by Daniel Harnsberger
A teenager at the back of my classroom had his hand up. I couldn’t remember his name. Alejandro or Valentino or Santiago? Something that ended with an O for sure. After my colleague across the hall bragged about how she memorized every student’s name on the first day of school, I promised I’d do the same. A little over a month into my first teaching job at an alternative school in Salt Lake City for students who’d been kicked out of other high schools, my name memorization goal wasn’t happening. Neither was my dream of being the best teacher around.
“You in the back,” I said. “Go right ahead.”
“I’m seeing you got a Utah Jazz flag up in here and I’m a wondering if you hate Kobe Bryant as much as I do?”
“Not as much as Michael Jordan,” I said. “Jordan ruined my childhood.”
“Who’s your favorite player?”
For the last twenty-five minutes I’d been rambling on about dead white men whose inventions sparked the Industrial Revolution so talking about Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan was a little off topic. Unfortunately, like my students, I had grown up a click away from games like Halo that allowed me to blow up trash talking kids in Korea, Facebooking girls I thought were sexy and text messaging my buddies plans for the next party, so my bullet point lecture, that came from a CD I was given with my teacher-edition of the world history textbook, didn’t even have my attention, let alone my students.
“John Stockton has the most steals and assists of any player,” I said and paused. As part of my teacher training at University of Oregon, I observed teachers and wrote my thoughts on what they did well. To decide what teachers to watch, I asked students in the halls who their favorite teachers were. What I learned was that students tended to like two types of teachers. The teachers who let them hang out in their classrooms and chat about whatever they wanted and the teachers who the students learned the most from while also having a good time.
“Now isn’t the time to talk basketball,” I said. “Let’s get out our textbooks and start on today’s assignment.”
Jackey, one of the few names I had figured out after asking her to stop talking hundreds of times over the past few weeks, raised her hand.
“Isabel and me want to know if you like The Pirates of the Caribbean movies?”
“Those movies are garbage,” I said and paused again. The day before Jackey asked me what my favorite food was when I was lecturing about how the arrival of corn and potatoes from the new world helped create an agricultural revolution in Europe. Thirty minutes later Lucas was teaching me how to say “carne asada” and “carnitas” correctly. “We should really get back to history but if you have to know I prefer rated R movies like Donnie Darko or The Departed.”
Something-O raised his hand again.
“You’re just like all the white guys around here who think John Stockton is the best thing since Jesus Christ. If Stockton didn’t have Malone, he’d be nothing. And those girls just want Johnny Depp, they don’t care what the movie about.”
“That’s some bullshit,” Isabel said. “Those movies are funny as hell.”
“We aren’t doing this again,” I said. “Get your textbooks and get started on today assignment.”
Jackey’s hand went up again but I ignored her and walked around the room encouraging students to grab a textbook and worksheet from the front table. When I stopped to discuss with Lucas that his grade was bad because he missed more days of school than he attended, I saw Something-O walk out of the classroom door. I caught up to him a few steps into the hall.
“Where are you going?” I said.
“I got the bubble gut,” he said.
“I’m gonna go diarrhea.”
I had a better chance of getting a penguin to jump off a cliff and soar through the sky than getting Something-O to finish his assignment for the day. “Next time, even if it’s an emergency, let me know before you walk out.”
“Ya, ya,” he said and walked away.
Back in the room I finished my talk with Lucas and handed a few textbooks to Jackey and the other students who refused to get up. Then, I sat down to read over my teacher-edition of the textbook so I could come up with some way to teach the following day’s lesson in a manner that might make my students, and more importantly me, wish we weren’t anywhere but trapped in my classroom.
The next section in the textbook discussed how mass production through the division of labor changed the way people created goods. No ideas about how to make an engaging lesson on the division of labor came to me. Instead I forced myself to get up and walk around because I worried if I kept reading, I would fall asleep in my own class.
Half the room was working on the assignment. The other half was either talking quietly with their neighbor or resting their eyes. Something-O was back and as I passed him I overheard him explaining to the student next to him, who was just trying to finish their assignment, that Wilt Chamberlin had sex with over 20,000 women. I asked him to move to a more secluded seat so he wouldn’t distract anyone and after he walked around for a few minutes he took the seat I had pointed out to him.
As I started reading over the textbook again, I made it half way through a paragraph about the electric telegraph when my head nodded forward and I jolted awake. I’d learned in college that studying in the cold kept me more alert so I went over to the thermostat and as I fiddled with the locked plastic box that blocked me from turning down the heat in my own classroom, the bell rang.
Everyone except Jackey, who was face first in her textbook snoring, walked out of the classroom. I woke her up and as I did, I honestly thought to myself that she probably had done the best job of making good use of her time.
* * *
My education professors had warned me that my first year of teaching would be my hardest. However, I didn’t guess that the reason for it being hard would be because I was bored.
I hadn’t grown up a boring kid. I was a leader in my group of childhood friends and often looked to for entertainment purposes. For instance, in eighth grade, when my friends and I were at a bowling alley, they encouraged me to start a conversation with some girls a few lanes over. I didn’t hesitate. I just walked right up and threw out a fact. “Hey, did you know hippos kill the most people of any animals in Africa?”
The girls looked at each other confused. Then one of them said, “I think I heard something about that,” while at the same time another one of the girls said, “What? Did you just say something about a Hippo?”
