On the Proper Use of Time

1

At times, the school year seems to extend endlessly, a pile of days that stretches beyond our sight, under which we all seem to be crushed slowly. If there’s a class that’s an inordinate challenge, the weight of that pile seems to double, and somehow, no matter how well things are going in the year, a few more days seem to be tossed carelessly on the pile as third quarter approaches. “What?! I’m this exhausted, and we’re just now in the back half?!”

Decorating his pinewood derby car

Other times, the year seems entirely too short, something requiring calipers to measure. The list of standards the state requires teachers to cover seems to require twice the days the state allocates for the challenge. Some standards seem as if they might take a lifetime to master in and of themselves. “Assess the processes to revise strategies, address misconceptions, anticipate and overcome obstacles, and reflect on completeness of the inquiry.” I’m still working on that one. “Determine appropriate disciplinary tools and develop a plan to communicate findings and/or take informed action.” Ditto.

An unusually-attentive Clover

In between those two, the powers that be, in their infinite wisdom, allocate a certain number of days to testing. In the decade-plus I’ve taught in the States, that number seems to grow every year. In the case of the hard-to-handle classes, it’s a relief in a sense — for the obvious reasons. It’s tiring keeping them focused and engaged every day, and a test is just the right mind-numbing exercise to make the period pass by fairly painlessly. They get little to nothing out of it, and they put little to nothing into it, and everyone knows that’s what’s going to happen, but we do the dance anyway, and everyone goes home with their dance card happily filled. And yet for those same classes, it’s a nightmare, for teachers already feel we’re trying to cram too much into to little.

It just doesn’t seem like the proper use of time.

2

Wednesday afternoons are often when I catch up with school work. The Girl has choir practice, until five and K and the Boy are out doing the grocery shopping as they wait, and so when I arrive home, the house is empty and silent. I make a cup of coffee, get out some papers to grade, or more likely, load this or that website that now holds my students’ work and begin assessing, or I start sketching out my plans for the next week’s activities.

Frustration at the difficulty of cleaning up after an experiment

Today, however, I had a thought: I don’t have anything to do for school that is terribly pressing; my school is quite near the Aldi where K and E are shopping; I could easily pick up the Boy and take him home for a bit of playing. I called K; she asked the Boy; he was thrilled. Home we went, talking all the way about what we might play.

Said clean-up

We settled on cars, with a bit of blocks. And in the midst of it all, out of seemingly nowhere, we ended up building jails for the misbehaving cars. E designed one, which meant he placed the blocks, and I hunted them down for him if he couldn’t find them. Then we tested it, which meant he rammed a big car into the jail to see if it stood. It didn’t; the bad car escaped. So we did it again, alternating who designed the jail. No jail held the prisoner for longer than a few moments when the Boy really set his mind and muscles to the task.

The final jail

We made a big mess. The Boy got semi-hurt as he crashed his car into the pile a bit too hard. I accomplished absolutely nothing for school.

It was a proper use of time.

Interpretation

My English I Honors students have just finished up a four-week poetry unit, which is in a way one of my favorite units we do. It’s not just that I love poetry, which I do, or that I hope to instill in them an appreciation of or even love of poetry, which I do, but it’s also a one of the units where we all see real growth in students’ ability to read and think critically.

At the start of the unit, there are the concerns: Some suggest they cannot understand poetry. Some suggest poetry is just about emotions. Some suggest that learning about poetry has no practical value later in life.

To the first concern, I always point out that learning to read increasingly challenging texts with greater levels of intentional ambiguity is just like everything else: it takes time and practice. I assure them that I’ll give them some skills — some tricks, I call them — that will help them ease the process.

To the second suggestion, I point out that while emotion is a critical element in a lot of poetry, it’s not the end of poetry in itself. It’s a means to an end. The emotion one finds in poetry is not what it’s about — except for some confessional poetry, of course. Even then, there’s always something bigger. I don’t tell them then, but what I’m referring to of course is the lyric moment of a poem, that point at which the reader has an epiphany because the speaker has an epiphany. (I am speaking of modern poetry, of course. When we move back into the nineteenth century and beyond, lyric moments tend to disappear a bit. Just a bit.)

