At A Loss

There are some times in my classroom that I am positively at a loss, that I am standing there, looking at what just happened, listening to what’s being said, watching what’s going on, and I find myself wondering, “What in the world do I do about this?” I’ve been in the classroom for almost twenty years now, and I’ve come to realize that I will always — always — have these moments.

Last week, for example, in order to load a document I wanted the students to view on the projector, I turned my back on my most challenging class — challenging in that they are, by and large, not motivated and therefore not inclined to behave in a manner that produces the most efficient use of our limited class time — and in the few seconds that I had my back turned, this happened.

This, in fact, is a photo after I kicked some of the papers into a more consolidated pile.

Apparently, in a matter of seconds, a boy who sits in the back of the room stood up, ran to the front of the room, grabbed a girl’s binder, ran back to the back of the room, and emptied its contents on the floor with the girl in heated pursuit. This girl is not very popular, and she has a habit of antagonizing everyone around her and then playing the victim. In this case, though, she was the victim, but that didn’t stop the kids from hooting in approval at the boy’s actions.

I called them down; they stopped after a few seconds; and I didn’t have the slightest clue what to do. I removed them both from the classroom, but that’s hardly a preventative measure for the next time the kid gets an impulse to do something like this. Truth be told, the boy can be more antagonistic and disruptive among his peers as the girl.

These are thirteen-year-old kids. They’re not two or three. Yet their behavior belies their age, because this sort of thing happens so frequently. If it was a one-time occurrence, it would just be a question of youthful hi-jinks, but something similar happens on a regular basis, and I never really know what to do to prevent it.


Bald Headed Son of a

Dear Terrence,

Why did you just finish that thought? I mean, you said enough already to get three days’ suspension. Why not go ahead and say it? It’s like buying a meal, then walking out before it’s served. You’ve already made the purchase — at least get your money’s worth.

Still laughing about it though I probably shouldn’t,
Your Bald Headed Teacher Babysitter


Dear Terrence,

In your two classes, there are fifty-six students. I expected to get somewhere around twenty projects turned in. I got thirteen.

I wouldn’t think I’d need to talk to you guys about the importance of doing work in a timely manner, but obviously I do. Again.

Depressed again,
Your Teacher


Dear Terrence,

You once said as a complaint that you’d probably never do anything more than manual labor. First of all, if you’re complaining about that it means you really don’t want to spend your life doing manual labor for your money. If that’s the case, perhaps a little more focus in class would help open more doors of opportunity.

Labor-Pearce-Highsmith-detail-1More importantly, though, I’d like to point out that there is nothing wrong with manual labor. It has a great many advantages over mental labor. Your post-work exhaustion is real, deep, and runs throughout your body. My exhaustion when I’m done teaching some days is purely mental — usually from dealing with some of your and your peers’ in-class decisions. It’s often an exhaustion born out of frustration, in other words.

Another advantage is that once done, physical labor usually produces some sort of tangible product. You can hold it, sit in it, take shelter under it — it’s not just a theoretical assistance like my job often provides. Many people view teaching as planting seeds, and we never see the fruits. With manual labor, it’s different.

Finally, there’s a great need for it. We need plumbers and carpenters, mechanics and janitors. They’re noble professions, each and every one of them. So it’s nothing to be upset about. Be pleased that you have skills in that direction.

Somewhat envious of how you’ll fall into bed every night so exhausted that you’ll just drift right off to sleep,
Your Teacher


Dear Terrence,

leica-m-monochrom-typ-246-black-chrome-finish-typ-baseline_teaser-307x205I try not to be too terribly materialistic. There are a few objects in life I want, and I already have most of them. Sure, I’d like a classic, well-worn guitar, but mine is fine. Certainly I wouldn’t turn down a gift like a Leica M Monochrom (or even a Fuji X-Pro2) and a bag of lenses to go with it, but my X100, bought used, does the same basic thing. Yes, I would love to have a Pinarello Dogma F8, but I never will, and even if I had one, I wouldn’t use it for my most common form of cycling, namely commuting. In the end, I know they’re just objects, and well beyond my means and needs.

Fortunately, your obsession is with something significantly cheaper, but I still worry. Your whole being seems wrapped up in shoes. Every chance you get, you’re looking at this or that style of Nike Jordans online. (Sorry, I know nothing about them beyond that. I know you talk about this type and that type, but it’s all unknown to me — much like my tossing around Leica M Monochrom and Pinarello Dogma. Same principle.) Still, on more than one occasion, I’ve heard you say that you’d get every single type of Jordan available as soon as you get the money. I’ve seen you criticize others because of the “ratty” shoes they’re wearing. I’ve seen the way you brag about the shoes you own.

