Actually, I’m a little bitchy these days. Didn’t want this to happen. In fact, made a specific intention that I would go through this whole last year of teaching with equanimity, love, and compassion for every person and every event that presented itself to me. But last week, I got bitchy. Ever happen to you?
I had a plan. It was a good plan. I would offer the best books, the best ideas, the most provocative questions, the most deeply probing videos, all designed to help me and my students grapple with the big questions of life. That’s the name of the course, in fact: Life’s Big Questions. It would be great. It would be powerful. It would be fascinating and conversation would be scintillating. Students would have aha moments all over the place. They would fall in love with each other. Lives would be transformed right before my eyes. They would want to go out into the world and do good things, make a difference. This course would be my swan song, my final statement on what I believe liberal education is all about. I would do my very best to be the kind of teacher I’ve so wanted to be, one who “leads students out,” one who creates an environment in which true understanding and insight are ignited within hearts and minds.
Then, last week, I got bitchy.
Here’s what happened. Half (I kid you not—half!) of the students came to class without their books, clearly unprepared to be enlightened. I sat in the back of the room and watched (seethed, actually) as two valiant students gave their wonderful presentation on Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I watched them as they generously shared their research, their thinking, their understanding of how the book so beautifully fits into the theme of the course. And I watched as they got nothing back from the class. Nothing. No eye contact. No willingness to ask a question or offer a response. No attempt to support the presenters in the very difficult task of articulating complex ideas to an audience. Nothing. No kindness, no compassion, no generosity toward their own fellow students. I watched all this for fifty minutes. And I could feel the anger building in my body. It started with a tightening in the stomach. And it moved up to my chest where I could feel my heart pounding. Then up to my throat, which constricted. I clinched my jaw. I no longer heard Ashley and Kia as they unfolded their thoughts and ideas about the book and the course. They had worked hard on their presentation, and they were getting nothing in return, and all I could see or hear was this gaping nothingness. All I could see was vacant stares. And the ever-present sideways glances to the wall clock by students eager to gauge how much longer they must endure. It was clear, they were simply enduring the 75 minutes of this class, waiting to be able to escape to their more interesting lives. I could not take my eyes away from them. I could not keep the anger from rising in waves, and I could not stop my fixation on the disastrous class I was observing.
And of course, behind all these physical manifestations of anger, was my own guilt. What was going wrong here? How had I failed? What does it take to engage these students? How can you not care about questions like “How do I find love”? “What is my calling?” “Is there a god?” “What is happiness and how do I get it?” “What is a virtuous life and is it worth anything?” If you don’t care about these questions, what do you care about? My mind was reeling. Am I so out of it, I wondered? Am I so removed from these people? Am I clueless about what matters to them? And even worse, does my forty-four years of teaching come to this?
Oh yes, I was mad, mad at these students who I thought were being lazy and stupid. Mad at myself for getting old, for being out of touch. Mad at a system that requires students to take classes they don’t want to take and allows them to sign up for requirements based on how easily the course fits into their schedule, instead of how drawn they are to the topic. I’m pretty sure half the class had no idea what the topic of this class was when they entered on the first day; they just knew they needed a literature course at 3:30 on Mondays and Wednesdays. Anything would do.
Mercifully, the presentation ended, and before the students could pack up and get the hell out of Dodge, I stopped them in their tracks. I stood up at the back of the room where I’d been seated for the presentation. I pointed my finger at them; I bore my gaze into their pitiful little souls. And, voice quivering, I spoke, “Each and every one of you listen to me and listen well. You can do what you just did any day of the week to me or any of my colleagues. But don’t you ever again do it to one of your own, one of your peers, to people who are your friends. And don’t you dare walk back into this classroom on Wednesday or any other day without the textbook in your hand and having read your assignment thoroughly. Waste your money any place out there in the world you care to, but not in this classroom, not around this sacred table. Now take your things and leave before I get angry.” And they did.
I sat down again, alone now in the classroom, and took a deep breath. Oh god, what have I done? I was immediately remorseful. But I was still angry. My heart was beating wildly and I thought I might start crying. All the years of mindfulness practice out the window. How could I lose it like that? I began to make excuses for them, why they might not have been prepared. The course has required a lot of reading and some of them have really struggled to keep up. And it is the end of the term; they are truly overloaded with papers and projects. They are finally thinking about their GPA. They have to cut their losses somewhere, and obviously some of them chose my course in which to do that.
