Friday, December 09, 2005

Not Part of the Lesson Plan

Well, this was a new one on me.

Have you ever found yourself thrown together with a group that was basically dysfunctional? A bunch of people that collectively was just disruptive? The problems couldn’t be pinned on just a few people. There was something about the way they worked together somehow. Or worked against each other. A sum greater than its parts, in a way. In a bad way.

Yeah, so that’s my afternoon commercial art class. For two hours, five afternoons a week, I help to create a monster. Most of the students are in other classes of mine too, and none of them is reall a problem. And you guys know me. Would you ever think I was part of a bad crowd … other than yourselves I mean. But get the lot of us together, and we flagrantly and regularly break rules, talk out of turn, interrupt lectures, make inane requests, and—always, always, always—“talk with our neighbor.”

Our teacher Mr. Anson gets mad at us almost every day. Sometimes he sends people to the principal. Sometimes he suspends minor privileges or assigns ridiculous assignments in frustration. We never fail to piss him off, and we’ve gotten used to the way his face turns a very dark red when he’s really angry. We recognize what it means when his voice cracks slightly. We’ve become very familiar with the degrees of his anger over the course of this year.

So when we all came in to class at two today, we were surprised that Mr. Anson had planned a kind of “encounter session” for us. We all had to push our work tables to one side and pull up chairs in a big circle. Then he got down to it.

The whole year, he said, had been getting “worse and worse and worse.” We all needed to talk about that. He was going to talk while we listened, and then he would listen while we talked. We would fix this thing together, he said. We had to. It couldn’t go on like it had been, so we were all going to fix it together.

So we did like he said. He went over all the usual problems with our “getting out of hand.” He named a lot of events. Becky and Tonya and Melissa gossiping all the time. Doug and Robert humming heavy metal songs back and forth at each other. That one afternoon when almost everybody asked for special permission to go to the restroom … which we knew was kind of against the rules but that he felt like he had to keep giving into after making a couple of exceptions. Shavonda and Marquita’s way of asking random questions just to break their own boredom during still-life drawing exercises. I was kind of surprised at how many examples there were. I wish I’d been taking notes, because some of them were funnier than I remembered. But after about half an hour, he finally finished and invited us to talk.

After all that, though, nobody really wanted to talk. A couple of people who felt like lesser offenders made some vague comments. I didn’t know what to say. Then some more people started to pipe up about the problems with our teacher-class interaction. Some of what they said was a little stupid (“I just don’t feel like I’m at home, you know what I mean?”), some of it was insensitive (“Like, how are we supposed to get what you’re talking about when you say it the way you say it?”), some of it was almost insightful (“It’s not that we don’t like you. It’s just that you’re the teacher”).

Then things took a really weird turn. I guess what we were saying was more than Mr. Anson had bargained for. He started to look really upset, but not veiny and red the way we’re used to. Before we knew what was happening, his eyes got all watery, and then he suddenly buried his face in his hands. He sobbed, “I’m sorry, kids!” and then got up and ran out of the room. We all just sat there. Robert the metalhead laughed. Deann the cheerleader hissed, “It’s not funny!” and he shut up and looked kind of ashamed.

Mr. Anson eventually came back in about five minutes, and then we proceeded for the rest of the hour. I still doubt it will really help for more than a week or two. That second part of the discussion wasn’t nearly as interesting. Something strange had happened and everybody knew it. The more interesting part was what happened in the time Mr. Anson was gone.

“God, ya’ll, I don’t know,” Deann said. “We should do something for him.” I’m thinking, Yeah, we should be a decent class and stop giving him so much shit all the time. But we don’t know how to do that. We’re not capable of such decency. Because together we’re a mob.

Then people started agreeing with her, even though they couldn’t possibly care that much about Mr. Anson after all the crap they’ve been giving him for months ... that we’ve been giving him, I mean. But now they were talking about getting him flowers or a cake or maybe a cookie bouquet or just a card. They wanted to show how much they cared. But nobody could really agree on the right kind of sentiment after your teacher breaks down. Does Hallmark make a card with the right message? Get Well Soon? It’s Your First Breakdown? Hope the Medication Helps?

Finally we let the thing drop and just sat there. Every once in a while, somebody would wonder out loud what we should do. What would the school expect us to do? How long should we wait before we went to tell someone that our teacher ran out of the room crying?

By the time Mr. Anson came back, we had stopped talking about the idea of getting him a gift. I’m pretty sure we all were thinking “Oh, we’ll just be a better class. What better gift could we give him?” That’s the kind of Hollywood sentiment we’ve all learned to have whenever we don’t have a map for a situation. So we’d try harder. We’d fix this thing. We had to.

So I give us two weeks. Listen closely in the halls of B building in the next couple of months. If you hear a grown man bawling down one of the halls, be nice to him. We’ve been very mean to the poor bastard. And we’re really, really sorry.