Scrabbling for the Stone: Reprise

My meditation practice has fallen dormant in the last couple of years, but, as the semester begins slowly winding to a close, I feel that rejuvenating it would be wise.  Students are panicking, and all kinds of unpleasant behaviours result.  What’s more, I’m tired and busy, and so I’m not always nice.

A couple of years ago, the end of semester was particularly hard, and meditation helped.

What do you do when it all seems a bit too much?

*

It’s been a rough week.

I got a couple of shrieking emails from Lia on Tuesday.  I wrote to another student, Janet, on Saturday, to let her know that I wouldn’t be grading her essay rewrite, because I’d found it on my office floor days after the deadline, with no indication of when it had been submitted.  Janet’s response was neither contrite nor understanding, and, like Lia’s, repeated the word “unfair” several times.

I then received an email from Yannick, whose story I began telling a few weeks ago. He wanted to meet with me.  Yannick, as I detailed in the earlier post, disappeared from my course about a month into the semester and then reappeared three weeks before the end, asking if there was any way he could pass, because if he didn’t, he’d be suspended for a year.  Since then, he’s been showing up for class and doing reasonably good work trying to catch up, but not the exceptional work that would be necessary to compensate for his absences.  I responded as follows.

Yannick, please let me know what the nature of your questions is.  If you’d like to discuss the grade for your blog, for example, I’d like to point out that the grade you received is in fact quite generous, and I won’t be altering it.  You’re welcome to take this up with the Grades Review committee if you really feel there’s a problem.

Unless you have something new to discuss, I feel we’ve talked about your situation quite enough.

I spent Saturday in knots.  I was hyperventilating, I couldn’t concentrate on anything, and finally I gave up trying to mark papers and went to a yoga class.  This helped, but Saturday night I couldn’t sleep.  I lay awake having angry conversations in my head in which I justified my actions to Janet and Yannick.  I was so agitated that at one point I got out of bed, booted up the computer, and began researching education PhD programs at the local universities.  Maybe, I thought, I needed to spend some time thinking about the classroom instead of being in it.

But on Sunday morning, I shook myself awake and dragged myself to the morning session of Nyinthun, the monthly day-long meditation intensive, at the Montreal Shambhala Centre.  As I settled onto my cushion, I set an intention for my meditation practice: I was going to try to release all this anger.  I was going to try to find a place of equanimity.

The first two hours were spent alternately in sitting and walking meditation.  I tried to focus on my constricted, struggling breathing; I often find that hyperventilation helps me stay present in meditation, as it’s very difficult to take my mind off the breath!  It was doing me some good, but I still felt gripped by fear every time my mind wandered to the moment when I’d go home and would have to decide whether to check my email or avoid it for a few more hours.

Near the end of the morning session, one of the instructors, Francesca, stood and said that she would be leading us in an exercise.  The theme of today’s Nyinthun, she explained, was a reflection on the holiday season.  We were going to do a practice to help us contemplate this theme.

“At this time of year,” she said, “things become intensified.  Things begin moving faster.  There is more darkness.  There are a lot of things to do.  All this leads to an intensification of our experience and our emotions.

“In addition, when it comes to the holidays, we all have a desire.  We could have many desires, but often one desire is dominant.  It could be a desire for a material thing.  It could be a desire for something we want to happen, or not happen.  I’d like you to think about what your desire is for this holiday time.”

It didn’t take me long.  My desire, I thought, is for my semester to be over.  Really over.  I want the grades to be in; I want the emails from students to stop; I want to put everything about the term behind me except a few good memories, and to move into a brief space of a few weeks when I’m not a teacher.  I want to meditate, cook good food, read novels, clean my house, and not think about teaching at all.  I want to be released.

Francesca picked a smooth, large stone up from the altar and held it up.  “I want you to think of this stone,” she said, “as the object of your desire.  Look at this stone and, in it, see your desire.”  Then she asked us to clear the mediation cushions away from a small space in the middle of the room.  She placed a little table in the centre of the space, and set the stone on top of it.  Then she used cushions to create a tight perimeter around the table, and asked us, the dozen or so participants, to stand within the perimeter.

“When I give the signal,” she said, “I want you to walk randomly around this small space, and as often as possible, I want you to touch this object of your desire.  Don’t move in a circle as you would in walking meditation.  Just walk back and forth, and try to cover the whole space, coming back to touch the stone as often as you can.  At a certain point, I’ll begin to clap my hands.  As I speed up my clapping, speed up your walking.”

We began to walk, touching the stone, walking away, returning to touch the stone again, bumping and jostling each other as we tried to manoeuvre the constricted space.  As Francesca clapped her hands more and more quickly, we found ourselves tripping over one another to get to the stone.  At one point she stopped, pushed the cushion perimeter even closer to the table, and had us do the exercise again.

I was doing my best to take this all in good spirits, but I could feel my irritation rise with every nudge and bump.  I’d come here to sit and walk in silence – Nyinthuns, after all, are supposed to be mostly silent retreats, where we eat lunch without speaking and hold talks and discussions only at the end of the day.  I’d been looking forward to a morning of this silence, but here I was, still a bag of nerves, fighting with a bunch of strangers to touch a rock.

Then Francesca brought us all to a halt.  “Now,” she said, “I want you to let go of the stone.  Forget about it.  I want you to walk through this space again, and speed up as I clap, in just the same way.  But instead of looking at the stone – instead of looking at the object of your desire – I want you to look at the others, the people.  As you meet them, look at them.  Go.”

We began walking around again.  As we encountered one another, we looked each other in the eye.  It was embarrassing, and uncomfortable, and it wasn’t long before everyone was smiling awkwardly.  And then smiling broadly, grinning at one another as we passed.  Francesca clapped more and more quickly, and we slid by each other more and more rapidly, but there were only a few bumps and jostles.  There was mostly just smiling, and even a bit of laughter.  When the clapping stopped and we slowed to a halt, we just stood there beaming at one another.

“Do you see?” Francesca asked.  “Do you see what I mean?”

We returned the cushions to their places, and as I settled back onto my crossed legs, I felt like I might melt into the floor.

My fixation, my obsession, with the object of my desire – the end of my semester, the resolution of all the semester’s problems, the elusive peace that I would supposedly feel when it was all done – had blinkered me.  The students who were pestering me – Lia, Janet, Yannick – were not obstacles between me and the stone, hurdles to be climbed over or knocked down. They were people.

They were responding to their lives in the same way that I was, scrabbling to get at the stone: the good grade, or the passing grade, or the sense of pride that comes when a teacher respects and validates you.  I was angry because they were getting in my way.  They were angry with me for the same reason.  If I could see them, not as frustrating roadblocks, but as people, then maybe I could stop fighting them, and start looking them in the eye.  I needed to understand that the stone is not the point.  They are.

