Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Another blog, another story

I have a colleague at Western Washington University in the Woodring College of Education that I think very highly of.  A brilliant woman who is in the Foundations Department (read:  Philosophy of Education) and has presented and written many papers that articulated democracy in education as espoused by John Dewey. She is my friend.  

Dr. Lorraine Kasprisin is also a blogger and writes a more erudite and accurate blog than I do.  Which is why I highly recommend, nay, push you to read her latest blog about a school in Bend, Oregon.  Her blog address is http://journalofeducationalcontroversy.blogspot.com/2010/04/schools-that-make-difference-look-at.html.  Please do me this favor and take a look at another school that has children in its focus.  I wonder had I first started teaching in an exciting school would I still be there today.  A puzzlement for me.

Now, don't forget.  Read Lorraine's blog.

Teaching is not just the imparting of knowledge.  That's the main idea but just putting stuff into another head is not so easy.  Some heads are more resistant than others.  And also, somewhat like making wine, it takes time.  I really hadn't grasped this concept when I first started teaching but from my playground days in Rye, New York, I knew that kids needed an environment that they could ponder, to think, to play with. 

It was my first year teaching in the fifth grade, perhaps a month or so into the year.  I was struggling to get a hand on the curriculum, the kids, my place in the school, and keeping my wits about me.  The kids were doing better at surviving then I was so I suspect it should not have been a surprise when they started asking questions about me.  "Was I married?"  "Did I have a pet?"  "What were my hobbies--what did I like to do beside teach?"  So far so good, I had answers that satisfied them.  But one question came up, "How old are you, Mr. Blackwell?"  Not noted for being quick on my feet I did realize in a second of time that most of the parents of kids in my class were older than me.  What would happen if this fact was taken home?  Would I lose face?  Without much other thought I told the kids, "I am eighty-two years old."

The surprise was that the kids were okay with that answer.  Because they were mostly ten, eleven and twelve years old, anything above fifteen was in the general area of normal for an adult or an older person.  

However, this satisfaction lasted about a week.  It now seems obvious that the kids in my class had gone home and discussed what was going on in their classrooms during dinner time and when the subject of my age came up, mom and dad broke out in laughter.  "Even grandpa wasn't that old."   So the next day the question came back up, "Mr. Blackwell, tell us your real age."

I explained that that was my real age.  You had to be old to be allowed to teach.  I will admit that that line of defense did not sit well with my colleagues when they heard from their kids about my age and why I was that old.  But still it satisfied most of my kids.  But after a couple of days, the question started in again.  One of the interesting things for me was to see that the kids were puzzled by my answer--it didn't fit but they couldn't figure it out.  BUT it was something they could think about.  World problems, even local civic problems were above these kids but figuring out the age of their teacher was well within their realm of thinking.  "When were you born?"  "1876."  This number was so far out of their reality that it didn't even raise an eyebrow.  I was enjoying myself.  Some of my kids actually went back to their previous teacher and asked them to ask me my age.  Fortunately, we teachers are a band of liars and they stuck with me on this one.  For a time eighty-two was the proper answer.

The story soon got around the school that I was eighty-two and at the first PTA meeting of the year, I was introduced as a new teacher and as the oldest teacher in the faculty.  Adults laughed and enjoyed themselves.  My kids hearing this were more confused then ever.  He can't be eighty-two!

A few of my students from time to time would ask me for my wallet ostensibly to see if I had a picture of my wife or dog.  But I knew it was really to find my driver's license and see when my birth date really was.  

Well, my friends, I stayed eighty-two the rest of the school year.  The class almost pleaded with me as we ended the year, "Tell us your real age!"  

At the start of the next year my new group of kids had the advantage of having asked the older kids what was Mr. Blackwell like.  It was soon after the beginning of the year that the question arose--How Old......   And my answer was eighty-two.  "But you were that last year."  "I know, I know but when you get to be this age, things go slower--asked your grandfather if that isn't true."  They did just that and the grandfathers united behind me--things go slow when you're in your eighties.

I remained eighty-two the entire time I was teaching at that school.  It began to be a game of trying to out fox me as to my real age.  They also learned about being teased.  It definitely was a bond between me and the kids.  I was their eighty-two year old teacher even if it wasn't true....but they liked being part of the tradition.  

Near the beginning of the last year that I taught at this elementary school, the new kids brought up the question--how old are you.  And I gave the now standard answer.  There was a groan from the class and they knew they had to figure out how to out smart me.  This was going to be tough!  And then in the back of the room a blond haired girl whose smile could light up a room, stood up beside her desk and in a strong voice said,  "Mr. Blackwell, if you were eighty-two you would be retarded!" and she sat down.  I have to admit, I laughed out loud.  It was a delight and she turned out to be a delight in my classroom.  I've always hoped that she really meant, "retired" but perhaps "retarded" might be more appropriate.

I miss those kids.  All of them.  I will forever wish I had been a better teacher than I was.  The children of our society need good, steady, and yes, puzzling teachers who want them to learn.  

Thanks to all the old teachers who with a smile, much affection and intensity teach our children.  You're a wonderful bunch of people. Hang in there.