The third worry is easy: No, you won’t read and interpret poetry your whole life, but you will need the skills — picking up on connotation, determining tone, reading for changes in mood — your whole life. No matter what you do, I say, no matter what the job, you’ll need these skills.

So we dive in. We read Elizabeth Bishop and Billy Collins, Dylan Thomas and Theodore Roethke, Langston Hughes and Howard Nemerov, Robert Hayden and in preparation for Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare. There are others, but I’ve found it most fruitful to read less and read more deeply than read more and only skim over the surface. We read poems and then go back to them again when we’ve learned another skill. We read poems once, twice, three times — again and again and again.

Then comes the test. A simple, four-question test. “Four questions, Mr. Scott?! Only four?!” they all reply when we prep for it. I give them two poems, both by W.D. Snodgrass: “Momentos, 1” and “A Locked House.”

Momentos, 1

Sorting out letters and piles of my old
Canceled checks, old clippings, and yellow note cards
That meant something once, I happened to find
Your picture. That picture. I stopped there cold,
Like a man raking piles of dead leaves in his yard
Who has turned up a severed hand.

Still, that first second, I was glad: you stand
Just as you stood—shy, delicate, slender,
In that long gown of green lace netting and daisies
That you wore to our first dance. The sight of you stunned
Us all. Well, our needs were different, then,
And our ideals came easy.

Then through the war and those two long years
Overseas, the Japanese dead in their shacks
Among dishes, dolls, and lost shoes; I carried
This glimpse of you, there, to choke down my fear,
Prove it had been, that it might come back.
That was before we got married.

—Before we drained out one another’s force
With lies, self-denial, unspoken regret
And the sick eyes that blame; before the divorce
And the treachery. Say it: before we met. Still,
I put back your picture. Someday, in due course,
I will find that it’s still there.

We read it together, make sure there are no unknown or confusing words, then move on to the second poem.

A Locked House

As we drove back, crossing the hill,
The house still
Hidden in the trees, I always thought—
A fool’s fear—that it might have caught
Fire, someone could have broken in.
As if things must have been
Too good here. Still, we always found
It locked tight, safe and sound.

I mentioned that, once, as a joke;
No doubt we spoke
Of the absurdity
To fear some dour god’s jealousy
Of our good fortune. From the farm
Next door, our neighbors saw no harm
Came to the things we cared for here.
What did we have to fear?

Maybe I should have thought: all
Such things rot, fall—
Barns, houses, furniture.
We two are stronger than we were
Apart; we’ve grown
Together. Everything we own
Can burn; we know what counts—some such
Idea. We said as much.

We’d watched friends driven to betray;
Felt that love drained away
Some self they need.
We’d said love, like a growth, can feed
On hate we turn in and disguise;
We warned ourselves. That you might despise
Me—hate all we both loved best—
None of us ever guessed.

The house still stands, locked, as it stood
Untouched a good
Two years after you went.
Some things passed in the settlement;
Some things slipped away. Enough’s left
That I come back sometimes. The theft
And vandalism were our own.
Maybe we should have known.

The questions:

  1. Identify tone and tonal shift of each poem. Make sure you quote specific passages of each poem in order to provide evidence.
  2. What is the lyric moment of each poem? What epiphany does the speaker have in each poem?
  3. Compare and contrast the two poems. How are the topics, tones, and lyric moments similar? How are they different?
  4. The author of these poems was an early writer of what’s called “confessional poetry,” in which the “I” in the poem is very often the poet himself/herself. It involves writing not about what’s going on in the world but what’s going on in the heart and mind of the poet. What can you infer about the author if we assume that the “I” in each poem is the poet himself?

These are somewhat tricky poems. “Momentos, 1” has a couple of tones in the first part of the poem that are then echoed in mutated form in the second half.

“A Locked House” uses a long, extended metaphor that, being a metaphor, is never expressly explicated. Experienced readers immediately see that the house is a metaphor for the speaker’s and his wife’s marriage, but thirteen-year-olds don’t always see that at first.

Lost Stars

E and I were lying on the bed in the master bedroom, reading. He always gets a book from school for his daily reading log, and often the book is leveled just right for reading with a parent: a few words he knows, enough short words that he can sound out, and a few words that he needs a lot of help with. Always a refrain of sorts, something easily remembered that he can just repeat.