The morning session was almost done.  We sat for a few more minutes, and then scattered for lunch.  I couldn’t stay for the afternoon, but I stopped Francesca to tell her that the exercise had meant a lot to me.

As I made my way to the metro, my mind no longer simmering, a couple of quiet revelations emerged: a memory of a gesture I’d made a week ago but forgotten, and an inspiration for another one.

That evening, I wrote a message to Janet.

After sending you that last note, I realized that I had in fact agreed to look over the rewrite of one of your classmates, and give it a small bonus, even though it arrived late.  This is because the student contacted me IMMEDIATELY about the problem.  You did not take that step, but because I did this for him, I will do it for you as well.  I hope you will thank him in your heart for his responsibility and common sense.

And to Yannick, I wrote the following:

You have been extremely respectful and reasonable throughout this whole process, and I appreciate this. As I emphasized to you in our last meeting, I am not going to give you extra work or any other special privileges; I will not be giving you any opportunities that I did not give to everyone in the class.  I do, however, have a suggestion for you.  I think you should go see the dean of your program and explain your situation to him/her.  I would be more than happy to send your dean an email or letter attesting to the fact that, although you were not able to pass my course, you made a good effort at the end, and that I expect that if you are re-admitted to the college next semester, you will try harder.  This might make a difference, and at the very least, your dean might have some advice that could help you.

After sending these messages, I read them over several times.  I still wasn’t sure that I was doing the right thing, or that I was doing it for the right reasons.   But I went to bed, and I slept very well.

Image by Armin Hanisch

Yannick’s Debts: Reprise

There’s a month left in the semester.  Four weeks.  Fifty-four hours of class time.

When I arrive at this point in the term, I always think of Yannick.  I anticipate others like him, students I’ve all but forgotten, who will reappear with stories about why they should be allowed to make up work, do extra credit, coast by.  There are at least four this semester who might turn up in my office with sad tales, and I’m already formulating my answers.  They are all variations of “No,” much firmer than anything I said to Yannick.

That said, I don’t think my responses to Yannick two years ago were all wrong.  Maybe you have a different opinion.  Let me know.

*

When Yannick walked into my office on Thursday, his first words were, “Miss, do you remember me?”

I did.  He’s in my Travel Literature class, but I hadn’t seen him in almost 2 months.  He hadn’t written any of his required blog posts.  He’d showed up to do his (half-assed) oral presentation, but had never submitted his bibliography.  The major essays had been due the day before, and I’d heard nothing from him.  I’d assumed he was gone for good, but that’s often a foolish assumption.

“I’ve been away from school for a while,” he said.  “I’ve been having some problems.”

I gestured for him to sit down, and he explained.  He’d visited Academic Advising that morning.  He’d told them what was going on, and why he’d missed so much school, but they’d told him that there was no official remedy for his situation, because his difficulties were not medical.  His only hope was to speak with his teachers, see what he could do to complete his semester, and try to pass four of his courses, because he’s on academic probation and if he fails this term, he’s out for good.

“I’ve seen my other five teachers,” he said.  “Two of them say there’s no way.  The other three told me what I need to do if I want to pass.  So that just leaves this course.”

Yannick is a handsome and confident young man.  He reminds me a little of another handsome and confident young man I taught a few years ago, one who spoke with the assurance that of course you were going to do whatever he asked of you.  And people did, especially girls, who allowed him to cheat off their tests and, I heard, signed his name to attendance sheets in courses he skipped.  (He eventually failed my course for blatant, unrepentant plagiarism.)  Yannick’s air is a bit less presumptuous, slightly deferential but not obsequious.  It’s an effective air, but I’ve seen it before, and am mostly invulnerable to it now.

I outlined what the possibilities were.  He wasn’t going to pass his blog project, but there was still time to make up some missed posts and get something more than 0%.  His major paper was going to be late, but I accept papers up to a week after the deadline, albeit with a 5%-per-day late penalty.  His Mock Exit Exam would be the following week, and he needed to show up and do his best with that.  His in-class assignments grade was in the toilet, and that was not reparable.  “It’s not impossible, Yannick,” I said, “but frankly, I’m not optimistic about your chances.”

“But, you see, miss…do you want to know my situation?”

I gave a shrug that I hoped was nonchalant without being insulting.  “You’re welcome to tell me about it if you like.”

And then he proceeded to tell me about his father’s business.  The details of it were confusing, but the upshot seemed to be that his father had dug himself into a hole by importing cars, selling them at auction, but then getting behind on his payments and sales and accumulating debt.  The auction had finally seized their cars and, after some negotiation, agreed to accept a payment of $50,000 to cover the remainder, money the family didn’t have.  Yannick had been working 12 hours a day at the shop trying to help out, but now creditors had been calling and coming to the door, so they weren’t spending much time at home.  The family and the business were crumbling.

“O.K.,” I said.  “I understand that this is a difficult situation.  But you’ve been missing from my course for 7 WEEKS, Yannick.  There are 3 WEEKS left in the semester.  There’s no reason you couldn’t have called your teachers a month ago and let them know that you were having problems.  I have plenty of other students who have problems at home, and they’ve either tried to manage these problems differently than you have, or they’ve accepted the consequences.  It’s not impossible for you to get through, but I think, given the work you’ve done already, that it’s highly, highly unlikely, especially if you have three other courses you need to try to pass at the same time.  If you’re on academic probation, then you KNOW what happens when you don’t come to class and you don’t do the work.”

“Well, the academic probation, that was all me.  I just didn’t take things seriously.  But this, Miss, I’m not bullshitting you.  I can bring you proof if you want.”

“It wouldn’t matter.  Unless you’ve had a medical crisis, there’s nothing the documentation can be used for.  You just need to do what you can with what you have left, and hope for the best.  But there are absolutely no guarantees, and I have to be honest with you, Yannick – I don’t think you’re going to pass.”

“The thing is, Miss, you have to understand.  If I fail out this semester, they’re going to kick me out for a year.  I don’t want to spend a year doing nothing.”

I stared at him for a moment.  Then I said, “Of course I understand that this is difficult, but we have to be realistic here.  I’m not going to GIVE you the grades.  You have to earn them by demonstrating what you’ve learned, and you haven’t been in class to learn anything.  So we’ll see how it goes.”

Then we went over the guidelines for the remaining assignments, and he shook my hand, thanked me, and left.

When he was gone, I put my head in my hands.  For a moment I was angry, although that calmed pretty quickly.  Then I was just sad.  Really, really sad.

This 18-year-old man was once a little boy.  He watched his father deal either underhandedly or extremely unwisely with his business.  Yannick watched his father make bad choices, and then try to weasel out of the consequences by accumulating debt and, eventually, staying away from his home and refusing to answer the phone.  And now Yannick, not just for one semester but for two, has made his own choices, and has ignored the consequences until it was no longer possible to ignore them, and has reached the point of trying to make those consequences go away by pleading with others to fix the problem.