First of all, I can’t unravel your obsession with shoes. Even when I was a teenage boy, I gave very little thought to the shoes I wore. They served a function, nothing more. This pair of shoes is for skateboarding; that pair of shoes is for church; this pair, school. A pair of sandals added to the mix and that was the extent of my shoe wardrobe.

More importantly, though, I worry that you’re deriving an unhealthy amount of self-esteem and self-worth from the bits of leather, rubber, and synthetic materials strapped onto your feet. Shoes don’t make you a man. Your actions do.

Sincerely and relatively shoe-poor,
Your Teacher


Dear Terrence,

Yesterday was Palm Sunday. As our family has Polish roots, we follow Polish traditions, and one of those traditions is the making of elaborate palm branches for Palm Sunday. I guess it started by simply adding some kind of decorations to a palm frond. It’s something altogether more elaborate now, involving multitudes of flowers and decorations. They look something like this.

2016-03-20_1458467202 That’s what they’re supposed to look like. Ours didn’t quite look like that because of a lack of materials and a lack of experience. Allow me to explain.

My wife is the Polish connection in the family. Born and raised in Poland, she has these traditions in her very blood, and she’s always made our palm. When the Polish families gather for Palm Sunday, she often won the contest for best palm. This year, she decided she didn’t want to do it. “I have too much to do,” she explained simply enough. Our daughter, Maria, was going to make a palm but then decided against it. Since I’m always looking for time to spend with our kids doing genuine constructive things, I suggested that we make the palm.

VIV_0462-2We used materials we had in the yard and did the best we could. It was, though, very plain. “Ale ladna korona!” my wife exclaimed, but we knew it wasn’t really beautiful but rather plain.

We entered it in the competition, but compared to the other, larger, more elaborate palms, it looked a little out of place. We knew it would look like we had created it blindly, in fact.

We knew that we weren’t going to win. We knew that we would stand a chance. And we knew this from the moment we set out creating our palm. But that wasn’t really the point. The point was spending time together, solving a problem together, laughing together — just being together. So it was a failure, but a roaring success.

How does this connect to you? You don’t like embarking on something unless you feel certain it’s going to be an unqualified success. That’s why you’re eager to play basketball, joke in the hallway, and flirt with girls but not so eager to do work in my class. Your reading level is very far below expectations, and you struggle with just about everything you’ve ever tried in class. But sometimes, success is bigger than doing well at something. Often that’s the case.

I hope our time together this year has taught you that, at least to some degree.

Your Teacher

Our Addiction

Dear Terrence,

Coming out of confession yesterday morning, I had a thought. The main thing I had to confess was the simple act of living in a state of doubt. You see, when I converted to Catholicism a few years ago, I was converting from atheism, a belief I’d held for fifteen or more years and had shaped how I viewed everything: myself, the people around me, history, all of it. Much of my atheism was intellectual (Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian was by Bible, so to speak — irony intended), but one side effect of my atheism which was quite pleasant to me was a sense of superiority. I wasn’t among the deluded masses, foolishly putting my faith in a sky god. I was man enough to face the simple fact that when I died, that was it: the end. Finished. It was intellectual machismo, I guess you could say. And yet, sometimes I’ve wondered, after my conversion, if I wasn’t simply deluding myself. I had very good reasons for converting, I thought, but what if I were wrong? What if all this kneeling and genuflecting and bowing and crossing myself at Mass every week were just empty gestures? And so I lived my life for a little while like it all was just empty gestures.

I told the priest all these things, and he said, “That voice that says you’re deluding yourself is not your voice.” For my penance, I was to open myself up to God in prayer, “lay it all on the line,” he said, and then listen. So I did. And after some moments, a thought came to me: that atheism is just like any other addiction.

Addictions offer false promises. Addiction to substances comes from accepting the lie that that euphoria one feels after sniffing or drinking or smoking or injecting is something real, something powerful, something meaningful. That it’s somehow more meaningful, more important, than just about anything else.  I understand that with many addictions, there’s a physiological element as well, but there’s also an emotional and psychological element, and that’s probably what gets them to try it to begin with.

I came to see my cyclical turns to atheism, my tendency to return again and again to those thoughts that it’s all bunk and that anyone who believes it is just deluding themselves, is an addiction in than it offers some kind of false security, some false sense of superiority.

What does this have to do with you? I wonder if you know what your addiction is. I’m not suggesting that I know what it is, as if I’m somehow trying to lead you to realize something I’ve already realized. I’m just wondering if you’ve given it any thought. Most haven’t. It’s a tough line of questioning to ask of yourself — it takes tenacity — but it can yield some helpful results, so why not give it a shot?

In recovery,
Your Teacher