The author is privileged to observe a master at work.
|Born To Run
(with a tip of the proverbial allegorical hat to Bruce Springsteen and the regular hat to Rick Warren)
Be assured there is a story we'll get to after a bit of musing. (It's the price you pay.) Rick Warren spends a whole lot of pages in The Purpose Driven Life telling people to do a good job at what they are born to do. His assumption is that folks who do what they are born to do will achieve satisfaction and perform at a high level. He may not explicitly opine that all humans are born to do something productive but that is certainly implicit in his work.
Mr. Springsteen on the other hand, in the song, Born To Run, seems to be telling us, through a mishmash of disconnected images, thoughts, and scenes that he, and presumably others, are born to “run.” Judging by the content, he means some humans are hard-wired to be misfits, rebels, ne'er-do-wells, masochists, sociopaths, or otherwise counter-productive to society.
A discussion between the two authors is very much in order. How, for instance, would Warren have us deal with those born to “run”? He probably would not agree that, if one is hard wired to sociopathy, he should be the very best at that endeavor. Or maybe he would.
Fortunately, the protagonist who brings this digression to mind is not a sociopath. He is a person born to teach and the few words you read here are about him and the pleasure derived from observing a master instructor at work. His name is Parsifal Smith-Hill. (Would I lie to you? I've wondered if he's related to Sam Hill.)
Picture a tall, long-haired-with-pony-tail, rough-country or trail bicyclist, ex-technical mountain climber, flintlock enthusiast, hunter, canoeist, regular-but-not-constant pipe-smoker, lover of fine whiskey, ice-cream aficionado (“Ice cream is a staple and one of the basic food groups.”), iconoclastic fellow, sporting a Ph.D. in English Literature armed with a teaching certificate. Further picture him deliberately choosing to teach in a school offering the maximum challenge—the largest Indian high school on one of the largest Indian reservations in the United States. A school with students having no heritage of rigorous scholarship, with a culture of conformity rather than individual achievement, a history and even expectation of low academic success, coming out of homes where a mishmash of native language and pidgin English is spoken, and a high incidence of alcohol dependence with all the abuses that accompany it.
The culture of conformity is illustrated by a story of an Anglo and an Indian fishing side by side. Each had an open container of identical-looking earthworms but the Anglo had a terrible time because the worms, one after another, climbed out and threatened escape while the other had no such problem whatsoever. The Anglo asked his companion why his worms didn't even attempt escape. He explained that his were Indian worms. When one would make a move to climb out, the others would pull him back.
It is a measure of the man that he signed a contract to teach in middle school in Chinle, Arizona, having only traveled through the place once many years before. He arrived and, in response to the environs, thought, “Holy Toledo, what have I done?” The appearance of the area made it disheartening. Not prepossessing is a severe understatement. The antithesis of Home and Garden story material is more accurate. Dusty, arid, a desert, down-at-the-heels, dogs running loose, tumbleweedy, evidence of blowing sand, with dirty cars, pickups, and buildings everywhere are ubiquitous. Many signs are hand-lettered. Many are in Navajo. It's not the end of the earth but you can see it off in the distance. “Dress-up” for men is interpreted to mean a mostly clean and jeans with boots that are not terribly scuffed.
He taught English in the middle school for three or four years. Results weren't long in showing up. First, his classes were popular. Students wanted to take his classes because he made learning a joy. He connected with students very well. In addition to regular classroom work he was asked to coach a group of students to take the AIMS test (Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards) which is a requirement to graduate from one level to the next. It is the latest in a long string of the shibboleths or manias in the field of education that arrive regularly one after the other like waves onto the shore. Each one is sold by snake-oil-salesmen-posing-as-educators as a panacea and is presented with a gilt-edged guarantee adoption will result in graduating all students with above average scores, each of whom possess the golden keys to the good life. Those who whole-heartedly adopt each magic solution in turn also tend to believe in the tooth fairy, the check is in the mail, and “this won't hurt at all.” Every such golden idea has been propounded, adopted, found to have as high a failure rate as the previous one and has unceremoniously been dumped and replaced by the next wonder of wonders. This particular version has resulted in teachers being pummeled and cajoled into teaching nothing but material that will probably be on the test. It erroneously distorts education and leads people to believe that students who know what is on the test are educated.
