Do you know what’s exhausting? Rules and students. And why? Because teachers are on the side of the rules, and therein, already one step behind.
You see students are smart, much smarter than I think the average adult gives them credit for (which often exacerbates the issue). No sooner has a teacher presented a rule to a smart person who does not wish to obey it, than that person finds a loophole – some way of obeying the letter of the law while completely disregarding the spirit of it. And thus, the long-standing unholy war between student and teacher is continually perpetuated. As I sit in classrooms observing students from behind what I hope is a good poker face, I find myself admiring these brilliant, masters of civil disobedience.
Case Study: “Student D (hereafter Brilliant Master D) vs. The Quiet Rule”
A teacher’s overused voice pierces the friendly chatter between students, “I want it quiet. No one should be talking.” I watch students turn their faces away from each other and look down at their papers. No one is smiling anymore. “Yes Warden!” I find myself thinking before I can check the thought guiltily, I look around but in doing so I realize it does feel a little like a prison. I watch them in silence for a while. Most of the students look like kids who have been told to finish soggy vegetables before they can have dessert. A couple of the students have a complacent resigned expression. One student looks at the clock. I too feel miserable sitting here and have a huge desire to leave. Then, in the silence, one student stoically stands up from his desk. I watch students look up at him as standing, he consumes the last few drops of chocolate milk from a bottle. The final sip he takes is slow and exaggerated and I realize, also calculated. With overstated relish he finishes his drink and with apparent nonchalance, slowly makes his way towards a tall metal trash can at the front of the room. He stops in front of the can and lifts his arm to eye level above it. Every eye watches, waiting in anticipation as from a height he drops the bottle.
It clangs like a medieval summoning bell five times before hitting the empty bottom with a bouncing ripple of noise. The teacher’s head snaps up from her desk. The boy is waiting, not saying a word. They appear to be sizing each other up like two animals about to brawl. Each stares at the other. Everyone is waiting. Finally, the teacher smiles, a sickeningly sweet grimace at the boy. He smiles back and all too slowly returns to his desk. His smile was genuine but for himself. I wonder to myself why she smiled. Every student had seen she was angry. I realize in that moment that I don’t want to be the teacher in this battle; this is clearly a fight you can’t win. Her smile stays in my mind. That smile would have made me hate her as a student and now as her peer, I feel sorry for her. She is miserable too; she has made enemies with her student. And this enmity I realize, has been going on year after year, student after student, rule after rule, in classroom after classroom.
I have to find a better way.
Post Script: For my fellow Antiochees who upon reading this were as disturbed by the fate of the milk bottle as by the teacher’s grimace, I want you to be rest assured that I moved it into the recycle bin.