Of Joy and Being Led

It is the nature of objects in motion to stay in motion. We don’t always have to try and steer. 

Friday, I finally managed to get a handful of students outside for a preliminary bit of ultimate frisbee. This came after several explanations that there are not going to be “tryouts” unless we somehow conjure more than twenty people. We had…three.

While I was doing some pretty standard exercises to teach those three students to throw forehand, I had the opportunity to watch a bunch of other students playing soccer.

My school has good soccer teams. It’s one of the few positives we get to check on the list of “stereotypes you expect for a school with an 85% Hispanic student body.” We also have a terrible “field” that once had grass but is now a broad swathe of bare dirt surrounded by knee-high weeds. It’s dusty. It’s hard enough that even hard ground cleats won’t give you much purchase. One of the goals has been broken since February.

So that’s the scene: Anglo English teacher watching Latino middle schoolers play soccer in the dust. It’s that scene that goes somewhere in the first third of the inspirational movie (be it a sports or education movie). Maybe I’d be played by Kevin Costner.

Here’s the thing: they didn’t need me. At all. Soccer practice had been cancelled, so there were no coaches on hand. The students had one goal. They were playing a free-for-all scrum that involved yelling at each other in English and Spanish (and with more profanity in both than they’d admit) and occasionally claiming to represent (or claiming somebody else represented) countries from Chile to England.

And they were happy. Joyful. I see many emotions as a teacher: pride, resentment, happiness, fear, anger…I do not often get to see joy, the pure exultation in the moment.

Part of it was kids being kids, of course. Freshly-minted teenagers need to play, and they don’t generally play around the people who assign them grades or decide whether they get to start the next game. They don’t even necessarily play when they know they have an adult audience. The students were ignoring me, which I’m sure helped them to be happy. (No comment on whether the same applies in class.)

Aside from the contact high of being around the really happy, though, watching the middle schoolers play their game made me think of this blog post. (Mr. Rad’s blog is fantastic. It also makes me pine a bit for Minneapolis.)

My school is a charter. It comes with uniforms for the students and a laundry list of things for which they can get positive or negative points. (I sometimes wish they had houses so I could actually say “5 PRS for Gryffindor.”) We have block scheduling. The default assumption is that the students will sit quietly whenever asked, for whatever portion of 90 minutes the teacher requires. They have a painfully short lunch break. They spend a ton of time being told what to do and, more often, what not to do. Some days that seems necessary to get the 28 thirteen and fourteen year-olds I have in my room pointed in the same direction and learning. I try my best to give the students opportunities to speak, to each other and to me. I try to listen  .

The striking thing about “Mr. Rad’s” post, though, is that he calls for getting beyond listening. He calls for us (meaning privileged white males) to be led. That’s a much, much harder thing. Listening can be a passive process. When you’re listening, it’s easy to do so selectively (ask any teacher). Being led, though, requires active following. It requires more than Bill Clinton’s “I feel your pain.” It means going beyond “How can I help?” to “What needs to be done?” and even further to “What do you want me to do?” It’s hard. It’s hard as a teacher who’s pushed to wield authority. It’s hard as somebody for whom society has been built.

For me, that meant going over and inviting (and only inviting) the kids playing soccer to try ultimate. A few of them did. We had a game that was about as slapdash as you’d expect on a short field with five of the six players involved unable to throw a forehand more than ten yards. Most of the kids, though, stuck with their soccer game. We played around them. After five or six extremely long points, the soccer players who’d been playing ultimate went back to playing soccer. They invited me to play, too, and I tried for a bit.

They didn’t need me, though. Not there. They were doing fine without my help. Isn’t that what we aim for as educators?