Preserving minds

The year was new and I just finished a teaching course, a long, exhausting 30 days course. It cost me almost two thousand dollars and at the end of it I felt nothing but glad it was over. My boyfriend picked me up at the centre and as we drove back to Bandung on the dark, rainy evening he asked me how I feel. He, of all people, knew how hard the course was for me. The constant late-night calls, the whining and the crying, the frustration and the stress. I was surprised he didn’t break up with me after what I pulled the last month in Jakarta.

I rested my head and sighed, I said I guess now I know how to teach better. How could you not? Thirty days of teaching methodologies, textbooks to read, observed teaching practices and feedbacks that got rougher each weeks. Don’t forget the CCQs. You know how to make one do you? Don’t forget to put pronunciation before form. And don’t forget that you can’t say ‘I’m going to’. All for you to be a better teacher. You have to know your shit.

Back in the office, I was hoping – expecting, that from now on, my life would be different. It did in some ways, I was more confident, I planned my lesson better, and yes I always put pronunciation before form. I didn’t thank my brain, but the 30 days of brainwashing. Feed your brain with fear and you won’t ever forget things that traumatize you. My friends asked me did I enjoy my course. No. I enjoy a day with coffee and TV, I enjoy holiday at the beach, and I enjoy walking my dogs every morning. I’m pretty sure I didn’t enjoy the last month I spent in a building with strangers figuring out what was the meaning of past continuous tense.

I keep asking myself: is this how to be a better teacher. Teacher has to know things. And that’s not enough; they also have to be able to explain things. Wait, to make it more complicated: they have to do so in various levels. You can’t teach present simple using the same aims for elementary and intermediate. You have to know your audience so you’ll be rewarded at the end by their understanding. This much I know and it took me awhile to figure this out. My course helped, but what came next, still quite shocking to me.

I have some regular classes and one of them was a class of teenagers. It was true what they said about teaching teenagers: painful. During my first months with them I was so desperate that I found myself googling on ‘how to handle difficult teens in classrooms’. I liked one of the tips, it said just get out of the room when you feel really, really upset. I did that often and each month I found them easier to talk to. I noticed how they listen to me when they didn’t before. I took interests on their lives and I wasn’t pretending. Anya loves cosplay and she showed me a picture of hers with pink wig. Della had a hard time with her parents’ divorce and sulked every time she came into the class, but now she enjoys her high school life. Josh, who stutters, speaks more confidently about his days at school and the new club he joined, karate. Oscar who had been very uncooperative last year now couldn’t stop talking about photography. They made a really weird combination, but to my surprise, was a good mix. Teaching them had been a pain, but I found myself enjoyed my hours with them as we entered our third year together – as teacher and students.

One afternoon, we were on our books, listening to a story about women spies during the World War II and matched some sentences. They had finished (quite easily because they were bright), and we were checking answers when Oscar blurted out, so casually it caught me off guard, that Hitler had done the right thing after all. I looked at him, confused. Did he really say that? We weren’t on Hitler on the book. He just said, “I had World War II at my history lesson today”. When I asked him what was right he explained, without hesitation, that by killing Jews, Hitler did the right thing. He knew it was a bad thing, killing people, but Jews are Muslims’ enemy, so by doing so Hitler had done some good for Muslims people. He finished it by saying that he got this from his history teacher, not the fact, but the opinion.

I stared at him, searching in my brain what my 30 days, 2000 dollars course had said about this situation. I was pretty sure there was a topic about how to handle difficult students. But he wasn’t being difficult. He was being..

“Crazy,” Anya said, “it wasn’t right doing that. Those people he killed were innocent.”

At this Oscar, being a teenager, carefree and I was pretty sure he didn’t do a thorough research about the pros and cons of holocaust, just shrugged. “You’re a Muslim miss, don’t you read the Qur’an?” It wasn’t just a question, but a challenge. “I did,” I could feel my palms wet with sweat. “Then you know that Jews should be banished from the face of earth. We should kill them.”

“Daniel is Jewish.” Josh said, matter of factly, “what would you do to him?” Oscar shrugged again, as if Joshjust asked some irrelevant question, “Daniel is different.” Daniel was a teacher I shared this class with. He got the Mondays, I got the Wednesdays. I know that Daniel liked this class too, we shared stories about our sessions in the teachers’ room, and I know the students liked him as well. Oscar looked at me again, “Jews are Muslims’ enemies. The Qur’an said so,” as if I was the stubborn student and he was tired of explaining the obvious to me. “We should kill them.”

