Teaching Children Isn’t Rocket Science (Or Is It?)

“All the children are insane.”            Jim Morrison, the Doorknob of the Doors

Jim was probably tripping his ass off on heroin when he wrote those words in silver crayon on the wall of the padded room where he was living at the time, or else drooling on a large Teddy bear, which throws his credibility out the window, but we’ll let it slide for now, since nothing remains of him but his pretentious music and some dust in a box.

Do you agree with the quote?  What about the parenthetical question in the title to this post?  Speaking of insane children and rocket science, it’s hard not to guffaw at the thought of Kim Jong Un’s well-fed face turning crimson as his overly-advertised phallic symbol disintegrated before it could clear the stratosphere.  My dear Kimberly, although it’s yet to become a routine part of my repertoire, thank goodness, there have been a handful of occasions when excess of alcohol has led me in a similarly humiliating trajectory, and I vehemently commiserate.  

And yet, one must not laugh too conspicuously, lest one tweak the untried new leader’s nose and let him rain down a shower of conventional missiles on one’s dandruff-defying head.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s turn to the more mundane heart of the matter, the everyday insanity of small children.  Like many other people, I do love kids, being an overgrown one myself, and I agree with Jesus that the only way to enter the kingdom of heaven is by being like one (which is why I wish I could afford to drink beer these days), as long as he didn’t mean you have to be a credulous dupe who believes any shit you’re fed by snake oil salesmen (ah, good morning, “Father”), or else was making some cryptic rationalization for the slaughter of innocent youth (a distinct possibility for those who defend theodicy, the belief that “the Lord works in strange ways,” and that God lets bad things–like oh, say, death–happen to good people, animals, and plants before their biological batteries run out).

I started teaching children in a white suburb, then the inner city–or the ghetto, if you prefer–which was an eye-opening experience for a sheltered white kid like me.  I’d only recently graduated from college and looked as innocent as Forrest Gump.  Most of the children were really nice to me and I had fun teaching them, even though I had to go to a different school every day, consulting a road atlas before driving around trying to find the damned place, awakened by a call and an emphysemic woman on a speaker phone who shouted:  “Stewart Harmon, please!”

At the time I was reading a self-help guide called The Angry Book, whose author recommended expressing anger instead of repressing it.  This sounded okay to me, since I was a testosterone-addled monkey in my twenties, raised to be macho and pugilistic, and fond of spewing four-letter words as a matter of course.  I decided to put his advice into practice when the sixth-grade class I was waiting to come in from recess dragged their feet by saying, without any build-up or warning of a change in tone, “All right, get your asses over here!”

Needless to say, this didn’t go over too well with the kids, who instantly hated me and made the rest of my day with them a living hell.  They reported me to the principal, who finked on me to the school board, resulting in a written complaint I later received in the mail.

My second complaint revolved around another class I taught a month or so later, at a different school, in which I stood on one of the desks waving the American flag around to demonstrate my exuberant patriotism and also played for the children (also sixth graders, if memory serves) Tom Lehrer’s song “National Brotherhood Week.”  As I recall, they loved it.  The song is a delightful take on good old-fashioned American racism.  (I may have played a few other Lehrer tunes for them, such as his hilarious tribute to the Catholic church, “The Vatican Rag,” “Pollution,” or one of his apocalyptic ditties, “So Long, Mom, I’m Off to Drop the Bomb” or “We Will All Go Together When We Go,” but I don’t want to put words in my brain’s mouth.)

The early-morning phone calls kept coming, however; I guess it takes a lot for a substitute teacher to get fired, hard as I tried.  It wasn’t until about a year after I’d moved to Japan to teach English that my folks sent me a letter saying I was being sued for allowing one child to sprain another’s ankle.  What was I supposed to do, stop teaching and fly back home so I could face the music?  Luckily, in a rare moment of deus ex machina and in violation of Murphy’s sacred Law, the lawyers attempting to sue me were exposed as shysters in the press and disbarred.

