Gretchen Klinedinst Furst
Untitled: Words at a Loss for Words
I haven’t been able to write since the shooting. If we’re decent human beings, these events knock our souls around. If we’re decent human beings with children of our own or close to other people’s children, there’s a devastating anxiety and extra heartbreak. For those of us who are teachers or any person who works in a school or classroom of any kind, there’s something else about it for which I have no words. Which I guess is why I haven’t been able to write.
Twenty-three years of my life I’ve spent in the world of teenagers. I’ve taught middle school, high school, and college kids in many different types of classrooms and environments from public school classrooms to private tutoring, from theatre school classes to summer camps. I’ve taught the rich, the poor, the middle class, the learning disabled, the addicted, the lost, the vo-tech kids, the college preps, the forgotten, the happy-go-lucky, the privileged, the struggling, the bereaved, the unmotivated, the artists, the misfits, the popular, the depressed, the homeless, the gifted, the well-adjusted, the spirited, the rebels, the perfectionists, the drama queens, the unkind, the mellow-yellow kids who just go with the flow…the list is endless. So many kinds of teenagers. So many different types of human beings, each on the threshold of finding out what they want in life and each on the journey to discovering who they are. And I love it.
I enjoy teenagers. I actually like working with them. I often prefer them to adults. They make me laugh, they inspire me, and they sometimes make me crazy. And although not all possess the kindest heart, the overwhelming majority of my students, the very diverse array of students I’ve taught in the course of my teaching life, worked for their grades and evolved as decent human beings during our time together.
I hope I inspired them, and I know they inspired me. That’s what being a teacher is all about.
Of course, teaching’s not for the faint of heart. I’ve had students yell in my face, shove a desk at me (I was pregnant at the time), deal drugs in my room, storm out of my class. Teenagers. I’ve had students hand me their drugs, tell me their sorrows, plead for my help, and thank me for teaching them how to express themselves.
I’ve lost students.
I’ve had students tell me my class was their sacred space. I’ve witnessed students go from hating reading to carrying a book around for pleasure, from refusing to read aloud, to volunteering to do so. I’ve received embraces from kids nobody else could get through to, and I’ve hugged back.
There are many who couldn’t last five minutes in a middle school or high school classroom. They are usually the same people who think they know what’s best for our kids. Often, they don’t even like teenagers. They don’t see what they are inside. The same people often criticize teachers and want to destroy pensions and unions and yet expect them to make every student proficient on test scores against the odds of overcrowded classrooms and a variety of issues students bring with them to school each day. And now there are people, most likely people who have NEVER worked with kids or have even ever been in an entire building full of teenagers, who believe teachers should be armed. Obviously, I think this is ludicrous.
Instead of arming teachers with guns, let’s opt for more classes that involve organic learning and that elicit empathy in our middle schools and high schools.
I teach drama. Every student should take a drama class. I teach creative writing. Every student should take a creative writing class. I teach public speaking. Every student should take a public speaking class. And here’s why.
Classes like these encourage self-expression and reflection in a safe environment. They provide a natural state of creative sharing among peers that only results (when led by an effective, intuitive teacher) in deeper connection and understanding. They create a chance to play, something very much missing from school at the secondary level. They present opportunities to be a character and explore the emotions and perspectives of someone not like them. They foster fun and spontaneity.
When students work creatively together to improvise and make up scenes; inevitably there’s laughter. There’s an opening that takes place when students collaborate on a piece of drama and present it to the class because drama is story and story hits universal nerves, and the other kids relate and the magic happens right there in that moment. Instantaneous connection.
There’s an energy and bravery in sharing pieces of writing for the very same reason. Words have the power to bond individuals seemingly worlds apart. Through story, shared experiences and emotions between the author and the reader elicit empathy. And more of that is definitely a good thing. Empathy allows for discussion of ideas and celebration of unique perspectives and personalities.
Play, story, empathy, connection: these ingredients exist in a classroom fostering drama, writing, and speaking. Each moment speaking or sharing one’s ideas in front of the class leads to more confidence. Each bit of vulnerability among a room of supportive peers fosters connection and celebrates the imperfection of being human, as well as the reality that we are more alike than different. We relate more than we don’t. We share the same stories more than we realize. And we can grow because of it in a class conducive to this sort of work. Of course, the right kind of teacher is essential: one that sees the star behind each student’s eyes, one that gives constructive feedback, one that does not tolerate in any way any sort of unkindness or disrespect in her classroom.
(a poster a student made for me with a photo of my classroom and a poem she wrote)
I’m speaking specifically for secondary ed levels of students because I feel that middle school through high school is quite possibly the most excruciating time to be a work in progress. Of course, there are plenty of teachers doing what they can in their own ways to provide a creative, expressive, empathetic atmosphere every day in their classrooms, but I’d like to see research done on how such a class might influence an entire school if it were mandatory for all students, just like physical education or health.
That’s not to say that any such class or program could stop a sociopath in any way whatsoever.
I don’t have an answer for evil.
But I do believe the connection we’re all missing due to our phones, our reality TV, the divisive rhetoric, the sensationalized news, and the desensitization of our culture could potentially change with programs that fostered such connection. I do believe we could change the community of our schools in some small but meaningful way.
Don’t arm our teachers. Add as many security officers as you like, but don’t ask our teachers to be soldiers. They already do that. In so many ways. Instead, let’s arm our school curriculums, our middle schools and high schools, with more opportunities to connect and undo the division and the perceived differences.
Of course there’s so much more to it than this, but today that’s what I’ve got. More humanity, more sharing of stories, more play, more interaction.
Less guns. More love.