Teachers love to tell stories. For example, my dear friend Joe Everett, a Spanish teacher, has three favorite words in English. He may have favorite Spanish words, but since I don’t understand most of his Spanish, I couldn’t tell you what those are. His three favorite ones in ingles are “But I digress…” Occasionally, we teachers will run into former students. Invariably, they do not remember the boffo lessons we taught about Poe, or congruent angles or eukaryotes or the irregular verbs; they remember the anecdotes we peppered our lessons with. Students know we like to tell stories, and even though a teacher may be aware that a question asked by certain students who are deliberately asking it to try to derail class, we’ll bite, because through stories we can teach other lessons, which are sometimes on topic, other times only loosely related to the topic but may be way off topic.
I have stories I tell every year, like the Don MacDonald story about letting rumor and reputation determine how you treat people. Yesterday’s story was one I tell about seating charts and choosing groups, two of the more annoying necessities of teaching. It would be fantastic if a classroom full of kids could choose partners or seats wisely, that they would sit where they will not be distracted and choose an arrangement which did not isolate anyone. Without teacher direction, they will invariably choose their buddies and not be able to focus on work, and if there is any way the seating arrangement can isolate the “weird” kid, they’ll do it.
In my very first year of teaching, I had a 10th grade English class that was difficult to control. My teacher preparation at EWU and Whitworth did not include any successful strategies for classroom control. I had one master teacher whose 10th grade class was amazingly well behaved, but his tricks did not work for me. To this day I don’t know how they worked for him. I got there in April, after the students had been trained, and I think I missed crucial steps in the process by which he beat them into submission convinced them to comply. My 10th graders one year later never did settle down. Discipline is one of the most, if not the most, difficult parts of teaching. It involves saying “no” and punishing people you like. I liked that class, but nailing down what the problems were proved extremely elusive.
Finally, one day, needing to create yet another seating chart that would make us all happy or at least not aggravated, I decided to use one of the strategies I had been taught in teacher school. I had everyone write down two people they wanted to sit by and one person they preferred not to sit by. It backfired horribly. That afternoon I tried to accommodate one of everybody’s desired neighbors and seat each person at least one seat away from the person he or she chose to “keep away.” It was immediately obvious that it would be impossible. Each person, save one of course, had chosen the same kid as their personal anathema. No one wanted to sit by Bob.
I liked Bob. He was smart, funny, nice-looking, animated, alert to the lesson most of the time, although maybe that’s just because no one wanted to talk to him, now that I think about it. I could not imagine why he was the target of so much enmity. I was troubled about how to deal with it. The seating chart I created was of my own device. I included not a single request, partly out of pique.
The next day, Bob was absent. I still don’t know if it was the right thing to do or not, but I decided to confront the class about their shared feelings about Dennis. I asked them what they did not like about him, why did no one want to be by Dennis. They shifted uncomfortably in their seats, their eyes darted to the floor or their desks. Nobody had anything distinct about Dennis that they could put a finger on. Eventually, after a long enough awkward silence, I gave them a mediocre lecture about tolerance and blah, blah, blah.
The next day, when Bob returned, he brought me his homework and pointed to the heading. “Miss Kurz,” he said with a twinkle in his eye, “I no longer want to be Bob. From now on I’m Baub,” he said, sounding out the vowel tone just a bit longer than 'Bob' would.
“Baub?” I said, imitating him, "like bauble?"
“Yes,” he said, “Baauuuub.”
“Ok.” Names are important to our identity, what did I care how he spelled or said his name.
Years later, at a retreat for an A.I.D.S. peer education group I advised, I met a young may named Tom, oops, Thom. As he was short, slight and a tad effeminate, I teased him by calling him Thor. He realized I was riffing on his uncommon choice of spelling Tom with a th. He was a pretty good sport about it, and he even taught me about a tendency among gay men. “Gay men,” he said, “often will choose to either go by their complete name, like Thomas, or they’ll change the spelling, just to be different or special.” The next weekend, I went to Ivar’s with my family. Our waiter sashayed (yes!) up to our table and announced, “Hi! I’m Eric; I’ll be your waiter.” At least it sounded like Eric. I looked at his name tag. Sure enough, he spelled it Aeryk. Poor Bob, er Baub. Now I knew why the other kids did not like him and also why they couldn’t articulate their attitude. It was 25 years ago, and very few people were comfortable talking about homosexuality anywhere and certainly not in a classroom. I don't know if Baub is gay, but he was certainly flamboyant and expressive in a similar way to other gay men I've known. He also did an expository speech on Madonna. As any teacher knows, merely appearing effemnate in any way, what am I saying, just being different from the common herd in high school can make you a target of horrifying cruelty.
I have recently been reconnected with him via Facebook. He’s doing extremely well, having landed in La La Land (Hollywood). I heard part of his B.A.U.B.radio podcast today. It's wild and fun!. He has his thousands of followers and is of course a growing force on Twitter.