Crash Course

January 01, 1997 7 min read
Given Jerry’s schooling, he was headed for disaster.

I became an English teacher out of youthful idealism and an ambulance director out of the practical necessities of rural life. Sometimes when I’m dealing with students, I find myself thinking of them as patients. More often, when I’m dealing with patients, I find myself thinking of them as students. Their medical problems are so frequently symptoms of underlying educational problems. Such was the case with Jerry.

Jerry had been a student of mine in high school. But one night several years later, he became one of my patients when the truck he was driving reached a broad curve in Highway 93 at Jocko Hollow and failed to make the turn. It flew into the southbound lane, crashing head-on into the car of an elderly couple. The couple’s vehicle barely moved from the point of impact. One second it was traveling 60 miles an hour, and the next it was still. The pickup Jerry had borrowed bounced aside and rolled, coming to rest on its roof in the middle of the highway.

When our six-member ambulance crew arrived on the scene, Jerry was the first person we reached. He had been thrown from the pickup and was lying on the highway. As his former teacher, I wasn’t surprised to find him in these circumstances. I stopped long enough to see that he was conscious and breathing, with no critical bleeding. Then I went to Jerry’s passenger, who was still inside the pickup. The roof had partially collapsed, and I didn’t immediately see a good way to get him out, but when I shook him, he roused and mumbled. Another attendant crawled into the pickup to get a better look. I left the truck and ran up the hill to the car, where two attendants were already busy. The driver was obviously dead. He was lying across the front seat, wedged between the dashboard and his wife. She answered questions, but weakly.

Emergency medical specialists try to eliminate every distraction possible. The first time I watched a patient in the emergency room, I was struck by the way the person had ceased being a person. He became a mass of meat, a set of technical challenges. The head was pulled back and the mouth held open while a nurse ran a suction catheter through the cavity, sucking out saliva and vomit. As she did this, others probed for veins with intravenous needles, treating the skin as if it were a pin cushion. The respiratory therapist held the jaw open and slid a tube down the throat, probing for the trachea. Still others slashed away the man’s clothes, tossing the cut rags on the floor amid the growing pile of wrappers from electrodes, catheters, and cannulas.

When they gave up, they turned away from the body that lay naked under the bright lights, tubes sticking out of it. They busied themselves cleaning up, making notes, and chatting about their shift. It isn’t that they were uncaring people; they had done their best, giving the man the full benefit of skills honed through hours of practice. They had a job to do, and they did it. The world depends on people like them.

People making careers in education often want to imitate the language and methods of medicine, eager, perhaps, for the credibility and respect of doctors. But medicine, insofar as it deals with flesh, is far simpler work than teaching. There are spiritual dangers for teachers who uncritically accept the methods of science.

If a surgeon wants to talk about objectivity, I’m cautious but not alarmed.

“We need to be objective,” teachers and administrators reminded me countless times during my years in schools. Is it detachment they have in mind when they talk about objectivity? The surgeon sees a small window of flesh, painted with an antiseptic, while the patient lies unconscious under the sheet. The surgeon’s task is technical. He needs to see vessels and tendons and nerves, and what he needs to see he can see without love. If he wants to talk about objectivity, I’m cautious but not alarmed.

But when teachers start saying they must be objective, I wonder. Sometimes, they mean they need to see clearly; other times, they mean they need to do the just thing, even when that’s hard. I don’t take issue with either. But we must be careful of the ideals we choose. Chasing the ideal of objectivity has led many teachers to make the language of behaviorism the official jargon of American education.

When I hear teachers talk about reinforcements and behavior management, I feel a subversive urge to incite their students to rebellion. I want to slip into their classes and tell outrageous stories about heroes who did not adjust to their environments but warred against bogus limits and won. I want to teach students that we should talk to each other only in the language of free beings. I don’t want my students to behave, I want them to act, full of will and intent. I don’t want my children managed, I want them taught to will those things that are good.

Besides, there really isn’t room for behaviorists in the world of schools. Behaviorists are controllers, manipulating the environment, using various coercions to get students to behave as the controller has decided they should. Too many people talk about education these days as though good schools have no need of teachers. What they want are instructors who will “deliver the curriculum,” technicians who will apply the “interventions” that are currently in fashion, and facilitators who will “implement strategies” according to their training.

I don’t want my students to behave, I want them to act, full of will and intent.

Jerry had too many of these kinds of teachers in school, and none of them helped him much. The specialists took him aside to teach him skills, which usually meant they gave him worksheets. In his record, you can read that he received “individualized assistance.” What he heard was, “When you finish this worksheet there are 10 dozen more ahead.” Jerry needed something more.

Good teachers are exemplars. They succeed by inviting others to join them in the work they love. It is often tentative, haphazard, uncertain work. And it can be frustrating and lonely, too. But they are successful because they love what they do.

This, of course, is an idealistic view of teaching. As every teacher knows, students’ problems—their home lives, poverty, and illnesses—seem so deep and persistent at times that necessity—the world as it is—threatens to completely overwhelm idealism. But when youthful idealism runs into life’s practical necessities, one doesn’t have to obliterate the other. Another result could be a kind of mature idealism. The young idealist tends to overlook life’s hardships. But the experienced practitioner, the seasoned idealist, can draw vigor and strength precisely from those hardships.

I might not have found Jerry sprawled on the freeway had his parents and teachers taught him a few simple rules about how to live, about what is good. If we had done that, I think he would have believed us and, for the most part, followed our lead. He was a good kid, eager to please. Schools all across America are decorated with posters telling young people to say no to drugs and sex and the other problems that have created markets for posters and workshops. But what these kids urgently need is folks they trust telling them—showing them—what to say yes to. We usually let go of bad things only by grasping better things. When we put our energy into avoiding errors, we often lose our way. The kid who ignores his falls and stays focused on his goal learns quickly. The errors fall away.

As it was, surgeons made an incision at Jerry’s hip, took the joint apart, and slid a pin down his femur. In a few days, he was walking. The owner of the pickup handled the insurance hassles. A public defender dealt with the legal intricacies. Jerry came back to town, off the hook, to the only people who were interested enough in him to offer leadership: the local underclass criminals. They told him what to think and what to do, and he did it. It wasn’t many months before he landed in the prison at Deer Lodge, after a long series of astonishingly petty burglaries. He broke into houses and stole jewelry worth pennies.

Jerry did well in prison. His day was structured. People told him when to get up, when to eat, when to sleep. He spent his free time making horsehair belts and key chains, following patterns he was given. He was pleased to have made something. n commentary, teaching profession

Michael Umphrey, a former teacher and principal, is director of the Montana Heritage Project, a collaborative public history program.