A student-teacher tries to explain the literary term, Irony, to his class.
|Whatever you do, don’t look at her chest. Don’t do it or your career will end before it even begins. You’ve worked too hard, going to classes, teaching classes, doing homework, giving homework. The last thing you need now is a rumor going around school that the student-teacher is not only green, but a pervert, too. Don’t look.
“Yes Charlene, what can I help you with?”
Okay, now squat down so you’re not hovering over her like some vulture over a piece of road kill. Kids don’t like that, they never did. Squat from the side, so that you don’t seem too imposing, but are still there to help. Look her in the eye. Smile. They say in your graduate classes that helping a student at eye level makes a difference. It shows that you are there to help because you’re not standing over them, in a place of dominance, your equals. It shows that you care about their situation personally and will do everything in your power to help them succeed, or whatever. Standing over-their-head, too authoritarian; from-the-side, just a nice teacher man trying to help out.
Here, in the public school system, you have to walk on eggshells, like some sort of politician. You are told by your professors to meet the right administrators. "Shake their hands, but don’t look too eager. They could be the ones who give you your first job," they say, "Say words like, 'differentiation,' 'scaffolding,' 'collaboration.' They like these words—it means that you’re a good teacher." You say to yourself that understanding rhetoric doesn’t mean you’re a good teacher. It means you know educational buzz words, that’s all. You never wanted to go into politics. You want to teach literature. You want to inspire. You want to be Robin Williams in The Dead Poet’s Society. Oh Captain! My Captain! Seize the day, and all that. You want to stand on your desk.
“I don’t get this poem at all,” she says, “It’s too hard.” She sits back, clasps her hands behind the chair. She chews her gum loudly. Schools should have never gotten rid of that rule. Who made that concession?
Consider the poem. Consider Charlene’s struggle with understanding her assignment. That’s what you’re being trained to do for God’s sake. Consider what your professor says about making this stuff relevant to their lives. They say, “Make it relevant to their lives. Look the student in the eye. Relate to them. Then write it down in your learning pathway and reflect on it. You get credit for that.”
Consider what your mentor teacher tells you. She says, “Teaching comes with experience. Don’t work yourself to death because, then, you’ll just have to keep on working harder and harder. It will be expected of you. They’ll take advantage of you. Work smart. Give the students something to chew over, to stew about. Make sure they are continually questioning.” She says stressing about every student is only useful to receive a piece of paper that says you can teach. Those graduate school requirements are all just hoops to jump through. Real teachers don’t actually write lesson plans or worry about designing handouts. They go home, take care of their cat, play with their dog, or spend time with their kids. “You have a prep period for that,” she says, “When you’ve been teaching as long as I have, you won’t need to write lesson plans. It all stays up here.” Thank her for the advice.
Come back to Charlene. Her assignment is a poem by Robert Frost. You have written essays in college on how Frost utilizes imagery to capture the deepest emotions from the reader. You have been exposed to his distinguished quality of writing, the constant debate. What was it? That’s right, it’s that elusive comma. “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep.” Or is it “the woods are lovely, dark and deep”? In college you talked about the change in cadence and how a simple comma could alter the soul of the poem. Which version was the mistake? Did it matter? What was Frost’s intention? You could go on for hours about Frost, if Charlene would listen and find it interesting. But Charlene wouldn’t listen for more than thirty seconds before tuning you out completely; the same amount of time it takes to watch a television commercial.
The poem before you, however, is “The Road Not Taken.” It’s a beautiful poem, still during his early period. You know this poem well. It’s one of the many poems that you had to read in middle school, high school, and again in college. You have this poem memorized. It’s a perfect example of metaphor about personal choice, the inevitability of repeating ones mistakes, the constant remorse of looking back on ones life and knowing the mundane is unavoidable.
“What question do you have trouble with,” you ask.
“Okay, let’s look at the poem together,” you say in your most reassuring tone. You think the question is relatively simple, but you can see why Charlene has trouble with it.
It asks: Identify in Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” where irony is used. How does this use of irony change the way Frost intends the reader to respond to the poem?
