Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Effort

Working with high school teachers on the spring musical is interesting; I have more respect for what they do and, oddly, even less tolerance.

On the one hand, I admire how these teachers work--I've imitated them by getting myself a loose-leaf binder and a hole punch, so I can keep the papers the kids give me (like their short biographies for the program) in order and as easily accessible as the rehearsal schedule and the sheet music for each song.  They are organized people; they come to rehearsal with a plan and God help anyone--even another teacher--who might try to influence that plan once they get going.

On the other hand, I find the teachers rigid and unhearing.  It amazes me how patient the kids are with being ordered around and told to sit down and shut up all day and then all evening, too.  I know they have some good ideas that are being lost in the chaos of banal chatter that they're shushed for, but I also know that they could easily fritter away the entire two-hour rehearsal chattering, and so being told what to do--told exactly what to see as black, and what as white--is the most expedient kind of guidance for them, even thought it's not the most penetrating.

The experience makes me less snotty, a little less like the speaker of this Billy Collins poem about high school teachers:

The Effort

Would anyone care to join me
in flicking a few pebbles in the direction
of teachers who are fond of asking the question:
"What is the poet trying to say?"

as if Thomas Hardy and Emily Dickinson
had struggled but ultimately failed in their efforts--
inarticulate wretches that they were,
biting their pens and staring out the window for a clue.

Yes, it seems that Whitman, Amy Lowell
and the rest could only try and fail,
but we in Mrs. Parker's third-period English class
here at Springfield High will succeed

with the help of these study questions
in saying what the poor poet could not,
and we will get all this done before
that orgy of egg salad and tuna fish known as lunch.

Tonight, however, I am the one trying
to say what it is this absence means,
the two of us sleeping and waking under different roofs.
The image of this vase of cut flowers,

not from our garden, is no help.
And the same goes for the single plate,
the solitary lamp, and the weather that presses its face
against these new windows--the drizzle and the morning frost.

So I will leave it up to Mrs. Parker,
who is tapping a piece of chalk against the blackboard,
and her students--a few with their hands up,
others slouching with their caps on backwards--

to figure out what it is I am trying to say
about this place where I find myself
and to do it before the noon bell rings
and that whirlwind of meatloaf is unleashed.

I think this poem is about complication and the kind of incoherence it can cause, and about how high school teachers are often more interested in presenting a coherent point of view than in exploring why it's sometimes so hard to say something "straight out," why we write poetry to trace the almost incomprehensible path of one seam in an infinitude of possibly gold-bearing seams in the great, dark mine that is high school.

"Inarticulate wretches" that we all are, I think we sometimes forget that even people who can't express a point of view well still have one, and we run the rink of bellying through our daily jobs believing that if only everyone would see things the way we do, the world would be a better--or at least a more comprehensible--place.


FreshHell said...

Agreed. And it's what gives me patience with Red most days because despite all the noise that comes out of her, there are things too bottled up inside that she wants to express but can't yet.

bermudaonion said...

I so admire anyone who teaches high school. I think their job has become more difficult and allows little freedom (for them or their students) because of the government.

Harriet M. Welsch said...

Not just the government. Parents too. And those are the good one, the one who are paying attention. The behavior issues in high schools alone give me sympathy for classroom rigidity. But I'm definitely sympathetic to the kids. I was one of those kids who was in the musical every year. I remember our director well (although I can't seem to remember her name). We all thought she was a little crazy (in a good way), maybe in part because she wasn't so big on rules as long as we weren't hurting ourselves or each other, and because she did ask what we thought about things. The change from classroom behavior (or, in my case, orchestral behavior as well) was part of what we loved about it.

Anonymous said...

Ha. This poem cracks me up.

Teachers -- it's a very hard job, and some of them are just great, but certainly at least some of them are the most rigid, unsympathetic and unimaginative people I have ever ever met. Ugh.

Jenners said...

I really like Billy Collins. He is so accessible. And I love how you manage to find a poem to fit almost any circumstance.

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

Oh, high school. I definitely relate to the speaker in the poem and the frustration about always trying to make things coherent.

Jeanne said...

FreshHell, that's very much the feeling I have about these high schoolers--some of them are like Red; there's so much inside it all fountains out indiscriminately and at inappropriate times. It can take the patience of a saint to listen and try to sort out the gold from the dross.

What I object to is teachers who get in the habit of being controlled all the time and can't make an exception for moments of passion or pathos.

Kathy, that's true, too. Even permission to work on this short musical took months because of all the bureaucracy and paperwork.

Harriet, the other music director is new to directing--she's terrific at teaching music, but by day she's a special ed/special needs teacher. It must be hard to switch gears.

Readersguide, the ones who get rigid over the years are the ones that make me saddest, because many of them started out as moderately empathetic people, but they let the kids get to them and wear them down.

Jenners, finding a poem to fit every occasion is a combination of rereading and remembering.

I like remembering poems--it's near to memorizing, which I've also done without really planning to do it.

Most weeks, though, I go through poems looking for one to post that week and then I see one that reminds me of something that's going on in my life. That was the case with this Billy Collins one, because all of the sudden I read it differently.

Kim, sometimes letting things stay complicated in your head for a while is good, but as Kathy points out, that can be hard to do when you're being evaluated on how you teach to standardized tests.

Jenny said...

Huh, Billy Collins really has a thing about interpreting poetry. I liked "Introduction to Poetry" but reading it together with this makes Billy Collins seem a little mean-spirited.