A college friend of mine told the story once about how he had been nicknamed ‘UM’ by one of his prep school teachers. UM stood for ‘Underground Man,’ from the protagonist of Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground. None of us to whom he was telling the story had read the book (Russian lit is not my strong suit, though I’m big on Chekhov), so my friend, who is now, I believe, a lawyer, explained about the character. I’ve just reserved Notes From Underground at the library. It’ll make a cheery little read over the holidays.
The school district I’m subbing for is chronically short of subs. I get zillions of calls, and could probably work five days a week if I wanted to, but who wants to? Besides, I have all this marketing and stuff to do, sending out press releases and so on. And it’s not like working more days would make me rich. Crazy, possibly, and certainly drained, and probably a wee bit depressed, but not rich.
You slip in and out of all these different schools and see a goodly sample of what we’re offering our kids. Last Friday I had a class of 5th graders, which I was looking forward to, as my last real job was teaching 5th graders, and I had enjoyed it very much.
I’d really been called in to teach English as a second language, ESL, but with the sub shortage and all, they sent my troupe of kindergartners back to their regular class and sent me into a most charming classful of 5th graders. Really sweet kids.
Two of them were obviously gifted, and extremely eager to learn. Unfortunately, they were not being challenged in the slightest, and their eagerness had a distinct edge of desperation to it. There were another three or four kids who were clearly bright but had trouble maintaining focus. They weren’t being challenged either. Then came a substantial contingent that was working approximately at grade level, another group whose writing skills, anyway, would put them at 4th, or in some cases 3rd, grade level, and finally four kids with serious learning disabilities, two of whom could not read at all.
You cannot possibly teach meaningful material to that diverse a group. What level was the class being taught at? 4th grade or lower; it can be hard to tell sometimes, as a sub, because you do tend to get busywork plans. But even so, you get a sense.
I can’t tell you the number of people who felt, when I got my teaching certificate a few years ago, that it was about time. It surprised me, though, because in a lot of ways I don’t believe in public education. My own twelve years in the mill had been terrible. Yes, we have to teach everyone, but why is it that the brightest kids get the least of what they need? The unspoken notion seems to be that they’ll figure it out anyway. Many of them will, too, but not many will be able to hold onto their enthusiasm, fewer still will be able to achieve what they are truly capable of, and a certain number will go underground. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The underground is whence a lot of our artists come from. It’s not necessarily a good thing, either. The underground is whence a lot of serial killers and writers of computer viruses come from. Lawyers, too.