Tuesday, April 23, 2013

"That's gay!" "I'm sorry, that's what?" "I said, 'that's..."

I often encourage my students to pay attention to how they present themselves--the language they use, the effect that language has on those around them, and what that language says about them. Oftentimes my students look at me as though I'm from another planet because I often speak grammatically correctly. My doing so is a conscious decision, the seed of which was planted shortly after high school. I had decided that I wanted to spend my life teaching English (OK, so actually, I wanted to spend my life being Jack Kerouac; teaching English seemed more realistic) and that if I was going to do so, I should present myself in a manner befitting one of that profession. So I have made a conscious effort to speak and write properly since then. My doing so has been deemed offensive and off-putting by some, and this has always bothered me; it is never my intent to seem as though I am holding myself in higher esteem than those with whom I am communicating, but alas, that is at times the case. I've tried to be mindful of that around certain people, thus allowing me to make a mental effort not to come across as condescending. It doesn't always work.

And I say all that to say this: I understand how language functions in society, both by denotation and connotation. Such skills are not always present in my students, whether at the high school or college level. I tend to place more of a focus on the use of language with my college students, those who are either already in the workforce or preparing to enter it. In most cases, my students are nontrads who have spent years in a particular profession and for one reason or another have reached a stage in life where it is necessary to make a change. So they come back to school. And after some standardized testing, they end up in my class, taught by someone half their age. It is in these particular situations that my use of language and the manner in which I present myself can seem off-putting or demeaning. For example, my first semester teaching college, I made the mistake of telling students how old I was: 22. An older student stood up in the back of the class and called out, "My God! You're how old? My stepdaughter is your age!" This was not an ideal meeting, but sixteen weeks later she approached me and said, "You know, when we started, I thought you were a pompous little prick. But you're all right. You helped me a lot this semester." I've seen her several times since she left my class, and she's always nice and conversational. But had she not gotten to know me over the course of the term, I would likely always be that "pompous little prick" she thought I was in August. 

But sometimes we aren't given the opportunity to get to know those with whom we interact. Our decisions concerning them are based on a brief encounter. I always use the interview process as an example when discussing these ideas with my college students. I tell them to imagine that they've just walked into a job interview, that they're interviewing for their dream job, the first step in a long career in which they'll be happy. And then I tell them to imagine saying something along these lines: "I needs me this job 'cause I ain't got no money." Guess what, I tell them. You ain't got no job either. Now they understand that this example is a bit extreme, and we chuckle about it. But I stress that there are those who view us in Appalachia in a light not much brighter than the example I gave. It's up to us to affirm the stereotype or rise above it. And I can always see a glimmer in their eyes at that point; most of them, anyway. They get it. And over the course of the term, it never fails that students will come up to me and tell me that they've begun correcting themselves when speaking, that they make a concerted effort to focus on how they speak and the language they use and what that language says about them. 

Which leads me to the titular story here. I have a general rule in my classes: if a particular term could be considered offensive to a group of people, don't use it. I don't provide examples until prompted to do so. That is, when a student uses a particular term, I tell him or her not to use it, though sometimes I do it in the manner suggested in the title of this blog, as was the case earlier this week. I don't remember what prompted the conversation, but at one point, a student, kindhearted and one of the first to ask how I am most days, said, "That's gay," to which I responded, "That's what?" And he looked at me as though he couldn't understand how I could possibly have not heard him when I was standing a mere foot from where he was seated. "That's gay," he repeated.
"I'm sorry, that's what?" 

He thought for a split second. "Ah," he said. "That's dumb." He thought he'd done so much better this time. He wasn't prepared for my response.

"So you equate gay with dumb?" I asked, a quizzical look on my face. He just looked at me. I walked away, giving my implicit lesson time to sink in.

A minute or so later, it dawned on him. "Oh, ok," he said, nodding his head in final understanding. It was a breakthrough, it seemed. Will it last? Who knows. He may revert back to calling things gay. He may call something retarded, another word I don't allow in my classes. But for a moment, he realized the error of his way. And I sometimes wonder if that's what education truly is: a series of small moments, small breakthroughs, each of which builds on the previous until one day all those small steps coalesce into new thought, fully formed thought, and we are forever changed, incrementally but finally wholly, into creatures with a new intellect, a new way of seeing and interacting with the world around us.

And who knows-- maybe it does start with the language we use.  

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Naming of Parts

I've considered myself single since Christmas of last year, though in truth I wasn't officially divorced until yesterday. After months of planning, fretting, and arguing, we sat before a judge who declared my marriage over--confirming the status that we had assigned to it months ago. My now ex-wife cried. My ex-mother-in-law cried. Even the judge cried, having to stop at one point and compose himself, wiping away the tears that had begun to form in the corners of his eyes. I sat there stoically, just waiting for it to be over. And as I waited, I couldn't help but think about the proceedings in relation to my wedding ceremony four years previous. We spent a year planning the wedding and then on the day of the ceremony, we waited nervously and anxiously for the evening to come, time dragging by, and when it did, it was all over in a matter of minutes-- twenty, maybe thirty. And yesterday's proceedings didn't last much longer. We spent more time waiting in the lobby than we did before the judge.

 And then it was over.

