Friday, March 4, 2011

Man on Fire

"A man can be an anything, food, whatever. It depends on how good he is at it. Creasy's art is death. He is about to paint his masterpiece. I have nothing else to say. - Rayburn, Man on Fire

My art is teaching. Like most men with delusions of grandeur, I'd like to think I'm something other than I am; a writer, a comedian, a pirate - the Indiana Jones of South East Asia. But my true craft, my genuine talent, lies withing the realm of teaching. It's a skill that's been honed through thousands of hours of practice in the heart of darkness, the inner city classroom, strengthened by teaching the inherently "unteachable" - Special Ed. Anyone can teach AP, but not anyone can teach those who choose to be wilfully stupid, the students who hate everything and everyone because secretly, they despise themselves.

If you can teach Special Ed in the inner city, you can teach anything.

I used to think I was ineffective, a fraud, a fake. No matter how hard I tried, no matter how many times I explained and re-explained, no matter how many hours I spent in review or helping kids with their homework, my students just didn't "get it".

But give me a class full of general ed students, and I transform - metamorphosing from a crude hockey player into an elegant figure skater, gliding through concepts with lectures and discussion that borders on high performance art.

Give me a class of honors and AP, and I am no longer a figure skater, but a God.

You are what you teach.

One of the tricks to teaching is learning not to take things personally, to quell your feelings and your emotional frustration: apprehension, rage, angst - gone. Like a bemused comedian in the middle of a routine, you are no longer an individual but an act, a persona that oscillates between unflappable royalty and Buddhist monk because no matter how good you are, you have to accept that some things are beyond your control.

No matter how hard you try, your students still have to be willing to learn and listen.

Sometimes you receive a question in class that is so far out in left field it came from the bleachers. I'm co-teaching in Duran's economics class, explaining how property values can decline in crime ridden areas when a question is tossed from outside the stadium.

"Mister," Fluffy asks, "What happens if a house is haunted? Does the property go down?"

Sigh, it's Fluffy. Duran takes to the plate first. "Well, then you have to call in the Ghost Busters."

The class laughs. "Ha ha ha, Mr. Duran." Fluffy says loudly. "Very funny. I know there is no such thing as the Ghost Busters."

Shrugging, I return to the board. A small interruption, no big thing.

"But seriously," Fluffy interjects, "what happens when a house is haunted?"

My turn. "Normally after the police ascertain a house is haunted, they call in the Bureau of Paranormal Activity."

The entire class looks up. Bureau of Paranormal Activity! What's that? "Seriously, none of you have heard of the Bureau of Paranormal Activity? Section 13?"

Fluffy sits forward. "Section 13! What do they do?"

"They investigate and solve paranormal crimes; hauntings, aliens, that sort of thing."

"How do you get into it!"

"You study to be a para-psychologist. They're specifically trained to handle ghosts. One of the ways they identify ghosts is by the ectoplasm they leave behind." I state offhandedly.

"How does one get to be one of those!" Fluffy pants, leaning forward.

The class is riveted. Time to crush Fluffy's imaginary dream. "Well, you have to go to college and get a degree in para-psychology."

Fluffy deflates. College. I might as well have told him he had to jump to the moon. "How come I've never heard of Section 13?"

"Talk to me after class."

Twenty minutes later, the bell rings and Fluffy's out the door, question and answer forgotten as he heads out to lunch, but the next day he approaches me with yet another question. "Mr. Leiken, I tried looking up Section 13 on Google, and I couldn't find anything."

"Well it's not like they are going to have Section 13 on the Internet!" I snort. "They don't want the public knowing about it."

"Oh." Fluffy replies, heading back to his seat.

It's probably the first time Fluffy has ever shown initiative when attempting to research a topic.

Later that week I show an English class one of my blogs; Top 10 Movies: 2010. Working with Castaneda, we've decided to dedicate one day a week to blog writing in an attempt to get the class to write creatively and work on self expression. On Friday I give them their first assignment, write one page about a movie or TV show they either loved or hated and explain why they either loved or hated the show or film.

On Monday I ask them to hand the assignment in. Out of forty kids, only eighteen turn in their work, and five of the eighteen turned in not papers but three sentence paragraphs. Curiously, the three Special Ed kids in the class have all completed the assignment.

"Can't we turn it in late, Mister?"

"Sorry, I don't accept late work."

"But you can't expect us to do work on the weekend!"

"Oh no, not the WEEKEND!" I exclaim, throwing up my hands. "Oh my God, the teacher assigned homework on the weekend. We're doomed, DOOMED!" I fall down to my knees, head raised as I beseech the heavens, sobbing. "Why, God, why? Why have you forsaken us? I can't believe you expect us to do homework on the WEEKEND! Why not just kill us now!"

The class is stupefied, not sure whether to laugh or look ashamed. I pop back up to my feet, grinning. "So, what can anyone tell me about constructive criticism?"

The next time I give an assignment, thirty kids turn it in. That's progress, I guess.

Good teaching is like telling a good joke; anyone can tell a joke, but not anyone can tell a joke effectively. Cracking jokes is not about the words, it's about the timing; a good joke is not just a set up and a punch line, but a story infused with personality. Teaching is the same way, anyone can recite facts and present information, but not everyone has the passion, the personality, the inner fire. A great teacher has a heart of flame, a soul animated not with a bonfire but an inferno, a tornado of enthusiasm that tears away the listless and mundane, a whirlwind that rips through the insipid red tape and brainless bureaucracy of standardized testing and meaningless rules.

Without the fire, you won't make it, there's a reason why teachers who have given up are referred to as burn outs. As the refrain goes from Damn Yankees, "You got to have heart, miles and miles and miles of heart." Hopefully, your flame catches a spark in those you teach and inspires them to be more than they are, not diploma approved CST automatons, but free willed thinkers who refuse to live in the cave of cultural conformity.

Writer, comedian, pirate; I am all of those things. But I am also, and always will be, a teacher. Everyday I teach in the inner city, I continue to create my masterpiece.

I am the man on fire.