Monday, September 22, 2008

Rule Number Two (With Apologies to Calvin Trillin)

Well, well, well. I had to 86 a student today -- just for the lesson, not the whole course -- as he was found to be in gross and repeated violation of Classroom Rules 1 (Listen) and 3 (Be Polite).

I was prepared for such a measure, as it seemed to me that this little fellow had been testing some boundaries for a while now, but I am afraid I had to shout -- well, no, not shout, exactly, that is not quite fair, but I certainly had to speak in a raised, stern voice -- in order to get him to take his eviction seriously. This loud, stern speaking brought in reinforcements from outside the classroom, and to see his poor lower lip trembling in his little round face as he found himself ringed by disapproving adults -- well, I began to feel as if I might perhaps be in violation of some Rules myself.

I must make my students obey -- otherwise I could not hope to teach them a thing -- but I am in some ways unsuited to the task. Well, "unsuited" is not quite fair, either. I am luckily reasonably well furnished with both patience and resourcefulness. "Ill-prepared" might be a better way to describe my condition.

Perhaps my most significant difficulty is cultural in origin. I don't mean a difference between Chinese and Western culture. I have no idea whether the dynamic I observe amongst my students and their parents and grandparents and so on is more characteristic of China than the West or not. I suspect not, actually. But there is certainly a marked difference between the way my parents treated me and the way my students seem mostly to be treated by their relations.

When I was growing up, my parents gave me instructions and articulated rules, which I either followed or failed to follow. Failing to follow them had, for the most part, clear and immediate consequences. This is not to say my parents were strict -- quite the contrary. The rules were just fairly easy to follow. My parents asked nothing that was beyond my capacity.

Perhaps just as significantly, we were, as a family, highly verbal. Words had meaning. As a natural consequence, there was no nagging or coaxing on my parents' side, and my brother and I would have thought it a disgraceful waste of time (as well as an insult to our dignity) to whine or cajole.

But my students seem used to a different dynamic, one in which nagging and coaxing evidently play a fairly major role. And of course, these young scoundrels see no reason to listen to the fifth repetition of a request or command when they have not troubled to attend to the first four iterations.

So, until today, they did not quite understand that I mean what I say. I am not sure they understand it even now. I think it is possible that my poor little boy's expulsion will be interpreted as a consequence of anger on my part (which it certainly was not; I was sorry for him, as he deserved, since testing boundaries is what children his age are naturally obliged to do) rather than a necessary tactic. When I spoke in an ordinary register, he paid me no mind. Why should he? He didn't know.

Well, if he doesn't know now, he soon will know, and then I hope we shall all be able to move forward calmly and happily -- at least, mostly calmly and mostly happily. As Mrs. Croft remarked, "We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days."

At any rate it's easier coping with this sort of acting out when it is appropriate for the age of the actors, if not for the situation in which they act. This little tug-of-war today reminded me of a similar experience I had when I was teaching at a university in Beijing right after college. In that case the student in question was in a Masters program in electrical engineering. I don't quite know how it was, but she took an instant dislike to me, right from the first class, and I well remember the sight of her ostentatiously reading her newspaper while I lectured. She was clearly a thoroughly unhappy person, but the memory still rankles. I wished to fling open the door, thunder out her name (in what was then, if I say it myself, quite intimidatingly impeccable Chinese) and order her from the room. But how could I treat a graduate student like an ill-behaved school-girl? At least with young students you know where you are and who's boss.

And, best of all, my little scoundrels won't be ready for Andover -- where I have been encouraged to hope their friends and relations may send them someday -- for a number of years yet. They have plenty of time to prepare for the particular culture of discipline established there that, I think, is my favorite way to sum up the place when introducing it to strangers. To wit: there are few rules -- for a boarding school, quite astonishingly few -- and all students are given a second chance following the breaking of any rule, with one exception. No lying is allowed at Andover.

Kind of makes you wonder, doesn't it? Here's President Bartlet (who didn't go to Andover, what with being fictional and all) echoing two hundred years of Andover headmasters when he tells Charlie Young: "If you lie just once, if you lie just a little . . . you and I are finished." And here's the actual occupant of the Oval Office (who did go to Andover and is all too real) telling such whopping great lies so often and with such catastrophic consequences you almost feel we need to invent another word just to describe the activity. Lynching, maybe -- as an extended meaning of the extant lexeme, suggesting the illegal and peculiarly barbaric strangulation of truth. Or perhaps "Maintaining Large and Apparently Invulnerable Stockpiles of REALLY Massively Destructive Weapons and Refusing to Surrender Without Frequent and Shameless Resort to Such Weapons, Regardless of the Cost in Human Lives or Human Conscience" -- with requisite nods to Jack Kennedy, Ted Sorensen, and Brian Wilkinson (

Or perhaps just "Violation of Rule Two" -- with a footnote explaining that Rule Two means you follow directions. In Mr. Bush's case, those directions are handily codified in the Constitution of the United States.

Here's to better days, folks, past and future. Rex quondam, rexque futurus!


Willow said...

Oh dear! The little quivering chin must have been heart wrenching. Education is a difficult game! While it is essential to establish a climate for learning, it can be painful. I hope there has been an opportunity for hugs all around.

Nelson said...

I assure you, I understand completely what your sentiments are. I can only wish you all the best and hope that your tactics don't have to devolve into the haphazard screaming sessions that I ran, punctuated with many games, or perhaps the other way around!