Monday, May 09, 2011

Teachable moments

My son is going through this wonderful phase where he asks lots of questions, mostly about things I take for granted. A few examples: "Why do you like to play music? Where do cats come from? How did you get to be so big?"

He also asks me to tell stories. "Tell me a funny story about when you were a kid?" Or, "Tell me a scary story?" I usually mix facts with fiction, and he's old enough to be skeptical of the more fantastic elements of my tales. For example, he loves these plastic little action figures, Gogo's Crazy Bones, and each one has a round disc on the back. He asked me what that was and I told him the disc is a microchip the makers put into them, so that when you're not looking they will run away and hide. He replied with a long, drawn out, "Really? Are you telling the truth, Daddy?"

I answer back, because I haven't the heart to support the lie, "What do you think?"

He said, "No. That can't be true."

Later, when he couldn't find a couple of them (they are pretty small), I raised my eyebrows and said, "See? Why do you think they're called Gogo's? The company that makes them hopes they get lost so kids like you will make their parents buy more. It's simple economics."

"What's economics?" ...

The stories I tell him about my childhood made me realize that I did not have very good experiences with authority figures and I there were multiple instances where I was falsely accused of things I did not do or say. This imbued in me a healthy distrust of authority and authority figures in general. No wonder I did not connect with the principal at my last teaching job and sometimes thought of myself as an imposter in the profession. I had become that which I dreaded most.

Here are a few examples, some of them so egregious the adults involved should have faced discipline or charged with a crime. But I grew up, thank goodness, in a less litigious age.

Fifth grade, during a rainy recess stuck indoors, I was minding my own business reading a book when my teacher appeared before me, a wild, angry look on her face.

"What did you say?" She asked.

"I didn't say anything. I was just reading."

"No you weren't. Get down to the principal's office this instant!"

"What do you think I said?"

"You know what you said."

And here's where the proceedings get criminal. She left the entire class and alternately shoved me down the hall and grabbed me by the scruff of my shirt so hard I choked. Shove, then grab. Shove again, and so forth. Of course, the principal didn't believe my claims of innocence and I received three paddles on the butt with a paddle that had holes drilled in it so it made a whooshing noise every time it was swung.

Whoosh whoosh smack.
Whoosh whoosh smack.
Whoosh whoosh smack.

I never did figure out what I said that was so bad. The same teacher, Mrs. Phillips, kept me from getting a perfect attendance certificate that year by giving me one tardy. She really had it in for me. I can take solace that she was probably a miserable, spiteful soul, which is its own punishment.

There are at least four more instances I can remember of being accused of something I didn't do, and this was just in elementary school. I was a bit of a handful, seeking out attention, and moving about in a whirl of restless energy. I can see why I got blamed for so much. But it doesn't make it right. And corporal punishment is unconscionable.

This is why, as a teacher, I am very slow and deliberate in handing out blame. Unless I see the wrongdoing, I don't mete out judgment. And I have a soft spot for the misunderstood and delinquent. Public education needs more people like me, curious seekers more interested in sharing a love of learning than maintaining ego and control. The control freak personality is so dominant in education. Yes, being a good teacher requires organization and attention to detail. But so many teachers lack creativity and joy in their work. It makes me mad to be unemployed, knowing I have the ability to be one of those teachers who can make a positive difference, when so many mediocre, bitter, and just plain bad teachers stay on the public dole.

I have never struck my child in anger. I will never falsely accuse him or others of wrongdoing. That is a positive outcome of some very negative experiences.

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