The Surface Is a Warm Blanket

I made the stupid mistake of taking all the exams I had written in my classes into the holidays for correcting. Normally, I try to get them done as fast as possible and to not take too much with me in the holidays, but this time there was just no other way. Getting through those four piles of exams, I couldn’t help but notice some patterns and have some thoughts that are partially troubling to me. Here they are.

The exams were written in different classes (from year 9 to 12) and had different topics (feminism, Australia, Max Frisch’s Andorra about prejudice and persecution and Igor Bauersima’s about suicide). Still, my thoughts seemed to repeat themselves and one often was: “Why don’t they go deeper? Why do they stay on the surface?” Looking beneath the surface (or behind the curtain) is one of my main ideals as a teacher that can be taught with almost any subject matter. Don’t just look at the exterior, question the outside and dig deeper to find any meaning hidden within that construct.

But what if my ideal is the problem? What if I’m expecting too much? What if the students are not interested in digging deeper? What if they are happy with the surface? Those questions really haunt me right now to the point that I question my abilities as a teacher.

I sketched before how Dead Poets Society really influenced me in wanting to be a teacher. One reason is that the character of John Keating is so successful in influencing his students. Not all of them, but most of them. Their lives are changed. That’s what I wanted to achieve. But… this is a movie. It’s fiction. It’s a fantasy. For one thing, I’m not a teacher in the 50s in an extremely conservative boarding school (though I still think not that much has changed). I’m also not played by Robin Williams but by me, a clearly less charismatic, funny and brilliant person.

Another problem is that students are really often not interested in questioning something, in straying from their laid out path, instructed to them by parents and teachers and society all their life. They cling to it because they are told, that is what you have to do. It’s scary to leave that path and look what else is out there. What if you get lost? What will others say? Just yesterday, I discussed in a class why students are often so critical of characters who are passionate and emotional. One student said, because they are afraid to show their emotions in public because it stigmatizes them as a weirdo. There is a lot of fear in the minds of our children and youths of doing the wrong, the not-normative thing. Another student said it’s hard to want to change something because no one talks about real alternatives, so it’s easier to rely on what everyone is doing (part of this prompted me to write The Problem).

The combination of those two things, fear and thereby unwillingness of students to probe deeper and that I’m not as great as John Keating, results in my current frustration. I’m, again, not blaming the students for anything because it’s not their fault. I’m only somewhat blaming me for having too big ideals and hopes, but I feel that I need those to go on.

In the end, hope lies in what also inspired me many, many years ago to follow this path, the words of Daniel Quinn in his novel My Ishmael:

“All of you must be teachers, whether you're lawyers, doctors, stockbrokers, filmmakers, industrialists, world leaders, students, fry cooks, or street cleaners. Nothing less than a world of changed minds is going to save you — and changing minds is something every single one of you can do, no matter who you are or how you're situated. […] Of course there's nothing wrong with reaching a hundred, but if you can't reach a hundred, then reach ten. And if you can't reach ten, then reach one — because that one may reach a million."

I know I have reached more than one by now. Definitely not a hundred. And I see at least one person in one or another class being somewhat changed, wanting to go out and do something. And sometimes this feels little compared dozens of class tests full of superficial observations. But, yes, maybe that one person is enough. Maybe it’s you. Or you. Until then, I try to overcome my current weariness and continue to let it be me.