Thursday, January 15, 2009

Little Big Man

Several times in the past few months, the movie "Little Big Man" with Dustin Hoffman has aired on one of the cable channels. I've never sat through the movie in its entirety, but seeing glimpses of it has brought back a memory from high school that I've failed to lose in the shuffle of images in my mind.

Some time when I was in tenth grade, I had an English teacher who was one of what I'm sure was an uncommon breed in my rural town. He was cool, but not in the way that some teachers try too hard to be hip or cool. He was "cool" because of his utter indifference to adhering to the standards of other teachers and his inconsistency. For the sake of clarity, I will refer to this teacher as "Mr. N."

Mr. N. was so cool that he was completely bored by any work that the students did which merely fulfilled requirements. He wasn't interested in our demonstration of our understanding of the material or our general proficiency. Being entertained was part of what he wanted. If our work was competent and showed we worked hard, it wasn't enough for him. Mr. N. wanted us to show our originality above and beyond regurgitating facts. Word around the school was that he was also a big pothead. He certainly acted like one on occasion, but I wasn't really in a position to know for sure considering I was more familiar with the behavior of alcoholics than druggies (and I had no first hand experience with any substances).

Besides English, Mr. N. also taught a speech class. I remember that he liked to give us fairly eclectic assignments like getting up and doing a commercial for a product or a news show. I recall my group did a wry, clever, and dryly humorous news show that he approved of. Our group was followed by three girls who hung out together all the time and generally spent their time mocking and harassing those outside of their clique. They did a news show which mainly used the words "gay", "homo" and "fag" repeatedly and amused them endlessly. In fact, they so entertained themselves that they constantly broke out laughing and struggled to do their show. I recall that no one else laughed, even at a time when people were not nearly as open-minded or enlightened about homosexuality as they are now. The main problem was that it was all a big "in" joke for their group and the humor of their buzzwords was lost on us.

At the end of their news show, Mr. N. ripped them a new one. He spent several minutes describing exactly how obnoxious, unfunny, and stupid their work was. He reduced them to tears by the end of his evaluation and he failed them to boot. Since these girls were a thorn in multiple sides, including mine, I experienced a huge helping of schaudenfreude at that moment.

Getting back to "Little Big Man," in one of the English classes Mr. N. assigned every student in the class a different book to read. Most of them were given the normal crap that we all have to read in school like "Animal Farm". Every single person was given the type of book that ran 200 pages or so. Some of them were given books that were puny, but I was given the gargantuan "Little Big Man." I can't recall exactly how many pages it had, but it was at least 400. After class, I went up to Mr. N. and noted that I was being asked to read this monster book which was far more than anyone else had to deal with and it was about a subject I had zero interest in it to boot. I asked him if I could read a different book, and he essentially told me that I was more capable than the other students so I could handle it.

You know how in movies the teachers are always challenging their students in order to help them realize their potential and to make them feel more confidant? Real life isn't like that. I already knew I was more capable than the other students both in terms of my ability to read quickly and write well. "Challenging" me didn't reveal anything I didn't already know about myself and I slogged through that annoying book and wrote an indifferent report which stated how much I didn't like the story or the character. I felt like I had been punished for being more capable than the other students, not rewarded.

In the end, I wonder if Mr. N. just had a list of books and he was too lazy to assign me a different one. Maybe he had to go down to the school's paltry library and found 22 books that were an appropriate level for our grade and he didn't put one more extra book on the list so I got the shaft. I figure that was far more likely than he really gave a toss about expanding my horizons or helping me understand how capable I was.


Emsk said...

Interesting story. I love how Mr. N. ripped the mean girls to shreds - I think I've read about them before on your blog. Sounds as though he didn't exactly want to be a teacher though. I got to the end thinking I was in for a nice feelgood tale, and laughed when it turned out Mr. N. was perhaps just a bit of a lazy git.

I had a cool English teacher who was at odds with the rest of the staff. He was fairly left-wing and perhaps should've been working in a trendy comprehensive school rather than a grammar. He would encourage us to think outside the box which for all our school's academic kudos wasn't encouraged. After I left I would come back to visit my old friends with my bright blue hair and this guy would be mentally cheering me on, thinking how shocked the nice headmistress would be!

Hey, I think I'll blog about my English teacher too, you've inspired me.

(In case you're wondering comprehensives are open to all regardless of ability while grammars were selective. YOu had to pass a test at age 11 called, predictably, the 11+.)

Orchid64 said...

I think you hit the nail on the head when you say he probably really didn't want to be a teacher. At least I believe he didn't want to teach in a small rural school to a bunch of farmers and coal miners' kids.'

I don't have many "feel good" stories from my childhood. I had some nice teachers, and some who even tried to nurture me a little, but most of the time it was just the usual crap.

I'll be looking forward to your post! :-)