Monday, January 31, 2005

Good education? Try a little tenderness

It’s not every day I willingly spend two and a half hours in a parent conference with religious Christian parents who partially home-school their children. So when I drove over to the local hardware store to speak to the parents of one of my most precocious and more conservative students, I wasn’t expecting to stay for more than 45 minutes. I jokingly told a colleague that, should I not make it to dinner with her that night, that she would know who had taken me down.

The conversation started with my student’s father telling me that he thought his son’s midterm grade was so terribly low because my midyear exam did not test what I was teaching the kids. A lightbulb when on! Yes, that was exactly the issue. My test had no validity within the course. I had been struggling to figure out why my brightest seniors had suddenly fallen drastically in their performance, and there in the open office above the sales floor of the small, independent, family-owned hardware store, it all became clear. I don’t know if “the dad”, in the shorthand we often use to refer to students’ parents, could see the tension drain from my face, but it did.

What followed was a lovely conversation. The parents, and the dad in particular, did most of the talking. Part way through, he made reference to his conservative beliefs, and his comments were laced with the sort of firm but gentle conviction that reminds me of my mother’s own mystical, deeply held—albeit more liberal—religious beliefs. I don’t know if he knew my inclinations, though his son pegged me during election season as “probably a Naderite in 2000,” and describes his own views as “more libertarian than conservative.”

I realized that my core values and those of my student’s family are quite similar. We both abhor hypocrisy. We both would rather a law be taken off the books than be enforced in a slipshod, unenthusiastic manner. We both tend to follow the laws that are and try to change them than breaking the ones that exist. His son and I share a disgust with the PATRIOT Act. Neither of us value or like to practice defensiveness for its own sake, and we each have a poor tolerance for what he referred to as “bullshit”. We believe family is the key to social welfare. We believe that the Iraq war is a mess that we need to get out of. We are skeptical of social institutions, including education and government. We believe in using manners and engaging in dialogue with our communities and society. We’re each stubborn. We each believe public schools are doing a poor job.

The purpose of this essay is clearly not to highlight our differences. My student’s father was clear: “I am not a pragmatist; I believe in principles.” Me, too. So I’m not about to sell out progressivism. But, like the members of my student’s family, I believe in rationality, in spirit, and—as a public school teacher—in home-schooling.

My home-schooled students are consistently my favorite students. Whether my home-school kids are Christian or liberal, I feel honored when a student who otherwise could receive a round, comprehensive education with his or her own family or in the community chooses to come to my classroom to learn. It puts me on notice that academics and my own qualifications as a teacher of literature and writing may be recognized, or at least will be tested. It means that I will have the opportunity to escape from a tolerance of pseudo-intellectual ego-inflation and toleration of mediocrity that typifies public school teaching and move into a world of intellectual rigor and little tolerance for “bullshit.” A home-schooled kid isn’t usually going to want to know what my political views of texts are; they aren’t looking for a moral lesson. They come to me to learn to write better.

Often, the parents of my home-schooled students are decent writers who are looking for a level of academic challenge they no longer have the time or the technical skill to provide. They want the best education for their children and aren’t defensive of their own skills. Not all teachers have the minds to serve these kids; I do and love to be asked to work with them. So, we strip away deconstructionism, multiculturalism, and other fads of teaching, and we write like our lives depend on it. I believe the world can use a good deconstruction, a hefty dose of tolerance, and flexibility in working with kids. But sometimes, it’s good to get a great, raw intellectual workout.

My home-schooled kids have other characteristics in common, as well. They know how to focus. My conversation partner of the other night mentioned an anecdote he had heard: children who spend time—any kind of time—with their fathers do better in school and make better choices. It reminded me of my own childhood. You see, I wasn’t always good at focusing for hours on boring, tedious, convoluted academic information. I jitter when I sit still. Maybe I was a little hyper. As a small child, I learned patience from working with my mother. I learned what it was like to receive and give attention. I learned the rewards of taking the time to do a job all the way.

