In the world of schools, right before a break, everyone becomes stressed out to the point of near insanity. Students and teachers alike are heard laughing maniacally right before they break into sobs. A sea of shoulders sag. We put on weight, or waste away. So when something inspiring happens, news travels.
Yesterday was a good news day.
1. First, my studentfriend Anna brought me a slam poem she had written as her Poverty Project for her humanities class. Anna is sweet, hilarious, and hungry. She likes to come to my office and hunt for snacks. Having determined that her family is upper middle class, I’ve threatened to call her parents and ask them why they don’t ever buy her any food, so she tries to lay off, but sometimes she just can’t resist those fruit cups. She is also a struggling Asian. Her parents want her to be a doctor, but either because she really is lazy, or because she is purposely subverting their Plan for Her Life, she gets mediocre grades. I know she’s smart. She asked to borrow a book over the summer, and actually read it. It was Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic, not a book for slackers. Anyway, she brought me the poem and it was pretty good. It got vague toward the end, but it was an apostrophe to Poverty and pretty effective. I told her to check with her teacher about saying the “Fuck You” part out loud, and wished her well. Later, I heard that her performance was outstanding, the hit of the class. Apparently she teared up halfway through, and her audience got the full effect of how fucked up it is to be poor. Good job, Anna.
2. Later that morning, I attended the presentation of a senior research project. Lincoln prefaced his invitation announcement that morning with the statement that “Studying for finals is for losers,” but he’s actually really accomplished. The senior research projects can be about any topic, as long as you can find academic sources for it. Within the short history of Cultural Studies, you can find academic sources on just about anything, so many times the students will choose superheroes or TV shows or Disney princesses to study. Yeah, these subjects sound lame, especially when we’re talking about high school students. But many of the seniors do a surprisingly good job with them. Lincoln’s subject was Eminem and the Id. Suffice it to say that he set a new standard for the project. His thesis was plausible and he made his argument not only persuasively, but entertainingly, and cleverly. And he was humble about it. Go, Lincoln.
3. Then, there was my waif of a poetry class. It’s not a writing class; rather, we read and analyze and discuss great British and American poetry. But, due either to a misunderstanding about its nature, or the fact that other classes fill up faster, I always end up with a couple of people who actually like poetry and want to learn, and a majority who are stunned to find themselves reading “Whoso List to Hunt,” let alone “The Wasteland.” I try to cheer them up by giving them the option, on one essay, of writing about Phillip Larkin’s “This Be the Poem,” or “Crazy Jane Talks to the Bishop,” but even dirty talk by distinguished poets doesn’t get them interested all on its own.
This year, I have two girls who like poetry and are sensitive; one guy who obscures his smarts in class but comes by my office to talk to me in more depth about what we’ve read; one non-native English speaker who transferred from my other class because he claimed the reading was too hard, but who turned out to analyze literature brilliantly in his papers, the little liar; another voluntarily mute boy who has had behavior problems in the past but also showed up suddenly one morning playing gorgeously in our violin quintet; and three football players. Two of these came into the class a couple of weeks late, having dropped another class in which they got bad grades on their first papers. They got bad grades because they do the bare minimum of work and, well, they aren’t very good at writing. Again, something about the “poetry” class made them think this was all going to be easy.
The football players and I have an interesting relationship. They are inherently competitive, and they are used to getting away with doing little in venues other than the football field. They like to make bets, such as, “Hey, Ms. ____, if I can get this bottle into the trash can from here, you’ll cancel the essay, right?” I say no, and they throw it anyway, and claim to have won the bet. Even when it takes them two tries. I just laugh. They also tried all semester to get me to come to a game. I’ll be honest, as I was with them. I really don’t like sports. And I hate going out at night. And I have a million things to do. But they kept bringing it up. I told them I’d come to a game if all three of them read my novel. One of them actually checked it out of the school library, and surprised me by being able to name the characters. I think he actually read some of it. But the others let him carry that one. Two of them also like to come to class, drop their books, and ask to go to the bathroom. After two days, I naturally told them I thought they could probably manage that some other time. This also became a running joke. One of them started asking in Spanish, as if that would change things. They hopped around pretending they were going to wet their pants. They pretended they loved the arty movie I showed, that I was pretty, and couldn’t possibly be as old as I said I was.
So yesterday, their ballads were due. As I say, it’s not really a writing class, but I try to break up the monotony for them with small projects. I had played them a variety of very cool ballads — House of the Rising Sun, The Ballad of John and Yoko, Tom Dooley, Rocky Racoon, The Long Black Veil, Frankie and Johnny, and Jim Malcolm’s The Party — and asked them to write a simple ballad on the tragic subject of their choice. I was dreading the class in which they were to read the ballads aloud. From the complaining and oddly obtuse questions I had received from the football players, and lack of enthusiasm from most of the others, I was expecting bad work and pretty boring recitations. I thought about canceling, just collecting their written work and analyzing a poem in class instead of hearing the song/poems recited out loud, but the students really needed to be pushed, even if the results weren’t great. So I steeled myself.
Well, the ballads were uneven in quality, but the class was entertaining as hell. We agreed they could exchange poems and read one another’s aloud so it was less embarrassing; I even told them they could take a pass if it was just too excruciating. Then I agreed (bottle missed the wastebasket, but it was a good idea anyway) to give a little extra credit if they actually sang their work. My favorite penultimate moment was when one of the players sang his take on MacGruber. But the real success of the day was the violin player, the guy who never said anything in class. He sang (and sang well) his story of Ed Gein, the serial killer. And the ballad was perfect. It sounded like something Pete Seeger wrote.
I left class in a hugely better mood, and had one more success to add to the hallway news system.
Thanks, students! You da mans.