Friday, January 11, 2013

# 33 The Right Mistake

    I'm in the second semester of my second year, teaching high school English. I've been assigned a course nobody else in the department seems to want, 10G English, or as they say in the English office,"The Gs". It's a small class, about 20 kids, mostly rough and ready boys, always with their baseball hats, and bulky jackets on. Some have chippy attitudes, but most carry themselves with a whipped posture and seem to walk under a cloud of defeat.

   A month into the course I learn that many never show up, don't do their homework or bring books and pens. No one is really rude or even overtly rebellious, just very passive aggressive. I'm new to this type of student, so I take their resistance to me personally. Frequently, I think I must be doing something wrong, but I can't quite figure how to solve the problem.

    So, I prepare a unit on The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. It's a coming of age story, about some boys from the poor side of town, fatherless, and headed in the wrong direction. I approach my lessons the way I was taught at the Faculty of Education: notes on the board, do a lesson, assign chapters to read, questions to answer, test, record marks, repeat. I'm up late every night, carefully preparing lessons for the next day. Every time I take up questions though, I end up doing the answers for most students because, well, most just don't do the questions I create, and they fail the quizzes too. The oddest part is they just don't seem to care if they pass or fail.

   Toward the end of the unit, I take in a short essay and conclude most didn't even read the novel. They hand in plot summaries, a lot of it plagiarized from Sparks Notes. The whole experience has caused some frustration and anger to surface in me. The worst part is I can feel my enthusiasm  deflating like I've just driven my car over a bed of nails.

    In spite of my feelings, I do my best to rally my spirits and I decide, we'll read the novel out loud. I read a bit and then call on students to read to the class. I notice that many are really weak readers. Not just nervous, but weak. Stronger readers instinctively look a few words head while they are reading and these guys don't perform this operation. I conclude, they need is practice, lots and lots of practice. So, I call home to inform their parents of the need for extra practice and recommend fifteen minutes each night.

   The next day, one of my students, Alvin, comes to see me at the beginning of class. He is a tall lanky kid, really into basketball and anything that involves physical strength. He looks directly at my eyes, lifts his chin a little and says, "Sir, What'd ya call my house for last night?" A bit surprised, I explain myself... .  Then he says, "My aunt called me a stupid bastard, slapped me and sent me to my room. Said if I don't smarten up and pass English, I'll have to move out." He sounded sincere too. I don't believe his story though. I figure he's playing the sympathy card so I say "Well start practising your reading Alvin." 

   Then, I casually ask why he is living with his aunt and his reply rattles me a bit: never met his father, his mother meets a guy in Toronto and leaves him with his aunt, who is a 'bitch'. Later, I check in with guidance to confirm his story and apparently, it's true. In addition, I learn he is running with a small gang, headed for troubled destinations, and he isn't doing well in any of his other classes either. I feel for him, but I'm also a little relieved to discover that I'm not the only teacher to have this experience.

   His situation makes me curious about the other students, so, I decide to find out more about these kids sitting in front of me. I ask the class how many have read a novel. About two thirds admit that they have never, ever, read a novel completely. Now at this point you may think that this is impossible for someone in grade ten, but it isn't. English courses are not focused on just one unit, so it is possible for a student to pass a course, but still fail a unit.You only need 50% to earn a credit.

    A few days later I ask a more experienced teacher in the department to recommend a new novel.  "The Contender," he says, "Check the book room.; they'll love that one....."  I pick up a class set during lunch break, glance at the front and back and find it is a short novel about a kid who wants to become a prize fighter. Perfect! Then I decide to just read it to the class, no planned lessons, tests, or essays. I want to get on this reading problem immediately, so I'll avoid the unit preparation this time.

   That afternoon, I hand out the novels, take down the book numbers, tell them to write their names in the front cover. I sit on a chair at the front of the room, ask them to open up their books, tell them to follow me, and I start reading. Everyone looks nervous, afraid that I'm going to ask them to read in front of the class. So, I stop and inform them, "If you follow me I won't ask you read to the class."  There is a collective sigh and then some slouch down in their desks, jackets and hats still on, forearms resting on the edge of the desk and the novel open.

   I'm not a great public reader, but I'm not bad. I have heard some pretty good public readers over the years and believe me, it is a craft all its own. Anyway, after the first chapter I put the book down and say "OK, that's it for today." I notice a definite look of disappointment on their faces. I figure I've got them hooked now. Then one kid says, "Hey don't stop now sir, it's just gettin' good." So, I say "Tell ya what. You read silently for the rest of the period, and we'll talk about the story tomorrow, 'K ?"  They nod approval and I sit back and watch them. I can tell by the way their eyes move over the pages that they have entered into suspended disbelief. The rest of the period is quiet and I'm feeling pretty good about my spontaneous strategy. Then just before the bell rings I say "Now listen, DO NOT read any more of the novel until tomorrow, I want to find out what happens too."

   Over the next couple of weeks we all wander through the story together, I realize that much of the central character's life parallels Alvin's experience. Then, I start to feel a bit self conscious about my choice of material since both he and I know about the similarities. I feel a little like I am invading his personal space and think of ways to steer away from it. I sense that he too is self conscious because he avoids eye contact and looks away when we enter into class discussion. I start to think that maybe I made a mistake in choosing this story. I should have read it first. I should have planned a direction to take this thing, but I didn't.

    For the rest of the novel, I do my best to stay away from discussions of gangs, parents, poverty etc. I think I am tacitly centering him out, making an example of him. Each time we have a group discussion I feel like I am standing up there and silently saying, "Alvin, I know you have been dealt a shitty hand in life, but look at the kid in the story, so did he, and he is working to overcome the obstacles." I don't want anything negative to come out of reading this novel. I want it to be a positive experience for everyone.

   We continue this routine for the rest of the novel, no questions, no tests, just reading and discussion. At the end I say, "Now, everyone in this room has read a complete novel, so you can't make that claim anymore. Right?"  We have a final discussion about how we feel toward the story, you know, was it good or bad etc..... and then I ask them to hand back the novels. Everyone does and some even show a tinge of reluctance. I can tell they like the memory of the novel and I am happy for them, but I am also happy to get out of this uncomfortable situation with Alvin. When he hands his novel back to me, I say, "So what'd you think of the story?" He says, "It was good sir." Unfortunately, he is arrested for break and enter a couple of weeks later and he enrolls in another school.

   About fifteen years later, I end up on the wrong escalator in our meandering downtown shopping mall. I get to the bottom floor and as I to turn around to correct the mistake, I glance out the big glass doors and see Alvin standing in line waiting for the bus. He is gripping the back of a baby stroller and a woman has got her wrist locked around his arm. He has long ponytail, facial piercings and several jailhouse tattoos that seem to crawl up both arms, and a nasty scar above his left eye. I take a second look to make sure it's him and notice the back of the stroller is jammed with children's books. There is no time for either of us to talk so I turn and continue on my way. I never see him again.

   I am lucky, I was born into a household where reading out loud and in silence was the norm. Reading was never talked about as important, it was like eating, sleeping and going to work, just part of the fabric of our lives.  After all this time, I can't count times I have been part of a kids first novel reading experience. I still get frustrated with the whole process sometimes, but I never get angry or feel deflated anymore, because I know it will happen. They will be happy they have read their first novel and I'll be happy to be the one who brought it to them.