When I saw her midday on Monday, Ms. X was annoyed. “Do you know what happened today?” she asked. “This boy came into my class – and he isn’t a student of mine – and he told a boy who is a student of mine to stop texting him.”
Well, I agreed, that was certainly inappropriate … especially if you were trying to get the class started, and if the Other Boy was supposed to be somewhere else.
She went on: “So I told him, if he has a problem with somebody, he needs to go to Our Principal and tell her about it!”
I was speechless. Absolutely speechless. If you know me, you know how rare that is!
“A problem with somebody …” that’s the human condition! Intentionally or not, we often find ourselves causing problems – for others and ourselves. Words, thoughts, actions, responses, reactions, even what we don’t say or don’t express or don’t feel. Last weekend, I found myself in a problem like that – a conflict with a friend and collaborator over where our team should stay during the American Classical League Institute this month. Since we take turns as Logistics Person, it was my turn to find the “perfect” AirBnB listing for the group. I was torn between two: both lovely older properties, both in the same convenient neighborhood, both (as it turns out) belonging to the same guy. In my indecision, I unintentionally triggered some old, awful baggage on my friend’s part, and the unexpected response triggered some old, awful baggage of mine.
Things were tense for a while. But we solved the problem, and our friendship grew deeper. Why? Because we knew when to stop talking and arguing … but we also knew when to start talking again, and what to talk about then. We’d learned how to solve such conflicts from experience – from old conflicts we resolved, or didn’t resolve so well, with others. We didn’t go running to some external Power … though, to be fair, we did each ask friends for advice about the housing options. In the end, it didn’t take long to reach a consensus, and we even got a discount from the helpful landlord! If the stay itself is as pleasant as he’s been, I’ll be recommending him highly in a few weeks!
But in Ms. X’s world, it seems, no one would ever learn how to resolve conflicts. No one, that is, except Powers. Do Powers have a natural talent for conflict resolution, or do they get special, secret training that no one else receives? Either way, the assumptions buried in her statement still trouble me profoundly, as do the structural issues Emily discusses in this post about preparing for college and this one about (mis)communication.
But maybe Ms. X had just had enough! Her comment came in the middle of a challenging day. “Whatever you do,” various Powers and colleagues had begged, “don’t tell those bad, lazy children what the Final Cutoff Date will be for grades.” But then a different Power made an angry announcement … which, of course, included the date. So Ms. X and Mr. Y, from their perspective, have probably lost the “only weapon We had” in the battle with “bad, lazy students.” But even if that announcement hadn’t been made, many students were so tired, so Full, so Done, that they really didn’t care about Ms. X’s grade-based threats. “As long as I can still pass,” said W before school started, “I really don’t care. And I know I can still pass because I’ve been passing.”
Even the Culminating Activity I described yesterday – specifically designed to be a joyful, low-stress, creativity-enhancing end to the school year – was hard to focus on. The upper-level class will probably make something wonderful, and I’m eager to see the scenario of “class reunion at Fabius’ school” played out by one early-morning group. But for the others – so lacking in stamina at the best of times, so tired and Done now – a significant, stretching response is just too much. We’ll try a scaled-down version in our remaining time together … but the time is brief indeed. Despite those dire warnings from Powers That Be about “keeping kids in class and on task,” there are endless interruptions – scheduled by those very Powers – during these last few days. Yearbooks arrive, get distributed, get signed. There’s an assembly about Summer Reading Programs at the local library. A locker-cleanout period is on the calendar, as is a time when summer assignments for advanced classes get distributed. So many things to do, so many priorities!
Wouldn’t it be easier – at least in the short run – if we could run to some external Power, “tell her (or him) about” our problems, and leave with a trouble-free solution? That’s the factory-model dream, the 20th-century hope … and the 20th-century nightmare of 1984 and Brave New World and too many real-world dictatorships to list. Does Ms. X realize she’s leading her students to the brink of such a slope? Or was she just busy, overwhelmed, frustrated, and looking for a way to get a “disruptive child” out of her classroom? Later in the day, I heard her giving a lecture, with PowerPoint accompaniment, in a darkened classroom where her students sat in stunned silence. Perhaps there was a “cute little activity for them to do” after that, but I really didn’t want to know. I saw her playing the “good little teacher” game, saw her students, quiet but resentful, playing the “good little students” part. Were the test scores pretty good? Probably so, since she “reviewed them” so much last week. And of course you can always “curve the grades” – which, if you’ve ever worked in a school, you know does not mean “distribute them on a normal distribution curve.”
The road from factory to joyful community isn’t exactly wide and well-marked. It’s more like a wilderness path, or a place in the wilderness where a path might someday be. And that can be scary, especially when you’re tired and overwhelmed, and when there have “always” been Powers around to make decisions for you.
As Debbie noted on Google+,
So the risk-takers have to take that first step and give it a try, the experimenters will look at what happened and try to add something here, change something there and try to perfect it, and then, when it all seems safe and effective, the others will dip their toe in and test the waters.
It does “take all kinds” and if we were all risk-takers, well, not a pretty picture. And if we were all safe people, then we’d still be living in caves.
For us risk-takers and experimenters, one task is to blaze that trail … but as we blaze it, we must remember those others, like Ms. X, Mr. Y, and the exhausted, frustrated Powers. We also need to make the trail “safe and effective” – and inviting – enough to help them take their first tentative steps, and when they do, we need to be there to celebrate with them. It’s challenging work, but in the end, is there any other route from dying factory to thriving joyful community?