On Foolish Dreams and Teaching Kids

I began my teaching career at the age of forty-three. I was still grieving over the recent death of a brother, and I wanted to do something constructive and hopeful in his memory. I viewed teaching as a noble calling — perhaps because I was lucky enough to have had one or two teachers in my own life who had filled me with a sense of possibility.

I thought of my eleventh grade history teacher, Mr. Sexton, a man as often the object of furtive derision as grudging respect. Like all school teachers, he possessed eccentricities of behavior and appearance which generated cruel nicknames and set him apart from normal human beings — but this was standard. One rainy day in June of 1967, he brought out a record player and had us listen to “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha, which at the time was a Broadway hit. As the music played, we silently read the lyrics from the purple-inked mimeographed sheets he had distributed.

At one point I looked up and saw that Mr. Sexton had tears in his eyes. It was embarrassing — it cut too close. I knew that he saw this song as an inspiring creed by which to live our lives; its lyrics were his gift to us, a parting message. But I did not wish to contemplate Mr. Sexton’s personal dreams and vulnerability, nor could I ever admit that this schmaltz affected me, as well. I lowered my gaze and never said a word. But I never forgot it, either.

Today, as a middle school teacher, I know very well how Mr. Sexton must have felt alone in his classroom after the bell. There are many days when I simply don’t think I am getting through, no matter how much I give. Just as it was in 1967, the facade of coolness is the ubiquitous mask of adolescence. And one of the things a teacher has to learn is that you don’t always know who you are reaching, or even when the message will arrive. But you must keep trying — for you are the knight of the impossible dream, and shining idealism must be your armor.

Even when we do not feel brave or hopeful, those of us who are teachers, or parents, for that matter, are morally obligated to act in brave and hopeful ways. If our house is flooded, and all that we possess is a thimble, then thimble by thimble we must begin to empty the water. We must demonstrate our own conviction that in time the task will be accomplished, and we must prove our willingness to labor towards that end. What’s more, we must show those within our reach how to cup their hands and help.

I will be honest. Sometimes I have looked at students and asked myself who these aliens are. Maybe it comes of starting a career at middle-age. For my entire first year, I wondered what had become of discipline and respect. I yearned to foster constructive social action. I was troubled by self-centered rudeness and indifference to the pain of others. “They’re only kids,” people said, “you have to meet them on their own terms.”

For a time, I accepted this. But eventually I came to my senses. Their terms? Will the world meet them on their terms? Are there not values and rules of conduct that they must adopt? I realized it was up to me to model responsible adult behavior, hold kids accountable for their actions, and broaden their sphere of awareness and responsibility. Particularly among middle school students, who wander in that strange border country called adolescence, a sense of moral direction is essential. And it isn’t implicitly learned through the basic curriculum. I found a like-minded colleague, Jennifer Levin, and we launched a virtual jihad.

Teaching is an act of supreme defiance against apathy and cynicism. And to strip it of its moral component is to render it without a soul. At the beginning of school, we took our class to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Students were confronted with images and voices of the Holocaust, a time not so far removed from the present. “Evil persists when good people do nothing.” We saw what evil looks like, what indifference sustains. It was quite a jolt.

But we cannot simply get depressed about it. Depression is self-indulgent. One must use the fuel of sadness and anger to build a fire that warms. We required our students to find tangible ways to make the world a better place. They visited homeless children, collected canned goods, raised money for Habitat for Humanity. They learned that they each have the power to mitigate the world’s collective misery, rather than adding to it.

Because of the nature of our world, it was all too easy to find examples of intolerance and suffering throughout the social studies curriculum. We also looked for the people in history who stood up for what was right. Students wrote about times in their own lives when they had done the right thing. They created children’s books with moral themes. I found that moral courage is a concept that students had not consciously explored, nor is it a principle that can simply be preached. Moral courage and decency must be modeled by the significant adults in a child’s life. As a teacher I must be particularly aware of the behaviors I demonstrate, whether it means containing one’s anger or giving it a righteous voice.

Jennifer and I also emphasized the small civilities that make life more pleasant. We taught manners, using sometimes comical role-playing, and culminating in an “etiquette dinner” in which our classroom was transformed into an elegant restaurant. Students learned that the purpose of manners is to make people more comfortable. “It hurts my feelings when you walk in and don’t say good morning to me,” I confessed. I am no longer invisible. They humor me, at least.

I stealthily monitored many interactions outside of the classroom, as well. “You have no right to butt in!” said one indignant student. But butting in is a teacher’s duty, too. One cannot teach character if one is bent on being popular or cool. I have called kids on meanness, tactlessness, even just plain old foul language, which I simply feel loses its power from overuse, has a generally corrosive effect, and is a rather flaccid and uncreative way to express oneself.

We often took the pathway of poetry, for it leads directly to the heart. The students wrote poems about their adolescent pain, Jennifer and I dug up some awful poetry we ourselves had written, and we sat in a circle on the floor and shared these. We discovered that we were all more alike than different. We could empathize with one another, be a little gentler, perhaps.

I thought it was a good year, but Jennifer and I drew up student questionnaires to help us assess its impact. The first part consisted of a series of hypothetical situations in which students were asked to write down what they should do, and what they actually would do. Some of the responses were inadvertently funny:

Your friend asks if he can copy your homework. What would you do?

I would normely say I did not do it nether.

Someone at school is always sitting alone at lunch. What would you do?

I would probably ignore him too but I would feel sorry for him.

Many of the responses revealed that students would not necessarily do what they knew they should do. I was disappointed at first, but then felt gratitude for their honesty. In fact, their answers indicated that they were really thinking about each situation, that they were at least aware of values and moral principles upon which to base their reactions, and finally, that they were not going to simply snow their teachers with the answers they thought we wanted. I saw this as a good thing.

Besides, these kids don’t know what will and will not affect them, any more than I knew in 1967 that I would someday be influenced by Mr. Sexton’s tears. I believe in the retroactive nature of learning. Today I am planting seeds that may lie dormant for years, then flower unexpectedly in the rain and sun of the future.

In the second part of the questionnaire, students were to write an open-ended essay about how the class had changed them, if at all. Almost everyone mentioned pride about having done community service, a greater awareness of prejudice and intolerance, and the fact that they now treated people with more politeness. No one waxed poetic, no one claimed that their lives had been significantly altered, no one was inspired to change the world … or even become a teacher. A few admitted they did not really know what the effect of all this had been. And one student wrote, “I did not get anything out of this class because the teachers did not seem to realize that this is reality and we can’t become color blind with the flick of a switch…” He’s the one who convinced me to keep going.

Notice how I have turned negatives into positives. I ignore all the reasons to stop and find only reasons to continue. I believe in the hope, even when it is a lie. I teach because although I know that “this is reality”, I will never accept that it must be so, and I find it particularly unacceptable that a thirteen-year-old boy does. I go forth to battle windmills, injustice, or simply ennui. To teach is to head a revolution every day.

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