Today’s book: My Dad and I.

We made it through the book, which was about all the things the narrator’s dad teaches him to do and all the things he teaches his dad to do, and E began teaching me about his star behavior system in school. Of course I knew all about it: I just had a conference with his teacher a few weeks ago, and we get a daily report about how many stars he ended the day with. But of course I let him explain it.

“We start with three stars, and if we do something wrong, we lose a star.” He paused, then added, “I haven’t lost a star yet this year.”

What will he do when he loses a star?

Updated B

The Girl got her report card today, and much to her surprise, she didn’t get that B. Turns out it was on the second quarter reporting period — which  means she has a hole to dig herself out of. But at least the streak remains.

B

The Girl tomorrow will be getting the first B she’s ever made on a report card. It’s in social studies, and it weighs heavily on her.

“I got an A on the study guide,” she told me this evening, “but I got a C on the test.”

I don’t remember when I got my first B. Probably on my first report card. I can’t remember when I got my first C, but I think it was in junior high. I do remember getting the one D I ever received: earth science, ninth grade. I think I made all As and Bs in college, but if I had, I would have not graduated simply Cum Laude but rather Summa. Or so it seems to me.

Obviously grades were never all that important to me. Sure, I wanted to do well, but I didn’t beat myself up over it. I sat back and watched everyone who was interested battle for valedictorian and salutatorian honors, and I think I slipped into the top 10% of my class and was somewhat pleased with that.

The Girl’s biggest concern is remaining on the All A Honor Roll. Will this disqualify her for end of year honors? I had to admit that, despite being a teacher, I really didn’t know. Again, I never really worry too much about it.

My own students come to me sometimes worried about their grades. My English I Honors course has had the dubious distinction of being the first B for several students over the year. I express my regret, point out that I don’t give grades but that they earn grades, but in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, “It’s not such a big deal really.” For them it is: it’s a high school credit course, which means it will count toward their GPA.

I’ve had students’ parents have their children repeat English I in high school to get that A. I’ve even had one mother require her daughter repeat because her A wasn’t high enough. “Your class was much harder,” the girl wrote later in an email.

So I try to comfort L the best I can, suggesting that it’s not the end of the world. She dries her eyes and says, “I know.” But I know that doesn’t help all that much.

Random Fidget

The Girl apparently is anxious to get one — they’re all the rage at her school. Everyone’s got one, and they’re so fun.

It’s the same at our school — the now-ubiquitous fidget spinner. They’re marketed as aids for kids with attention issues and hyperactivity issues. Supposedly they’ll help these kids to focus by giving them a little outlet for their hyperactivity.

What ends up happening, though, is that the kids who have them become fixated on them. They’re just another in a long line of distractions that keep them from staying focused for more than a few moments. The kid in the front row who can’t keep his eyes on his work for more than two seconds now has to contend with this little gadget in his hand and, when he starts sharing it, who’s got it and when he can get it back.

A similar trend (in our school anyway) is the fight with the eternally-in earbuds.

“Take the earbuds out,” I tell a student.

“You tell me that every day,” he says.

Not only that, but I’ve referred the matter to the administrator a couple of times and he’s sat in ISS (probably with his earbuds in ) — but every day, there they are again.

What do these to things have in common? Simple: they’re symptoms of the current generation’s need to be constantly stimulated with something.

L is starting to develop those symptoms as well. She loves to have something playing on her little CD player at all times. She wants to read with it on, do homework with it on, color with it own, play on her tablet with it on. However, what she’s playing on it is somewhat different than what the kids walking down our hallways have blaring into their heads. (How much rap can you take before you go insane? How much misogynistic, materialistic machismo can you listen to before you realize how empty it is?) No, no music for the Girl: she’s always listening to a recorded book.

 

Back to School

I’ve had enough experience teaching now to realize that my worries about returning to school after spring break — potential laziness, potential mutiny, potential problems of every sort — are almost always unfounded. The first week back is almost always painless. But it’s busy, getting used to the schedule again.

