Friday, May 11, 2012

Going to Our Power

Teaching is an instructive experience. In the four years I have been involved in the profession, I have found that each year has brought its own lessons. It is cliche at this point to say, "The students teach me as much as I teach them," but I wouldn't go so far as that, and I wonder about the life-experience of anyone who could say that in earnest. No, adolescents are what we thought they were, what we remember ourselves being; petty, over-dramatic, selfish, ignorant, inquisitive, insightful, kind, and fearless. They are the adults they will grow up to be, minus a measure of self-control, wisdom and foresight. They have something to teach, but much, much more to learn.

It is easy, as a teacher, to look at a classroom and see tomorrow's winners and tomorrow's losers. It is also utterly unacceptable to do so, lest you contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy, though most of us, like I, are far from perfect and do contribute our unfair share. But it is easy to look at a roomful of adolescents and see society writ small, segments of the population each casting their representatives back from the future into a tidy microcosm. And in this microcosm, it is easy to put humanity under a microscope, which is  an unfailingly instructive experience.

This year's lesson was about Power. Not the power of relationships of authority, such as between a teacher and student, though these are instructive. No, I use "Power" here in a newer, more encompassing sense, as I have yet to come up with a better word. But before I define the term as I intend to use it, I think a narrative about how I came to think about the term in this way will prove helpful.

I began the year with a group of three young men in one of my classes. The boys were friends, and began the year with a reputation for causing trouble, some of which I had witnessed the year before. One in particular I had hauled off to the principal's office on more than one occasion, yanking him out of a pregnant fellow teacher's classroom after he'd flipped several desks over in a fit of screaming rage, and him swearing and threatening me the whole way down. So, needless to say, I wasn't totally psyched at the thought of having them in my room 1.5-2 hours a day. 

But I prepped myself to begin with a clean slate, which they all deserve, (god knows I needed a few myself) and we started the year off pretty well. A few days in, I pulled the desk-flipper aside and said, "Look, I know we had a tough time last year, but I want to forget about that. Because I also know that the other student's look up to you and imitate you. I want you to think about what kind of person who want them to see you as, and decide if you want to use that influence you have with them for good things or for bad things." He assured me he wanted people to think of him as a good person and we left it at that.

A few weeks later, things were going well for him, but another of his friends was slipping; doing no work, sleeping through the entire day, and shortly, blowing up at teachers trying to correct his behavior, which  led pretty quickly to detentions, parent-meetings, suspensions, more frustration, more trouble, etc. He started missing more and more school, and was rarely back for more than a day or a morning before he had sucker-punched another kid in the hallway and was looking at another mandatory three-day suspension for violence.   Then, as he started to miss more school, so did his pals- unexcused tardies and absences, detentions for cutting class, skipping these, getting suspended, etc. Pretty soon, it was a safe bet that if one was out, all three were out, roaming the streets... and not to plant flowers or help old ladies at the crosswalk.

And although each of these boys are capable students, even bright ones, their productivity in class began to slip just as rapidly. Most of their time was spent staring out the window, or trying to get away with sleeping, and any free moment they had was spent whispering with their cohorts, laughing, presumably, at memories and tales of their own hijink. And the vicious cycle that is inevitable with these situations set in- as they miss more class-time, they come back to class more and more behind and lost, which leads to embarrassment at not being able to do the work ones peers are doing, which leads one to seek away out of the painful situation, and the easiest way to do that is to act badly as a distraction, or simply act so bad that one is asked to leave the classroom altogether.  

This is an unfortunately common situation in public education, and we spend most of our days fighting against it, though there are times where it is easy to feel like a small Dutch boy. During the first part of the year, I devoted more time, energy and concern to these three boys than I did to my other three dozen students combined. But at some point, that in itself is an egregious sin, and one has to recognize which students are ready to be helped and which will fight you no matter what you do, and you have to give your time and energy and care to those equally, perhaps more, deserving students who are willing and eager to do whatever it takes to better themselves. 

And so the boys slipped into the periphery of my attention. But the pattern continued.

I felt like I'd only utterly failed before to reach one student that I had put a concerted effort into. I tend, unconsciously, to focus on the hardest-nut boys, and the bright girls with low self-esteem. But here were three that I had put a great deal of time into reaching who were all sitting in my room, staring out  the window, just waiting for the opportunity to pretend to work together on an assignment so they could plot the next "enemy" to jump and pummel, or misdemeanor to commit (allegedly). 

This caused me to reflect. Why were they so unreachable? Why were they so utterly, absolutely disengaged in what we were doing, which was at least sometimes interesting (I hope), and even seemingly uninterested in what their peers were up to?

