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Accentuating the Negative

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The schoolmaster had the reputation of being a kindly man, but probably the accepted theory of what young boys were like and what worked in school was such that he believed that each of his students needed to "have their clock wound up every Monday," which, in practice, meant that every one of them needed a good flogging to start off the week as motivation that would last them until Friday. Luckily for the boys, the schoolmaster's wife was just as kind as her husband--and a lot more sensible--and she regularly "lost" the keys to the closet where the rods were kept. But the terror of Monday morning never left the boys.

This story was told by Thomas Adolphus Trollope, the oldest brother of the famous Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, when, as an old man, 70 years after the event, he still vividly remembered the horrors of his school life. As a young charity student who lived in the village, he was mercilessly bullied by the boarding students who considered themselves superior to the ragged little boy sitting alone behind the teacher. The problem was compounded by the fact that the headmaster, despite his high reputation, seemed utterly unaware of the fact that his students had lives and problems outside and inside his classroom.

Mercifully, the rods have been locked away for good, but the story is a powerful reminder of how well people remember their earliest days and often bear their scars well into adulthood. Also, it's a cautionary tale for us teachers to keep in mind how vulnerable the children usually are who sit in front of us each day in our classes, and how important even our most casual words or action can be to them, to cause pain or joy, even when we think we're being objective or impersonal.

I'm certain that there are moments in every teacher's career when this truth is forcefully driven home. I still remember a lesson I taught about 25 years ago when I was discussing Howard Nemerov's poem "Santa Claus" in a junior English class. The poem is bitingly satirical about the commercialization of Christmas and how the overstuffed Santa had become the embodiment of a despiritualized, consumerist, gimme mentality. The discussion was going briskly back and forth and, with a good deal of complacency, I thought to myself how terrific I was in bringing out the author's telling points and making the kids think and all that.

Suddenly, a boy who rarely spoke in class raised his hand. "Can't you leave anything alone? Do you have to destroy everything?" he said in a voice quivering with anger. Those were his exact words. (Teachers remember, too.) When I asked him to explain, he said that we were always criticizing things. He didn't believe in Santa Claus, of course, but the idea behind it all was sort of nice and his family enjoyed themselves and looked forward to the holiday season, and he didn't see what the point was in always looking on the negative side of things. Other students took up the argument, but the boy's comments hit home, in me at least.

Later that day, I thought back on the other things we had read and on our earlier discussions in class, and I saw that the boy had a point. There was an awful lot that was negative and carping in what I had offered the class, mainly because it was usually the negative and critical that could best get a discussion rolling, which was what my colleagues and I thought teaching English was mostly about. It was my way of "winding up the clock"--of goading and even irritating my students into some sort of response.

But the usually silent boy had given me a sudden insight into the real lives of our students, to the heartfelt values and memories that lay hidden behind the masks that they presented to the rest of the world. I saw then that our discussions were too often the clever exercise of a professional "doing his job" and of students who knew that class participation in itself counted heavily in their final grades.

The memory of that lesson lingered as a valuable reminder of the vulnerability of youth and of how important it is for teachers to be tuned in to what the kids really think and feel. And because I once failed to make that connection, it's possible that, for one boy at least, the pain of the poem "Santa Claus" might last as long as Thomas Adolphus Trollope's memory of having "his clock wound up" the first thing on Monday morning.

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