This week was the last week before testing. Our school has decided to do the state-mandated testing a little differently this year, and I applaud the decision. Instead of having a week of eighth-grade testing, where we test day after day after day (math, then English, then science, then social studies), followed by a week of seventh-grade testing and a third week of sixth-grade testing (divided by grade because we still don’t have enough Chromebooks for the whole school to test at the same time), we’re testing one day a week for four weeks. Next week we begin, and once those four weeks of testing are over, the school year is almost over. Perhaps that’s what makes the transition from spring break always a bit easier: we all know we have that final push until the big break.

After talking to Babcia

It’s also the time of year that students who are at risk of failing a given class — students who throughout the whole year have usually done very little other than disrupt class — decide they might want to try to do something to save themselves. There’s always one or two who don’t, and they usually move on the ninth grade anyway through this or that administrative and summer school magic. I’m not putting down our school: it’s a phenomenon that occurs throughout the country, I suspect. But I do have mixed feelings about it.

Morning snack

On the one hand, what will keeping these students back accomplish? It’s not like they’re going to behave any differently if they repeat. Because our district — perhaps state? never cared enough to check into it — has a policy that a child cannot fail two years, they’re just going to get pushed on, and if they have already been held back, they know they can’t be held back again, which probably prompts a lot of the apathetic behavior. (Students have told me, “I’ve already failed one grade: you can’t hold me back again.”)

Getting things in the ground

On the other hand, isn’t this just teaching them a wonderful lesson for the future? “I can do nothing and still succeed!” What happens to them when they get to high school and the rules change? I’ve told several students over the years, “When you get to high school and fail freshman English, they don’t say, ‘Well, he was close. Let’s give it to him.’ They say, ‘Try again.’ And if it looks like you’re going to fail a second time, they don’t say, ‘Well, he’s already failed once. Let’s move him on.’ They say, ‘Nope. Try a third time.'” And by then, they’re old enough to drop out, and they do. What happens to them when they try to keep a job with that kind of thinking? In short, they don’t. They can’t.

Proof that it’s shaping up to be a good day

So this is the time of year all of this swirls through my head, and I find myself thinking about my own responsibilities. It’s much easier for me, regarding paperwork and the like, just to move the kid on as well. It’s much easier for me to make my class almost impossible to fail. I think to myself, “They’re still kids: they’ll grow out of it.” But I look around at some millennial young adults and find myself thinking, “Well, maybe not.”

It’s also the time when thoughts and plans for summer are solidifying. This time last year I was getting a little nervous about the huge project that was looming on the horizon. I didn’t know what all was behind the walls, what all awaited us. And now I know what’s behind the walls because I put it there, and the only thing that awaits us in the kitchen is a bright, open space now.

But plans are just that, and now it’s time to get planting, get mowing, get weeding — all the joys of spring that just leave you exhausted but strangely satisfied.

And time to play guitar with your neighbor.

Optional

Dear Terrence,

When did a response to “Good morning” become optional? When did manners become a matter of personal preference?

For you, considering all that has passed between us, my behavior likely seems two-faced. You think, “Here he is trying to be all nice to me, and when I get to class, he’s going to be on my back about everything.” That’s not an accurate interpretation of my behavior, though. You see, I won’t deny a simple fact: despite the fact that your behavior often is the most irritating aspect of my entire day, despite the fact that your behavior disrupts the whole class, despite the fact that your behavior often descends into outright disrespect (never mind the fact that disruptive behavior is itself disrespectful) regardless of how politely I redirect you, and despite the fact that some of your behavior seems downright spiteful, I try to approach each day as if it were the first day you and I ever encountered each other. I try to give you the benefit of the doubt each and every day. In short, I try to start fresh daily.

It seems only fair. You are, after all, only a kid. Your personality and behaviors have not completely congealed, and there’s always hope that you will mature during the school year and come out the other side a different kid. It does happen. And so I want to foster that possibility, however remote, in your behavior by starting anew every morning, and the simplest way I can do that is simply saying as cheerfully as I can muster without sounding false, “Good morning.”

Ironically, this type of behavior extends even into the adult world. There have been plenty of times, in both my teaching career and in other jobs I’ve held, that I’ve come to work with a sore spot for some colleague or other. It’s hard to leave it all behind, and sometimes that sore spot gets irritated just by seeing that person, and the last thing in the world I want to do is to be cheerful and polite. But that’s part of the game. It’s not being false or two-faced to hide those true feelings; it’s called being professional. It’s called being an adult, realizing that these little rituals like “Good morning” are just that, rituals that really mean nothing more than “I acknowledge your existence this morning.” True, it is a shortened form of an older greeting, “I wish you a good morning.” But even my worst enemies I wish a good morning: if things are going well for them, they’re not likely to take anything out on me.

