When A Teacher Teaches Nothing

Posted September 22, 2014

There are few more disheartening moments for a teacher then when a lesson goes horribly wrong.

Perhaps the only thing worse is when the poor lesson is on something that you know the students would benefit from. Not just for the upcoming test or paper, but in their lives outside of school as well.

It’s a feeling of disappointment not just stemming from your own missteps but the notion that you’ve let others down as well. You might look for solace or a forgiving pat on the back, but the trouble is: there’s nobody else who comprehends the feeling; you’re the only one who knew the lesson you had constructed inside of your head.

Over the past few days, I’ve been struggling with this silent, solitary suffering after botching a lesson with my 10th grade English class on verbal harassment as it’s connected to gender inequalities.

In the middle of our study of Chronicle of a Death Foretold we came to a discussion on machismo and the forced subordination of women in the novella. When I last taught the book, students commented that this particular treatment of women is a cultural thing borne out of Marquez’s fictional town and not something we see in America. So I tried to get ahead of it this year and had them watch a Daily Show segment called “Masters of Sexism” in which Jon Stewart discusses the sexist remarks alleged against Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand.

The video goes on to show news commentators, male and female, discussing the lack of surprise in hearing that such comments were made and a suggestion that it’s become such a part of life that it’s almost taken as a complimentary sign of physical attractiveness.

I thought that after watching the video, the students would have some interesting things to say about the way that our culture still sexualizes women in ways that are unfair while men rarely face the same sexualization (Especially since we live in New York City and catcalls are a daily occurrence).

However, the first comment I got was from a male student who said: “I don’t see why these comments are derogatory.”

Some laughter broke out, and the conversation never really got on track. The lesson was over before it began.

The student who made the comment, and many who shared similar views after him, wasn’t trying to be offensive or stir up controversy; he simply didn’t understand why having a male congressman say, “Don’t lose too much weight. I like my women porky,” was derogatory.  He knew it wasn’t the appropriate thing to say, but he argued that the congressman wasn’t putting Gillibrand down, so it couldn’t be classified as a derogatory remark.

While there were many responses rattling around inside my brain, I did my best to keep the conversation going by suggestion that, while I understood his point, sexual harassment isn’t avoided if the comment is meant as a compliment; even a backhanded one.

The conversation devolved into a discussion amongst the students about why telling women they looked pretty as they walked down the street was wrong. It wasn’t an insult, so why was it offensive?

A couple girls made the argument that the attention was often creepy and that they didn’t appreciate being stared at, while others followed the comments from the Daily Show segment and discussed that walking down the street wasn’t a cause for somebody to evaluate their looks.

Which is where the real conversation stopper made itself evident. The male students expressed a lack of concern for the hypothetical situation where somebody would comment positively on their looks when they were in public. Since these women were not being called “fat” or “ugly” or being insulted, the boys couldn’t comprehend why these comments were off-putting. Wasn’t it nice to be told you were attractive or that people liked what you were wearing?

I tried to discuss the disproportionate number of sexual assaults in which women are the target and not men. I tried to ask them what is reflected about our culture that it’s become common, and even seen as appropriate, to comment on the way people look without them asking you or giving any indication that they want you to talk to them. I tried to question where we got the notion that it was okay to judge other people, positively or negatively, just for walking into our eye space?

Everything I tried fell on deaf ears. Only three or four girls in the class ever spoke, the males continued to attempt to quietly joke with each other about things they heard in public, and some people even mentioned seeing women on the street smile when somebody called out to them. I had wasted a glorious opportunity to try and help these tenth graders learn how to talk to and treat each other, especially the women in their lives, which, given recent events in professional sports, seems to be a real need.

Yet, as I’ve thought back on that class over the last few days, I’ve been wondering if I ever had an opportunity at all. Sure, I was talking to them and they were listening, but were they ever going to actually hear what I was saying?

This is a generation that has grown up telling people what they thought whenever they felt like it. Social media has made everybody feel as though their opinion is valid and needs to be shared. The way that we speak to each other has been so influenced by technological advancements and our continued need for urgency that some level of decency seems to be continuously diminishing, spilling out of the boat through some unseen crack. Maybe it was possible that everybody had already accepted this as the way the world works.

The female news anchors certainly had. Many of the female friends I’ve talked to about this have admitted to no longer being surprised or offended when somebody calls out about their looks or what they’re wearing. They’ve become so used to it that they learn to turn a blind eye, or perhaps come to accept it as a perverse compliment.

Maybe I’m just behind the curve, but I can’t help but wonder: if we start accepting things that were once off-putting and invasive as the norm, are we setting ourselves up to continuously settle for less than we deserve?

I haven’t come to any satisfying answer yet, so when I tackle this subject with them again, let’s see if I can come a bit closer to getting it right.