How could I be angry about this?  Where would this boy have learned any other way of dealing with the world?

And then I thought about his father, and what kind of a father or mother he might have had.  And then I thought about all the bad lessons I might have taught my children, if I’d decided to have any.

The trouble with trying to be compassionate is that it doesn’t mean you can be easy on people.  On the contrary, I think – although I’m not sure – that the most compassionate thing I can do for Yannick will be to make him face the consequences of his choices, and recognize that they WERE choices.  I have no desire to punish him.  I certainly don’t think I should assume I know what’s best for him, or what will make his life better or easier.

But if there is one thing teaching has brought me to believe with all my heart, it’s that we all – students, teachers, parents, children, politicians, criminals, cats and dogs – need to learn the principle of cause and effect.  If you spend more than you earn, you will go into debt.  If you don’t go to class, you will fail your courses.  And if your family business is going to hell in a handbasket and you can’t go to school because you’re working 12 hours a day at the shop, then maybe a year away from school is exactly what you need.  Not that that’s any of my business.

I don’t know.  Am I crazy here?  It isn’t my job to un-teach the lessons he’s learned his whole life – it’s my job to teach him how to read and write about literature, and evaluate whether he’s learned THOSE lessons.  He’ll pass or fail on the basis of that and nothing else.  But earlier in my career, I might have been tempted to make allowances and exceptions.  Now, I don’t think that any more allowances or exceptions will do him any favours.

Image by Ashley Voortman

The Power of Regret

I’m not one to regret things.

Of course, I make tons of stupid mistakes.  I look back at things I’ve said, letters I’ve written, men I’ve stayed with past the point of all basic sense, and thought, “Well, that was a colossal error.”

But that’s not the same as regret.  My underlying attitude, when I bother to think about it, is that in each instance, I’ve done my best with what I’ve had.  My state of mind + the external circumstances + my genetic wiring + my previous experience + the alignment of the planets + variables x, y and z = idiot behaviour.  I will try not to do it again.  Moving on.

However, in my teaching life, there are moments when I worry.  I’m dealing with young lives here, and I try to think carefully before I speak or take action, but even so, I sometimes come away from a lesson or a student conference and think, “I don’t know.  I probably shouldn’t have done that.”

We all have memories of teachers who did or said things that threw us off course for years, or who unfairly crushed our self-esteem.  I’m not opposed to derailing students, or altering their overblown self-esteem toward reality.  I AM opposed to confronting students with things they can’t handle, or venting my anger, or making bad situations worse.

In the past week, I’ve had two interactions with students that I now regret.

1. Michael:

I’ve written about Michael a couple of times before, describing an essay he wrote about his troubled home life and the severe difficulties he’s experiencing with his schoolwork.  Last week, Michael did his oral presentation, and he got a zero.  He spoke for barely a minute (for a 5-7 minute talk) and nothing he said bore any relationship to his topic or made any sense.  I was unable to give him points or feedback in any of the categories he was being graded on.  It was hard to watch.

When the time came to discuss the presentation with him, he just nodded as I explained why he’d be getting a zero.  Then I told him that at this point, I see no way for him to pass the course.  “I know you’re working hard,” I said.  “But even with all your hard work, you’re not managing to meet the requirements.”

The difficulty came with what to say next.  How to tactfully explain that because he is demonstrating absolutely no progress from assignment to assignment, and is not in possession of the most fundamental skills required to pass, he’ll probably never  complete college?  How to say, “It makes no sense that you ever graduated from high school”?  How to say, “This is the wrong path for you”?

You might ask, “Well, who are you to say these things anyway?” Good question.  Here’s why I felt it was important to say them. I’ve talked to other teachers and tutors who know Michael, and they confirm what I’ve seen: he works very, very hard, and he makes no progress.  None.  It breaks my heart that he continues to waste his time, when he could be investing himself in something that brings him enjoyment and maybe even an income.  For some reason, he’s been continually given false expectations of what he is capable of.  Someone, somewhere – maybe many someones – has to help him understand that he needs to stop banging his head against this wall.

I asked, “Have you ever spoken to someone in counselling about your bigger plans?  About what you want to do with your life, and where college fits in?  I can see that school is a big struggle for you, and it’s causing you a lot of anxiety.  If you talked to a counsellor, he or she might be able to help you think about other options, and plan your decisions with all the facts in mind.  If you have a hard time explaining it, you’re welcome to tell the counsellor to call me, and I can explain what I’ve observed, if that would be helpful.”

I handed him the info for the counselling centre.  He took it and thanked me.

“Is there anything else I can do to help you with this?” I asked.

He hesitated.  “It’s just…do you think, if I really worked hard for the rest of the semester, there is even a small chance that I could pass?”

“No, Michael,” I said gently.  “Realistically, I don’t see that happening.”

He nodded again.  “Thanks, miss,” he said, and left.

I have been racked with self-doubt ever since we had this exchange.  Who the hell do I think I am?  Do I really think this kind of discussion is going to change anything, other than making him feel terrible?  Should I be physically leading him down to counselling and sitting him in front of someone?  Should I just keep giving him failing grades and gentle feedback and keep my nose out of the rest of it?  Do I know for sure that it’s impossible for him to pass?  Should I be pressing him to tell me more about his situation, like what happens when he brings home a failing grade?

The bottom line is: I didn’t know what else to do.  Nevertheless, I’m worried about the consequences of what I’ve done.

2. Kaneesha

I wrote about Kaneesha two weeks ago.  She’s a royal pain.  At the end of last week, she came in for a mandatory appointment to discuss her next essay rewrite, and was perfectly pleasant and asked pertinent questions.  I felt tempted to leave things at that, and to hope that this productive conversation would change something in our relationship.  However, past experience tells me that such hopes are in vain.  So when we were done talking about her essay, I said, “Now we need to discuss something else: your level of attention in class.”

A sheepish smile came over her face.  I detailed her offenses: texting constantly, sleeping on her desk, talking while I’m talking, sighing and yawning loudly.  She shook her head, still smiling: “I’m sorry!  I’m really sorry.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re sorry, but it doesn’t really solve the problem.  I’m not sure how to talk to you about it, so I thought that, rather than being angry about it, I’d give you the chance to explain WHY you do these things.”

She just stared at me for a few moments.  I couldn’t tell if she was thinking, or just paralyzed.

“Well?” I asked.

“I don’t know what to say,” she said.  “I don’t know.”

Let’s pause.  In hindsight, I should have stopped right here, and done something with this information.  I could have told her to think about it and come up with a response.  Write me a paragraph at home, entitled “Why I’m Not Always Focused in Class,” to be counted as a homework assignment, for example.  This would have given her a chance to think about what I was saying, and to express herself without sitting under my accusatory gaze.