So let’s try this again. I’ll say “Good morning, Terrence,” and you say, “Good morning, Mr. Scott.” And we both know we’ve started our day off with each other on a positive note.

First practice is tomorrow morning.

Kindest regards,
Your Teacher

Rain Day

Snow days — those make sense here in South Carolina. Most municipalities don’t have the equipment to clear snow properly and effectively. Add to it the lack of general experience drivers here have with snow and it’s fairly obvious why everything shuts down. The snow starts falling in the morning on a school day, and everyone realizes it’s likely only a matter of time before the announcement. At our school, it’s usually something like this: “Teachers, please check your email.” And there we find the procedures we will follow for early dismissal.

Rain, though? I remember there was a kid in the apartment complex we lived in when I was in kindergarten whose mother would keep him home if it rained, but I thought that was a one-time thing, an exception. Today, I found otherwise. By the end of fifth period today, probably a third of the school had already gone home. Early dismissal. To be fair to parents, there was supposed to be a horrible storm passing through: flash flooding, potential tornadoes. Nothing to take lightly. But what ended up happening was so much less dramatic: a few parents began taking their kids out of school, and every other kid, realizing the possibility, texted home. Probably something like this: “Everyone else is going home. Come get me — please!” And soon, there were so many parents waiting to pick up their kids that instead of calling individual classrooms as with the standard procedure, general announcements echoed through the school.

“Will the following students please come to the office for early dismissal,” and then ten, twelve, fifteen names. Five minutes later, “Will the following students please come to the office for early dismissal,” and then ten, twelve, fifteen more names.

Later in the afternoon, an apologetic email from the principal: “I understand that very little teaching can take place due to the announcements,” it began. But what was to be done?

I sent a text to K during lunch: “L is going to be sad because she didn’t get early dismissal. Kids are leaving here in swarms.” Something along those lines. K texted back: “I’m at home with the Boy. He had early dismissal, too. We’re going for L soon.”

And so what do you do with an unexpectedly free afternoon, that rarest of all gifts?

There was a movie, of course. The latest from Netflix, another Studio Ghibli film, Pom Poko. (We as a family have grown to love those films. Not a bad one in the bunch.)

There was a bit of playing, of course. The Boy can find entertainment anywhere. Just add some cars and he’s set.

And K finally got some time to work on a project that’s been haunting us for years: pictures for our living room and kitchen. What to include? How to arrange them? What, sadly, to leave out?

Tomorrow, everything goes back to normal, but only for two days as we near Easter and spring break.

Turnabout

One of the Boy’s favorite books for a while was My Cold Went on Vacation, which tells the story of a little boy who catches a cold and recovers, only to wonder where the cold has gone. He loved it because in each picture, the cold — a green-faced, long-nosed, always smiling circle — was visible somewhere; I loved it because of the style of the illustrations. It was an educational book for the Boy as well: we got to talk about how colds are spread, and he told me about kids in his pre-school class who had gotten ill throughout the year. He reminisced about his own colds and giggled each time he saw that the cold eventually returned home to visit with his sister a while.

Morning drawing

So went our week as a family. The Boy started us off with a stomach virus on Monday that kept him home Tuesday as well. He let it take a leisurely stroll around the neighborhood before letting it back in Thursday to lay me out all day Friday. And then last night, K was complaining about being more tired than she should have been, and I knew where our family virus had gone after it left me.

Re-organizing the Boy’s Crayons.

As a result, most of this week has been kind of start-and-stop. The Boy got sick and everything slowed down; he got better and everything returned to normal. And so went the cycle.

Late-morning nap

It’s something of a short metaphor for this time of year: the end of the school year is within sight, but it’s still off in the distance a bit, just a little way down the line. We can see it, and we’re all ready for it. We’re ready to close the year out, pack our bags, and fly to Poland for a few weeks. But it just keeps chugging.

“I’m wearing gloves so I can get the thorns out of the way.”

