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Monday, April 21, 2014

Teaching moments


Long, long ago I taught evening English classes. These were not youngsters there on daddy’s money. Evening students have already put in a full day on the job; they come back at night to get their money’s worth toward a degree to advance themselves in the working world. I had a smattering of eighteen year olds, but on the whole my classes were people of my age. I thought I related to them.

I carried away two profound experiences from one class. We were reading The Enormous Room. My thesis for the semester was Picasso, “Art is a lie that makes us see the truth.” It was the early seventies, the war in Vietnam was full blown, and I was a rather shallow twenty something.  I cannot remember what I said, but I know it was mildly anti-war. A few words in passing, on to the next…..

A young man toward the end of the first row erupted. He stood up. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. I have killed men with piano wire, or they would kill me….” He threw the book at my head and started to the door. I was first, and stood in front. “I am so sorry. I am abjectly sorry!” and I was.  He shoved me aside, and was gone.

I apologized to the class. In retrospect, that was another textbook psychological moment. On the whole they assured me I’d done nothing wrong, he threw a book at you, he might have knocked you down, and so on. I called the dean that night and saw her the next day. Her take was, “These things happen, don’t be concerned.” He never came back to class. I gave him an A. I remain humiliated when the incident crosses my mind, and it doesn’t matter that we know about PTSD these days. My arrogance remains bitter.

Another student left that class, too. It was freshman English, and I was supposed to be reinforcing their grammar. I also rode my motorcycle. My husband was between jobs, we were down to one car, so I  rode my motorcycle. I rode it to my day job, too. I’d say I drew the short straw, except he also had a motorcycle. But, I digress.

I was teaching grammar, and I said that sentence structure is another kind of engineering; if they could diagram the sentence they understood grammar. It was toward the end of the class, the exam was right around the corner. It was the school’s exam, not mine, so the evening was a last review.

I rode the motorcycle, of course. My Captain America helmet was sitting on the desk, and so was I, the easier to return to the board and put another word or phrase into the diagram. We were stuck on gerunds and participles. “Listen,” I said, “there’s a trick to telling them apart.”

A fellow in the first row leaned back, legs extended way out. “The only trick in this room is the teacher,” he said. I didn’t skip a beat. “Those are failing words, son.” He never came back, either. And, I did fail him.



Cannot believe I found this on EBay, sold as a vintage sixties or seventies helmet. It's the one I had, although not mine, as I know what happened to mine.

25 comments:

  1. The more we think we know in life the more we have to learn.

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  2. My past sins can make me blush with mortification, even this many years later.

    So, what happened to your helmet? Another story? (she said hopefully)

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  3. It's something how we remember our (self) humiliations so vividly... and mine started so early in my life ;-) Love hearing your stories... yeah.... we want to know about the helmet!

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  4. Remembering things from my youthful exuberance and often arrogance can still make me cringe! Here is hoping to read more about the helmet!

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  5. it is strange how some experiences can still sting us

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  6. Hillary Clinton had a similar experience recently, so you are in good company.

    As I have aged, I have learned that most times it is better to keep my political opinions to myself because people have become so polarized about their beliefs. However, I guess I did not do it here.

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  7. oh, man, don't get me started on my past humiliations and acts of arrogance that still burn if I dwell on them too long. yay, you're human!

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  8. Hari OM
    One of the best ways to learn is to teach....and learning is never ending! I'm with Jenny-O; the helmut??? YAM xx

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  9. I bet that Vietnam vet did make you think twice. It's been going on since WW1 - boys coming home with no vocabulary to describe it, but still attending classes to improve it.

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  10. Ouch. Those are the sort of shames which wake me sweating in the night years later. I feel for you.
    And love your quip to the second individual - nearly as much as I love that you failed him.

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  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  12. Those poor veterans. What they had seen and done will continue to haunt them. My grandfather was in the worst of the trench wars, but did not put it into words until a few months before his death.

    What a perspective you must have gained those days. It made you a better teacher, I am sure.

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  13. My hospital was beside the VA hospital and on Veterans Day when they had ceremonies it was crushing to see the veterans get under their chairs during the gun salute. Only a kind and sensitive person would look back on that event with regret.

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  14. Re the second student....I've NEVER been good with a snappy comeback, and really admire those who are :-)

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  15. Love your photo, sometimes it is hard to learn. You seem to have done an excellent job of it.

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  16. My response to the second student would have been nowhere near so civilised and effective as yours...but as for the first man...he had his views you had yours, both based on your own experience.
    You had nothing for which to apologise.
    I speak as daughter of a man who fought in the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War and who did unto others in spades before they could do it to him.
    PTSD? He'd have shat it.
    He took on himself the responsibility for what he did; didn't obey orders he thought put his men's lives in danger and reckoned his own commanders more dangerous then the enemy.
    What he had seen and done would fill an unpleasant book.

    But he would never have spoken to a young teacher like that. At any age.

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    1. From mustard gas to agent orange to drones, there no good way to fight a war, and certainly not a senseless war. I still take responsibility for what happened in class that night. I don't recall the remark, only that it was personal opinion, not directly related to the subject of the book. The course was not my personal opinion on the war. It never occurred to me there might be recent veterans in that class. But, a lot of things had not occurred to me back then. I took him by surprise and he took me by surprise.

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    2. You still had the right to your opinion,
      That was what that poor chap had been indoctrinated into thinking as to why he went to war on a third world country....and how unbearable for him to have to cope with it in his homeland.
      But nothing excuses discourtesy.
      My father was still in the stage of garotting and shooting when you saw your enemy face to face...no excuses...you had killed someone with your own hand.

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  17. Will we find out the rest of the story of what happened to your helmet? Yep, I would have flunk the second student in a heart beat. I think with the first, you probably "beat" yourself up a lot over the years not to make that mistake again. A learning experience, I am sure.

    betty

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  18. I found you through Betty....A bench With a View. I am raising my two grandkids, ages 16 and 14. I will come back and explore and see how you are doing! I loved this post. Too bad the first young man did not come back to class. There was so much we didn't understand about those times. The second one deserved to fail!!

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  19. As Oprah says..."When you know better, you do better."

    I had a motorcycle too, but mine was a Honda 55 and I didn't wear a helmet.

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  20. My father, a Royal Marine Commando was in the process of writing to the family of a young Subaltern who'd been killed when the news that Kennedy had been shot came on the radio. My mother was terribly upset but remembers the look on my father's face; this young man was in his care & he was dead - more real and upsetting to him that day.

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  22. I have said a few foolish things myself. Don't berate yourself over the past, okay?

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  23. I say stuff that offends unintentionally all the time. :) As for the helmet... You can't end on that note. What a cliff hanger. What happened to YOUR helmet?

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