Saturday, April 24, 2010

Great Moments in Teaching

Finals start within a week, another semester is almost over. This is a great time to look back and think about all the great moments in teaching. After all these years, my rewards for hard work with my students are my memories.

About a dozen years ago, I was teaching a weekend class on the History of Argentina. The class met every Saturday morning for three hours. Argentine history is more than a little interesting, but the kind of student who willingly gives up a weekend tends to be a little on the interesting side.

So there we were, I was talking, the students were pretending to be listening, all was normal and all of us were probably thinking about lunch when suddenly I noticed that a young lady in the second row of seats was wearing a necklace. A necklace that was moving. Right about the time I figured out she had a snake wrapped around her neck, the girl sitting next to her saw the snake, too. It turns out that screaming is contagious.

Eventually, I found out the snake was the young lady’s pet; an Argentine Boa. Since it was from Argentina, she thought it would a welcome addition to class, and I guess it was, since the class ended a little early.

That’s not the only time an animal has livened up a classroom. A few years later, in the same room, a class got a little active for a completely different reason. A young lady in the back of the room suddenly jumped to her feet, screamed, and started pawing at her chest. She eventually got her sweatshirt down and began digging under her bra.

I can’t say that anyone was scared, but everyone was powerfully interested. I was fascinated. Eventually, the young lady pulled out a baby hedgehog. She was raising the little critter and had been carrying it around inside her bra to keep it warm when it had bitten her.

The university used to have a great classroom that though it had over a hundred stadium style seats, only had a single door at the front of the room. Anyone who came late had to enter at the front, interrupting the lecture, and go up a single center aisle to a seat.

I was teaching a survey class composed of mostly freshmen and sophomore students, one of which was unique. This young lady was going through a Gothic phase; lots of torn black jeans, black fingernails, assorted piercings and shiny dangling chains and lots of jewelry. What you really noticed, however, was her hair. Almost every single class, it was a new color, and none of them were to be found in nature. Since she came to class late, every single damn day, it was not hard to remember her. If you are talking about Thomas Jefferson and someone shows up dressed all in black with electric blue hair, trust me, you’ll remember her.

One day, about ten minutes into my lecture, she showed up with fire engine red hair. Well, if fire trucks were covered with glowing red neon lights, it would be fire engine red hair.

“Come on in, Red.” I said. “We were waiting for you.”

She smiled, went to her usual seat, the far back corner and I went on with my lecture. From that day forward, I always called her Red, regardless what color her hair happened to be. This went on for weeks, and I thought I had seen every possible color of hair. I was wrong.

Towards the end of the semester, one day she showed up, late as usual, with a new style. She had shaved her head; she was as pink and bald as a newborn’s butt. Bald, that is, except for a small circle of hair above each eyebrow that she had dyed black. And, she had used something, possibly Elmer’s glue, to fashion them into small devil’s horns.

For several seconds, the room was absolutely still and silent. Then, I roared with laughter, deep loud belly laughs. I couldn’t help myself, if I had even tried to hold it back, my heart would have burst. I rattled the ceiling tiles and laughed and laughed and laughed.

Naturally, because I was laughing, the whole room roared with me. Every time I thought I could get hold of myself and stop laughing, someone else would giggle and I would start up again. And this would set everyone else off again.

“Stop it!” I thought. “Get hold of yourself. Be professional! Think of dead kittens, think of sex with your grandmother! Think of accidentally spilling a bottle of Laphroaig Scotch.”

The only thing that finally stopped us was the simple lack of strength to laugh anymore. I don’t remember if I ever started lecturing again, and it probably doesn’t matter. No one who was in that room that day will remember anything but Red… and her horns.

And those are the moments that reward you in education, knowing that you make a difference.

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