And so do we. But that light — it’s there, in the distance…

Curriculum

Three events today, happening within moments of each other, reminded me just what challenges some students in my class face, and how I am often really not teaching what I thought I would be teaching to thirteen-year-olds.

We’re working on a cross-curricular unit that incorporates Sean Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens as the anchor text. Since I’m the literature/reading teacher, the unit starts in my room. To make the process simpler and faster, as well as to hit more standards, I’ve designed a unit that includes a jigsaw reading of the article: independent groups read one chapter of the book, then present their chapter to others who read other portions of the book. Each group gets a habit.

I copied the book to make my life easier: we don’t have enough books for two classes to use them simultaneously, and because I have a class-set of Chromebooks due to an elective I teach, I told the other English teacher that I could just scan the book in for my students. I scanned them in two pages at a time, which meant that, because the first page of each chapter was on the right side of the page, there was always a page from the previous chapter as the first page. I knew it might be confusing for some, but I thought that most thirteen-year-olds could figure out that it must be part of the previous chapter, especially since I’d already shown the kids how to read the PDF versions of the novel: Left page, right page, scroll down; left page, right page, scroll down. When I found that some students were having trouble with that and were in fact treating the first page visible as the first page of their chapter, I was frustrated, disheartened even.

1-fullscreen-capture-11162016-50017-pm

Later, as I was moving around the room, I noticed some students having problems with Google Docs’ outline feature. It turned out that, instead of turning on the automatic-numbering outline feature, they were manually adding numbers — like it was just a typewriter instead of a computer. Since I had showed the students how to do this, since we had spent time working as a class, working as groups, working even as individuals with simple outlines, I thought everyone knew how to do it But if a student is not paying attention, if a student is more interested in most everything else other than what is being taught, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Yet it happens to these students time and time again, and they can never figure out why. What are the chances of someone who can’t pay enough attention to learn how to use a simple outline feature ever going to keep a job? Perhaps these students will learn some focus, but they’ve made it this far without paying attention: what’s in it for them to start now?

Finally, I had a vivid reminder of how poorly some of the students read. A student was struggling to figure out what to put as a sub-point in his outline. To his credit, he had figured out that the heading immediately above would be a main point and knew that something below it must be the sub-point. The first paragraph after the heading was short:

1-fullscreen-capture-11162016-50036-pm

“Synergy doesn’t just happen. It’s a process. You have to get there. And the foundation of getting there is this: Learn to celebrate differences.”

I sat down by the student and quickly assessed the problem. “Read the first paragraph under the heading,” I said. He read it. “Tell me something about ‘synergy’ from the paragraph.” “It’s a process,” he said after a moment’s hesitation. At this point, I was thinking that another helpful question or two and I’d be on my way. “And what is the foundation of that process?” He made a wild stab — something completely outside the text. “No,” I reminded him, “no, it must be in the text. It’s right there in the text.” Another wild stab. “Find the word ‘foundation’ in the text,” I instructed, growing a bit frustrated with my ineffectiveness. He found it. “And what does it say is the foundation? What’s right after it?” Another wild guess. I sat there, wondering what was going on in his head, wondering if he was seeing, what he was thinking, what even he was feeling.

This evening, I called the Girl to the computer and had her read the paragraph. “What is the foundation of synergy?” I asked. “It’s a process. You have to get there,” she began. “No,” I redirected, “one thing. It’s in the text.” She re-read, then said, “Learn to celebrate differences.”

I don’t say this to brag about our daughter. I point this out to show the level of reading of so many of my students, students who should have responded like L, for she is, according to testing, reading at about an eighth-grade level. The level my students should be reading at. What’s most frustrating about all of this is the shortsightedness of these same students. They don’t see how far behind they are — and how could then? They divide school into two, fatalistic groups: the smart kids classes and our classes.

Add to this all the students lacking social skills who need instruction in this simply to reach a state of mind in which they can functionally work with someone. No, that’s not even correct — to get them to the point that they can stand to be in the same group as someone they find irritating. Several students in my lowest level class are incapable of getting along with much of anyone. “He annoys me.” “She gets on my nerves.” “He’s a pain.” “We might fight.” So on top of basic reading, I have to try to teach them how to deal with each other. Given their fatalistic worldview, that’s nearly impossible. “When I’m mad, I just react. It’s just how I am.” For them, it’s as immutable a fact as the inevitability of tomorrow’s sunrise. There is nothing they can do to stop it. Is this laziness? Learned victimhood? Personality? Nature? Nurture? All the above?

