Two people told me the truth this week.
I was at an organizing meeting for the March for Our Lives– that’s March 24 at noon at Theiss Park, kids– and someone said, “You can’t use the same model for a new situation, you always have to build a new model,” and I nodded at the wisdom of this, as we stood in the entryway of the 100-year-old library.
Later I thought, oh, hell, no. Some things last forever! Some things are stable, rock, like Shakespeare! (said the English major).
Aside: watching a TV show on Queen Victoria, a lady-in-waiting says Shakespeare is too vulgar for a noble audience. So.
Then I was chatting with someone who was a veteran, and I said, “Is there anything you can say about you experience in Iraq and Afghanistan?” And he said, “It was fun.”
We then discussed War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, which basically explains that people continue to have wars because they are “fun,” well, additive, even. We agreed that its author, Chris Hedges, was great.
The times they are a’ changin’, and war is fun.
I went to meet with my future graduate program (though I shudder as I write this, because I cannot make a new model). I was relieved that there were so many people of color, this made me feel safer, in my special weird way of the WASP who feels safer among anyone but her own people. (My people are scary.) On campus, in meetings, being “wooed,” as I joked, but we were being wooed, everyone was so quiet and polite and apologetic and welcoming, I felt I was on another (professional) planet.
All these years being a high school (and lately elementary) teacher, I am not used to being treated like a person whose feet might hurt (“Sorry for all the walking,”) or who might be tired (“It must have been a long day”) or who might have something valuable to say (“Do you have any questions?” for the tenth time). A person who might be hungry (“Let’s get you to the cafeteria, you must be starving”).
It wasn’t that I disliked this, it just felt strange, a contrast between “women’s work, ” teaching children, and “men’s work,” teaching adults. If you work in “women’s work,” you are treated like shit, and then everyone says you are a saint. (Thanks, I don’t need to be a saint.) If you work in “men’s work,” you are treated like a person, and everyone says you are a reasonable guy. (I’d like to make social justice an important part of my life without being called a fool.)
A new model?
College classrooms are white, white, white, in temperament, in color, in blankness. I sat in on a class, and everyone was so quiet. Their values and their vibe are intensely white and middle class. (I don’t really know what upper class rich people vibes are.) Everyone exercises self-restraint at all times. Rarely does anyone get upset. In a high school classroom, someone is always upset. Because her boyfriend dumped her, because she is going to lose it if so-and-so interrupts her one more time, because last night he was up half the night with his little sister because his mom works nights and the sister was scared.
In a college classroom, there is nothing to touch, nothing is soft, there are no words on the walls, except words to tell how to work the technology installed. No one knows who wrote those words, and people expect them to be unclear and frustrating. No one ever touches anyone. Even in my high school classroom, I was frequently touching someone on the arm, or the shoulder, to get their attention, and people were frequently brushing up against each other because we moved around in a small space.
I like a high school classroom, and elementary classroom, but also, it exhausts me.
I remember now that when you teach adults, it can be hard to get people talking. My entire career in education thus far has focused on getting people to please shut up.
“I’m going to– ”
“We’re going to–”
“Okay, I’ll wait a minute.”
“One two three, eyes on me.”
(Other than the times my high school kids were discussing in small groups, then, of course, they were silent as Quakers.)
I am still enjoying teaching at one school in the northeast part of Kansas City. There is great poverty and violence there, but also a lot of immigration, which gives energy and hope, and feels, to me, like New York City energy, since that is where I first felt immigrant energy.
I had my most rambunctious class there, and the first hour, I was worried, because I didn’t figure out how to get their attention. The first hour, most classes, even wild ones, will be pretty sedate because they are sleepy, and have not used up much of their patience. This class had a wild first hour. This school, though, is a place where a little wildness is not dangerous. It has a looser vibe. Anyway, this class, I discovered, liked stories.
I’ve had a class that loved to sing, that if I could just come up with enough songs (“Wheels on the Bus”!) we would have sung all day. This class liked stories. When I began a book, everyone’s eyes were on it.
I explained I was going to read “Alexander and the Wind-up Mouse,” by Leo Lionni. I explained I wanted to read it because I had met Lionni when I was a child, and because his books were about ideas that were so deep even grown-ups struggled with them.
It was beautifully silent, as they waited to hear the story.
War is fun, especially when you win.
Lionni poses the question: would you rather be a wind-up mouse, who is loved, but then discarded, or a real mouse, who is in danger, hungry, and will die?
Everyone had her own opinion.
Image: detail of “Woman in White,” Picassso, Metropolitan Museum of Art.