Friday, December 14, 2007

They Knock You Down/They Lift You Back Up

Last night, during a discussion about conclusions, one of my students murmured the phrase, "Why couldn't you have been my English teacher all my life?" That was a nice moment for me, and I took a second to drink it up because I'd lost a little faith in my students the day before. It had been one of those days where I wanted to come home from school, home from my long day of dealing with students--two in particular--and funnel vodka before I even got my coat off.

Later, after class had let out and I'd packed up my things and went out to my car, I saw that my students had cleared my car off for me. This was the sweetest, cutest thing ever. A small but intense snow band had settled in over the three hours we were in class, and we all watched in horror as our cars got buried in the parking lot. The fact that I didn't have to worry about chipping away ice or brushing off my windows made me giddy. The fact that my students had taken care of that for me on their way out to their own cars made me want to bake them cupcakes, cookies, or a whole roast if that's what they wanted. In that moment, I would have done anything for them.

Twenty-four hours earlier, though, I was ready to sell my students--well, two of them anyway--down the river. They'd been awful, horrendous, cruel, and upsetting. Not to me, and not to anyone in class, really, but in a general evil way.

What happened was this: we were reading a short essay about Fair Trade Chocolate. We were discussing argument. They knew what the author was arguing and how, so we were discussing those things when one of my students--probably the "smartest" kid in the class, which is what makes this all the more heartbreaking--raised his hand. I called on him.

"You know what?" he said. "I don't really care about those kids in Africa. I don't care that they're being forced into child labor. I just know that my favorite candy bar is seventy-five cents, and as long as that candy bar stays seventy-five cents, I don't care how it gets to me."

I can imagine what my face must have looked like in that moment. I can imagine I looked horrified with my chin dropped all the way down to the floor. My breath was knocked out of me, and for a minute I didn't know what to say. I've never had a student say something that offensive in class.

It took all of us a couple seconds to react because we were all that shocked. My girl students were only a few breaths from losing their minds because their maternal instinct was kicking into overdrive and sending out messages that said, Are you kidding me?

Which, coincidentally, was the only thing that I heard in my own head, so I said it. I figured there was actually a very good chance he was kidding. He is, after all, a bit of a joker, one of the class's funny guys who has a one-liner for everything. I was waiting for the punchline for this one, for him to say, Gotcha! Just kidding! I'm really horrified by the description of child labor that's described in this essay!

"I'm not kidding," he said.

I looked across the table at some of the girls. Their eyes were wide and wild. Their faces were red. Their shoulders were squaring off, ready for a fight. The guys were either staring at me, terrified about what was going to happen, or they were laughing uncomfortable little huh-huh-huhs that were masking their real thoughts: Oh God, he is going to be killed, and I'm going to have to watch it.

"Now hang on just a second," I said.

But the student was continuing. "And I think it's wrong of this article to place all the blame on American chocolate companies," he said. "Like it's really their fault? Please. It's not like they're going in there are stealing the chocolate. They pay the farmers for it."

"They pay so little that the farmers cannot afford to pay workers or send their children to school, so who gets pressed into the business?" I asked. "The kids, that's who. You don't see anything wrong with that?"

"No," he said.

And then--oh dear God, then--one of the other male students sitting a few seats down from this one nodded his head. "I agree with you, man," he said.

That's when everyone started talking at once. My other students were pounding their fists on the table, trying to make the two boys realize how wrong they were.

"Stop it," I said.

No one stopped.

"STOP IT," I said.

No one stopped.

I stood up. "STOP IT RIGHT NOW," I said, and they finally hushed. Everyone stared at me. They wanted me to stop this, to right this, to bring reason and humanity back to the classroom. And I tried. I tried so hard.

I pointed at the student who had started this. "Let's discuss this logically and politely, please," I said. "I have a question for you. Don't you think that everyone--no matter where they were born--has certain guaranteed rights? Human rights?"

"Yeah," he said quickly, "the right to water, food, and air."

"Those are physical needs," I said. "I'm talking about human rights."

Frustrated by the way the conversation was going, the second student who had voiced his agreement with the first sunk his head into his hands and sighed a long sigh. "Can't we just shoot them?" he asked. "Then it wouldn't be a problem anymore."

The horror I'd felt before was now dwarfed considerably. I had a new horror, a more intense horror that wrapped around my heart and stole my breath. If he had his way, my student would just send a Navy fleet over to the coast of Africa and tell them to open fire at will, to kill anything that moved. Then they could pick through the dead bodies and grab all the cocoa they wanted without anyone getting in their way. Hello, super cheap chocolate.

I wanted to put my head down on the table and have a good cry. That I had students in my classroom who had those kinds of thoughts in their heads broke my heart, smashed it to bits.

I couldn't believe that I had to say what I was about to say. I actually had to lecture them on how it was inappropriate to say things like that in my classroom--ANY classroom--and how it was not appropriate to go around talking about how life would be so much easier if you could just kill anyone who got in the way of something you wanted.

"Just wait until until you're a parent," I said. "Just wait until you understand what it's like to love a child, to want to protect that child against any harm--then you might rethink the plight of the children being forced into labor so you can have a cheap Snickers bar."

"Doubtful," the first student said. "Those kids over there? They aren't mine, and they aren't American, so I don't care. I don't think that's going to change."

I had to stop him then. He was about two seconds from being impaled by the daggers in his classmates' eyes, maybe even from the pens and pencils they had clenched in their hands. I'd had enough of his disrespectful talk, his disregard for human life. I ended the discussion, gave them homework, and sent them on the way.

And then I went home, got under the covers, and stared up at the ceiling and tried to think about anything else, but I couldn't. Not for a long, long time.

So you can imagine how happy I was to see a little bit of sweetness from another group of students the day after that. It might not have been much, and it might not have been anything earth-shattering, but it was just the tiniest touch of humanity, and it made me feel less sad about the things that might or might not be clattering around inside my students' heads.


Jason said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joshua said...
This comment has been removed by the author.