Monday, April 27, 2009

"The important thing is never to stop questioning."

- Albert Einstein

Today was the first class of a new quarter at the school where I teach. I love starting over every three months. I know a little more and can respond to questions more quickly and with greater authority. I anticipate problems and address them before they come up. But even though this is my seventh or eighth time teaching the same class (I've changed books and assignments as necessary), I still find myself impressed and surprised by each group of students.

It's easy to stereotype. In fact, according to the New York Times, it's evolutionary:

Eons ago, this capability [to stereotype based on appearance] was of life-and-death importance, and humans developed the ability to gauge other people within seconds.

Susan Fiske, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton, said that traditionally, most stereotypes break down into two broad dimensions: whether a person appears to have malignant or benign intent and whether a person appears dangerous. “In ancestral times, it was important to stay away from people who looked angry and dominant,” she said.

But I can't tell anything about my students by looking at them. Each new group of students is full of quirky individuals with 18 - 30 years of experience informing their attitudes, and those attitudes only begin to reveal themselves on the first day. I ask them about previous writing experiences, I ask them to respond to an essay we read in class, and I even ask them about the last book they read. 

Granted: I'm a bit of a softie. I just love playing a part in their education. (One student graduated from my high school four years before I did!)  I'm much harder on myself than I am on others, and sometimes I think that I and my students alike would benefit from a shift in that regard (be less of a softie, more of a hard ass); regardless, as my friend told me back when I was teaching a summer school class to 3rd graders and questioning my skills, "Everyone can use some positive encouragement."

People do have the capacity to change. I go back and forth on this, at least in regard to my own capacity, but it has to be true. I think back to all those "first days" in grade school and even junior and senior high, where I would throw up out of nervousness. Or those second, third, and fiftieth days, curling up in the corner of the playground because I was too shy to find someone to play with or talk to. So when I wasn't sitting there, obsessing over my inability to MOVE, I was watching people - their behavior, their interactions, how they spoke to one another. I still dream of being invisible, moving ghost-like among people and seeing how they really  are, returning to my observant past; but it's much better now. Being among the living. Still slightly neurotic, but physically present.

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