Instead, I launched into lecture mode.  (A sign that I hadn’t thought this through.)  Point 1: it’s hard for me to do my job when I’m annoyed.  Point 2: she’s distracting other students, and it’s not fair to them.  Point 3: if she continues making noise, talking and distracting people, she’ll be ejected from the class.  Point 4: if she just quietly continues being rude, I’ll be angry with her, and I don’t like being angry, but I can’t change her; only she can do that.  And so forth.

Finally, I asked, “Do you understand what I’m saying here?”

“I…” She was still half-grinning, but with a touch of shame.  “I just… I don’t think I’m that bad!”

Now, this kind of assertion always throws me for a loop.  My natural tendency is to second-guess all my feelings and responses, so contradiction of them sends me into a spiral:  Maybe she really isn’t that bad! Maybe I’m overreacting! This was a terrible idea!

“It’s not a question of being bad, Kaneesha,” I said.  “It’s a question of creating a difficult atmosphere in a small classroom.  You may think your behaviours are normal, but they’re not normal behaviours for a college student.  If you look around the class, you’ll see that others aren’t doing those things.  I guarantee you that some of them are tired, some of them are bored, but they’re doing their best and they’re not being rude.”

At that point, I could see her face closing down.  “All right?” I concluded.  “I want you to think about what I said.”

“All right,” she said sullenly, and gathered up her things and left.

Argh, I thought.  Stupid.  Useless.  Why did I have to use words like “normal”? Why didn’t I give her something concrete to do, to change, to focus on? I just made things worse.

*

I haven’t seen Michael or Kaneesha since these conversations (and I suppose that, depending on what Michael decides, I may not see him again.)  I am anticipating negative fallout from each of them, but we’ll just have to see.

Have you taken actions with students, with teachers, with loved ones, with friends, that you’ve later regretted?  Why do you think you did what you did at the time?  Were you doing your best, or were you careless?  Were you able to fix things later? How?

Image by Cecile Graat

One Minute of Solitude: Reprise

solitude

We are six weeks into the semester, and I’m starting to pinpoint small classroom management issues and think about appropriate responses.  Nothing major has arisen so far (fingers crossed), but whenever I am confronted with hints of passive-aggressiveness, defiance or rudeness, I start evaluating what I need to do: ignore? Confront? Defuse in some other manner?

This always makes me think of past experiences, and one class from the autumn of 2009 has been coming to mind.  Here’s an early attempt I made to curb their inappropriate behaviour.  Take a guess: do you imagine this approach was effective?  Do you think it would be effective in one of your difficult classes?

*

Two of my three classes this term have been, so far, focused yet energetic, respectful yet lively. The third has been a bit of a pain in the ass.

This class meets from 4-6 in the afternoon – the worst possible time. They’re tired. I’m tired. Their brains are buzzing from a day’s worth of Red Bull and adolescent drama. They’re so done with learning.

What’s more, there’s a little gang of boys who seem to find a lot of stuff funny. I’m not sure, but from a couple of murmured, oblique exchanges that I’ve caught in passing, I’m beginning to think this has something to do with physical attributes of mine that they like.

Also: this is a remedial English class, and so far the work we’ve been doing has foundational (read: pretty easy.) Some of them are bored.

All this makes for a frenetic, nervous and silly atmosphere. After our second meeting, it became clear that this was going to be a continual problem if I didn’t do something to nip it in the bud.

What? I wondered. I stewed about it for a while. Should I throw people out? Should I give a speech? (Past experience suggests that speeches don’t work.) Should I separate the silly boys to the four corners of the room? Should I barrel through material that some students need to focus on so that other students won’t be bored?

And then I remembered a technique that a friend mentioned a while ago.  She said that begins her classes by allowing the students to shuffle around, chatter, etc. for about five minutes. Then she asks them to sit for one minute in complete silence before they take a deep breath and begin.

This, I thought, seems like a way to, if not eradicate the squirms and giggles, at least keep them more or less in check – to start on a calmer ground, so that escalation will be minimal.

So yesterday afternoon, when I was writing the class agenda on the board, I called the first item “One Minute of Solitude.” I then asked the students to make sure their desks were separated into rows and their cell phones were turned off and put out of sight.

“Last class,” I explained, “I was observing you. I noticed that there was a lot of very nervous energy in the room. It’s late in the day, people are tired , it’s hard to focus, people can’t stop laughing. So I want to do an exercise with you that I sometimes do with late classes. I want you to close your eyes. You can put your head down on your desk if you want. I’m going to turn out the light. And I want you to sit silently for 60 seconds. I’m going to time it, and if there are any distractions – if anyone speaks, if anyone’s cell phone goes off, if someone knocks on the door because they’re late – we’re going to start again.”

“Are we do this for a reason?” Khawar asked.

“Yes,” I said. “A nervous, agitated mind is not a good learning mind. Energy and enthusiasm are good; agitation is not. You’ve all been very busy all day, and your minds are busy too. This is a way to settle our minds so we can learn better.”

I turned out the light. I flicked my iPod stopwatch and said, “Go.”

60 seconds of silence is long. At about the 40 second mark, a couple of students shifted impatiently and looked around, but no one made any noise. And when the minute was up, I quietly said, “That’s it,” and turned the lights back on. They lifted their heads blurrily.

“How did that feel?” I asked.

“Calm,” Khawar said.

“Long,” Philippe said.

“We’re going to do this every class,” I said. “For some of you, it might be the only 60 seconds of calm you have all day. I hope maybe you’ll come to enjoy it.”

Did it help? I think it did, a bit. The major failing was that two of the boys who most needed this exercise came late, and so didn’t do it; as soon as they walked in, the energy in the room ramped up again. However, it never quite reached the height of foolishness that it had the class before, and overall, the work got done and the wasted time was minimal.

I’m a bit nervous about starting every class this way, but I’m hoping that, instead of becoming tedious, it really will be a tiny oasis of peace for some of them. And perhaps some of them will learn that if they can’t sit still and quiet for 60 seconds, it’s probably causing them some problems that they should really address…

Image by barunpatro

Things I Learned From Buying a House #2: Money Does Not Grow On Trees

If it did, I’d have a lot more than I used to, because I didn’t use to own any trees, and now I own six.  Well, three trees, and two lilac bushes, and a cedar shrub.  Nevertheless, money doesn’t grow on any of them.

I have gone through periods in my adult life when I had almost no money.  One particularly trying time was right after I finished my Masters degree but before I found any steady work.  I had two cats who were often sick, so my credit card was maxed out on vet bills.  My rent was mercifully cheap, but weeks would go by when I had to scrape dinner together from whatever cans I found in the store cupboard, without even the luxury of a bunch of spinach or a carton of milk.  I’d have to refuse invitations because I couldn’t afford to buy bus tickets, and certainly couldn’t splurge for a taxi if I was out late and didn’t feel safe coming home alone.

