Not at ALL What You Thought

Thursday, April 03, 2008

On Teaching

You know I teach some literature classes, right? Well, what you may not know is that I read all the poetry in class, aloud, myself; I assign short stories to be read as homework; and I make my students read the plays aloud in class. Mine is not a drama class, but I am sensitive to the original purpose of Drama: that is, it should be performed, or, at the very least, heard (especially since a lot of The Good Stuff is poetry, too).

So in my lit classes, I insist upon "casting" the plays. We read aloud as much as we have time for. I have Suffered For My Vision, though. For one thing, there is always at least one student who is absolutely terrified of reading aloud. Said student, having seen the writing on the wall, usually takes me aside after class and begs me not to make him or her read anything aloud. I always commiserate with the stage fright (though we never even approach a stage), but insist that each student read SOMETHING aloud. "It's part of your 'class participation' grade," I point out, and then I offer the smallest parts available (like the stage directions or Selig in Joe Turner's Come and Gone).

One semester, after the class had read passages from Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, Shakespeare's Hamlet, Hellman's The Children's Hour, and Norman's 'Night, Mother, one student discovered that we'd be reading Wilson's Fences next, and she was horrified that one of her classmates would say the word nigger out loud. Ours was, after all, a mixed class, and she knew I was liable to "cast" at least one of her white classmates in the predominately black play. (I ended up casting quite a few, actually.) So, in class one day, she objected to reading Fences aloud. She didn't want, she said, anybody (particularly anybody white) saying That Word in her class.

I understood her stance; really, I did. But it was my class, and I could not see the --well-- rightness in excluding Fences from the semester's "performances." After all, Oedipus has four children by his mother and rips his eyeballs out. Shakespeare used the word polack. Hellman wrote about a lesbian who shoots her brains out at the end of the play. Norman talks us into rooting for another young lady who wants to shoot her brains out. There were any number of objections we could raise concerning any one of the plays I'd chosen to analyze.

So we were going to read Fences aloud, too, as we had read the other plays. That student protested by walking out of class on the first "Fences" day. But she came back. And the whole thing turned out to be a wonderful teaching opportunity: we talked a lot about the deliberate choices for diction (and other devices) that real artists make, and why they are so deliberate. I remember that class fondly, and the Protesting Student and I still correspond.

But a few weeks ago, I encountered a conflict I'd never met before and, in 2008, one I'd never even thought I would have to meet. We were reading Bullins' Goin a Buffalo aloud one day when I realized that the student I had cast as "Curt" was having trouble with the language. See, GAB's main characters are prostitutes and their pimps (part-time heroin dealers) and their ex-convict friends.* I don't need to tell you that when folk like that get excited, they do not say "Gee, willikers!"

Well, my student** began to stumble over the language. Then he started replacing the words. For "you bitches," for example, he said, "You girls." For "muthafucka," he said, "people." And so on. I had an idea why he was doing this: he's a lovely young man, and I thought he felt uncomfortable using such language in front of his old, gray-haired professor. (I assumed, you know, that the child, like others of his generation, cussed like Andrew Dice Clay outside class. I mean, he wears "dread" locks!)***At the end of the class, we all having empathetically sweated through That Student's discomfort, I shook his hand and said, "You're all right with me, [Wonderful Mysterious Name]." And he replied, "Ms. B., next time you have something like this, please don't make me read it." Deal. He had already acquitted his duty for the semester. He was done, and I was satisfied.

But the other shoe hadn't dropped.

The following week, the child met me in the hallway outside our classroom and asked me if he could address the class. Smelling another teaching opportunity, I have him permission to do so after we'd had our oral reports. Student With The Wonderful Name strode up to the podium with a slip of paper in his hand.

It was a formal apology --for "cursing in class" and "being a poor witness for Christ." When he finished, I thanked the young man and asked the other students if they had anything to say. I thought somebody would at least point out that reading the words on a page wasn't "cursing," but, instead, shamefaced and quiet, one or two students shook their heads "No"; nobody said anything.

"Well, I have something to say." I began by pointing out that The Student With The Wonderful Name and I had something in common: I loved Jesus, too, and I don't curse in my personal life. But I didn't consider what TSWTWN had done as "cursing." He had been forced, as a student, to read some words on a page. And then I did my little spiel on an artist's "deliberate choices." I talked about verisimilitude. I talked about reasonable expectations (adding my "Gee, willikers!" comment). My students sat up a little straighter after that, but TSWTWN probably didn't see my point at all. But since he didn't argue, I breathed a sigh of relief and we went on to for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf. (!!!)

But there was another shoe.

After class, I went to my office to think thoughts (and put them on display for Christina) when the division's student assistant dropped in to visit, as is his wont.

"I didn't know you had [Wonderful Name] in one of your classes," he said.
"Uh, huh," I said.
"You know he told his discipler****about the other day, when he had to read from that play," Student Assistant said. This is a lovely young man, too, big and friendly and smart. (No locks, though, but I don't hold that against him.) "His discipler was very angry with him about the language. He really chastised him."

"That's why he read the apology to the class," I finally said.
"Yeah." As Student Assistant told me the story of how he himself had gotten in trouble with his discipler (yes, over something he'd actually said, don't know what, turned my ears off lest they bled), I wondered.

What in the world are they teaching in these churches today?

Lord Jesus, my brother, forgive us for demoralizing The Least of These Your children. We don't know what we're doing.

*Not to mention JAZZ MUSICIANS.

**He has one of the most wonderful names I've ever heard. I'm so sorry I can't give it to you.

***A course, the rest of the class just revelled in the opportunity to cuss, openly and often.

****I wish I had an explanatory link for you, honey. Truly, I do.


  • At 7:42 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    (and put them on display for Christina)

    And, I must say, they are much worthier thoughts than the muddled mess I display to you. (c;

    I wrote about this rather than take up all your comment space.

  • At 8:58 PM , Blogger Brian said...

    Discipler? I'm always amused when I find something that strikes me as weirder than anything I experienced in 26 years of being a Jehovah's Witness.

  • At 12:34 PM , Blogger Bob said...

    I read this yesterday, and thought I had left a comment, but I guess I didn't. Let me rectify that:

    I hope that the majority of your students know how lucky they are to have a prof like you - one who doesn't let her belief system overrule fair teaching practices.

    Back in my college days, I had a lit prof who wouldn't teach anything that had "swearing" in it, because it was against the Commandment.

    I dropped the class.

    I just don't get narrow-mindedness in educators. It's oxymoronic, isn't it?

    Also, "Discipler?" ... run screaming into the night, students. And learn to think for yourselves.

  • At 12:43 PM , Blogger Jennifer said...

    Discipler. Wow. I wish you had an explanatory link too, cause none of what I've got in my head makes any sense.

    Discipleship as a transitive verb.

    Discipleship as something that one does to a child.


  • At 1:23 PM , Blogger Gine said...

    Christina (especially Christina), Brian, Bob and Jennifer: Thank you. I don't know what else to say.


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