Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Singular Sanctimony

 “Tim, I miss your philosophy, blogs, and intelligent words of wisdom. Please…remotivate/rejuvenate. Love you brother!”
Craig Smith, the REAL Mr. Science

The quote above was sent to me as a comment on something I posted on a well-known Social Media site. The author of the quote is a friend of mine, and proof of the ideal of shared experience is a definitive avenue toward friendship. We are “friends” on this site and became so as a result of working as school teachers at the same school. I was a neophyte in the wonderful calling that is school teaching, and he was a longtime veteran of the war that has mutated into what has been called the American Educational System. We are polar opposites in much of our lives, politically, socially (outside social media), pastimes, and life experience.

What we have in common, however, is the drive, love, and unerring dedication to what most teachers call “Our Kids.” We also share the sadness of not being allowed to teach. At least not so we could; “impart knowledge to or instruct (someone) as to how to do something” as the Oxford Dictionary states. Instead we were exiled into the nether region that is teaching to the test. This is a paradigm, also according to the Oxford dictionary, where we “teach students using methods intended primarily to improve their performance on an examination rather than to enhance their understanding of a subject.”

This, as my friend knows well, is the current accepted system with which to assess students. What this accomplishes is a society that believes competition is more important than knowledge. Where sports heroes, and hip hop artists are heroes and astronauts are not. Where working the cash register at a convenience store or a fast food restaurant requires the computerized register to tell them how to give change for a dollar. How asking a simple question of any sort elicits a universal “I don’t know” response. Even for queries as to what they wish to eat for dinner, or where the rest room is.

I jump on this soap box as a result of an experience I recently endured. I met a young man at a coffee shop who was sitting with what one could assume was his girlfriend. They had books and laptops open and appeared to be studying. The girl suddenly, in a frustrated tone, asks how he could not know whatever they were studying. (Reference the “I don’t know” reply) The young lady stares intently at her companion and, shaking her head, demands her payment as their time was at an end. She was counting the money she received while admonishing the kid to refrain from calling until he “gave a shit.”

I chuckled at the situation and went back to my large pumpkin spiced latte. My coffee companion also smirked and, with a devilish look in his eyes, told the kid that I was a retired teacher and could probably help.

My current area of endeavor is, as you might guess, as a writer and my thoughts and feelings, personally and professionally, lean towards the creative. I frowned at the kid and decided to be generous with my talents (or lack thereof) and asked the young man what his problem was. He informed me that he had to take this remedial math course before he could take the real class that would give him the credit he needed to continue on at the junior college he was attending. I had been a Special Education teacher so this did not appear challenging. At least I hope it did not. I was as and am somewhat of a liberal arts aficionado.

He showed me his equation which appeared simple; X+3=5x4, solve for X. simple even on the simian level I dwell. I asked him what the problem might be. He replied that the x or the y always screwed him up. Letters weren’t numbers and don’t they really belong in words?

I launched into a short diatribe of the use of letters, called variables, in equations to make it easier to make and solve more complex equations. I was on shaky ground past that (I got c’s in most college math courses) but pressed on. I showed him several problems and how to solve them and why the answer came to be. I stopped short of quadratic equations which are and will always be perplexing and confounding. My coffee companion smirked and frowned at me letting me know that what I shared with the kid made a lot of sense. The kid sat there with a pair of eyes one might see in a morgue. Frustrated I turned sardonic by asking my soon not to be student what 1+1=.

He asked me if he could use his calculator and what were the multiple choices available to him.

I had no feeling in my extremities. I stared at him only to realize that he had been earnest in his request. He held what looked to be quite an expensive scientific calculator which, I was sure, he might not know where the on/off button might be. My companion told me that we needed to leave. I stammered for the kid to study the work we had done and good luck. As we were leaving my coffee buddy held up a napkin on which I had been doodling that showed the words “DON’T BE SARDONIC!” and asked me what sardonic meant.

This experience has stayed with me for about a month. I think the comment from my friend and mentor Mr. Science inspired and drove this discourse and for that I thank him. I remember he would, take his kids outside when the weather permitted and do science experiments. Every kid looked and acted engaged. I followed his lead and would take my kids outside and read them short stories of adventure, action, honor, and equality. Other folks at the school would ask me what I was doing and I would just smile and look over at my friend shooting potato guns and blowing things up with laundry detergent and glass beakers. I don’t know how much sitting outside helped my students, but if it was good enough for a 20+ year Teacher of the Year it might just be good enough for me.

Thank you Mr. Smith!

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