Now that I’m officially old (69 last January), I notice that my definition as a “senior” is relentlessly reiterated and emphasized by our culture. The message is: “You are old; get in your place.” In response, to break the definition, I need to do things outside my “age group” so I’ll have something vital to write about (for instance, I don’t think two weeks of pain in my right hip will hold the reader’s attention, interesting though it is to me).
With this in mind I told my colleague at the high school from which I retired six years ago (where I now coach debate in the morning) that I would cover his classes for two weeks, though I knew the substantial quantitative and qualitative differences between part-time and full-time teaching. It seemed unlikely I could work the two weeks without finding something to write about.
That expectation was confirmed on the first day, in fifth period, when I distinctly heard, in a male voice from across the room, “Fuck Jews.”
I walked over to the area where the voice came from and stood, taking in the peer solidarity, all eyes attentively looking away. I lingered for a few moments, then returned to my seat.
The next day, in fourth period, came another “Fuck Jews,” from the same side of the room. I walked over and saw a boy, Atilla, black with rasta hair, from fifth period who had sneaked in. The boy thus became a suspect, but I thought it wise to just look around, ask Atilla to leave fourth period, and say nothing.
On the third day, in fifth period, Atilla came at me with what I felt was false friendliness (“Hey, can I call you Mr. L?” with a big smile). I responded, “You know, what sticks in my mind is that I heard someone say something terrible from this part of the room in fifth period two days ago, and the same thing in fourth period when you sneaked in yesterday, and I’m wondering if you said it.” A look of shocked innocence appeared on Atilla’s face, and I added,”In thirty years of teaching, I’ve never heard anyone say this terrible thing before,” which was true. A white boy sitting nearby, who I later learned was Jewish, then said, with a smile, ”There’s a first time for everything,” to which I replied, “And a last.”
That was the end of it, anti-climactic perhaps, but I felt I had made as much of a point as I was going to, or needed to, and indeed for the next two weeks the classroom was mercifully free of “Fuck Jews.”
What is going through the mind of a teenage boy who says, “Fuck Jews,” anyway? Is this likely a boy who knows any history? Who has had an unpleasant experience with a Jew or Jews? It seemed more likely he had just discovered how much commotion could be caused with this simple utterance and decided to give it a try, though one does have to wonder if the current climate played a role. This is a pivotal time for Jews as a group. The view that the U.S. is overly obligated to Israel, simmering for years, has suddenly taken political shape with the odd dance between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama, ostensibly concerning the Iran deal (which has more to do with oil rights than nuclear proliferation). I call it an odd dance because of the anti-Iran deal alliance it suggests between Israelis- and thus, in a sense, Jews in general- and the far right Christian movement in the U.S. Part of the idea is that there’s a common bond between Jews and Christians expressed in the apocalyptic visions of the Book of Revelations, which, we’re told, portend a time when Israel faces attack from “Gog and Magog” (generally interpreted as Russia) and when a red heifer will be born indicating that, try as it might, the whole world will not be able to destroy Israel, and Jesus will come down and carry all the saved Christian souls to heaven, leaving the Jews on earth to pay any outstanding taxes. I suppose I should be happy with the news that the Jews don’t die, but World War III, if that’s what this is supposed to be, will not be kind to anyone, so I’m holding off celebrating.
But I digress.
There were other interesting revelations during my two-week close encounter with teenagers. In their dual status as children and adults, teenagers display a strange combination of intelligence and ignorance (suggested in the etymology of “sophomore”). A video was planned for the first week: the original 1975 “Stepford Wives,” about husbands who turn their wives into fawning robots. Part of the assessment required students to speculate on how this movie would be different if it were made today. A number of students wrote that an important difference would be that today famous movie stars would be used to draw crowds, not unknown actors as in “Stepford Wives.” I thought this misapprehension was important enough to merit a special lecture, so I informed the students that Katherine Ross and Paula Prentiss, stars of “Stepford Wives," were famous in 1975. Blank stares from the students told me reinforcement was needed, so I told them that the day would come when they would mention Taylor Swift to a younger person and this person would have no idea who they were talking about. Further blank stares indicated not, I thought, that they did not understand me, but that they did not believe me that all generations seek and lose fame- that their minds were uncomfortable with the idea that plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. I witnessed the same phenomenon in the 60’s when many felt that no generation before ours had needed a sexual revolution. It’s hard for all of us, isn't it, to accept that humans haven't changed much in the last 50,000 years?
Many students corroborated Steven Spielberg's comment that if he had to make "Jaws" again today, he would need to put a death-by-shark earlier after the opening credits, because today's audience will not wait longer than a few minutes for violence. The first violence in "Stepford Wives" comes after about forty minutes of character and plot development, and several students commented that it was boring to wait so long for violence, that there needed to be much more violence and killing in the movie to make it interesting.
In spite of their predilection for violence, many students were taken aback by the dark ending of "Stepford Wives," in which evil wins, and several wrote that today's audiences prefer a happy ending. In fact the 2004 re-make of "Stepford Wives," justly panned by critics as a ruined husk of the original, changed the ending to a happy one, where the robotic wives manage to turn off the chips implanted in their heads by their husbands (in the original, each robot strangles its original human model, so there's no going back).
There was a gender divide over the movie. Many of the girls liked it; only a few of the boys did.
Another salient feature of the two-week job was how much work was involved. I haven't worked this hard since I retired in 2009. I implemented curriculum, gave tests and graded them, and handled discipline (by far the most arduous of the tasks). I did that for 25 years, but it carries a special poignancy in retirement. Teaching public school sure is hard, and getting harder. Why? Because there is little attempt to update public schools, to infuse them with the modern world. I hear the objections to this statement already: We wire our schools to the internet, buy computers for everyone, etc. How can I say the schools are not updated?
I say it because the updating is more a gift to technology vendors than a transformation of learning. Though word processing is a tremendous leap forward from the typwriter, facility in typing and editing has little bearing on students' writing skills, which, as most parents and teachers will tell you, have not improved significantly since the internet arrived. Nor have reading skills improved, or understanding of history, math, or much of anything beyond understanding of the technology itself. We have mistaken technology for outcomes.
Of course, this situation will not last. Sometime in the future, perhaps after the red heifer is born and Gog and Magog get the green light, we’ll have the technology sorted out. Kids will enter the classroom, turn on the computer, put on a headset, and interact with the software, while the “teacher,” now a computer technician, oversees.
That will be the easy part. There is also the problem of unemployment, caused in large part by the same machines we celebrate. There are very few jobs awaiting the students in my colleague's classes. Why would that change? No doubt the answer will come, as it has in the past, from war. Whether it’s battling Gog and Magog or ISIS, we’ll find work for idle hands, as the forces we're fighting have done.
Finally, I was struck by the indifference to politics in my students. Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy for president in the second week, but I heard no mention of it from any student. Quite a contrast to 2008, when every student was mesmerized by the election of Obama. That moment of credibility is gone; teenagers are among the most cynical and skeptical of politics of any demographic. And why not? Who from the exalted heights comes “down” to the high school level to talk to them, to explain the world and their role in it? One thinks of the former Iraqi official who, from his classroom, told a Vice reporter that, for criticizing the regime, he had been "exiled to teach high school." Siberia with bells!
America should take a lesson from its teachers: If you want our culture and country to survive, make the young a priority, in more ways than buying them lunch. Tell it like it is about public education, if you can.