It’s not that I’m feeling pessimistic about my chosen profession. I’m just not sure those who don’t teach, who don’t interact with such kids on a daily basis, really know the extent of the problem we face in the American education system today, and all too often, those very people are the ones making the decisions, about funding, about testing.

Preconceptions

Every year, my students begin Romeo and Juliet with certain preconceptions, both about the play and about the character of Romeo. It’s a Shakespeare play, they reason. Shakespeare’s hard to read, noble and magnanimous and all that. He writes about noble ideas, noble dilemmas, high-minded philosophy. They don’t expect it when the play starts out and within a few lines, characters are saying things like this:

GREGORY

The quarrel is between our masters and us their men.

SAMPSON

‘Tis all one, I will show myself a tyrant: when I
have fought with the men, I will be cruel with the
maids, and cut off their heads.

GREGORY

The heads of the maids?

SAMPSON

Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads;
take it in what sense thou wilt.

GREGORY

They must take it in sense that feel it.

SAMPSON

Me they shall feel while I am able to stand: and
’tis known I am a pretty piece of flesh.

I take them through the text enough to get them to realize that these two characters, like Donald Trump, are fond of locker room talk that involves suggestions of sexual assault. (No, I don’t bring in the politics, but the thought crossed my mind to make the connection at least today.) I don’t point out to them what Sampson really means when he says, “Me they shall feel while I am able to stand,” but I suspect some of them get it.

Then there’s Romeo: He’s going to be a good guy, they reason, because the play is the most famous love story of all time, and the most famous love story of all time can’t possibly have anything other than the ideal man in it. So we begin reading and find this passage in response to Benvolio’s queries about what exactly is making Romeo’s days so long:

Well, in that hit you miss: she’ll not be hit
With Cupid’s arrow; she hath Dian’s wit;
And, in strong proof of chastity well arm’d,
From love’s weak childish bow she lives unharm’d.
She will not stay the siege of loving terms,
Nor bide the encounter of assailing eyes,
Nor ope her lap to saint-seducing gold:
O, she is rich in beauty, only poor,
That when she dies with beauty dies her store.

“How has Romeo tried to win her?” I ask. We mark the text and make a list.

“She will not stay the siege of loving terms?” I ask, and the students figure it out.

“He’s used smooth words.”

“Nor bide the encounter of assailing eyes?” I ask, and the students get it.

“He’s been making eyes at her.”

“Good. Finally, ‘Nor ope her lap to saint-seducing gold’?” Here they stumble.

“Money?”

“No — how do guys use gold to win girls?”

Finally, someone gets it: “Oh, jewelry!”

“Right!” Then the question — should I pursue the issue further? Should I lead them to see just exactly what Romeo’s saying here? Some years, I don’t. This year, I did.

“And what about the rest of the line?”

They look at each other quizzically.

“What do you think he means by ‘ope’?” I ask.

“Open?” a student suggests.

“Correct. Now, she will not ‘ope her lap to saint-seducing gold’?” I see in some of their eyes that they’ve got it, so I suggest what I suggest every year. “We’ll have to behave as adults in this unit and not giggle and be immature about some of the topics. So what’s he saying?”

They get it. They’re mildly shocked. The girls are a little angry and disappointed that this supposed hero of the greatest love story of all time is a fairly typical male and simply trying to get Rosaline in bed — to spread her legs, literally.

“Nothing ever changes,” one student observes.

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The Girl tonight hit on her own preconceptions and battled them mightily. Beans are nasty. She’s decided that already. Of course, at her age, I’d decided the same thing about a lot of things, most beans as well. But we have a rule in our house as Nana and Papa had when I was growing up: you have to try everything. In L’s case, it was about three bites of beans.

We jokingly took a picture with a time-stamp (that’s in fact illegible) to see how long it took her to eat them. Although she didn’t have to sit at the table the whole time, she had her final bite around ten minutes before bedtime.

I remember doing the same thing.

Nothing ever changes.