Then, by mid-elementary school, my father would spend hours at the kitchen table as I did projects, wrote reports, did research, and studied. He wasn’t there to answer questions, though he would, and he wasn’t there to keep me in place (was he?), but it had the desired effect. Maybe Dad would rather have watched TV or taken a nap, but I don’t think so. I felt like he wanted to be there with me, that he loved me so much that he would just be there. I didn’t realize how wonderful this was until a few years ago when I began to work with hyperactive students. I wondered why I never had a problem focusing. I think my father’s investments of hundreds of boring homework hours and my mother’s banking of hours as an unpaid, one-woman Head Start program paid off in spades. I felt loved at all times. I felt connected when I needed to belong. I felt that my well-being was and still is a priority in the family, so I learned to value my own work. I learned that work could be rewarding, not isolating or confounding. These beliefs and habits became ingrained, and I believe the form of instruction strengthened both my family’s bond, my resilience, my perseverance, and my academic ability. The love and the learning reinforced each other and became inextricably sources for the other and of joy in my life.

By the end of my hardware store conversation, I knew I spoke the language of my student’s family. Once, in a libertarian phase myself, I thought, “The Government doesn’t love you.” And there are things that love can do that government can never do. Economies of scale know nothing of the enormous harvest reaped when belonging, independence, and love are sown. My student’s father may be a free-market capitalist (or not); I am a socialist. Between us, though, emerged a mutual respect and appreciation for community, local interdependence, and the ecstatic power of a loving family. That’s why I missed my dinner date—because I can appreciate intellect and compassion, even in a more conservative form.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Mason, meet Dixon

For the purposes of this article, I’m going to call her “Heidi”. She’s a white, sixteen-year-old girl. She drives and has a boyfriend. She was born in a southern red state and grew up calling her teachers “sir” and “ma’am”. I like that, but she calls me “Matt” these days, which I also like. Before her move to Vermont, and still in some ways, Heidi was immersed in a conservative, evangelical form of Christianity that requires wives to be subservient to their husbands, abhors abortion, and favors a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. She adores George Bush and believes he is a good man. She is a Republican, though I’ve promised I’d vote for her if she ever were to become a Democrat.

When Heidi was a freshman, I was scared of her. I heard about the girl with the conservative views and the southern twang. A history teacher—her most beloved teacher at the time—sent her to me as someone who might enjoy discussing politics with her. I felt I had nothing constructive to say to a fourteen-year-old Republican, so I put her off until she stopped asking. The following year, she would be in my class full time, as I teach all sophomores—45 of them this year—in our tiny high school.

My nervousness was not only rooted in my being an openly gay and openly liberal teacher in a blatantly conservative, traditional town. Or rather, my anxiety was not simply over being made to feel inferior or to feel the sting of prejudice. I was afraid of my own anger. I had managed to work in an overtly homophobic community for three years thanks to a good sense of humor, a liberal and tolerant administrator, similar colleagues, and my ability to supress engagement in hot-button issues. I didn’t feel I ought to take on political issues with community members, parents of students, or students themselves. At times, I might share my own views if I were certain they were based on fact, not opinion (e.g. Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction). But I wouldn’t argue my own case.

Heidi’s sophomore year coincided with my fourth year of teaching in this town. I believe my engaging personality, willingness to listen, and respect for individuals won her over; soon, I was Heidi’s second favorite teacher, just after my friend in history. We never discussed politics; if it came up, I was quiet and respectful until I could redirect the conversation. Still, Heidi had won me over with her own energy and engaging style, humor, and kindness, not to mention her intelligence. How could this bright young lady be conservative, I wondered? How does she view the history of the South? I can say I don’t have any solid answers from her on these counts, and I think that may be a good thing. She is young. She is thinking. She is growing and changing. It’s fitting that she hasn’t come up with a rationalization for things that may or may not be in synch with her most deeply held beliefs.

One day last winter—I remember the glint of the sun off the snow through the broad glass entryway—Heidi was at her locker, and I stopped to talk to her. We were chatting away when I’m sure I blanched. After getting to know her and to share what I believed was mutual respect, I saw a placard on her locker that read: HOMOSEXUALITY=SIN=HELLFIRE. I put on my best actor’s mask to finish the conversation, then retreated to the double classroom I share with a colleague, where I shared my shock at what I had seen.

