On Igor, Ellison, and that Kid Sleeping in my 3rd Hour Class

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May 4, 2012 by Ray Yanek

Recently, a cultural news and critique website called FlavorWire posted a list of “The 10 Grumpiest Living Writers.”  It’s over here, and it’s an entertaining read that abounds with examples of authorial cantankerousness.

All the usual literary grumps are included: Jonathan Franzen, Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak, Martin Amis, and perhaps the most famous curmudgeon of them all: sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison. The website provides, as evidence to his surliness, a quote Ellison gave the Toronto Sun in 2008 after giving a lecture to students at UCLA:  “It is part of that automatic cultural response in this age of slackers, or Y generationals, or millennials, or whatever the fuck they’re calling themselves these days,” Ellison railed.  “Not only are they ignorant of everything — everything! — but they’re arrogant about their ignorance. They take great pride in not knowing…” (italics mine).

Normally, I dislike grumpy people.  Normally, as I’m only 38 and still highly immature myself, I tend to give teens and college kids the benefit of the doubt.

Usually.  Sometimes.

But not this time. As I read this quote then peered at the senior student who was face down, sleeping in his own drool in front of a computer screen that contained a total of ten words of a ten page research essay, I had to agree with Ellison.

In fact, at this point of the year when the students have checked out, when not even Hercules could get them to put more than half of their asses into a scholarly writing assignment, I wanted to vault onto the back of the sleeping student’s neck, pump my fist in the air, and tell Ellison to TESTIFY!

Ellison and I are not alone in our frustration with the youthful generations.  Walk in to any teacher-workroom, parental get together, or lounge area directly after the last YMCA Swim-Aerobics class, and you’ll hear the same sentiments.  Young people are lazy.  Unmotivated.  They won’t take the initiative.  They’re proud of their ignorance. If something doesn’t affect their ability to text or listen to their IPods, then it’s not worth the time.

Not only do they seem to take great pride in now knowing and not wanting to learn, that same pride seems to extend to their lack of common humanity.

Bullying.  Beatings. Drugs. Alcohol.  Sex. Loose-fitting pants.  That’s what they take pride in.

Maybe it’s the time of year.  Maybe if I didn’t have a termite mound of essays to grade, my own kids to haul to soccer and baseball and softball (and I only have two children) practices, I would have been a little more sympathetic. Maybe if I would have gotten a quality nap like the above mentioned student, I wouldn’t have been so apt to jump on Ellison’s and Grandpa TeaKettle’s bandwagon.

Maybe I would have actually stuck up for the kids.

A little bit.

Currently, I teach two sections of a dual-credit English Comp class.  Dual credit means I teach a college curriculum and the students receive both high school and college credit.  The work load is rigorous.  The students write eight essays in the first semester and even more during the second semester. For the hell of it, we also tack on a monster reading list.  They do all this while taking other dual-credit courses like Sociology and Psychology.  They play sports and participate in other extra-curriculars.  Many of them hold-down jobs, too.  Then there have been college applications, scholarship letter, FAFSA forms…

Plus, they’re all teen-agers, burdened with all those teen-aged problems, temptations, and decisions.

That’s a lot of chainsaws for a kid to juggle in the last months before his life changes dramatically. If the kid doesn’t do the work, we quickly ship him out before he loses a limb.

I only lost two students to chainsaw-related injuries this year.  That’s the most I’ve lost in the years I’ve taught the dual-credit courses.

“But Beef,” you might say (and yes, I refer to myself as Beef) “those are only two sections and you’re teaching to the cream there.  What about the three, regular tract sophomore classes, filled to bursting with juniors and seniors?  Do you see the same level of commitment and seriousness in those classes?”

In response, I would probably tug at my collar, tilt my head nervously to the side, and try to deny the blush creeping over my face.

I would honestly have to answer “No.”

I think I just heard Harlan Ellison snicker and describe my stupidity with an array of highly-literate cuss words I don’t totally understand.

I had a student teacher for part of this semester.  She was my first student-teacher (I referred to her as Igor) and she would be in charge of those sophomore classes mentioned above.  Those sophomore classes contain not only juniors and seniors, but also a handful of students who are, shall we say, frustrated with society and its norms.  Usually, I tend to work well with those kids for some reason, yet whenever I have a substitute, I white-knuckle my way through whatever sickness (or video game) is keeping me home that day.  I get nervous, because I’m afraid that the sub doesn’t understand the nuances and processes that I’ve put into place to keep the classroom from imploding and thus sucking the rest of civilized society into the resulting black hole.

Sometimes I wonder if I haven’t, basically, simply stoppered the hole in the powder keg with a handful of kitchen matches.

I had those same fears about the young, naïve, and innocent student teacher.  I feared for myself too, because the student teacher was just that—young. I had heard plenty of horror stories about being saddled with a young student teacher who was just as blasé and unmotivated as the teen-agers they were supposed to teach.

And ultimately, Igor did leave the experience in tears.

She left in tears, because none of those students wanted to see her leave.  And they brought her gifts a plenty.

Someone brought her donuts during 2nd hour, another student had her mother bake a full sheet cake, decorated by both the student and her mother with a Redbird, the mascot of Igor’s school.  The decoration was so amazing that it could have walked off the Food Network.  Another group of students got together and bought Igor a basket. They stocked it with a coffee mug, pens, pencils, Post-It notes, a clipboard and a mound of other school supplies all individually bought.  Someone else went out and bought a card for her.  They managed to get every student in the class to sign it without me or the student-teacher knowing.

I was stunned.

My students—a bunch of teen-agers, some of them unruly and difficult to deal with—took the initiative to simply do something nice for someone else.

And let me say too, that my student teacher was no push-over.  Yes, she assigned homework.  She followed the school’s discipline code to the letter, and she graded tough.  In other words, my students didn’t do what they did because she enabled their laziness or arrogant refusal to learn.

Somewhere along the line, amidst the stress and the lesson plans, the incredible amount of grading and school work of her own, my student teacher touched these kids.  She motivated them to take a certain action.

No whip, chair, or cattle prod needed.

Oh, and did I mention that my student-teacher celebrated her 23rd birthday in my classroom?

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