I'm writing this not to evoke sympathy or even to vent, but to put forth this idea: where do I go from here? I had dinner with a friend from high school who is also recently divorced. We've had numerous conversations about the turns our lives have taken and what those changes mean for our futures, the extent to which the decisions we've made and the circumstances under which we've found ourselves (whether by fate or our own doing) define us. Over dinner a couple weeks ago, we discussed what terms we now use to define the various aspects of our lives. For example, take the subject of dating: are the terms boyfriend and girlfriend applicable to the lives of people in our situation. (side note: we're not dating.) I have a friend who is nearing fifty; he's lived with the same woman, a woman to whom he is not married, for as long as I've known him--nearly seven or eight years. He refers to her as his girlfriend. I have another friend who is around the same age. She lives with a man to whom she is not married, and yet she and I discussed this subject and she seemed to think that the term boyfriend was not an applicable term, as it seemed to be indicative of an earlier age, of youth. She didn't have an answer.

Nor could my friend and I reach a conclusion of how to define the relationships in our lives. She has a boyfriend, and they use the terms boyfriend and girlfriend, but there seems to be an uncertainty in the terms when she uses them. Perhaps that uncertainty will fade in time, but that leads me to ponder the terms I'll use in my life. And this uncertainty started even before I thought about moving on. I would catch myself being uncertain over the past few months as to what terms I should use when discussing my now ex-wife: call her by name? continue to refer to her as my wife? start calling her my ex-wife even though we were still technically married? I found that I would alternate among the three. My choice was dictated in part by my audience, I suppose, but I still found that I was never truly satisfied with any term I used.

Which leads me to the future: boyfriend and girlfriend? mate? partner?
I don't have an answer. Nor do I know what comes next for me. I hope to make it to California after the school year ends, as I won't be teaching this summer. Maybe Hawaii. I have family in both places. Maybe NYC. I've wanted to go back for years. But who knows whether I'll make it to any of them. I tend to live in my dreams far more than in real life. Well, I used to, that is. With new chapters come new resolutions, and new attempts at making sense of and defining the world around us and our place in it. I don't have all the answers, I don't know what it all means or how to name the parts that make it all up, but I do know one new word that rings true in my life: free.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Beginnings (and maybe an ending)

I've long considered beginning a blog, but in truth, I never really knew what I would do with it. Would it be a place for public discussion of the thoughts that keep my up at night, the concerns I have with the world of education, my chosen career field? A place to try out new scenes or poems? I like to cook, so maybe it would be a forum for fellow foodies, I thought to myself. Ultimately, I finally just decided that I would start one if ever I found something worth discussing. This first post may not be indicative of the true nature of the blog, but it's a starting point. As the blog's name suggests, I am a teacher and writer-- I suppose those subjects are as good of starting points as any.

The deciding factor in my starting this blog, now, as it is, was my being privy to a rumor about my former high school: it seems that my former high school is considering eliminating Theatre Arts from the curriculum effective next year. I find this idea to be quite unsettling, for I know I would not be the person I am today were it not for my time spent in Theatre Arts classes over the course of my high school career. So a significant number of us former students--teachers, writers, actors--have sent emails to the school board expressing our concern over the situation. I'm stealing a page from Nathan Wellman here (http://nathanwellman.blogspot.com/) [I hope he doesn't mind] and asking that those who care about the arts in education take a moment and send an email to the board members, asking them to strongly consider the ramifications of their actions. [Contact info here: http://www.ashland.kyschools.us/districtBoardEd.aspx]

Below is the letter I sent. I hope that we can do some good.

Dear Members of the Board:

I want to thank you in advance for taking the time to read this letter. As an educator, I understand how precious your time is and I sincerely thank you for affording me an audience.  

The pervading rumor online and amongst colleagues and friends is that Theatre Arts will no longer be part of the curriculum at Paul Blazer High School beginning next year. I write today out of concern that there may be truth behind what so many of us have heard, and to express my dismay that such a scenario may well come to fruition.

I graduated from Blazer in 2005, having entered the school four years earlier as a timid freshman who was unsure of himself and seeking a place to belong—to the world generally, but more specifically in the halls that I would inhabit and traverse over the course of my tenure as a student there. I registered for Theatre I as a freshman simply because I needed the Humanities credit, and I entered Janie Modlin’s classroom unsure of what awaited me. To say that my timidity vanished upon entering her theatre class would be untrue, but the lessons I learned as a theatre student over the next four years were countless. Moreover, it was there that I began to truly develop a sense of self and belonging, for it was there, more than anywhere else during my academic career, that I found acceptance. I was free to be myself and to explore what that meant—that act of determining who I was as an individual and an artist—during the formative years of my adolescence.

Theatre Arts was an integral part of my education. And my story is not unique. Countless students have entered Janie’s theatre classes over the years and found there a sanctuary, a haven from the often tumultuous world around them that can seem so confusing and ugly. It is there they find their sense of belonging. It is there they find their voice. It is a place where creativity is fostered and nurtured, where talents are honed, and where the seeds that become dreams are planted. Students who may otherwise fall through the cracks are caught and buoyed through a creative outlet, pushed beyond their comfort zones, and made to explore the possibilities that lie before them. Theatre Arts is a program where, even if nowhere else, possibilities truly are limitless.

The art of performing in front of others prepares students for a variety of situations they’ll encounter over the course of their academic and professional careers. Were it not for my time spent in Theatre Arts at Blazer, I would not be the person or teacher I am today, I would not be writing my first play, and I most assuredly would not be involved with the drama department at my high school, where I hope to foster in my students a creative drive and an appreciation for the arts.

I hope that before any decision is made, you strongly consider the ramifications of eliminating the Theatre Arts program from the curriculum and the effects that such an action will have on countless students, both present and future.


David Pack

High school English teacher, college instructor, and aspiring writer