Saturday, December 4, 2010

Art and Darkness

Today I experienced a not-so-fun part of teaching. One of my former Access students came by; she is cool a young woman of 16 whom I adore. She swoops in several times a week to hone her speaking skills and watch hip-hop videos. But what she's most passionate about is American movies and regularly takes advantage of the American Center's vast, current DVD collection and in-house player. Today just for fun I asked her which movie we should watch during next Friday's movie screening and she went to browse. She pulled out a movie with an intriguing cover and asked if we could watch that one. I wrinkled my forehead and told her that the film she had chosen, "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," was probably not a good choice for the class. I told her it was difficult to watch and that one of the boys on the cover died. When she looked back up at me she had a twinkle in her eye and asked "Teacher, can I watch it?". I shrugged, plugged in the DVD player and headset then busied myself with other library duties. She's watched tough movies at the American Center before. I figured she could handle it. It might even be good for her. One of my guiding principals is to introduce kids to things that they were wholly unfamiliar with. An hour or so passed and I forgot she was there- until I heard sniffling in the corner. I craned my head in time to see my student wiping her nose and slowly pulling off the headphones. Concerned, I gave her a hug and a wad of toilet paper which she accepted with a little smile. She seemed like she was recovering okay then looked at me over my computer and said "Teacher, is this story true?" I sighed pensively. I've never seen the movie but am familiar with the plot line. Taking a deep breath I said "Well, the people aren't really true. But the events, they are true." She looked disappointed.  From my experience here so far I thought all Mongolian children had at least a minimal knowledge of the basic outline of Western history. This girl had apparently never heard of Hitler. I pulled up a chair next to mine and patted it, "come'ere, I'll teach you." We went to Wikipedia and I talked her though the basic outline of pre-World War II Germany, why Hitler was so popular and how he took power. She interjected sad questions like "But why the Jewish People?" I stressed the point of racial purity, fear of 'other' and explained that homosexuals were also targets; I figured Roma people were a bridge too far. At points in our talk, which lased maybe ten minutes, her eyes welled up with fresh tears. It was salt water that pulled on my heartstrings and made me question myself. I fought tears of my own. I wanted to make it all better for her. I Google Image searched Holocaust Memorials and we talked about education and how almost every city has a memorial. But I knew there was no way to bandage this. She would go home and the little boy, the boy who was forced to wear the striped pajamas, would follow her. Did I do the right thing? Should I have let her watch this movie? Must all children be taught about this dark and hideous corners of history? Must they be harrowed by horrors like genocide? I destroyed a young girls innocence today. But I think she had to learn. If not in service to the six million who perished in Europe but all the others- people, children her age, who have been slaughtered at the hands of hate. I tried to draw a parallel for her, to make it both more real and abstract. I tried to explain that this is the reason why I get angry when students say they hate the Chinese. Because this is what hate can do. It wasn't important to show her the pictures of the shoes or the emaciated liberated, she got the message. I gave her a hefty comic book that had been sent to me by the Anne Frank Organization in America to help make things a little clearer. I hope it helps.

This kind of thing is normally my favorite part of the job: what I like to call "culture time". Depending on the topic at hand, the kids circle their wagons around my laptop and we Google Image or Wikipedia different things that are completely new to them. These things normally relate to a lesson. Once it was Janice Joplin (that one actually related to nothing- just the thought of children not knowing Janice scandalized me), another time botanical gardens and yet another time Jackson Pollock. I really love working with teenagers because they are nothing but little sponges, soaking up all goodness you lay before them. It's a lot of pressure to get things right, but I love being the woman for that job. The site of their little faces brimming with astonishment as they absorb yet another part of the world never fails to be fufilling. Yesterday is a good example. When overseeing peer editing on a project about different countries, I realize the girl who was studying Italy and her peer editor had never seen the Sistine Chapel. Or St. Peter's Basilica. So I conjured up photos online and beckoned the two girls to the computer. If I live a hundred years, I don't think I'll ever forget their gasps. It was magical, almost better than seeing the real thing. Hours I spend pulling teeth for participation from younger students, lesson planning until I want to vom and biting my tongue when I can't hear myself think over drunk librarians singing all vanish when I hear these little gasps. It's like their awe-filled exhalations gently puff out any frustration or anger trapped in the recesses of my life.

Frequently I come across teachers dilemmas. I don't think I was ever cut out to be a teacher, mentoring is what I love and what I've done before. I never really wanted to be a teacher, but the line between teacher and mentor blurs itself in cases like the ones above which is why I treasure them. As for teaching, having an audience I love but trying to spell the simplest words correctly or differentiate between adverbs and adjectives are things I have no zeal for. Hell, I don't know these things, why should my students? But every day I try to make the best of it and times like these, the mere minutes when I can sit down and really talk with a student, get them to open their minds to a new idea, make me proud to be an educator. But then burdens come with the thrills and as my student took her new found demons home with her, so too I took hers home with me as well.


Anonymous said...

respect. this girl seem to accept the consequences of her actions. how many other people ( not only mongolians!) would just laugh, switch the tv off and leave the room? not to do this but to finish what has been started is only possible with a helping hand. good job, teacher!

E in Atlanta said...

You are a good teacher. And that can be painful. Keep at it.