Ah yes, that ironic “sigh.” You remember your class in college where the entire two hours of one period was spent discussing that “sigh” and how it changed the poem, gave it more depth than the countless Hallmark cards and people’s common misunderstandings of Frost’s “Two Roads” metaphor as a suggestion to be individualistic. You remember the excitement in your voice when contributing to the debate, the nervousness you felt venturing into the depths of analysis, the exhilaration of intellectual discussion that consumed you and made you feel light as you walked out of the classroom. But Charlene doesn’t care about that. She just wants to finish this question so she can move on to the next, ultimately completing the assignment, getting credit for the assignment, and continuing to text her friend under the desk. You sigh from that realization.
Read through the poem aloud and ask her where she can see a change in tone?
She looks at you cockeyed.
You ask whether she knows what irony is.
She waits until she realizes its okay to admit ignorance. “No” she says.
She doesn’t know irony? Irony, come on, the cornerstone of the modernist movement, and the magnificent dramatic and satiric tone of Shakespeare. It’s possibly one of the greatest literary devices, if you had to choose. The change in the writers voice, most dramatically seen in World War One literature, to show disillusionment; the great war poets; Owen, Sassoon; anti-war literature; the “lost generation,” just to name a few. No one taught you irony?
“That’s okay, I’ll help you,” you say. Your mind races for ways to make it comprehensible, to make it relevant. Alanis Morissette? No, bad example.
“I don’t get it either,” another student says, then another, and another. A wave of confessions ripples through the classroom. Don’t panic, this is what your professor calls, “a teachable moment.” You go to the front of the class. You ask the students, to clarify; "So, no one knows what irony is or how to identify it in this poem?" A resounding “Yes." You get a dry-erase marker and turn to the white-board.
Begin by writing the word on the board, and then give them a plain definition. Write: An outcome of events contrary to what was, or might be, expected. “When words say one thing but mean the other,” you say out loud.
One student says, “Oh, like when your boyfriend says you look good in a pair of jeans, when you know you totally don’t.”
Well, no, not exactly.
Another student says, “When my parents say, ‘Do as I say, not as I do’”
No, not quite.
A student in the back says, “You mean lying. Are you teaching us to lie?”
No, of course I’m not. “Irony isn’t lying,” you say, “it’s when you’re stranded in the middle of the ocean and die of dehydration. ‘Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.’”
“It’s when a soldier gets injured from a battle. He should get a ticket home from his injury, but a rule states that that same soldier isn’t allowed to fly out because of the severity of his wounds.”
“That’s stupid,” a student says.
“Irony is when Romeo kills himself because he thinks Juliet is dead when she is just unconscious. Then Juliet wakes up and sees that Romeo has killed himself, she then stabs herself in the heart because she can’t live without him.”
The students look confused. “Is that a joke?” one asks. “It’s not very funny.”
"You don't know Romeo and Juliet?" you ask.
Another says with disgust, “I would never kill myself for no man.”
“You’re missing the point." Make it comprehensible. "It’s like when Luke Skywalker realizes that Darth Vader is his father.”
A student cups his mouth and says in a booming voice, “Luke, I am your father.” The class laughs.
“Irony is when a government starts a war in order to keep the peace.”
Still nothing. They stare blankly.
You become exasperated by the blank stares. They see your exasperation. They are amused by it. Turn around and face the board. Write the quote from Frost’s poem: “I shall be telling this with a sigh/somewhere ages and ages hence.” Begin telling the students about how Frost isn’t telling us through his poem to choose a road, as if one were better than the other. Tell them that it’s not the choice that matters, but his “sigh” indicates that he realizes that by placing value on one road or the other, he would ultimately be insincere. He can’t, with a clear conscience, tell us to take a certain road without second guessing himself, and yet, he says it anyway.
Before you fully explain there is muffled laughter throughout the class. You can feel it just as pungently as a knife in your stomach. You get angry that they won’t follow your lead. You turn around and with irritation you snap at them. They continue to chuckle. One student points at the board. Another student says, “Doesn’t the word “telling” have two L’s?”
Turn around and look for yourself. You have misspelled a word, an easy word, and they are laughing at your mistake. That same students says, “Irony is when you go to school to be a teacher and you still can’t spell.” The class laughs.
Look down. Remember what your mentor teacher said, “Don’t take yourself too seriously, you’ll just get bitter, and no student can learn from a bitter teacher.” Look up and smile.
“That’s right, Brandon. That’s irony,” you say.