First Published in “The New York Times” 1990
No one in the advanced tenth grade English class has the foggiest notion who King Kong is. The last book read, they seriocomically inform me, was the one I assigned as a book report.
Only a few know of the Heckscher Museum in Huntington, fifteen minutes away as the crow flies. Some have “bravely” ventured into Greenwich Village. Many are bereft of any cultural context. They are unglued, disparate, like scree kicked up by a hiker’s boot. History was half an hour ago.
They have little knowledge of film, less of books. I assign Candide and The Nigger of the Narcissus to jar their sensibilities, for they are asleep in life. They read them only for the extra credit, teacher scrip.
Consumed with grades and getting ahead, they are not stupid (far from it) but ignorant. They are victims of their affluence. It is as if I am fated to fill them up, whereas there was a time in which I drew them out. They are not snobbish or elitist, although they live in their own little planetaria. They are simply money-oriented, crassly so, having learned well what our society teaches; and they merely reflect the emptiness of their parents, who apparently have not made the necessary and concerned commitment to encourage them to know who they are.
Over the years, I have observed a general diminishment in students. Instead of working socratically with them, I have resorted, at times, out of frustration, unfortunately, to telling them. It is ineffective teaching. I cannot draw enough from them to engage them. They are emptying snorts at the end of the straw. They mightily prefer that I entertain them, do my old soft shoe, and what an easy step that is.
Beneath their puerile minds is a vacuity that appalls me. Not all, mind you. Not some, but enough over time to leave more than an impression in my awareness. As I continue to teach hard, rigorously and with passion, some can’t abide this living commitment and flee to the mothering breast, guidance, to transfer out.
They choose death rather than life. Their egos are fragile because they have not been challenged to know themselves, nor have they mastered some part of their interior selves. Adversity is not in their lexicon. A valueless wimpishness within impoverishes them.
A dull, bovine provinciality exists, and this serves to keep them heavily defended. If you don’t know already, Suffolk County is the best of all possible worlds in which to cultivate one’s own garden and is primitively defended as if it were a Renaissance city-state. Assimilated and attenuated, students are sorely confused about their own ethnicity so as to be sadly misinformed of the heritage of others. New York City is a sulfurous foul presence west of EXIT 49. Meaninglessness pervades all of this. Not a few students assume teachers are peers as well as the willing hand servants of their blindness, selfishness and vacuousness. Some teachers, bruised and battered, collude in this until they are retired, a penal response. No real purposefulness exists as a school, except the usual Mickey Mouse of a school’s calendar. It can never be enough to close the classroom door and teach well. There is the thunder of the outside world.
I can say passionately that school and staff as well as boards of education offer no vital and consistent creative vision or choice to our young people; nor do some of their parents, for that matter. But it is a fact that parents have unconsciously, in many instances, asked us to parent their children whether they realized it or not. The school now nurtures. It is a dereliction of decent parenting.
I am impatient to cast off the patent infantilism in which teachers are kept. Henhouse capons, teachers are not trusted, nor are they empowered. If they were, alas, some could not handle their new freedoms. A peculiar ritualistic behavior exists in which neither student nor teacher is asked or required to express his greater self. Diminishment is king. A repetition compulsion twitches gravitationally. Schools wallow in decline and fall. We do not earnestly demand anything of our young people, either spiritually or emotionally, except at pep rallies and homecoming, glandular events. We do not enduringly ask them to commit themselves to a task at a special age in which they are highly altruistic.
In a time and place in which rites of passage are condensed into consuming a six-pack or a joint, few self-imposed expectations are either imagined or voiced. And all-consuming teaching, possessed and passionate teaching, is not demanded of our teachers. A living human being is always a threat to a lumbering system. We do settle for so much less.
The great misfortune is that creativeness is choked in schools. Energy is siphoned off into empty rituals, like pagan dances to a senior class demigod. Real and significant change is anathema. Fear reigns, the crippler of will. Days are industrially divided into periods, and joy is the next extended holiday.
When I step back and look as if it were for the first time, I see the enormous power and potential of youngsters and staffs coalesce, as if in a nightmare, into a shambling mammoth, a great Arctic woolly wandering aimlessly, brain-dead, into the primeval mist. Grotesque in its consequences, it is mind-numbing to experience.
Take any five decent, well-intended, creative and committed teachers and administrators, people who care, people in passion, free men and women, and one could wreak a reformation in weeks. It is a paralyzing fear of our own design that keeps us leashed.
Petrified, we are mesmerized; stymied, we construct internal mazes, walls more complicated than the one that stood in Berlin. Baffled and befuddled, we own the slave mentality.
When we take our freedom—and we will, for it should not be given—we are free.
This task, this event, can be achieved at the next faculty meeting, can’t it, my dear colleagues? Who will be the first to call for it?