My course. That really hurts. I wanted this course to be the one they enjoyed. The one that inspired them. The one they looked forward to attending because something interesting always takes place. The one that challenged them to consider new ideas and perspectives. I wanted to see them laughing and talking and arguing and genuinely engaged with each other and with me. Yes, with me! I wanted something from them.
And that’s when I got real. I wanted something from them. How funny. Even as I sat there stewing about their behavior, I realized what a hard time I had putting myself into their place. You’ve got it all wrong, Lezlie. Your students are not the ones with the problem. You are. How well have you been able to put yourself in their places, understand their fears, touch their anxieties? This is a literature course, and your job is to help them see how great literature speaks to the very core of their yearnings and fears. Your students are who they are. They are where they are. They are holding life together as best they can, even though they are scared to death. Their faces are stoic not because they don’t care about something, but because they are so afraid to be who they really are, to feel what they really feel, to say what they really think. Someone might not like them if they did that. Someone might challenge them if they did that. Or, god forbid, they might be wrong! They might look foolish. They are battened down in their private bunkers for good reasons. Dangers abound!
But even that kind of thinking is not helpful. I can analyze this generation til the cows come home, and I’m not going to really get at what is going wrong or right within them. I sometimes think that’s their business, not mine. Instead, I began to see that my anger was totally caused by me. I was angry because I wanted them to demonstrate a very specific sort of demeanor in the classroom. This demeanor, I’ve come to realize, is my indicator that they are engaged. They look at the speaker. They answers questions willingly. They smile. They look engaged–that means there is evidence of focus, of thought, of inquiry. Maybe by taking notes, or by asking questions, or by responding to someone else. I realized that my idea of being engaged means that you’re willing to enter into conversation. Not that you’re required to be smart or right, but that you participate. You explore yourself and the self of others. You are curious about people and ideas and the world. These are the markers I have when I’m engaged. But I see these markers in a small minority of students of the millennial generation. They have vacant faces, and unless you show a video of panda bears, those faces are fixed masks. They will reluctantly respond if you call upon them, but they do so in a way that indicates that their terse answer is the final word on the topic and there’s no need to say any more. They see no need to share their thoughts or explore them in public, as I do. And they are amazingly disinterested in the provisional thinking of another person, student or teacher.
And again, I realized, the qualities I’ve wanted to see in them are the qualities I valued when I was a student. They are the qualities I value in my conversations now, professional or personal. But that is my need, not theirs. This was a big moment, an aha moment. I see that it has become important to me to see myself reflected back to me by a group of 19-year olds. Now who’s pitiful? I have a very specific expectation. And clinging to that expectation has caused me strife in the classroom. What would be wrong with letting them be stoic? Let them be unmoved. Or maybe they are not unmoved, maybe they simply keep experience to themselves. Is that so bad? It’s different, but is it less productive? Maybe not. I’m just not sure.
I often begin workshops with a notion I learned from Parker Palmer. I encourage participants to rest in the knowledge that it is possible to get exactly what they need out of the next few hours. It’s a nice way to say to them, and to myself, that each of us has unique and particular needs to fulfill. And the way that is accomplished will be unique and particular for each one of us. Move forward, I suggest, with confidence that the thing you most need to learn or become aware of is at your fingertips waiting for you to grasp it. This is such a generous and expansive way to begin a workshop. So inviting and open to possibility.
And as my awareness returned to the empty classroom I sat in, I wondered where my generosity had gone today. I was suffering because the course was not going the way I wanted it to go. I noted the conditioned tendency to need to blame someone or something. But a few moments of deep breathing helped me remember there is no need for blame at all. And that all I can be responsible for is my own good intention to open minds and hearts to the worthiness of exploring Life’s Big Questions. That’s my job. Just put the material out there and drop any attachment to outcome.
Can I let them be who they are? Can I accept them and the way they interact with the world? Can I take solace in knowing that I have offered them the best I can offer? And they will use that offering when and where it becomes appropriate.
And then, I didn’t feel so bitchy.
Nobody can teach me who I am. You can describe parts of me, but who I am–and what I need–is something I have to find out myself. — Chinua Achebe