Notes on the Saturnalia of Hallway Life

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She toyed with her boyfriend's hair, pecked at his lips, and snuggled deeper into his arms, but since she's really a good girl and no rampaging wanton, she lovingly pushed him away when the bell rang and went into the classroom to take her seat. My heart sank.

I had been reviewing my lesson on Othello, but what chance did my super-subtle insights into Shakespeare have against the lingering warmth of a young man's embrace? And I could imagine how distracted the poor guy was somewhere down the hall where one of my colleagues was probably raving on about Metternich's foreign policy.

That same morning, a story about the latest sat results made front-page news, but I knew that no reporter would be around to cover my student's burgeoning libido. However, from what I see, usually standing in my classroom doorway with a good view of the saturnalia of hallway life, that's the real story in education today.

I know that old notions die hard, and that's probably why a minute rise in sat scores made a splash. Obviously, a lot of people think that sort of thing makes a difference. Reading and mathematics test results have become something of an academic body count for the field marshals and generals of education. And, fortified by the latest communiques, they comfortably claim that "we're winning," or, as my union newspaper tells it, "We're on the right track." One could easily have visions of hordes of us good guys advancing on all fronts, across the steppes of Central Asia. Moscow has fallen! On to Gopher Prairie!

But to sustain such a rosy vision, you have to stay away from classrooms and students. We teachers know all too well what's really happening on the front line.

Which brings me back to my amorous students and the reasons why no practicing teacher that I know got excited over the latest test results. Those who are cheered by these statistics tend to assume that improved skills will be converted into better performance. But over the last few years, I, for one, never doubted my students' abilities. What I saw decline was not brainpower, but willpower. Our main problem now in the classroom is that our young people are hopelessly distracted.

For one thing, the sexual revolution, which some misguided free spirits would call a salutary release of crushing inhibitions, has radicalized our teenyboppers, and student-watching has become a kind of voyeurism or soft porn on the hoof.

Yesterday, for example, before my sophomore class began, a local gridiron Adonis came into my room to nibble at the neck of his girlfriend before an admiring audience. And last term, the curly haired girl in the back row would periodically, with studied casualness, drop her hand onto the thigh of the boy across the aisle. When, with consummate avuncular tact, I spoke to her about it, she just smiled and said the boy was "just a friend." I blush to think of her tactile relations with a guy she liked a lot.

All this, along with the embracing, fondling, and kissing in our hallways and classrooms, is clearly just the tip of the erotic iceberg. Teen-age pregnancy and venereal disease are rising, certainly with a substantial investment of time, effort, and preoccupation.

This libidinous scrimmaging leads to further distraction. A significant part of classroom time is filled with combing, primping, and all-around mirror gazing. Five or ten minutes before the end of the period, covertly or blatantly, out come the combs, tweezers, skin lotion, and mirrors, frantic preparation for the five-minute "nibble and nuzzle session" between classes. Nor is this foppishness confined to girls. A young Dorian Gray in the first row carries a notebook-sized mirror which he pops open at intervals to reassure himself that age hasn't withered his fragile beauty. Crow's feet at 15 can be crushing.

Not all students, of course, are votaries of Eros. Those who swear allegiance to Morpheus are probably more numerous. Large numbers of students pass their day in semi-stupor or in a daze of greater or lesser befuddlement. I've been told that on some school buses, marijuana smoking is so blatant and widespread that the driver sometimes stops and refuses to move unless the kids "cool" it.

But most often, the driver is anxious to make his or her run as quickly and painlessly as possible. So a lot of my students literally tumble from the bus into my classroom. Some put their foreheads on the desk, while others sit passively while questions, assignments, and miscellaneous profundities whiz harmlessly over their heads. There is some alcohol around, too, but most of the damage is done by the forbidden weed.

If sex, pot, and booze have sent us reeling to the ropes, miniaturization is bound to finish us off. The kids' culture is frantic, frenetic, and hypnotic, and now they can take it wherever they go, even into the classroom.

Up until now, we've generally been successful in our war against radios, but the "Walkman" types are formidable new weapons in the distraction arsenal, cruise missiles of diversion that are being deployed at an accelerated rate.

It's becoming harder to detect the thin strands of wire curling from pockets or book bags or purses up into the tiniest of headsets. And I've already seen "computer" games that can fit in the palm of a hand or, more likely, inside a copy of Hamlet. So, when the not-too-distant day arrives when wrist-watch television sets are sold for under $50, it'll be time for us to hoist the white flag. No student will ever look at a teacher again. (Who knows, I might even welcome the anonymity when I crawl off to ignominious retirement.)

So, though the romantic tales of improved scores may well keep old men by the fire or administrators by their graphs, we teachers know that, as surely as the sun will rise, tapes will turn, grass will grow, and love will bloom in the land.

Vol. 02, Issue 16, Page 18

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