While I was finishing up my master’s in English, I was working as a Teaching Associate. Two classes of First-Year Composition 101 made the mistake of registering for my class.
Poor children. None of them knew what to do with a teacher who knew their tricks better than they did themselves. I assured them that however proficient in the art of sarcasm they believed themselves to be, I was better. I’d had more practice. “Please don’t tempt me,” I said. “I’d enjoy it too much, and nobody likes cleaning up a mess.” I suggested that we start from a baseline of respect instead.
My class was built around discussion, dialogue. We read articles, and then we talked about them. My class was straightforward: do your homework, participate in class, do your best to write with simplicity and clarity, and you’ll be fine.
Of course, as many of them did none of these as did them all. I had trouble pushing a thought through their thick, complacency-encrusted craniums: I will know whether or not you read when I call on you to participate in the discussion.
Who needs quizzes? Sure I gave them as a formality, but I just threw them away. I knew if Kevin or Justin or Laura or Blake did their homework simply by watching their faces when I asked, “Do you think a woman donating her eggs is a decision that is hers alone to make?”
Nervous titter. Glancing around the room. Eyes drop down to desk. Color appears on cheeks.
“You didn’t read the assignment, did you?”
“Well, that’s okay. I expect more from you in the future. Please pay close attention and try to participate.”
I never humiliated them. Communicating my disappointment and my desire for improvement was effective enough without dressing them down in front of their peers. I always disliked the teachers who used fear. They never earned my true respect, just lip service with a snarl.
One particular day in late summer, I held one of my classes outside behind the humanities building. Knowing their tendency to disconnect and look for four-leaf clovers, I asked them to sit in a circle. Never underestimate how adolescents will self-correct when people their own age are watching.
I had assigned Dave Barry’s essay “Guys vs. Men.” I didn’t enjoy the essay that much. Barry makes the easy jokes at men’s expense and reinforces stereotypes of masculinity rather than disrupt or at least challenge them.
Regardless of my opinion, the essay provided an accessible springboard for the issue of gender and harmful or unhealthy gender constructs. Most of the girls in that class spoke up that day. They talked about their fathers, brothers, and boyfriends. Most of them wanted to date a “gentleman.” Gentlemen were scarce.
The first time I called on Kelsey, she deflected. Rather than interrupt the flow of the dialogue, I moved onto somebody else. I eventually called on her again. What did she think about the essay? Was Barry’s essay part of the problem?
She threw daggers with her eyes before saying, “Stop calling on me. I obviously didn’t do my homework.”
Hmm. Bet she has a great relationship with her dad.
Her attitude was the sort I refused to tolerate. I decided to nip it.
“Kelsey, you are in no position to be making demands.”
Her eyes went wide, and she sat up a little straighter. She was cute, slender, and bitchy. Just the sort of girl guys fall over themselves to ask out. The sort of girl who is accustomed to getting whatever she wants.
I never did have much of a stomach for that sort of girl. She took part in our discussion from then on.
I hoped she cleaned up the attitude because playing the victim will only take you so far. Not to mention the effects of age, gravity, sun damage, and slower metabolism. Kelsey, force a man to love you for your mind and heart.
I saw her the other day and said hi. She was with a slouchy guy who looked like he knew how to bake space brownies.
Sure, I judged by appearances. You can’t win them all. Maybe the joke’s on me for remembering her.