Monday, February 15, 2010

Interlude-Youth as a Natural Link

My first year of teaching-I taught Spanish I, II, and III to non-native Spanish speakers--was a nightmare. I hated each day equally, and though I am aware of the exponential growth of legend over the years, I still am confident saying that I enjoyed somewhere between ten and zero days of school that year.
I was twenty-two, two months removed from college graduation and the charmed life. Two months removed from highlighter parties, Thursday night "Just Because" bar hops, half-assed on-campus jobs, and a place where I was clearly Jaime. Two months later, I am wearing a tie (more about that in a little while), badly-wrinkled khaki slacks, and am trying to comport myself like the "Mr. Flaco" that is my new title in the classroom.
I spoke much more English than I should have in a Spanish language classroom, but not because of any lack of Spanish know-how. I figured out very quickly that the total-language immersion model touted by my credential-class teaching, ivory-tower-dwelling college professors failed to take into account the fact that "BE QUIET!" or "STOP TALKING!" are much more powerful than "Callense!", particularly when coupled with a beet-red face and spittle that serve to quiet the class, if not for a long while, then at least for a "Whoa, his head's gonna pop off!" moment of awed silence.
Throughout my first year of teaching, I was alternately too mellow, too excitable, a yeller, a soothsayer, a tough grader, an easy grader, a time-waster, a time-spendthrift, too friendly, not friendly enough, too relaxed, too tightlywound, and usually not mature and professional enough, though I did throw in a few instances of student-puzzling utter formality.
I threw a few yet-to-be graded assignments in the roundfile--and by "few" I mean "many." I singlehandedly proved to the students the need for some sort of rubric system with a fickle and unfathomable grading system. I showed to my superiors no organization either in classroom setup or lesson plans.
But the students loved me. They loved me, though not enough to be quiet for minutes at a time, though not enough to not drive me to tropical drinks a few times, and not often to show or verbalize it too many times during that tumultuous first year.
I learned of the this love at times outside of class, through teenage verbal code that is always hard to crack, through gossip, through secondhand accounts from my students' parents and friends.
In reading student surveys given to my students at the end of the year, I received glowing praise and hearty thankyous. They were for "being cool," for "knowing what it's like to be a teenager," for "understanding," for "being more of a friend than a teacher--sometimes."
The subtext of these glowing comments? I received more praise for my youth than my teaching, more love for my love of the Sacramento Kings in a Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers town than my pedagogy, more adoration for my daily "Chappelle Show" and hip hop allusions than my lesson plans.
I was young. They were young. I had an instant connection through no merit of my own. I was young, and this youth gave me instant credibility that my older colleagues, more worldly, possessive of much more experience with teenagers than the young buck named "Senor Flaco."
I was a very, very bad teacher. I once pretended to have lost my voice to avoid a lecture in class. I presented lessons on such disparate themes as slavery in Colombia, -ar verb conjugation, and Spanish numbers that my students couldn't help but be lost by the lack of unifying concepts.
I was a poor teacher, the kind whose lack of confidence shone on his face like a Vegas hotel. And young people are, if nothing else, very skilled at smelling that professional fear.
I was a horrendous teacher, but in many ways, in the fleeting and fickle world of the teenager, I was cool, and that was all that mattered.
Oh yeah, and once I showed "A Bronx Tale" in class. The film was not dubbed or subtitled for Spanish. I taught Spanish class. We were not studying patriarchy in the Italian-American community, nor the urban racial tensions of the late 1960s in my Spanish class.
The kids loved it.
The kids loved me.