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  • Walking into my classroom the other day, I was confronted by two eighth grade boys with their mouths stretched open, shaped like a bass gasping for air after it has been caught. They were about five feet away from each other, sitting in their desks. One of them had some sort of blue plastic object. Whether it was an eraser, a piece of their binder, or one of those odd trinkets that have no value but all middle school students seem to possess, it had definitely been on the floor. They glanced at me as I walked in, still wide-mouthed, and then one of them threw the plastic object at the other’s mouth: a partial miss. The plastic went through the rim, but then bounced out, now covered in saliva. It landed on the floor and slid a few inches leaving a shiny, sticky trail. Boy number one, the boy who had just almost caught the strange, now wet, plastic shard in his chomper, snatched the piece up. Saliva and all, he cocked his arm back and hurled it towards his companion, finally sinking the plastic into the terrifying depths that is an eighth grade boy’s food compacter. It was hard to do anything more than laugh, laugh out loud.

    We sit, in the wee hours before school, around large tables, staring into our styrofoam-ed pools of coffee, and discuss the ins and outs, the problems and issues with our students. Then we step out of the drop-ship into the alien planet with our ray-blasters set to “teach.” They each use different departmental ammunition, but the purpose is clear: let’s blast them into adulthood. I start firing before my back foot is even off the exit hatch. While education classes in college were initially interesting, you might find my most intricate doodling resting in the margins of my notebooks for these periods, telling several stories: one, my general feeling of know-it-all that sometimes still haunts me today, and two, the boredom associated with this sensation. I have often asked myself, “how do people not know how to teach?”

    First we’ll name a man Bill. Next, we’ll name a starving man Tralaloo. It might be ludicrous to imagine Bill, who is from a different country, who speaks a different language than Tralaloo, asking himself, “why doesn’t this foreign man (Tralaloo) that I’ve just encountered, who happens to be holding an apple, know how to eat that apple?” Weren’t we born learning; aren’t we taught from the get-go? Why then do we have to study teaching? Of course, my foreign man analogy is preposterous; there must be something physically wrong with Tralaloo if he doesn’t have any idea how to eat his fruit while he is clearly wanting to (after growing up and becoming a man and all that). It’s not the deranged man’s fault. For the sake of maintaining the absurd, let’s keep using my foreigner analogy. Suppose Bill sauntered over to Tralaloo, who was now completely perplexed by the apple in his hand, and tried to explain to him, in his foreign language, why, precisely, it is important for Tralaloo to have the nourishment of that apple and the process by which he should chew it, and digest it. This would be a silly Bill. Tralaloo can’t understand him! Ok, well, let’s say instead of explaining it to him because of the language barrier, Bill walked over, took out his own apple, and showed Ted how to eat by biting into the apple. Better? Yes. Best? No. Finally, our man Bill gets it right; he walks over to the starving Tralaloo, shows him with his own apple, and then he takes the emaciated Tralaloo’s hand and guides the apple to Tralaloo’s starving mouth, gently pushing on Tralaloo’s jaws to urge him to chew, while mimicking the action. I have an image of wide-eyed Bill here really exaggerating the motion of chewing to show Tralaloo. It’s a funny image.

    After Tralaloo learns how to eat, he tends to take a liking to it. He eats quite a bit actually and now is far less mal-nourished. Good job Tralaloo. You see, perhaps using a ray-blaster on children is simply the wrong way to go about it. Instead of wanting to blanket kids with teaching, wouldn’t it be better to show them how to use the ray-blaster themselves, perhaps even show them how to make a ray-gun? The issue still arises with the hurling of tiny objects into each other’s mouths. Bill and Tralaloo were both men and my two eighth graders are both teenagers, but Bill had to trust that even though they spoke a different language, Tralaloo wanted to know how to eat the apple. As teachers, we have to trust that even though our fondness for hurling saliva ladled plastic pieces into each other’s mouths might have died away long ago, that doesn’t mean that our eighth graders want to be stuck in their world forever. In fact, they often clamor for the opposite.

    Peeling away the layers of the middle school experience is often difficult. Really, ok, really it’s more than often impossible to achieve completely, and on occasion, it’s Mount Everest. But it’s only hard because we’re not speaking the language; this doesn’t mean we should change our tactics in communication from how we might teach someone in our own language.
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