Saving the Best For Last

One of the things I truly love about my job is watching students figure out that they are smart; that they know more than they think they do and that they’re able to use that knowledge in meaningful ways to navigate themselves through new material. It’s almost always the case that I get more excited about it than the students do, but do I care about that? No. No, I do not.

Last week, I gave my students a copy of the Time Magazine article about CBS’s firing of Don Imus. For the assignment, I asked them to write a one-page essay about the Imus situation in which they considered popular culture, their own behavior as it relates to stereotyping or “forbidden” words or terms, and their own experiences with such things (had they ever been called something that offended them? How does how we label ourselves differ from how others may label us?). I wanted them to put some real thinking into this; this issue is a very important thing to consider when we’re speaking in public and is the thing that is most likely to get public speakers into trouble.

I didn’t get a whole lot of that strenuous thinking that I was looking for, but there were one or two flashes of brilliance. One young woman objected not only to Imus’ crass comments, but also to the fact that he was fired. While she understood that it was CBS’s prerogative to let the man go and to no longer be associated with him, she thought it would have been a more fitting experience for him to watch his sponsors pull their money and his listeners to switch channels. It was an excellent start to what would have been a top-notch essay if she’d spent some more time thinking about what she was trying to say.

Several people wrote that they were bothered by all the attention this matter was receiving in the media. They didn’t listen to Imus, they told me, and would never have even heard any of this had the news not sunk its teeth into it. A few went so far as to speculate that there’s a better than even chance that the Rutgers women’s basketball team wouldn’t have heard the comment, either; that they were too busy practicing and playing and doing things that mattered to listen to an old, cranky, blow-hard white guy with nothing intelligent to say. They thought that the best way to deal with Imus and his ilk is to tune them out entirely.

A few people – including the young man who inspired me to write this post – wrote about how sticky a subject this sort of thing can be precisely because not everyone is offended by the same thing. The gentleman in question is my only African-American student and, by the looks of him, his family is just recently from Africa; the boy is so black he’s nearly blue. He felt that he had a particular vantage point on the issue because he uses “the n-word” and admitted that, occasionally, he’s used the term that Imus used. The difference between my student using the word and Imus using the word, he argued, was not necessarily in who was SAYING the word, though; his point was that it’s the LISTENER who gets to decide when the line of propriety gets crossed. What offends him may have no bearing on me, and vice versa, and the speaker really has no control over how his or her comments are received.

What you need to understand here, though, is that I’m interpreting the student’s paper for you. He took the single most circuitous route he possibly could to get to his absolutely BRILLIANT final thought: “No one knows where the line is until someone crosses it.”

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It could have been a fluke – a sort of “monkeys and Shakespeare” thing, but I choose to believe otherwise. They have no appreciation for how smart they really are…

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7 Comments

Filed under about writing, success!, Teaching

7 responses to “Saving the Best For Last

  1. I know this brilliance. I had it when one of my students decided that the only way to get to go the pizza parlor after the big concert was if he practiced more. Until then, there would be nothing. So he started practicing, and he got better, and he got excited, and he decided to do band next year. Go him!

  2. I had a student a few years ago that was a real academic struggler. Even when he tried he couldn’t seem to figure stuff out. This was back when I was also teaching social studies. I have, at all times, various books from home that I feel I may have a sudden, unplanned burst of inspiration and want to pull out said book and use something. Well, I love American presidents and I had one of those comprehensive books on presidents. He randomly picked it up one day and started leafing through it. It flipped through that thing in no particular order for half of the year, and it actually became a bit of a problem because he’d be flipping through it and not paying attention. Near the end of the year, he said quite proudly, “Mr. Asshole, I can name all of the presidents.”

    “Ok, let’s hear it…” And he proceeded to recite the name of every president from Washington to Clinton. I was flabbergasted. I asked him for the book, signed on the inside cover that the book now belonged to him for his amazing feat of brainwork. A couple of years ago he returned to my school as a high schooler. I asked him if he still had the book. He reached into his bookbag and pulled it out. The high school teacher told me, “I don’t know what you did to him, but I can’t get him to grasp anything, but a president gets mentioned and he takes off.”

    The brain works in mysterious ways…

  3. Indeed it does: and we never know when we’re going to have that kind of profound influence on a student. This is the kind of thing I live for as a teacher. What a wonderful story, BoDog!

  4. Don’t you just LOVE the a-ha moments? Those are the moments we need to remember when teaching gets tough! Seeing that light bulb go on is such an incredible feeling!! Way to go with such an early assignment!

  5. They have no appreciation for how smart they really are…

    And sometimes neither do we! And, in the world of NCLB and high-stakes testing, we often do not get the chance to appreciate how smart they really are!

    Your post is like a breath of fresh air. Thanks!!!!!

  6. That is just wonderful. Sometimes I wish I were in a field more like yours. In computer science and programming classes, we rarely get the opportunity to even chat about subjects like that one.

  7. You need to send your Public Speaking kids to NYC. This morning on the train the woman sitting next to me read her college social studies paper aloud. Just because. About 2 stops after she’d abandoned her iPod and her slightly creepy unprovoked laughing another woman got on and was strap hanging in front of us. She was very interested in the reader. The following conversation ensued:

    Reader: blah blah blah education, interviewer, statistics.

    Strap hanger: Are you practicing your speech on the train. I love that you’re doing that.

    R: It’s not a speech, it’s my paper. I got an A (giggle) I got all As!

    SH: Oh, well….er…but, everyone will hear it. (ed. note: huh? and?)

    R: blah blah blah more interview, more statistics, completely ignoring SH

    SH: (Uncomfortable silence and reading of a highly intellectual magazine.)

    So I propose a final exam field trip where we ride the F train from Coney Island to Queens and give speeches the whole way.

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