Today I gave my students T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” to chew on for awhile. There was much silence in my room during the annotation period. Then I told them to pair up with “someone smart” and talk about the poem for ten minutes.
You know what? They did it. They talked about that dang poem for ten minutes. They did not talk about the NBA playoffs or the NFL playoffs. They did not talk about who dumped whom for whom. They did not talk about Cinco de Mayo and how wasted they got. They did not talk about which teacher is an asshole and why.
They talked about T.S. Eliot. They talked about “…mixing/ memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.” They puzzled through Madame Sosostris and her clairvoyance. They really hashed out, “That corpse you planted last year in your garden.”
It was amazing.
In fourth period, one of them even argued with me. “No way that was ten minutes!” He accused me of trying to trick them by not giving them enough time to talk about the poem. He was indignant. Righteously.
Then we came together as a class and they used words like “stanza” and “metaphor” and “connotative meaning.” They asked questions. In my last period, they even applauded a particularly astute answer one student provided to another.
And you know why? Cuz T.S. is some good sh**. They appreciated the depth and the ambiguity. They appreciated the opportunity to interact with something real. Several of them asked for a copy to take home.
Which reinforces my belief that what kids really need, especially students of color, students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, is to be treated like intelligent people. They need to be held to high standards. They need to engage with real literature. They do not need coddling and they certainly do not need teachers who give up on them, who dumb it down, who settle for the lowest common denominator.
Thinking about this I realized the most successful teachers I know are the ones who teach One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to the “bad” kids or the ones who require their “repeaters” to do grammar every day. The science teachers who never give up on experiments, even in rooms full of juvenile delinquents. The history teachers who make all their classes read primary source documents from the Revolutionary War era.
Because sometimes it feels good just to think, to devote a portion of one’s day to the life of the mind. And all students deserve the opportunity to experience that feeling.