like Pi; they are [SPOILER ALERT] at once thoughtful, philosophical young people and sullen, feral beasts. They are one part starving human and one part part seasick tiger.

I try to nudge them toward humanity by giving them the stories that will make them feel human. I give them The Life of Pi and refrain from criticizing it, instead letting them get caught up in its whirlwind, getting caught up in the whirlwind myself, and then experiencing with them the disappointment and betrayal at its abrupt ending. I read aloud the gory parts of the Odyssey and encourage them to picture the action movie in their heads. I try to explain, futilely, it seems, how poems make meaning not just through their words, but through the shape those words take on the page, the sounds they make when you say them aloud. How parallelism, for instance, can give substance and form to ideas that we know to be true but that our brains would otherwise reject–we call them paradoxes.

“How can surrendering be the same as continuing?” I say. “How can mortality be the same as eternity? How can a person hear deafly? Speak mutely? Why would Marianne Moore write a poem entirely about impossible things?”

How can surrendering be the same as continuing, indeed? In the classroom, there is no control; the harder you push, the harder they push back.

The seniors, in some ways, are the worst. They truly are like caged tigers (“So is that a simile or a metaphor?”), stalking back and forth in their cages and glowering at me through the bars. They’ve been to college campuses; they can smell freedom. They are as emotionally ready as they’ll ever be to step into the big world, but they’re still stuck in a narrow one. They can feel its limitations, but they have no way of transcending them intellectually. They don’t know what it’s like outside the cage, how hard it is to survive, how many rewards there are in freedom and how lost you can feel when you’ve lost your taste for them.

They don’t see a person when they look at me; they see a grown-up, and grown-ups aren’t yet people to them. They think they know what people are like from watching TV and movies, but they don’t recognize the one standing in front of them. I am just one of many adults who stand guard at the cage door, keys dangling provocatively from our belts.

In a strange way, it’s kind of a relief to be misrecognized in that way. It lets you hide in plain sight. I am reminded of my interview with Aspergers Are Us, the sketch troupe made up entirely of comedians on the autism spectrum. This is New Michael Ingemi and Noah Britton talking:

NMI: That’s why it’s so awkward to make eye contact. Because when someone’s addressing you, they’re acknowledging you, that you exist—

NB: They’ve reminded you that you’re a human. And when you’re reminded that you’re a human, that’s really painful and unpleasant. And that’s one thing autism interventions try to do, is force us to do that, which hurts. It’s physically painful.

NMI: Because we’re not human, we’re animals.

There’s a kind of safety in not being human, because the rules of human behavior–compassion, empathy, politesse–don’t apply. For an animal, the only thing you have to worry about, beyond survival, is the fluctuation of power, the jostling of alpha, beta, and omega. And, of course, that’s survival too.

This week, I kicked a girl out of my classroom. I really should have done it months ago. She is a chronic eye-roller. I worry that she will strain her ocular nerve. I worry that someone will hit her on the back and she will look like a white-eyed zombie for the rest of her life. I have seen the northern hemisphere of her irises precisely three times. I want to tell her that her eyes are lovely when she uses them to look at people. Instead I let out an explosive breath of air and I say: “I’ve had it. Go see the principal, Katherine.” (That’s not her real name. Did I mention they all have the weirdest names these days?)

After she left—eyes now squinched with tears of rage and humiliation—the other students, no doubt as sick of her theatrics as I was, started snickering. And I, guardian and treasurer of the humanity of our nation’s youth, said: “Don’t laugh, [last name]. You’re next.”

You know who else said those exact words? The gym teacher played by Tom “Biff Tannen” Wilson on “Freaks and Geeks.” Yes, I have officially become Coach Fredricks.*

Yeah, it sucks making kids do something they’d clearly rather not be doing. All you can do is keep telling them stories and wait for them to feel like humans.

The same day that happened, I assigned my class a literary analysis. I wanted to give them a choice between poetry and prose (too may choices, I always give them too many choices), and I quickly picked “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning for the poem, because, duh. For the prose option, I was temporarily stumped. Finally, I decided to use the “double-consciousness” excerpt from Chapter 1 of W. E. B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk.

Empathy is a decidedly human preoccupation. To save time, I went ahead and allowed my heart to break before class even began. My school is full of white kids. It’s a private school in a largely segregated town. I do not have a single black student, nor have I seen any on the campus. I knew the DuBois excerpt would taste like medicine to them, that only the most sensitive among them would even feel shivers of discomfort, that others would fail to draw any connections at all between the experience of a black man in 1903 and their experience as white teenagers 110 years later. 

“Why should that matter?” I asked myself, ashamed of my initial indecision, and then thought, “It does matter, that’s why I’m assigning it,” and that decided it. 

In class, I pointed to them one after the other and enjoyed one of the few powers a high school teacher retains–the power to command students to read out loud. As I conducted this depressing symphony of not-caring, the last student in the class began to read the double-consciousness paragraph. “One ever feels his twoness–an American, a Negro, two warring ideals in one dark body whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” It’s not medicine, it’s straight up grain alcohol.

The kid reading the passage is bright but has been checked out all year. He seems to have given up at some point. I have been prodding him with praise and threats, but it’s not working. He began reading, droning through the difficult first sentence. Then, suddenly, there was a change. He leaned forward. He slowed down his reading. He frowned a little, and his eyes opened a little wider.

I noticed, or remembered, that he’s not white. He has brown skin. He’s not Mexican, he’s South American–adopted–but I’m sure ninety percent of Texans who meet him casually assume he’s Mexican (with all that entails in a border state). I had grown so accustomed to his sullen silence that I didn’t even try to make eye contact with him in class anymore, so when he suddenly spoke, I had to turn my head to look at him.

“It’s about how people see you? And how you’re always thinking about it,” he said. “It’s about how you always have to think about people looking at you, seeing only this one thing about you. You’re different.”

Twice at the University of Chicago, I was reading James Baldwin in an undergraduate class. Both times, when we came to Baldwin, the majority of the students became glazed and restless, while one student perked up, engaged for the first time. Both times, I intuited in a flash that the student, not feeling entirely white, had picked up on high-frequency notes that the other students couldn’t hear, had read the plain, straightforward words as a secret message just for them. Colorblindness is not the absence of racism, and there is a special kind of invisibility that comes from being the only non-white student in a white classroom. James Baldwin and W. E. B. DuBois work on these students like lemon juice on invisible ink. While the rest of the students saw this as “black writing,” they saw it as truth. The text looked straight at them and recognized them as people.

We don’t always know who we’re changing and how. I have said many times that a teacher doesn’t get to see the difference she makes, and that is the hardest part about caring, the thing that wears teachers down over time. We don’t get to see the difference we make. Every lost kid drags a cohort of lost adults behind them. They are animals, and we are animals, and no story you can tell is ever going to change that. So we feel like failures. We can’t tame them. We can only feed them and try to listen to the stories they are telling us about our own humanity. 

*Why is it such a joy to call some kids by their last name? The world may never know.

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