Education is messy…by Liam O’Rourke
“Hey, we run on our time, not on your time!” the conductor shouts at me. I’m standing in the doorway of a Metro-North train, trying to keep the doors from closing on those two suckers at the end of the platform who don’t realize that sometimes the Metro North trains don’t open the doors of the last car or two… or three. I’m just trying to be helpful: after all it’s not the subway. Another one won’t be along in four minutes; it will be along in forty minutes. The two stragglers make it on, are grateful, and the doors close.
The train grumbles like its conductor, shakes from side to side, and makes its way creakily from Westport, Connecticut to Grand Central Terminal in New York. I’ve made this trip more times than I care to count in the last ten years. But if you are the counting type, one for whom the world is measured by arithmetic alone, I’ve probably spent somewhere between 1,200 and 1,500 hours on the Metro North, shuttling back and forth on the same two rails between New York City where I live and my job in Connecticut The train doesn’t weave or take detours or shortcuts; I pass over the same ground each time, see trees from the same height, look down at the scrap metal yards at the same angle. Once you are on the Metro North, you are in their world and you are on their time—even if that includes half-hour delays due to a fallen branch on the wires.
I make this lovely journey (and sometimes it really is lovely late in the year when you pass Greenwich and the tidal rivers open up to the island-studded Sound and the sun is low on the horizon) in order to teach reading and writing to kids at a private school in Westport. When I say kids, I mean everything from Kindergarteners to seniors in high school. I will go from a class in which I have to explain to the students what a stepmother actually is when they are listening to the story of Cinderella, to a class of older teenagers who make insightful remarks about Raskolnikov’s ideological vacillations in Crime and Punishment.
I am so grateful that despite the punishingly unchanging routine of my commute, I enter a building where anything can happen. As I open the front door to work, two girls duck underneath my front arm and dart into the building dragging rolling backpacks as big as their tiny bodies and say thanks. As I pass one of the classrooms on the first floor, a gathering of students and teachers are trying to name as many Bruce Willis movies as they can in three minutes. Upstairs I tell two eight year-old boys not to have a pencil fight because “that probably won’t end well.” They sigh at my pessimistic vision of the world and reluctantly put down their pencils with a smile. I assume (and secretly hope) that they will defy me and start their pencil duel once I turn the corner—only they’ll be a little more surreptitious and, maybe, just a little more careful with one another. I put my bag away on my desk and overhear a conversation in Mandarin between a student and his Chinese teacher. It’s 8:26 and these are the dwindling minutes before the first class starts and school technically begins.
But it has already begun, because teaching and learning, unlike trains, do not run on a tidy schedule. My mother used to say, “Education is messy.” And she meant that as a good thing—in fact, not just a good thing; she meant messiness was a necessary quality of true education. She was the first head of school at the place I work every day. She was the head from its first year in the building in 2002 until she died in the winter of 2008 at the very young age of 55. Although there are many students in the building know who never knew her or who barely remember her, her presence in those early years of the school left a tangible mark on the school.
She loved chaos (to a point) and eschewed systems. Trouble-making adolescent boys were usually among her favorite students: kids who went against the grain enlivened her. She was the anti-Ed Rooney, the anti-Richard Vernon. She celebrated the individual and understood that when you put a bunch of individuals into a room and encourage them to be themselves, the teacher included, things get messy. To my mother grades were anathema, and she mostly thought tests were stupid. When people would ask, “But if you don’t give tests, how will you know if the kids understand the material?” she would quip, “If you don’t already know whether or not your students understand what you are teaching them, then you’re not doing your job very well.” (She was saying this to teachers who taught relatively small, manageable classes.) Of course if a teacher could make a convincing case for why a particular test would serve a particular function, she would hear them out. Because the only absolute for my mother was that there were no absolutes in a school.
When I move through the building each day, I can feel that dangerous sense of fun that my mother loved in teaching, the high-wire act of letting kids lead you somewhere in a class all the while trusting that you have the wherewithal to pull the class to safety if they fall. You should see how excited my third-graders get when I tell them that they can use any words they want when they write, even the words they would call “bad words.” After all, I tell them I want them to think about how they are responsible for the language they put into the world. How can I possibly ask them to do that if I censor their language before it comes out of their mouths or pens?
I had a sixth or seventh grade student whose mother violently insisted he wouldn’t be reading Dracula because he had a nightmare. Something in me resisted the mother’s reasonable fears for her son. Although I was petrified that I might be making a mistake, I had confidence that I knew this student well and that I understood why I was teaching this particular book to my students. I talked to my class about how literature can scare us, how it can take us to places that make us uncomfortable, and how through reading it and talking about it and finding language to describe what scares us, we sometimes can come to understand our fears better and to transform our relationship to those fears. After that class I asked the student if he would be willing to try reading the book. He acquiesced. At the end of the year, when we were reviewing the books we had read over the year, that same child named Dracula as not only his favorite book of the year, but as his favorite book of all time.
At the end of the day, we (I and the teachers who feel this way about children) teach because we believe in the individual, believe that awkwardness or fear or discomfort are not necessarily reasons to stop, and believe more than anything that the classroom doesn’t run on “our time.” It’s the children’s time. And when they want to take us somewhere unexpected, we go with them. When they swerve, duck, jump, spin, go off the track, or return to step in the tread of their own first steps, we follow the giddy movements of their minds and bodies. And when they aren’t ready to go through a door yet, when they need a moment to stop and catch their breath, we let them know that we are there and we wait.
Now, Check Out Liam’s Previous Piece: Just Because You Can’t Doesn’t Mean You Won’t