Those months were truly terrible, and there were a couple of other periods like that, but these terrible times were mitigated by a few factors.

  • I knew the misery would end.  I had three university degrees, a wealth of working experience both in and out of my chosen field, and a clear career path.  I was in a rough patch, but I never had any doubt that someone would hire me to do something.  If need be, I would go back to working retail jobs until someone gave me work I wanted.
  • I had support.  I wouldn’t end up living on the street – if I had to, I would sublet my apartment and move back to my hometown to live with my father.  (During one tricky period between leases, I actually did move into my mother’s apartment for a couple of months.)  Friends offered to buy me dinner.  My ex-husband started picking up the vet bills when I couldn’t afford them.
  • I had, for the moment, a roof over my head, some cans in the store cupboard, clothes to wear, and working electricity and plumbing.  I was in no real physical danger, even if I felt like crap and was consumed by anxiety.

Once I landed a full-time, tenured teaching job, I stopped worrying about money.  I had no big-ticket items/bills in my life.  I consistently earned a bit more than I spent.  I paid off my student loans.  I occasionally had large expenses and didn’t have the cash in hand (a new computer; a trip to Banff; our wedding), but I put them on my credit card with the knowledge that I’d pay them off in a few months, and I did.

Then the landlord called to announce to my husband and me that he was reclaiming our apartment.  We had the money for a down payment, and everyone said, “Buy! Buy! Buy!”  So we did, and we don’t regret it, but the days of “not worrying about money” are over.

Since moving into our new home in July, I have been living paycheck-to-paycheck for the first time in many years.  I can’t just go to Amazon and order a couple of hundred dollars’ worth of books on a whim.  I can’t eat out five times a week if my week just happens to fall that way.  I can’t afford these 5 pounds I put on, because I can’t afford to buy new bras, but I can’t afford to join Weight Watchers again, either.  I spend a lot of time thinking about money.

This is the source of a lot of strain.  First off, the factors above still apply, but differently.

  • My poverty is once again a temporary situation, although much less temporary than in the past.  The mortgage payments and larger utility bills are not going to go away, nor will the maintenance our crumbly old house requires, nor our property and school taxes.  However, the massive expenses of the first year of home ownership (down payment, “welcome tax,” moving, major emergency repairs that we knew we needed to address, essential furniture) are taken care of.  If we stay in our new home, most of those expenses will not recur, and we can mete the other repairs, renovations and purchases out as we can afford them.
  • My support system is very different than it was when I was in my twenties.  My family is no longer in a position to help us out financially (my father, for example, already has a house full of adult children much younger than me who can’t seem to leave the nest, and so has no room for his middle-aged daughter and son-in-law if they fall on hard times.)  My friends have children, mortgages and job troubles of their own – I’m sure they’d offer me a couch and a hot meal if I needed it, but I’d be very embarrassed to ask.  However, I still have support, notably in the form of my husband.  We are in this together.  We also live in a country with a reasonable social safety net (for the moment…), so if one of us loses his/her job or gets sick, we will not be immediately destitute.
  • I may not be able to buy a bunch of books I’m not sure I want, or to eat out when I  could make myself beans and rice at home, but I have a tenured job, and my husband is also gainfully employed.  For now, at least, the paycheques are coming in and we are able to cover what needs to be covered.  We have a roof over our heads, and if that roof  falls in, someone will likely lend us the money to fix it.  We are in no immediate physical danger, even if we are pretty stressed out a lot of the time.

The strain has been a source of a lot of learning.

I am seeing some of my students’ troubles in a different light.  Every semester, I have a student or two who can’t afford to buy his or her books.  Yes, sometimes they can still afford their cell phones or their cars, but sometimes not.  Sometimes they have no internet at home, or even no computer.  I tell them to come use the computers at school, to borrow the books from classmates or the library, to find a way.  But sometimes they can’t access these facilities, or even my messages telling them to come see me, because they can’t pay their student fees.  I gently remind them that in some cases, we can’t go to  college, at least not right now, because we can’t afford it.  But this is easy for me to say.  There were times I thought I’d have to drop out of school because I had no money, but I knew this was never a real threat – my parents would have found some means to keep me there.  Now I’m thinking more and more about what it’s like when you truly cannot have something that you feel is essential – for example, toilets that work properly all the time – because you don’t have the money.

I’m also learning – or re-learning – how inspiring it can be to see the value in things.  I’m finding myself combing the shelves for books I never got around to reading because they didn’t satisfy some ephemeral impulse.  I’m opening the drawers of the DVD cabinet to see if there’s something I’d like to watch again.  I’m looking in the pantry and thinking, “Hmmm.  Lentils, jackfruit in syrup, and wakame.  Let me see.”  I’m SAVING UP for things.  (When I’ve paid off my credit card balance, I get to buy Season 5 of Inspector Lewis, AND new toilets.)  Everything, including the beat-up plastic flowerpots in the shed and the bottle of hand soap that I wasn’t using because it smells too strongly of geraniums, has value.  Every single day, I say a little thank-you because the cats are not sick.

This was something I knew as a child, when my weekly allowance meant I could buy one book once in a while, and maybe a bag of potato chips every couple of weeks or so.  I couldn’t have a new box of coloured pencils or a new ABBA cassette just because I felt like it.  (In fact, I grew up in a tiny town where my choice of books, cassettes and drawing implements was limited to what the local mall decided to stock, regardless of how much money I had.)  When I grew older and had a bank account full of student loan money and a pocket full of cafeteria meal tickets, and a backup plan in the form of a call home, I started to lose my sense that every item, every service, every pleasure, comes at a cost.  Many of my students are in that stage now – their phones, their nights out clubbing and drinking Grey Goose, their college education, are entitlements.  Money is abstract, and comes from mysterious sources not connected to their own day-to-day choices.

I can’t fault them for this; I’ve been there.  It’s good for me, though, not to be there now.  The knowledge that money is real, and that using it for one thing means we must compromise something else, would ideally be instilled in us very young, and maintained throughout the excesses of adolescence.  I admire those young people around me who seem to understand this, as I did not when I was their age.  I don’t envy them the hard times they have gone through, or are going through, in order to learn it, but I can only hope that they are putting the lessons to good use, as I will try to do.

Image by Sanja Gjenero

Failing Benoit: Reprise

Students are getting their first tests back and preparing for their first essays.  There are, predictably, some unhappy and even angry faces.  I’m trying to be patient, to remember that learning can be a painful and frustrating process wherein you are told again and again that things that you KNOW with ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY are totally wrong.  However, this is always one of several points in the semester when I start wondering if there are easier jobs out there.

