Sunday, September 26, 2010

Anecdotal Providence

Presumably, some people have a strong sense of purpose that animates them and propels them into their life's work.  I say presumably, because people have told this to me and I am generally a trusting sort.  I'm inclined to believe it because the alternative (the idea that nobody has a particularly compelling reason for doing anything) is so damningly depressing that if I bought into that, I'd probably spend my days eating cookies or counting pennies, or just sobbing inwardly about the dreadful atmosphere of supermarket checkout lines.

But I'm also acutely aware that until this point in my life, I haven't felt that powerful motivating impulse.  I have often wanted to do things, and sometimes I have even done them.  Occasionally, you might even say I had to do them.  But when have I really, truly, needed to do something?  Maybe somewhere, some time along the path of my life; but if I had, the moment passed before I could act on it, or even recognize it for what it was.

Not that I haven't been looking, or wondering (which is what I do when I'm too lazy to look).  If I have a purpose in life, I'd like to think I'd recognize that purpose when it crossed my path.  Perhaps I'd find myself doing something, for no particular reason, and inspiration would strike.  A choir of angels singing something pretty, or a magic sword embedded in a possibly-yet-irrelevantly magic stone; or maybe I'd just feel really, really good for a while.  Any one of these things would be an acceptable sign, if such signs were ever actually given to unmotivated slackers.

I wouldn't say I felt divinely moved to consider a career in education.  It seemed like something I could do (given practice and training), something I might enjoy doing, and something that could actually benefit humanity in some way, all of which are perfectly acceptable reasons to do anything.  It also seemed like it would be hard, but there's no getting around that in life: better to pick something hard than waste time forever on what's easy.  Maybe, I told myself, I could even pretend it was my purpose in life.

This past Thursday I was student teaching, or rather I was listening as my mentor taught a law studies elective class, waiting for my last period of the day to start.  The subject that day was compensation and restitution, and the students were assigned a number of case studies to examine and determine how much was to be awarded to the victims under certain circumstances.  Most of these cases involved murders or other serious injuries, and some were quite tragic, but I listened to the discussion with a sort of intellectual detachment.

One of these case studies was the story of a woman who, after going to a bar and becoming intoxicated, brought a man home, and was promptly raped and stabbed multiple times with a kitchen knife.  She barely survived, and applied for restitution for (among other things) medical expenses and lost wages.  The question was put to the students: how much of her claim was to be awarded?

A male student raised his hand and confidently declared, "Nothing.  It was her fault that it happened, because she took a man home who she only met two hours before."  Shocked at the boldness of this answer, I looked to my mentor for a response: he asked the student if he believed the woman had intended anything like that to happen to her, and the student responded with a a somewhat evasive answer that essentially affirmed his previous statement.  My mentor then tried to move the conversation into less controversial territory, but as I turned my eyes away from the student (whom I had already begun to dislike), I heard a male voice say "maybe I'd award her twenty bucks for the cab ride home."

I don't know how many people in the room heard that comment, but as my head snapped up I could see that everyone in that corner certainly had.  The five boys who sat there were all laughing under their breath; a girl who sat near them was laughing too, but also looking down at her desk.  My mentor did not seem to have noticed.

At that moment, I was extremely confused and conflicted.  I had not been participating as a teacher that period, and did not particularly want to go over my mentor's head and derail the lesson in progress. I am not, in any case, fond of inserting myself needlessly into a confrontational situation.  But my training at grad school had been very clear on the matter, that offensive comments of that sort were supposed to be addressed quickly and unambiguously.  Even more than that, I was angry.  When I looked at those boys (who could have been anywhere from sixteen to eighteen for all I knew), with their overgrown physiques, self-satisfied smirks, football jerseys and jock-ish condescension, I felt more hate and wrath toward them than I knew what to do with.  It soon transcended the shock I felt at those comments: I hated them just for being who they were, and thinking how they thought.  My internal conflict boiled down to a very simple question: how, while fulfilling my ethical and professional obligations, do I tell these kids to go fuck themselves?

And then something different happened: my supervisor from the university showed up, and waved for me to meet him outside.  He'd come to observe me teaching my seventh period Freshman Career Ed class, which I knew was happening but had forgotten in my moment of passion.  I put the whole incident out of my mind, briefed him on my lesson plan and did my duty; afterward, I rushed home to prepare for class at the university, to share with my classmates my ongoing experience in student teaching.

