Saturday, October 17, 2009

In the absence of wonder

Black & White Pictures, Images and Photos

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.


  1. What a sad existence. I can't imagine my life without creativity. Thanks for the reminder of all the amazing people who have influenced my life for the better! Great post!

  2. Suzanne, this is a very thoughtful post. I think it would make a great article. The detail about the untouched raw and real.


  3. It is a shame that youth today do not have the same capacity to make analogies between their everyday lives and the lives they would like to lead. Perhaps they do not know how to hope.

  4. Oh wow. That was a harsh bite of reality. What a wounded world those kids grow up in. Great post!

  5. That's so sad Suzanne. I live for wonder. Without my imagination I'd shrivel up. Seriously.

  6. I know of which you speak. I've been there, longer and more immersed than you. That life keeps one sober and makes one grateful. Everyone should spend some time in those neighborhoods.

    p.s. Two of my three children are teachers in inner city schools. We have tales to tell.

  7. It's really sad that kids are growing up like that. They are lucky to have a teacher like you who may be able to stir up a little bit of that wonder.

  8. The saddest thing to contemplate is that the sense of wonder never developed in childhood is lost. Your detail on the glitter speaks volumes. If inner cities are society's center then we have rot at our core. I believe that humans need nature, but inner cities barely have a tree or flower, let alone parks and wildlife. Children need places to play, to let imagination, not bullets, run wild. On a note of hope, my daughter once took a college entrance exam in the inner city. She was working all the time and could only find an exam on her day off at a school in one of the worst areas imaginable. She has always refused to let fear stop her and drove into a place where nothing green grew anywhere, where every object in sight was covered with graffiti, even the school bathroom with doorless stalls. But she said the exam room was filled with kids, and she was humbled that they were there, trying to make a better life, to find a way out.

  9. An unfortunate thing, this absence of wonder. But looking on the bright side of things, with a role model like you in their presence, maybe they can start learning about those things they missed out on. It's not too late; it never is. I know that your creativity will spark their inspiration.


  10. This is extremely sad. I agree that they are lucky to have you for a teacher. If anyone knows wonder, how to *inspire* wonder, it's you! (No pressure or anything...)

    Also, people still find wonder in the darkest places and sometimes later in life, rather than earlier. I'm inclined to believe it's never too later...but maybe that's the optimist in me.

  11. Can you use the term "life" without "glitter?" Is it really living? In no way do I place blame. In no way do I think less. I hurt for them. I grieve for a place where that innocence and creativity is absent.

  12. What a heartbreaker. The fact that your students are there and interested in continuing their educations is hopeful. Keep sprinkling your glitter, some of it will stick :)

  13. this is so sad, Suzanne! Many of these students probably learned very early on that showing or being vulnerable in any way is BAD and sharing something on an emotional level must sound pretty dangerous. It may be almost like a survival instinct.

  14. It's a driven motive that some have, and others don't. There are eight year olds that smoke, ten year olds that curse and five year olds using the word "swagger". We see it everywhere, no matter whether its in a wealthy or poor area.

    Education can shed light on a situation and provide understanding to those who don't. Long time ago, riots broke out surrounding religion. Education is what brought a tinge of civility, if only slowly. Some could say it's silly that this is needed, but exchange of thoughts and opinions is needed to advance.

  15. Oh... so sad. There are some very sad stats about kids that are not read to. No one ever thinks to do any research about what missing glitter costs society at large. BUT it costs... and it cost dearly. I maintained the glitter even in my childhood. And it was in no small part due to my love of books and my over active imagination.

    Glitter- Ooooh I love the way you put that Suzanne. Never loose your ability to offer your students the glitter :)

  16. deeply touching, troubling.
    but in it i see the chance
    for action, hope.

  17. Wow, this is so disturbing and SAD. I can't imagine a life without wonder. Without wonder, I think you lose hope.

  18. touching and sad.
    one would think, that with the technological advances and the whole world being transported into living rooms, that it would translate into more than 10/40.
    we're missing the boat somewhere.

  19. How very, very sad.
    It's sad for those kids, but I think it's also sad for their parents, who have missed out on the pleasure of reading to their kids.
    When mine were little, I loved, loved, loved having them in my lap and reading to them, bringing the characters to life for them. And I loved that I was giving them the gift of a love of books.
    I was determined to do that for them, cos I wasn't read to as a child, and reading wasn't encouraged in our home _ "too busy" parents.
    So I hope that your teaching will spark that same determination in them when they have kids of their own.

  20. Wonderful post, but a sad one that these children never had what I call a normal childhood, good examples to follow, and people around them who really cared for them.

  21. Very sad! It's like a whole part of childhhod was missed and they may not even know or care.

  22. That makes me feel strange. What is happening to our citizens?

  23. This is incribley sad. I have an idea of what you're talking about though as I did some pre student teaching work in the "inner city" and currently student teaching in a very large urban / suburban mix.

    I had two reactions to this blog entry... first being that while it is difficult I really enjoy being in more urban envioronments, when the students "get it" it makes it all that much more special. The second reaction I had is the wonder of whether I will be able to stay there for a life time... I feel a tug towards the academy but I am incredibly aprehensive, dare I say cynical about it at the same time... I guess only time will tell what happens in the end.