written December 14, 2012
May Peckham is an only child, so it will forever be unknown if she could be replicated or would still remain singular art. Yet I believe I have found her other-dimensional sibling that could have been—the younger doppelganger sister May would have practiced accents and recited monologues with, cooked together at the age of six, and sat quietly at a park, contemplating relativity. Her name is Ms. Knebel, and I subbed for her today.
I vaguely made this connection over the summer, likening the serious, passionate doctoral candidate to a Collinsville High School English teacher who instead exudes a collegiate air. Ms. Knebel’s similarity struck me in August, upon subbing my first day for Ms. Mueth. Slender and tall with close-cropped auburn hair, and the slight slump and nonchalant, partially-stoned groove of a literary Beatnik, she had said she would request me if ever the need arose.
That day came today with a field trip to the St. Louis Art Museum. The notes I found on her desk detailed an elementary day: hours of alternating film watching and silent reading. A second substitute, of Ms. Knebel’s assistant, then appeared. She had only started subbing in the early November, a result of having to wait until January to begin SIUE. I was shocked that she was only eighteen. Already being requested, I could not help wondering if she might be as good a novice as I.
The first hour began with dull staggering–seniors all, including a few from last years’ history class–my two biggest causes of laying in bed awake at night. One asked my name, an obvious ploy to then ask the name of pretty young Ms. Gall (The testosterone-charged, so subtle) I was sharing co-teaching responsibilities with. As Ms. Gall led a small group to the library who wished to read A Long Way Gone instead of watch the documentary, I was still taking attendance. Where was Gruff Teenager #12? Anybody seen him? “He went to check out the substitute!” a male announced, smiling.
Confronting hell-scapes of child starvation and genocide as in God Grew Tired of Us is always difficult. I suppose I’m informed, having a base knowledge that must confront the nothing I’m doing about it all. Finally, the documentary, services in the United State steps in, punching the Sudanese refugees’ tickets to Pittsburgh and Syracuse oases. Cultural hilarity ensues.
Collinsville field trip refugees comprised all of my tiny second and sixth hour classes. Their educational needs were met by reading and reflecting of the brief John Updike essay “An Oil on Canvas.” It is about the memory of family entangled in an heirloom. Regretfully, there is no single Carlson relic that has soaked up my childhood years or has my parents etched into its surface. Perhaps if Dad had always brewed his daily joe from an antique coffee maker, or Mom had collected and stored every episode of All My Children she ever watched. But they did not. Which is funny, for all the house’s museum-like aesthetic, most artifacts first having been put on display in the early 1980s. There simply is no one thing I want or will savor once possessions are passed on.
I’ve only ever wanted one family artifact. More than a dozen years ago, Grandpa Cochran took me upstairs in the farmhouse, leading me to a massive polished oak trunk. Inside were carefully preserved, fading spoils of war. Letters home to his own parents and a young girl named Arla. His tan Army dress uniform of a T-5 radio operator. A Philippines liberation medal. Eventually he withdraw a folded cloth piece, then unwrapping it, revealed a scarlet explosion on white. I hoped to one day have this last piece, a miniature Japanese battle flag, to remember both my grandfather and our military connection. Yet it went to my cousin Ryan. So it goes.
Lunch was spent warping back to the long memory fog of Edwardsville, writing of that time (“All Good Things”). The fifth hour students that came next were friendly, and some remembered other classes with me. Then, noticing some unnaturally glowing, hunched faces as I cued up God Grew Tired of Us once again, I lightly, evenly said, “Let’s put the phones away—I’m still jealous about not being able to use them in high school, too.”
It’s the little things that inflame the heartburn. From the back of the room I could see four or five learners, their thumbs still a blur, earbuds remaining in. A guy was rocking a sweet pinball game. This, whoever is reading, is what makes me question, distrustful even, of Connectivity in the American classroom. Teachers might fall into three tribes about this question:
- They have fought it fully, banning their existence within the classroom. Consternation–and perhaps some begrudged respect–have been won for the effort.
- Some teachers have expertly harnessed its very real powers as a learning tool to engineer lessons kids enjoy.
- Others have waved the white flag, allowing Apple anarchy.
Aside from an education—the reason we all got out of bed today—I’m equally concerned students seemingly can’t give up their Wi-Fied appendage, not knowing how to function with this 4G pacifier. And what a block it is to remaining part of a given lesson–what teen, for example, really wants to absorb the sight of ethnic cleansing and cultural collisions when your best friends’ newest gossip is in their pocket?
(Have I missed the irony of this internal debate? Am I the Sudanese Dinka of my story, amazed at twenty-first century America??)
Anyway, after this long aside, I went to each i-person, asking them to put them away. This was mostly a success, a girl opting to still keep her earbuds in, and as pouring music meshed with the papered inferiority of the book being read. Close enough.
Pinch-hitting for Ms. Hartle seventh hour, I had only to present the end of The Last Battalion, about World War I (Is Collinsville High School curriculum written and sponsored by Netfix or something?) Entering late, one of the two tardy students welcomed me with “What’s up, Whitey?” before grabbing my hand for a slap, grip, grip, bump workout. Hope I did it right.