During the class discussion period, I was suddenly struck once more with the full impact of the incident.  Although it was basically off topic, I offered the story for discussion, and recounted the maddening tale to my cohorts.  As I spoke, I became very emotional, and my voice trembled even as I searched for the words (profane and otherwise) to describe my feelings toward the miserable little meat-heads.  The resulting discussion lasted, I believe, about thirty to forty minutes.  I received a lot of advice, some of it contradictory, but a consensus emerged that I should discuss the issue with the kids the next day after I'd had time to cool my head and think rationally.  I felt better having a plan of action, but I couldn't get the incident out of my head for the rest of the night.  I thought of writing something, but I was too emotionally drained and tired, so I just went to sleep.

The next morning I got a text from my mentor, and he told me he would be out for the day, but a sub would be around to teach his share of the classes and keep an eye on me.  I knew that it was all on me to carry the big discussion, and I got nervous.  Fortunately, the substitute was an experienced teacher who was wholly sympathetic to what I wanted to do, and he told me I could have fifteen minutes to say whatever I wanted to them at the start of class.

Five periods went by, and I didn't think very much about it.  The truth was, I had calmed down a lot from the previous night.  I still felt just as strongly about the wrongness of what had been said, but my anger was dissipated, and I felt more strongly moved by a desire to set aside ignorant misconceptions than to punish the wicked.  Also, I had become a nervous wreck, having never been in the position of lecturing complete strangers about morality (at least as a genuine authority figure). 

When the time came, I addressed the class from behind the podium in order to compensate somewhat for the weakness creeping back into my voice.  The kid who made the original statement fessed up, with a sheepish sort of smile, but denied being the author of the "cab fare" comment.  I assumed one of his buddies was responsible, but decided to move forward without pressing the issue.  In any case, seeing them once more in the flesh had reminded me of their humanity, and helped me in finding the right words.

I told them first of all that I thought Law Studies was a wonderful class to have offered at the high school level; that law was an endlessly fascinating subject, infinitely rewarding both for those who thought they might make a career out of it, as well as for the average citizen.  But commentary that shifted the blame of criminal activity from perpetrator to victim, I insisted, was simply not worthy of that class.  Commentary like that perverts the true spirit of the law, which is to protect those who have been hurt, injured, and wronged.  It is a spirit as old as the Code of Hammurabi, which promised "to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land... so that the strong should not harm the weak."*

*It didn't occur to me to quote Hammurabi at the time, but I really wish it had.

I told them that regardless of the wisdom of her choice, a woman had as much right as a man to go looking for a one night stand at a bar, and could never be held responsible for a crime committed against her by a man who had malice in his heart from the beginning.  Antiquated gender norms, I said, have no business turning the law away from the cause of helping those in need.  Judgment in a case like that should not rest on some one's idea about how a woman should act, but upon the magnitude of harm she suffers at the hands of a brutal criminal.

The substitute then joined in, principally to emphasize that rape was among the most heinous of crimes, and that we should never allow ourselves to be desensitized to it and fail to empathize with the victims.  When he had finished speaking, I asked if any of the students had anything to say about the matter.  One boy did, but he had not been present the day before and seemed slightly confused about what, exactly, the implications of the original comment had been.  I set him straight, but nobody else had anything to add, so I turned the class over to the sub and started mentally prepping for my last class.  The boys, who earlier I had written off as sub-human, quietly turned to the task of reviewing for their upcoming test.

I might have felt relieved about having faced my challenge and passed, but I suppose I had lingering doubts about my effectiveness in communicating my message.  I still felt anxious enough to grow irritated with my Freshmen, more quickly than I usually do.  In fairness, they were especially rowdy that afternoon because it was Friday and they had a football game, but I believe my nerves were still thoroughly wracked from the previous class.  That seventh period was far from being my finest hour, and my mood was somewhat soured as a result.

But on my drive home, I began to think better of my performance.  I'd followed through on something I meant to do, something that would have been easy enough to forget about, but that I felt just had to be done.  I had done it in a way that kept my emotions in check, and affirmed the better aspects of human nature.  And I had grown a little wiser in my assessment of the intentions and misunderstandings of young minds.  I could have done better, but these were all things that I could be proud of.

It didn't feel like divine inspiration.  I wouldn't say I felt particularly good, and there was certainly no choir of angels in my car.  But I honestly felt, more than at just about any other point in my life, that I'd done the world some good.  If that really is the purpose of my life, it wouldn't be so hard to live with.

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