The function of literature isn’t to illustrate moral precepts but to illuminate human experience.
I recently finished reading Julian Barnes’, The Sense of an Ending. Flipping back and scanning my pencil marks and underlined sentences, I reread the description of a high school history teacher:
Old Joe Hunt, wryly affable in his three-piece suit, a teacher whose system of control depended on maintaining sufficient but not excessive boredom.
I laugh thinking about the fine line between boredom and anarchy and as I move from laughter to reflection, a human experience is illuminated.
It’s February 16, 2011, 12:40 pm.
I’ve just entered the office following my post bell, lunch is over, get to class walk of the hallways – a conspicuously lively event that has me exhorting students with “2 minutes to learning” accompanied by the street cred move of placing my arms into the letter L and explaining that L, that’s upper case, capital L, is for Learning. I stop by a locker where a gaggle of girls have migrated. Boldly and with attitude, I step within their circle, make a teenage angst comment about how ‘no one understands them’, open the locker wide and while looking at the femininely obligatory mirror affixed on the inside, lift my hand to my hair, stop, and say “no, that’s about right.”
I turn to the boys across the hall and walk towards their apathetic collective. I brush my foot back and forth on the ground in front of them. I tell them that it’s ok now; I’ve removed the circle of salt (they don’t get the slug reference). I take a different tact and tell them that we don’t offer hallway studies as an Independent Directed Study course – we offer it supervised, off timetable, after school (this attempt at lame adult humour elicits semi-appreciative smirks from a few but for the boys who don’t get it, I just stop and stare– I won’t explain the IDS or for that matter the slug reference: I refuse to dumb down my material!). So you get the picture – high intensity, high humour and extremely high engagement with students. It’s what my wife likes to refer to as my Johnny High School time of day and it’s one of the things I miss most since becoming a District Principal.
But I digress. 12:40. The school office.
There, sitting in one of the chairs, is Adam. I know Adam very well – his mistakes are generally of biblical proportion. The snake that tempts him? Boredom.
Adam is a student in the Life Skills Program. He has had numerous issues throughout the year and he frequently comes down to my office for a timeout. I kind of like Adam. I like him because as he sits with me in my room, sometimes smiling, sometimes challenging me to a fight, he starts to decompress, relax and become somewhat civil. But what I really like about him is that while we peel away at the proverbial onion and get to the core of the issue at hand, while he becomes a willing participant in my dime store counseling techniques, as we finally get to the crux of the issue, Adam’s eyes, at the moment of my ‘getting it’, begin to twinkle and he projects the most playfully devious of smiles. It always, and I mean always, reminds me of that line in Barfly: “Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must live.”
“Adam,” I say, “welcome.”
He smiles at me.
“I can’t say that you’re a long time listener and first time caller but your visits are a highlight of my afternoons”.
Adam smiles again (in one of my stream of consciousness tangents, I spent 5 minutes of our last meeting explaining the decorum of the “call in/talk radio show” and I know that he gets the line because his teacher tells me that Adam keeps announcing to the class that he’s a part of “Mr. Bondi’s Afternoon Show”).
Adam follows me into my office. He takes his seat, the one closest to the door. He looks at me and I notice that the knuckles of his clenched right hand are alarmingly white – not a good sign.
“Well Adam. What happened?”
“I don’t know,” he mumbles. “I was just typing”
“Yah but I have a note here from your teacher that says you destroyed the computer. Do you want to tell me about it.”
Adam smiles and I know that I’m about to get on the carousel with him.
“It wasn’t the computer. It was the keyboard. I broke the keyboard”
“How did you break it, Adam?”
“I took off a piece.”
“Well, maybe we can fix it.” Staring at his clenched fist, at this point dangerously devoid of any blood flow, I ask, “Are you holding the piece right now?”
“Yes,” he blurts out.
I ask him if he will let me have the key . . . maybe we can fix the keyboard together.
He opens his hand and gives it to me.
I stare at it for a moment and then look up at him, the aforementioned devious smile beaming from his face.
And in my best Little Cindy Lou Who voice I ask, “Why, Adam, why? Why did you do it?”
His response is immediate: “I was bored.”
To this day, I carry that keyboard piece with me: the white ESC key.
Adam, the Life Skills student, grabbing at ESC because he was bored. I wonder if he understood the statement he was making? I wonder how many students wish they could press a magical ESC key in their classes right now.
Every morning I place that ESC key in my pocket to remind myself that in all that I do, in every conversation I have, in every lesson I teach, in every meeting I chair, I aim to always reframe the process of learning for those around me – from doing to engaging, from retention to acquisition, from finding to discovering.
I’ve got no time for “Old Joe Hunts”: the Adams of this world are too important a commodity.