The post below, first published in September of 2009, reminds me that the moment when students receive their first grades of the term is always tough, for students and teachers alike.  Some students have the character tools to handle first-failure disappointment, but others come apart a little, and it’s easy for a teacher to push back in ways that may not be helpful.

*

Benoit’s in my remedial class – and how.  Every so often I read a student essay that makes me ask, silently or out loud, “How is it that this student was admitted to an English college?  What can possibly be done for him here?  How in the name of God is he ever going to get through?”  My reaction to Ben’s first writing assignment was much like that.

Ben was probably admitted because he is an athlete, a basketball player; it wouldn’t be the first time an athlete was admitted without the academic skills he needs.  Just a couple of semesters ago I worked with just such an athlete.  And then worked with him again the following semester.  In the same course.  But he did finally get through.  He got through because he really, really wanted to, and he knew that when he didn’t understand, when he couldn’t do the work or correct his own errors, he needed to get help.  He was also a sweet and even-tempered boy that everyone wanted to help, including his classmates, all the tutors in the Learning Centre, all his teachers, and his coach.

Ben is not like this.  Ben spends every class sighing loudly, thumping his desk in frustration, and asking belligerent, accusatory questions: “But why can’t I say X?  You mean I can’t ever say X?  But what about when I want to talk about Y?”  “I don’t get it.  I just don’t get it.”  More sighs.

Today I returned their first practice essay.  Ben failed it very badly.  They need to use this practice essay as the first draft for their first major assignment.  Ben sat slumped in his chair until the time came for them to use their practice essay to create an outline.  Then he stuck his hand in the air.  When I came to his seat, he said, “I don’t get it.  I don’t get why you underlined all these things.  And this…,” he turned to the rubric attached to his essay and flicked his fingers at it, “I don’t understand how you corrected this.”

I try to be patient with Ben’s complaining, sulking and accusing, but he annoys me.  It’s not that I don’t understand.  I know that he’s acting out because he’s frustrated, because he really is having serious difficulties and he doesn’t have the tools (academic, emotional or psychological) to deal with his difficulties.  But he’s very unpleasant.  He whines.  A lot.  Anyone who has had to deal with a 17-year-old who behaves like a small child knows what I’m talking about here.

Today, I had 21 other students waiting to talk to me, 21 students who were also struggling but who were doing their best.  They were all diligently creating outlines, looking over their rubrics, and trying to identify the main themes in the narratives they had written.  And here was Ben, slumped on his desk, barking, “I don’t get it.  I don’t see any errors.  I don’t get it.”

So I snapped.  Mildly, but audibly.  “Ben,” I said, “first of all, your goal today is to create this outline.  When it comes to your language errors, you need to work on them on your own, and you can come see me when you’ve made an attempt to correct some of them.  But today, please make an effort to find the main points in your story and identify them on this worksheet.  If you want to talk about other things, wait until the others have gone and we’ll discuss them then.”

So when I’d worked my way through the rest of the class, and Ben remained in his seat, folded against the wall, his expression poisonous, I made my way back to him.  “Now,” I said, “my sense is that you are frustrated.  I understand this.”

“But I don’t even get why you underlined these things,” he screeched.  “You put this mark there, to show a missing word, and I don’t even understand what word is missing.”

“Of course you don’t understand,” I said.  “If you understood, you would have put the correct word there in the first place.  The fact that you don’t understand is the first step.  Now you need to start, piece by piece, with what you DO understand.  You need to fix what you can fix before you start complaining about what you can’t fix.  You need to take this one piece at a time, not just look at it and say ‘I don’t understand, so I give up.’”

“But that’s not the case!  I understand some things.  I know why some are wrong.”

“Then begin with fixing some of the ones you know how to fix.”

“Like, this here.  What’s wrong with this?  ‘He is the best player on the team.’”

“Are you writing about right now?  Is it the team you’re on right now?”

“No.”

“It’s in the past?”

“Yeah.  So how do I fix it?”

“What is the past form of ‘he is’?”

“He was?  ‘He was the best player’?  You mean my whole story has to be in the past?  Even the details?”

“Of course it does.”  Ben sighed and thumped his paper onto his desk.  “This is the kind of question you need to be asking me, Ben, instead of just saying, ‘I don’t get it, I don’t get it.’ I think it would be a very good idea for you to take your essay to the Learning Centre and get yourself a tutor.  Do you have any interest or motivation to do that?”

His face was dark and sour.  He said nothing.  He crossed his arms against his chest and leaned against the wall.  A minute passed.  Then he said, “Whatever.”

“Do you have any interest or motivation to do that?” I repeated.

He shook his head.

“Well, that is the kind of help you are going to need.  In the meantime, you need to work on what you can fix in this, decide what questions you want to ask me, and come see me next week before you hand this in.”

Ben folded his papers together, gathered up his books, and stalked out of the room.

I mean, what’s a teacher to do?

I’m not under the illusion that I handled this properly.  I was tired and peeved, and unable to summon up any compassion for this clearly troubled young man.  But surely anyone would be tired and peeved in the face of this?  Is there something (other than some sitting meditation and a few glasses of Scotch) that I can do to soothe my jangled nerves and help this boy?  Because I’m telling you, right now I’m having some seriously unteacherly thoughts about what sort of correction he needs.

*

Addendum: Benoit came to see me the following week, almost cheerful, and together we identified a few major essay-writing issues that he could work on.  A few weeks later, in a followup comment on this post, I wrote, “His behavior has changed quite a bit. The tone in his voice has become much more respectful, he asks direct questions about the things he doesn’t understand, and in general he seems willing to take responsibility for his own learning.” He made small improvements throughout the term, and scraped through the course with a 59.6%.  (He probably shouldn’t have, but in the end the points added up.)  This was by no means our only moment of conflict, but it was probably the worst of them.  We weren’t able to significantly improve his skills, but when I think back to the improvements in his demeanour, it gives me hope for the students who are starting this term defiant and argumentative.

Image by Gabriella Fabbri

College Teaching and Helplessness in the Face of General Badness

In my memoir course, my students’ first exercise is to write down a small story that they often tell people about their lives.  I like reading these little paragraphs – they are often about getting lost in foreign airports, mislaying precious items and realizing that material things don’t matter, buying liquor while under age.  But there are always one or two students who tell me things I don’t want to know.

This term it was Michael.  Michael (not his real name, of course) wrote a story about being punished when he was around six.  It’s difficult to follow the timeline, but it seems that his parents left him alone while they went on vacation, and came home to find the house a mess, so they beat him and sent him to his room.  The description of the beating is perfunctory, but that of his feelings is quite elaborate: the fear that they would find out, the terror during the beating, the remorse as he recovered, and so forth.