Students on the reservaton had a record of terribly high failure rates in the essay portion of the test. Every single student of his passed the test. It was an eye-popping achievement for anyone let alone a “new” teacher. Ask him how he did it and the response was, “I told them to forget all that grammar crap and sentence structure balderdash that had been drilled into them. I taught and drilled them to write ideas in plain, simple English and to plan what they wanted to say in response to the prompt or question. They then were taught to write their thoughts out in simple declarative sentences.” BINGO!! No mumbo jumbo. It's simple.
One of the results of his work in the school was requests by parents whose children had done so well under his tutelage in middle school to get him to teach at the high school. Eventually he and the high school principal agreed and he moved with the agreement that he would try to get college level courses approved by the College Board. The result? He's been teaching in Chinle, Arizona for about ten years. He's been voted best teacher every single year. He teaches four college level (commonly called “AP” for “Advanced Placement”) courses that he maintains are as rigorous as those most college juniors take. Students from his English classes attend Ivy League universities, PAC 10 schools, Creighton University, and the like. He coaches students in preparation for their AIMS tests with a very high success rate. He tells his students that, among other things, they will be able to get free rides to the school of their choice based on grades and ethnicity. He's proud as a papa of his students, maintains contact and offers support after they leave.
How does he achieve these results? He says every class begins with a “feeling out” time where he and the students come to an understanding of what behavior and language will be allowed in the classroom and what will not. He makes sure parents of his students know there will be, at the very least, unusual subjects discussed in the classroom because he does not censure the subjects of the literature covered. Literature deals with life and there are unfortunate, ugly, unfair and even gross events in it. He is always truthful. He NEVER talks down to students, he allows and encourages them to criticize and think freely. He allows them to use their vernacular and he uses it as well. He concentrates on what is best for the student. He does not lock his door which allows even tardy students to attend.
Watching him in action suggests additional factors. It is nothing short of a treat to sit through his classes and observe the interaction. One quickly gains the impression that he genuinely likes the kids and gets a kick out of their success and achievements. There is no question about who is in charge but there is an unusual level of mutual respect. He accepts a certain level of teasing and teases back without malice or rancor. When answers to his posed questions were wrong or insufficient, his response was always along the lines of “and what else is true?” or “what more can we say about this?” He never criticized a thought or thinker. No subject was taboo. Some would be quite critical of some of the words he used and allowed the students to use. Balls, hell, damn, screw, the f word, and more were likely to be heard. It was as though the world and it's contents were the subject and, in his class, it was all there in glorious living color.
His first class of the day was Advanced Placement English literature. About fifty minutes into the period during a discussion of some of the fine details of personality characteristics in Pride and Prejudice, a male student walked in the open door and headed toward the nearest empty desk. Our instructor interrupted the discussion, turned toward the latecomer and in a stern voice came out with, “Why in the bloody hell are you coming to class now?” I held my breath.
Without batting an eye, using a mild, matter-of-fact, soft-answer-turneth-away-wrath, “you-asked-the-question-so-I'll-answer-it-as-asked” voice, the kid responded, “Ten minutes of quality education.” The class erupted with smiles, guffaws, laughter and chuckles of appreciation at the repartee—and the discussion resumed. It was a magic moment.
Not only would most teachers have lectured the miscreant about being on time, many of them would have forced the kid to the school office before being allowed to enter the class room because most teachers close and lock their doors to keep latecomers out. Doing so pokes a virtual thumb in the eye of the tardy student. His philosophy is that any time in the classroom is better for the student than none and he's there to help the students.
It would be a safe bet that most of the teachers in the school can't wait for the week to end. Our instructor can't wait for Monday. He was born to teach instead of run.