Saturday, April 05, 2014

The Lesson and the Game

The Lesson and the Game
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The Lesson and the Game

My first round of practice teaching occurs at a mixed-race, inner-city school.  Most of the kids are black and the teacher is also black and male.  The two student teachers are my friend and classmate, Hank (Henry Phalange) and me.  Hank, biracial, is equally at home with whites or blacks and can switch speech and mannerisms in the blink of an eye.  I, on the other hand, in spite of having been here for some time, have trouble making out the speech of some of the children.

The lesson for the day is trees, tree ecology and tree identification.  We study trees in math, social studies, reading and science.  During science, Mr. Hollinger passes out leaves to each student, and to Hank and me. The leaves seem to be hand-carved out of ebony or some other dark expensive looking wood, but they also feel very strong.  Each leaf is on a black chain and can be worn around the neck.

Hank’s is an American elm, Mr. Hollinger’s a white ash and mine a sugar maple.  Mr. Hollinger’s looks fragile, with its separate leaf-lets, but I finger it, and it seems sturdy.  Chantelle has a big-tooth aspen, Tyrone a cottonwood, Egyptia a red oak, DeShaun a white oak, Jonas an American beech, Micah a chestnut and so on.  We talk about the characteristics of the trees and walk in the new school arboretum so that each child can find his or her tree.  We learn three things about each tree, as we go around, and then, when we stop at the end, the kids each recite the three things about their own tree and the other kids repeat them.

My three things are that we can make maple syrup and candy from the sugar maple, that they are used as shade trees, and that they are part of the beech-birch maple hemlock climax forest in this area.  Also we say the Latin name, for me, Acer sacharum.  I didn’t learn the Latin names of trees until I got to college, so it seems strange to be teaching them to these kids.

When we come back in, the girls in the class are sent next door to Miss Johanna’s room and her boys are sent to our room.  Mr. Hollister pulls down the room-darkening shades, leaving only a slit of light visible at the bottom of three of the shades.  The room falls into darkness.  He directs our class sit on one lab table and the other class sit on the other.  Then he says we’re going play a game called pickpocket. I am immediately concerned, and wish I had been sent over to Miss Johanna’s with the girls.  I am guessing they are not playing pickpocket.

The object of the game is to acquire as many leaves as possible.  He does not say if the leaves will be returned, and I feel fearful of losing my own leaf and of other kids losing theirs and being sad.  I think that this is an inappropriate game, and I am unhappy about it.  However, I am the student teacher, and at this point am only observing, so I keep my opinions to myself.

When Mr. Hollister blows the whistle and the game starts, I back into a corner and hope that everyone forgets me.  The room falls into pandemonium, kids dashing everywhere, hooting and laughing.  Unlike me, they seem to be happy.  At one point, a whole crowd of them sweeps past me, and someone grabs one my arms and I twirl helplessly into the running mass of kids and bang against a lab table, not hard enough to hurt, but I am surrounded by bodies moving, thumping and laughing.

Then I realize my leaf is gone.  I pat myself down and I definitely don’t have it.  I feel a sense of loss and grief and also anger and something akin to hatred for being forced to play this stupid game. It seems to go on and on and I make my way back to the corner and sulk.  I have no desire to touch male students in the dark searching for hidden leaves.  The whole idea seems ludicrous and inappropriate to me.

Finally, Mr. Hollister blows his whistle and the game stops.  Kids turn on the lights, pull up the shades, and hold up their trophies—the ones who have trophies.  The others stand back, but they don’t look sad.  They look surprisingly cheerful.  Hank comes over to stand by me.  He is grinning ear it ear.  “I got your leaf,” he says, and holds out his hand.  I stare at all the stuff in his hand.  “Here,” he says, “take it,” and pushes his hand closer. 

Hanging from his hand is my leaf, my camera, my necklace, and laying in his hand is my cell phone, my wallet, a pen, a paint-brush in a metal tube, my glasses.  Everything is intact.  I look in my wallet and my money and cards seem to be there. 

Hank looks pleased with himself, and happy.  He seems to think I should praise him. But I feel violated and sad.  I wonder if he or anyone else has taken anything from me and not returned it.  Something I will miss later, when it is too late.  We stand staring at each other, our face inches apart.  When he leans and gives me a small kiss on my cheek, I steel myself against drawing back, not from Hank, who I love, but from this terrible game and his acceptance of it.

Dream April 5, 2014

Sugar maple leaf by me,
Mary Stebbins Taitt
How does this make you feel?  What does it remind you of?

It may have been influenced by Reality TV, movies and books, such as Hunger Games.  I have fearfully been avoiding seeing or reading any of them, but they leak into my consciousness anyway.  I guess I am a big wimp.  I hate even the idea of them.

I worked for a number of years teaching in inner city schools, but never played a game called pickpocket.  I have no idea where that came from except perhaps because I have jury duty coming up and worry about the pickpockets downtown.

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