A Promise to the Students of an Uncool Teacher

It's the first day of the new school year. We started a week late this year because of furloughs. All this talk lately about lackluster teaching, insufficient test scores, and struggling kids slipping through the cracks of failing schools; yet the district goes and lops off a week's worth of school days. I digress. My mind has already begun to wander. Perhaps it's the silence: Not five minutes into the new school year, and I've already assigned my juniors an in-class essay, for which most of them don't even have paper. I know that look they're giving me, too. The kids call it mad-dogging. I call it staring daggers. I get it every year, at the exact moment when they come to the stark realization that I'm serious about them doing meaningful work. Somehow, they've been duped. They've heard from someone -- a friend, sibling, second cousin -- that I'm nice, cool, "kick back". And yet it's five minutes into the first day of school -- the academic demilitarized zone of the school year -- and they're already being forced to plumb the depths of their still somnambulant cerebra. Some of them double-check their program cards, just to verify that they haven't strayed into Ben Stein's bungalow.

Their eyes say it all: This can't be him. I thought he was supposed to be cool.

I'm not cool -- not really. I'll drive them hard, teach them how to write with cohesion, cogence, logos. And then I'll show them how to develop a writer's voice, how to break away from the abysmally insipid five-paragraph manacles to which they've been collectively shackled since seventh grade.

Oh, and keep your No. 2 pencils inside your backpacks; no need for them here. There'll be no bubbling, no multiple choice-ing, no false-hoping that you can narrow your choices down by half if you just eliminate the two dumbest possibilities. It'll be uncomfortable at first. Most change is. You'll hear yourself utter sentences you'd never thought possible, like, "If we're really good today, can we take a Scantron instead?"

No. You can't. Scantron's are amateur night.

But you'll need pens for sure. Lots of them -- to write all of those essays. And you'll need plenty of highlighters to annotate all of the books we'll read. Full-length books -- not excerpts or anecdotes or brief, sanitized musings squeezed into insipid 87-pound literature anthologies that have done more to alienate kids from books than XBox 360, Facebook, and pot combined.

And I realize that it says American Lit. and Comp on your program card, but we'll read all kinds of books. Ones that burn like acid and ones that heal and nurture like a mother's embrace -- ones that are also mostly estranged from the high school literary canon. You'll read books that capture and distill the human condition, that pry your eyes open to the lives and realities beyond our own. (You have every damn right to be as enriched, worldly, and culturally literate as any of the most elite private school kids, whose academic curricula are impervious to the drudgery of mandatory testing schedules.) Books are the great social equalizer in that they can transport anyone around the world, regardless of race or economic wherewithal. Reading "Enrique's Journey", "The Bookseller of Kabul", "The Omnivore's Dilemma", "Always Running", "Night", "Siddartha", "The Kite Runner", "First They Killed My Father", "Say You're One of Them", "Fastfood Nation", "Through a Window", "The Invisible Man" and Plato's "Republic" will hopefully get you at least halfway there.

Never heard of any of them? Good. All the better. That way, there'll be no preconceived notions or false expectations, much like the ones I see dashed on your faces right now.

I thought he was supposed to be cool.

Sure, we'll probably read some Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, and Salinger -- all of whom I love -- but we'll save the dead white guys for last, just in case our class time's further truncated by even more standardized test prep, furlough days, or campus lockdowns.

I'm not saying any of this, of course. It's all contained in the syllabus, which they'll receive tomorrow. They'll want to spend the whole period going over that, too, for no other reason than to further put off the expectation of them to do actual work. But I'll tell them to read it on their own time and to approach me individually with any questions or concerns. Most won't do either.

They're still glaring at me, still replete with sullen bait-and-switch resentment. It's okay: they'll get over it.

They don't need me to be cool, to avail their day with faux sunshine and syrupy smiles, to tell them everything they want to hear, to shower them with tired platitudes and trite aphorisms, to inform them that they're all great exactly the way they are. Because it's a lie. Some of them need to make dramatic changes -- and fast. Eleventh grade is one of the flashpoints of a person's academic existence, and some of my students have somehow slogged through five years of middle and high school without ever cracking a book or scrawling a note. These are the kids who jolt to nervous attention when I announce the first rule of my class: No heads down on desks, under any circumstances. (Judging from their body language, the offending rule was tantamount to suggesting that our government should place a moratorium on summer recess, texting, pizza day, Christmas, and oversized black hoodies.)

Many more of my other students view high school as little more than a cumbersome right of passage, acknowledging its necessity but viewing it as a mostly pointless series of inconveniences. They're not entirely wrong, but my goal is to make it less inane, to give them ample opportunities to accumulate knowledge that endures beyond these doors of what they perceive as hollow temporality -- in essence, to enable them to see that their futures are happening right now.

I use the craft of teaching to fortify them with learning tools and imbue them with a sense of urgency. Critics of the profession, many of whom currently identify themselves with the "reformist" meme, maintain that this is standard procedure, and therefore should be slam-dunk easy for any teacher. But the truth is, if most of them ventured to accomplish what I -- and many of my colleagues -- attempt to accomplish for one full school day, they would awaken the following morning feeling like they had just rushed for 30 carries against the Baltimore Ravens defense. Think I'm exaggerating? Go ahead and try it -- for one full day. The occupation of real teaching requires bottomless amounts of energy, mental acuity, caring, and passion. There are no cubicles to retreat to, no "hold my calls," and few restroom breaks. And the job is literally never finished (as I glance at the already daunting stack of essays on my desk). Yet, as I look into this sea of temporary resentment in front of me, I couldn't imagine my life without it.

I am a mentor, a teacher, but not a friend. (Isn't that what Facebook's for?) I'm not interested in niceness. Fairness is another story. Equity. Justice. These kids, many of whom have the opportunity to be the first ones in their family to attend college, should all be entitled to not President Obama's view of a world-class education, which involves exhaustive standardized testing prep and expertise in bubble-filling, but my view (which I share with some truly exceptional colleagues), which incorporates critical thinking with advanced literacy and writing skills and, ultimately, a more holistic, ethical and informed world view. Bubble that.

Although I'm not cool, every so often, I'm funny. I crack daft, self-deprecating jokes, occasionally belt out obscure, off-key, 80s pop hits (Kim Wilde, anyone?) and dole out heaping amounts of high-fives and exploding fist bumps. But that'll all come later. That is, if I ever get of this room with all of my limbs intact.