Surely the course must have said something on how to handle this situation, but nothing came to my mind. I just said what was obvious even to a five year old, “killing other people, whatever the reason is, is wrong. I think Qur’an also mentioned it.” The truth was, no one needs a holy book to grasp that basic understanding, and second, I did read the Qur’an but I didn’t try to interpret it. I could recite the Arabic, but to me it’s just a sing-song chanting that calms me. So I said that to him, “I think our humanity prevents us to kill other human being, just like you won’t do any harm to Daniel even though your understanding of Qur’an said he must be killed.”

He wouldn’t let it go, he was at this age when they think they knew everything – or at least they think their teachers knew everything. Including his history teacher, and the he added his religious studies teacher also said so. So what did he make of me? I was his teacher and he expected me to provide some support on his other teachers’ opinion. Surely, all teachers – all Muslim teachers thought the same, didn’t they? At this point, grasping for an explanation teacher should be able to provide, like Jeremy Harmer had said in one of his seminar: Teacher must know stuff; I was stumbling in the dark. Then I remember Adrien Broody.

In his movies Detachment, Adrien as Henry Barthes the teacher, made a speech in front of his students. He asked how are we to imagine anything if the images are already provided for us? According to him we must “doublethink,” meaning having two opposing beliefs at once and believing both are true. It’s not easy, if applied to this situation I must believe in what Oscar said and my logic said. They are both true, but how could he be true? What situations and conditions actually supported his opinions?  This is what Mr.Barthes said following,

“Assimilate ubiquitously. Doublethink. To deliberately believe in lies, while knowing they’re false. Examples of this in everyday life: “oh, I need to be pretty to be happy. I need surgery to be pretty. I need to be thin, famous, fashionable.” Our young men today are being told that women are whores, bitches, things to be screwed, beaten, shit on, and shamed. This is a marketing holocaust. Twenty-four hours a day for the rest of our lives, the powers that be are hard at work dumbing us to death. So to defend ourselves, and fight against assimilating this dullness into our thought processes, we must learn to read. To stimulate our own imagination, to cultivate our own consciousness, our own belief systems. We all need skills to defend, to preserve, our own minds.”

I could just dismiss Oscar and his idiot teachers’ opinion from my mind or from my life. I could just easily think that I was right and they were wrong. I didn’t need to think much further and I could just carry on the lesson and I knew for sure they would just forget about this altogether soon. I could stick to my lesson plan, achieved my aim and moved on to the next class. Wasn’t that what expected from a good teacher? Suppressed your opinion – personal opinions – and be professional. I had the control to do so since the room was mine.

Instead, I did the opposite.

We all need skills to defend, to preserve, our own minds.

 “I think your teachers are wrong, because I think killing people are wrong. I still believe that some people deserved to die – rapist, serial killers, child abusers – Muslims or not, but I think it is dangerous to hate other people because of the way they live their lives. You know, I might be wrong too. So you need to figure this out by yourself.” At this, Oscar furrowed his brows, “me?”

“Your teachers said Jews should be banished, I said the opposite. You believe in Qur’an and I do too. But it is obvious that how we believe is different. And we can go on and on proving each other who is right, but that is useless, isn’t it? Because at the end, Oscar, you won’t need me or your teachers to tell you what is right. You have your own opinions, your own minds, and your own life.”

“Does that mean we shouldn’t listen to you?” he said, smirking.

“Listen to your teachers, but think for yourself.”

When I got out of the classroom to take a breath (tip #2 from the website), my hands were shaking. For weeks the incident had bugged me, surely, the class didn’t even recall the event on the next meeting. They were busy talking about their girlfriends and boyfriends and such topic has never risen again. I trusted Oscar and I believed he would be able to think for himself. Other teachers have criticised me for doing this, I should have stick on my lesson plan and isn’t religion one of the taboo topic you should have steered away at the first place? Don’t touch that topic, even though you had a 16 year old who talked about killing people because his teachers said it was the right thing to do. Don’t touch it.

I think teaching is the most narcissist and self-centred job on the planet. With all those eyes and ears looking at you, listening to you, absorbing your comments, who wouldn’t? After all, teachers know stuff. But I think (and you are free to ‘doublethink’ this, of course), if we turn our back to taboo topics in classrooms, just because they are sensitive and personal, we are not helping anybody but ourselves. If I had turned my back at Oscar’s that day, he would have gone on believing his teachers. He might still do, for all I know, or he might have changed his opinion. But when I trusted him with the capability to think for himself, I hope (and hope is all that we can do) that he did so. I know for sure I would have regretted it for the rest of my life if I had steered away from the topic.

Ubiquitous assimilation, a way to absorb everything, everywhere at all time. That applies even for us, teachers, because it is okay not to know stuff and never think that you know how to do stuff – even when a 2000 dollar course certified that you are.