I think it’s possible some facts of the story are less than accurate (his parents left him home alone for the weekend when he was six years old?)  Nevertheless, there is clearly something unfortunate going on here.  I wrote a note at the bottom of his assignment saying that the story made me sad and asking him to come talk to me about it.  Instead, when he rewrote his story he added a paragraph at the end that went something like this.

Yes it is a pretty sad story but I know people who have had been threaten even worse. I find that it was tough but I know a very important star who had problems like that in his childhood and in his career they had a pretty tough time even and a lot worse than me. I think it’s the shock my parents had that made them do that but I understand my parents because if your them and you don’t know that there are mess everywhere when you enter your house you can take it pretty bad so at the same time yes and no it is and it is not a sad story

Here is my reply.

Michael: of course, it is your feelings about the incident that are most important.  Are you aware that we have counsellors here at the college whom you can talk to if you are ever feeling bad about things that happened in the past or are happening now?  Let me know if you would like more information.

Like many of my students, Michael is over 18.  I am therefore not under any legal obligation in a situation like this (according to counsellors I’ve spoken to in the past about similar stories students have written.)  I have no intention of chasing him down and making him talk to me about anything he doesn’t want to.  That said, I wonder if there’s something more I should be thinking about doing for him.

Every year, I consider avoiding personal writing assignments.  Every term I ask myself: do I need these close reminders of the general badness going on out there in the world, in my students’ lives?  But I know I will never eliminate them – the assignments, because I won’t, or the badness, because I can’t – so I need a clear strategy for dealing with the stories that rear their heads.

What do you think teachers, especially teachers of older students, should do when faced with stories of suffering, abuse, or trauma?  Have you faced this issue yourself?  If so, what do you do?

Image by Brenda Otero

The Limits of Compassion: Reprise

What does being “compassionate” really entail?

One of my major preoccupations, in my teaching life and my life in general, is the line between “real compassion” and “idiot compassion”.  In March 2009, I was struggling with this dichotomy; I didn’t resolve it, but I often look back on this event when I am wondering how to respond to a student’s difficulties.

*

A few weeks ago, a student named Alexandra emailed me.  She was going to miss a week of classes because a friend of hers had died suddenly; she had to fly home to attend the funeral and help his family.

I sent her my condolences. I also explained that if she wanted to make up the in-class essay she would miss, she’d have to bring documentation of the reason for her absence.  The funeral home was used to these requests, I explained, and would know what to give her. I also reminded her that her lowest in-class essay mark would be dropped, so it wasn’t essential that she make this assignment up if she wasn’t up to it.

On the day she returned, at the end of class, Alexandra slammed a pile of scraps from the funeral – a copy of the obituary, some decorations with the deceased’s name on them – onto my desk and stalked away.  She was gone before I could ask what her gesture was supposed to signify.

At the beginning of the next class, I called her to my desk and asked if she’d brought those “documents” because she wanted to make up the essay she’d missed.  She said, “I brought them because you said you wanted to see something.”  I gently reminded her that I’d wanted to see something only if she wanted to retake the essay test – that documentation is always required if a student wants to redo a major assignment. I explained again that she was welcome to make up what she’d missed, but that, given the time that had elapsed and the circumstances, it would be understandable if she wanted to let this one slide, as her lowest essay test grade would be dropped from her average.

She seemed to soften.  She said that she probably couldn’t do a good job on the essay, so she’d pass on this one. I got the feeling that she understood: the request for documentation had nothing to do with her personally, and everything to do with a general rule that I had to apply equally to everyone.

In the weeks since then, however, Alexandra’s attitude toward me has been considerably colder than it was. I don’t know whether that’s a general change in her mood, because of the terrible loss she has just sustained, or whether she still harbours resentment over her [mis]interpretation of my request.

When I first started teaching, I gave students a lot of chances. If a student said his grandmother had died, I took him at his word and helped him make up the work. Over time, though, it became clear that students were taking advantage of this, and it was making my life more difficult and wasn’t helping them in the long run. Putting clear rules about late and missed work into place, and applying them consistently, has helped me deal with some ambiguous situations.

A case in point: another student in Alexandra’s class, Peter, emailed me more than a week after the due date of a major at-home assignment to ask if I had received his essay, which he had “put in internal mail.” I hadn’t, and reminded Peter that if he didn’t put an essay directly into my hands, he was required to email it to me immediately after submitting his hard copy, as proof that it was done. The next class we spoke about it – he still hadn’t brought it to me – and I told him that if he sent me the essay IMMEDIATELY, I would read it and consider giving him a very small portion of his grade. Four days later, I received an email with Peter’s essay attached. His aunt had died, he said, and so he had forgotten to email it to me “IMMEDIATELY”.  I replied that it was too late, and I wouldn’t consider his essay (such as it was – it was too short and made little sense.)

Peter would have failed the course even if I had graded his essay – maybe this is why I didn’t hear any arguments from him.  I suspect, though, that he didn’t protest because I had called his bluff.  I put such deadlines in place, and ask for documents to confirm legitimate reasons for missed assignments, because I don’t want to make decisions about who’s telling the truth and who isn’t.  Most students understand this – not just students who make up excuses and then can’t back them up, but especially students who have real, compelling reasons for missing work or handing things in late.  Alexandra seems to be an exception.

Of course, it’s difficult to explain to someone in Alexandra’s situation that, because of students like Peter, rules have to be created, and have to be enforced, for everyone. But it’s also difficult for teachers to know when to trust our intuition, and when our intuition will get us into trouble. If I had relaxed the rules for Alexandra, and then Peter had come back to me and said, “Well, you made an exception for her, why not me?”, things would have gotten messy.

How do we create structure and accountability for our students without sacrificing compassion for their very real troubles? It’s an endless dance, and sometimes we make the wrong moves.

Image by Gesine Kuhlmann

Things I Learned From Buying a House #1: I Can Do It

You can do things you don’t think you can do.

For most of my adult life, I said that I didn’t want to own a house.  It was too much responsibility.  I was willing to “pay someone else’s mortgage,” as people kept describing it, if it meant that someone else had to call the plumber when the drains stopped working.

The truth was, though, I just didn’t think I could do it.  I didn’t think I could take care of everything that owning a house seemed to require: not just calling the plumber, but dealing with the bank, having the roof redone, mowing the lawn, finding an electrician, lighting the gas furnace, choosing the right insurance.

Turns out, pretty much anyone can do these things.  I have yet to learn whether I like doing these things, or at least whether owning my own house makes them worth doing.  But I can ask for advice, look up YouTube videos, and tighten bolts.  I can learn how to paint a bannister properly and how to care for a birch tree.  It’s a lot of work.  Nevertheless, I can do it.