I began to realize that they simply weren't even there. When forced to sit quietly, they did the best they could to mentally remove themselves from this unpleasant situation- they stared out the window. Better than that was when they managed to get together to discuss, relive and plan their misadventures. But best of all was actually being "out there," on the streets, beating kids up (allegedly), thieving (allegedly) and dealing (allegedly). They caused some trouble in school, sometimes a great deal, but in my room they knew they would get away with absolutely nothing. And so they just sat. And waited it out. 

Out there, they were powerful. In my room, they were powerless. So they "left," in whatever way was available to them- physically, through speaking of memories and designs, or at worst, in their own daydreams and imaginations. 

As I reflected on this aspect of our nature, I began to see it everywhere. In students, observing an impulse is easy, since they are subject to nearly every whim of emotion that takes them. I saw it in the girl who was powerless before a difficult reading assignment, but powerful enough to draw the attention of several boys by wearing a tiny T-shirt. I saw it in the boy who was powerless to impress this girl with his not-yet -developed masculinity, but powerful enough to draw a laugh when he acted the fool in front of the class, drawing my ire. And I saw it in the new girl, powerless to bridge cultural, linguistic and religious divides with her peers, but powerful enough to take on her school work with commitment and determination. 

This is what I mean by Power. The feeling of competence, capability and influence that we all have in some areas of life, but not in others. 

And I began to think about myself, and my own life. Where do I feel powerful? On here, writing about things  I am knowledgeable about. In a discussion or argument, especially about politics, philosophy, science, history or some other academic question that I feel more knowledgeable about than the average lay-person. So I provoke them, and have them in my head when alone. With women. So I flirt with them, and think about them often. In a video game, where a click of the mouse can blast a zombie's head into a million pieces, or swing a massive sword, or summon a rain of destruction from the sky. So I game, and think about games often. In a kitchen, with a decade of professional experience behind me. So I love to cook, and start  to think about dinner right after lunch.

Where am I not powerful? On the dance floor. So I avoid it like the plague, or as Johnny Depp says, "I'd rather eat a bag of hair than dance."

I once went to a horse farm with a woman I worked with who had ridden her whole life. Our plan was to rent a couple of horses and ride them on some mild trails up a small nearby mountain. I had never ridden a horse in my life. We showed up, and I, the nerdy city boy driving in from Seattle, with Proust in his bag and in soft leather hiking boots, did not feel powerful around these men with dirt to the top of their stiff cowboy boots, hardened, weathered faces and an unflinching calm around these enormous animals that I was supposed to get on and ride.

Well, if you've ridden a horse, you know that they know exactly whether you are feeling Powerful or not, probably better than you do, and this one knew immediately that I hadn't the slightest idea what I was doing. He took off at a gallop and ran me in circles in a nearby meadow for about 5 minutes (it felt like 5 hours) and at several times I thought he was going to toss me. I did finally get him under control and we had a somewhat pleasant time until my gracious mount decided he needed to stop and piss on the trail and wasn't going a step further. 

We all have places we "go" that make us feel powerful. When I was young it was God. By adolescence, I had trained my faith to the point that whatever was troubling me could be quickly subdued by a few moments reflecting on God and his infinite grace and all he had to offer me. Lots of people "go" here. Others "go" to another world where they are mighty, through a character in a role-playing or video game. People turn conversations from topics they aren't knowledgeable about to ones they are. They read and learn about things they already know a great deal about. They avoid a dysfunctional marriage by going to work, where they have subordinates, and brought in a really good return for the company last quarter. They call into sports-talk radio to share their take, instantly forcing themselves upon the attention of thousands.

This is Pysch 101. Obviously, nothing I am saying is remotely original or revolutionary. However, as I began to perceive our behavior in this way, it seemed easier and easier to categorize the majority of our thoughts, speech and actions as a constant attempt to go towards our power- to extract ourselves, whenever possible, from situations where we have little competence and influence and moving to a situation where we do.

And most of the time, this is okay. No one wants to feel powerless, nor should they. But when we think of all the things that we avoid for fear of showing incompetence or weakness- stepping onto a dance floor, challenging someone more knowledgeable when we disagree with them, reconsidering our own long-held and cherished beliefs, picking up a challenging book, beginning a new sport or activity- we see that we are missing out on a staggering amount of life. 

We pick and choose things we show a natural strength for (usually) and we stick with them. We dig holes of our own expertise. Some of us dig them wide, and some of us dig many. But nevertheless, we dig and we dig, and the further down we go, the harder it is to get a broad view of the sky.