Meanwhile, I was trying to manage a classroom of rowdy Japanese first-graders, one of whom I dubbed Frank; this excitable lad succeeded in a five-minute period to perform all three of the following feats, in this order:  expose himself to the class while sauntering across the room, climb onto an interior ledge and start to clamber out the window (we were on the fifth floor), and come centimeters away from stabbing a girl in the eye with a sharp, yellow, number-two pencil.  The randomness of his actions suggests that Professor Morrison’s assessment may have been correct.

Teaching adults proved much easier, as I found for twenty years.

Now I’m teaching children again though, only without the capricious displays of rage or over-the-top behavior described above.  My wife Jina and I teach three classes together.  The first group consists of five first-graders; the second is three ten-year olds (fourth-graders), and the third group is made of two sixth-graders and one fifth-grader.  Jina (blessedly) does the lion’s share of managing the first group, who are a handful, and lets me do most of the teaching with the latter two.  She intends to go re-start her own school on the other side of town soon, and she’s grooming me to supervise the first group, making me feel like Kim Jong Un getting lessons in repression of the masses from his dearly departed dictator of a father.

Yesterday Jina was going to go by herself to an academic bookstore to pick up a textbook, so I had to orchestrate the first group solo, which proved a challenge.  In a flashback of inappropriate anger, I overreacted to one boy’s having apparently broken a contraption that looks like a pencil but contains a spring-driven white eraser by scolding him in front of the other pupils.  This resulted in a torrent of tears he concealed by thrusting his face into his notebook, whose covers formed a pair of angled walls to hide his grief from his sadistically judgmental peers.  I had a feeling that was what was going on as I put my hand on his shoulder, then hunkered down to give him a hug.  He slowly lowered the notebook, revealing reddened eyes and confirming my suspicion.  The boy sitting next to him punched him lightly in the arm; I told him to stop it.  As expected, a few of the other children playfully jeered at him, and I let him leave the room, ostensibly to regain his composure in the rest room.

It turned out he was hiding behind the door of the classroom.  He said he had something in his eye; I let him borrow my cell phone so he could call his mother.  He went into the teacher’s office to talk to her, and I spoke to her afterwards.  He said he wanted her to come pick her up.  I told her so.  Then I called Jina and she said I shouldn’t have done that; she called the mother and told her things were cool, talking to the boy to placate him.  (Meanwhile, the other boy’s mother came to pick him up, claiming the other mother had complained to her that her son had punched her boy.  When she found that the boys were buddies again, she left without her childish charge.)

Since I wanted to make sure he was okay, I let the kids play around with the Photo Booth feature on my laptop, which enables them to make funny faces with a variety of funhouse mirror effects.  Then I taught them a song that goes with a “poem” in the textbook, reciting the lyrics, which they screamed at me in unison with frighteningly powerful lungs.

When Jina arrived an hour later, having failed to get the textbook as she’d forgotten to bring along her credit card (she’s flaky that way), she noticed that one of the two boys in the class had smeared black white-board marker ink on a spot on the yellow-painted wall.  I hadn’t seen him do it, but I knew it wasn’t a girl, as the boys had been erasing the board while the girls played with Photo Booth.  Jina also spotted some scribble marks on the opposite wall, which the boy I’d scolded had made while “hiding” behind one of the desks (although he was standing up), shortly before I’d chewed him out for mishandling the eraser.  Jina pointed out that the eraser wasn’t broken.  I closed my eyes and bowed my head in silent contrition.

I’ve decided to quit teaching and apply for a job as a rocket scientist.  It couldn’t be any harder than trying to teach a bunch of crazy kids how to sing stupid, cheesy songs in English.  Maybe Kim Jong Un will even have the decency to feed me table scraps, unless he can reward me with the cushy post of his food-taster.  Having eaten a lot of processed foods over the years, I imagine I’ll be able to digest any poison anyone tries to foist on the aspiring tyrant without dying too agonizingly.  If I can keep a straight face long enough, maybe I can get Kim to eat what I’ve been given and die too!

So what’s the best way to teach children?  Any tips from those of you who are pros?

Long live birth control!




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