I find myself resisting tasks.  I don’t want to put up shelves in the bathroom.  It’s too much work.  Then I realize that the work is not the problem – somewhere, buried deep, is the belief that if I put the shelves up myself, they will fall down.  My husband seems to have the same conviction about his shelf-mounting abilities.  Can we afford to hire someone to put up shelves?  No.  Sooner or later, we will have to go to YouTube and learn how to put up shelves that won’t fall down.  Until we convince ourselves that we can learn to be capable shelf-putter-uppers, my toiletries are going to sit in an ugly cardboard box on the bathroom floor.

When my students don’t do their grammar exercises, don’t turn in their essays, don’t show up for quizzes, even don’t do the required reading, it’s sometimes because they are lazy or have other things on their minds.  Sometimes, though, there’s a deeper problem: they don’t think they can do it, and I’m not showing them they can.  More and more, I find myself breaking tasks into smaller and smaller steps and having students practice example after example, not so that they can “learn” the skill better, but so that they can see, “Hey, this isn’t so hard.  I can do this.”

The problem of self-efficacy may be the biggest in education.  This is not at all the same as self-esteem – you can feel great about yourself in general while still having a nagging low-level conviction that you can’t handle certain things.  I do not suffer from low self-esteem in the least, but when it comes to re-caulking my shower, I have yet to persuade myself that I have, or can acquire, the necessary skill set.

Saying “I can’t do this” is, in many cases, what prevents us.  Now that I have the house, I have no choice.  Unfortunately, my students can’t turn to YouTube to learn how to be skillful readers, and copying an essay from the internet is not the same as learning how to write one.  That’s what teachers are for.

On that note, if anyone wants to boost my self-efficacy by teaching me how to level a concrete basement floor, you know where to find me.

Image by Lajla Borg Jensen

The Uses of Boredom: Reprise

An earlier version of this week’s reprint appeared in July of 2009.  It tells the story of how and why I became a reader.  And it asks: how do we learn to like challenging tasks if we live in a world where boredom is impossible?

*

boredomI became a reader because I was bored.

I learned to read when I was about four years old, but, like many children, I read only picture books until I was about seven. My parents brought me to the library every two weeks, and I filled up on library books at school as well, but picture books didn’t last long; I ended up reading them over and over because we had limited television options and, of course, no computer. (I was also a clumsy child with seasonal allergies who didn’t like to play outside.)

I occasionally glanced at the library shelves full of books for older children, and sometimes took one down to page through it, but I was intimidated. They were so thick, and if there were illustrations at all, they appeared only once a chapter or so. These “chapter books” seemed like too much work.

Every summer, we loaded up the car and drove for what seemed like months, but was probably about five hours, to our summer house to spend two or three weeks. Before leaving town, we took a special trip to the library to take out an extra-large stack of books on extended summer loan.  The summer I was seven, my mother used part of her precious borrowing allotment to take out a few “chapter books” for me. “But I don’t like chapter books,” I said. She ignored me.

I read through all my picture books in the car on the way to the coast, and even dipped into some of my brothers’ horror comics to pass the time. (They both suffered from carsickness, and so most of the reading material was mine for the duration of the trip.)  Then we arrived, and for two weeks, I had to keep myself entertained.  At the summer house, we had no television, and a seven-year-old, even one who likes math, can only play cribbage for so long. We found things to do: there was a tree behind the house full of fascinating fuzzy yellow caterpillars; there was a rusted old bedspring in the next lot that we liked to bounce on (and somehow none of us got tetanus); our parents took us to the beach or the nearby swimming hole every second day; and the blueberries needed picking and eating.

But then it rained. We were stuck in the house, lying on the creaky couch in the living room. We groaned and rolled our eyes at the tedium. We pressed our noses against the glass to make interesting smudges or write in the steam from our breath.

And then I saw, on the endtable, the little stack of “chapter books” my mother had brought for me.

I picked one up and leafed through it. I don’t remember what book it was, but there was a full-page woodcut at the beginning of each chapter, and the rest of the pages seemed dense and busy with text. The first woodcut was of two boys and a girl, maybe brothers and a sister just like my brothers and me. And there was a duck, I think. The duck caught my interest.

It was still raining. I started to read.

I read that entire book that afternoon, and started another after dinner. When bedtime came, I hid in the bathroom with that book until my parents threatened to shut down the power if I didn’t turn out the lights and go to bed.

The experience of being entirely transported into another world was one that would shape the rest of my childhood and adolescence. Until I pursued an English degree at university and ruined it all, reading became the most important activity in my life.  I might never have found it if we’d had cable TV, video games, or Internet access at that summer house.

These days, I marvel at those of my students who read for pleasure. These kids have no memory of a world without computers or cell phones. There are myriad forms of instant gratification available at their fingertips at all times. Even so, some of them still love reading. My IB students and I had a discussion last term about the future of the novel, and they rhapsodized about books; Anny told us that her bookshelf is near her bed and sometimes she’ll pull the books out and smell the pages because they make her so happy.

Most of my students, however, have no interest in reading, and I have to say that I don’t blame them. Even I don’t read for pleasure much any more, especially fiction – I watch television and films, read blogs online, and listen to nonfiction as podcasts and audiofiles.  I’m a writer and English teacher, and was a voracious reader from the age of seven. If I’m not reading, what chance do my overstimulated students have, especially if they’ve never been bored long enough to reach out to a book they might normally not be bothered with?

A colleague and I were discussing his children one day, and he said that he and his wife had been debating the restrictions they should place on computer use and television viewing. He said that during their conversation, he’d had a revelation. “I want my kids to have the chance to be bored,” he said.  How much creative discovery has taken place because a child or an adult was trapped inside on a rainy day and all the picture books had been read, all the video games had been won, or the cable had gone out? How much more would teenagers learn about themselves if they put their cell phones away for a few days at a time?

We could argue that kids go to school, so they know plenty about boredom. But would they be able to make more use of the “boring” hours they spend sitting at a desk if they had more chances, on their own time, to lie on the couch, look around the room, and find something new to read? If they spent more time wandering through the woods, picking up sticks to use as toys, or examining the insides of flowers?  Some of my most stimulating memories of my childhood are of doing these kinds of things, and some of the most interesting people I know, young and old, grew up in environments where there was no, or limited, access to televisions, computers, game consoles, etc. They got bored, and they had to do something about it.

Most importantly, someone was there to hand them a book, a chemistry set, or a basketball, and say, “See what you can do with this.” Is this what’s missing from many of our kids’ lives? Is this what Anny’s parents did – turned off the television, handed her a book, and said, “Try this on”?

My greatest fear is not that many young people will never learn to enjoy books, although I do think that’s a shame. My greatest fear is that many will never discover things they could really love, things that could make them better, happier people, because they’re filling their time with easy distractions.

I love easy distractions as much as the next person, and you are as likely to find me checking Facebook and playing Plants vs. Zombies as reading a novel these days. But at least I had a chance. What chance do some of these kids have?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 11,079 other followers