Later, I found out, my colleague found Heidi in the hall and mentioned to her that I was visibly upset by something after she and I had spoken at her locker. Did she know what might have upset me? In fact, she did, and later that day, she came to me and asked to speak to me privately. We spoke in a back corner of the computer lab. Heidi told me that she had taken the card down from her locker and that she was terribly sorry to have hurt my feelings. She said knowing me had changed her opinion and that she no longer believed what had been posted in her locker. That was a heady moment for me, but I told her that she didn’t need to change her locker or her views because of me. She assured me that knowing people like me was making her more “accepting”.

For the rest of the year, we continued to get to know each other’s ways and some aspects of the other’s life. We grew to trust each other and to enjoy the other’s company. Heidi told me I had edged out the other teacher as her number one. While I’m inclined to take such statements as a surface communication of some unspoken agenda—raise my grade, don’t punish me, or simply, you’re easier than the other teachers—it seemed, from Heidi, a statement of genuine affection.

As a teacher of tenth and twelfth graders, I wasn’t supposed to teach Heidi this year. However, she signed up for an under-enrolled elective of mine, putting us in daily contact again.

On one particularly exhausting day this fall, I asked the kids to read silently for the period, and I would read, too. Some of them sat on the couch in the room, others at tables. I sprawled out on the floor. After a few minutes, Heidi climbed down from the couch and whispered, "I have something to tell you.” She continued, “I want you to know,” she hesitated, “that if you ever meet someone and fall in love, I think you should have the right to have children.” I was taken aback. She continued, “I think you would make an excellent father.” On the edge of tears, I thanked her profusely. She reasserted her position with confidence, and then returned to reading.

I was basking in the delight of acceptance, the reassurance of being valued by another, and the validation of one of my greatest ambitions: parenthood. She had found the way right to my heart. I wasn’t concentrating on the words in front of me when she climbed down from the couch again. “I want to tell you something else,” she continued sotto voce. “I can’t tell my parents this, though, at least not yet.” Sometimes, when I tell this story, people expect I’m going to say she was coming out to me. That would be almost anti-climactic compared to what she did say. It would have introduced self-interest into what was an entirely altruistic and loving statement.

Heidi continued, “I’ve thought about it, and I’ve decided that if you met someone you loved—or maybe you already have—that you should be allowed to get married. I was at my church, and we were signing letters to Senator Leahy and Senator Jeffords and Congressman Sanders, and this one came across that was asking them to vote in favor of the constitutional amendment against gay marriage. I looked at it, and I thought, well if I sign that, it’ll mean that I think Mr. Webb shouldn’t be allowed to get married. But why shouldn’t Mr. Webb be allowed to get married just like everyone else? That isn’t fair. So I just took that letter and put it aside.” She went on to say that she couldn’t tell her father that just yet, but that some day, she would have the strength to do it. I was astounded. This is one of the most amazing interactions I have ever had with another human being.

This is not the first time I’ve had this effect on students. I’ve had a number of senior boys write to me, in mid-term evaluations, that they were really not expecting to like me or my class. Why? “Well, because, you know….” Yeah, I do know. Because they have some frightening image in their minds about what a homosexual might be or do. I’ve struggled with those same images myself. I’m lucky in some regards, such as that I’m not notably feminine, I don’t lisp, and I don’t mince when I walk. While I fear the lack of obviousness doesn’t help me get dates, it does help break the ice of many young people’s misperceptions. My work to create a safe environment and respectful boundaries in class helps, too, as does my generally strong rapport with kids. If I were unreasonable or, worse, cruel and lacking in compassion, a “mean” teacher, they’d probably work my sexuality into a general condemnation of me as a teacher. Indeed, their prejudices show when they label “mean” heterosexual teachers as gay or lesbian because of an atypical gender characteristic. As inherently subordinate to teachers, these students aim to level the playing field by claiming the right to superiority on some other grounds—namely through disparaging alternative sexual orientation. That a person can so easily pull rank on me if the environment is not one of acceptance is frightening to me. That students like Heidi can grow, change, and learn to embrace a true message of loving their neighbor—that gives me the kind of hope that sustains my belief in young people, which in turn sustains my work as a teacher.