Saturday, October 17, 2009
In the absence of wonder
When I was fresh out of graduate school I worked in the "inner city." The inner city of MY city. A smaller metropolis than Manhattan, a bigger one than Timbuktu. Iv'e always found the term "inner city" odd. It connotes the core of a place yet lies. It really means the outside parts. The fringe. The unrest. The poverty.
I worked with teenage girls who had babies and needed their High School Equivalency Diplomas. These girls didn't know how to keep checkbooks, or make change, or what the holocaust was.
"Can anyone tell me two big events that occurred during the second world war?"
"Anything? Even the idea of something?"
"How about the holocaust?"
An arm shot up in class. "Oooh! Ohhh! I know, that was a REALLY good movie!"
I am not exaggerating or fibbing, that exact exchange really happened. What people don't know is astounding.
What these young women lacked in traditional knowledge, they made up for in street wisdom. These girls taught me a lot about clever. A lot about mistrust. A lot about comfortless lives. They taught me the dirty side. The underbelly of life. They gave me characters.
The most disturbing thing these girls were missing was wonder. They had no creative soul. No ability to be enraptured. They never used glitter on their projects, even though I always put it on the table next to the glue. Not once in five years did a student reach for the glitter.
When I moved on, leaving poverty behind for the affluence of private universities, I missed them. I missed the reality of them. But to be honest, I breathed a sigh of relief. I liked teaching wonder. I liked the students following me to my car after a night class and asking question after question about the lecture. It was exhilarating.
Recently I took a teaching gig at a community college in my city. The inner city. The pay is good for moonlighting.
Last night I gave an exam. It wasn't easy... but there was one essay question on the exam that I call a "gimme."
Give an example of a book you were read as a child, or a game you played, that taught you something about your culture.
Come on. All children's stories have morals, right? And what about monopoly, or cops and robbers, or hide and seek? The list is endless. The question is the easiest to answer (That's why I call it a "Gimme").
As I flipped through the exams today, I noticed a trend. Sure, these kids don't have the same study skills as the kids I normally teach... so some of the writing is poor and the general average of the class is low. I expected that. What I didn't expect (because I can be forgetful and naive too often) was that the answer to the essay above would be left blank.
I have forty students in that class. Thirty of them left that essay unanswered. What does that mean? It means the absence of wonder.
No books read to them. No games played. No connections made about norms and values and civics. No glitter.