“Ya,” I said, happy to have their attention. “The hippo’s closest relative is the velociraptor and just like velociraptors, hippos have retractable claws that help them climb up large trees that hang over the Nile.” I held out my left arm like it was the tree and crawled my right hand up the tree as if it was the hippo. “Then, when a boat goes under the tree, the hippo flops out of the tree and smashes right through the boat.” I used my hippo hand to create the visual of the boat for a second and then switched it back to the hippo hand and showed the hippo falling out of the tree on the boat. “And as the boat sinks, other hippos come from the side and chew up all the people. Can you imagine a hippo’s big mouth munching on you?”
“Are you serious?” they said. “That’s crazy.” Or maybe it was, “You’re crazy,” but what’s the difference?
“It’s more scary than crazy,” I explained. “The National Geographic I read about it said hippos kill more humans a year than lightning, bees and sharks put together. And did you know hippos weigh more than a thousand tons, give or take, say, nine hundred and ninety-eight tons?”
At this point one of the dumb girls acted like there was something wrong with me but the smart girl asked me questions, allowing me to get to know her better.
* * *
This talent of mine didn’t seem right to transfer to the classroom when I started teaching because stretching the truth or playing up ridiculous aspects of stories, didn’t seem like something the best teacher around should do. However, after almost falling asleep in my own class a few times and waking up dozens of students, I decided I had nothing to lose. I dumped the textbooks in a storage room next to some floppy disks and I started staying up late adding my own edge to readings, assignments and activities that I made based on whatever I found interesting in history.
A couple of weeks after I had begun to add my own edge, I created a PowerPoint Jeopardy game for my students to review for the class’s final test. Towards the end of the game, I projected a question on the wall that said, “This Russian mystic is notorious for being sexually out of control and impossible to kill. He also influenced Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra in ways that are hard to explain.”
I would have read the question aloud, but the slide automatically activated the famous Euro disco song about the Russian mystic in question. As the music blared, Ivan, the student I thought had an O at the end of his name, jumped to his feet and pumped his arm to the beat. Each rise and fall of Ivan’s arm moved in synchronized motion with the rise and fall of his eyebrows.
I had developed a theory about why Ivan spent so much time out of his seat moving around. The theory came to me when I realized that I taught Ivan right after lunch and his lunch consisted of a 20-ounce Mountain Dew and a bag of Flamin’ Hot Crunchy Cheetos that he opened in the gas station and added a few portions of squeeze nacho cheese to. The Mountain Dew explained his inability to sit for very long and the squeeze-cheese-Cheeto-concoction explained Ivan’s need to use the restroom for his “bubble gut” problem as well. What was different about Ivan this time was that when the music stopped, he kept his hand in the air as if he knew the answer to the question. I waited a second to see if he was just stretching, but he kept his hand up and I had to step back to see the other hands that went up around the room.
Nobody had raised a hand for the question before the Russian mystic question. We had read about the Communist Manifesto in the textbook, but nobody knew who wrote it. And the question before that, which I tried to lecture about earlier in the term, caused two students to raise their hands. Instead of saying the picture projected on the wall was the communist symbol known as the hammer and sickle, Ivan yelled out that he thought it was the Oakland Raiders logo and Jackey’s friend Isabel said it was a swastika.
“Dan,” Ivan said. His eyebrows went up as his eyes opened wide. “Let me tell the story.”
The story of Rasputin had been the first topic I’d taught in my new way. I told Rasputin’s life story and had the students draw a six-panel comic about him. Interested to hear what Ivan was going to say, I stepped to the side.
Ivan jumped over a few book bags and took my place at the front of the room. “Ya, ya, so, Rasputin’s the man and Rasputin had sex with everybody.” Ivan pointed at himself every time he said Rasputin. “Rasputin had sex with all sorts of girls and even a grip of girls at once. The damn guy even hit it with the Russia king guy’s wife so everybody got jealous of Rasputin and these guys tried to kill him by poisoning his drink. But, you, can’t, kill, this, man. So when he drank the…”
“No,” Andrew cut in. His freckled pale cheeks blushed as he continued. “Don’t leave out that a long time before those guys poisoned Rasputin’s wine, a prostitute stabbed him in the stomach and yelled, ‘I have killed the anti-Christ.'”
Andrew had Asperger’s. The first week of school he pulled me aside and recited an entire Metallica song without attempting to sing it at all. During the second week he wrote a one page essay, which was supposed to discuss the differences between Romanticism and Realism, on his favorite band Led Zeppelin in the exact meter and rhythm of “The Raven”.
“Ya, ya,” Ivan said. “That hooker stabbed him, but he didn’t die, so these guys poisoned Rasputin, but Rasputin don’t die from poison either, so the guys shot him in the back and left him to bleed out. Then, when the guys came back, one of them checked to see if he was breathing, but when he leaned down, Rasputin grabbed the guy around the neck and started strangling him.” Ivan reached out his hands and mimed strangling someone. “That’s when one of the other guys shot Rasputin a bunch more times.” Ivan fell on the ground as if he had taken the bullets himself.
“You forgot that Rasputin said, ‘You bad boy,’ when he was strangling the bastard,” Andrew said.
“Ya, ya, ya,” Ivan said as he got up. “But Rasputin still wasn’t dead, so those damn guys beat his ass and did that thing… What did you call it where the guys cut off his?” Ivan looked at me and put his hands over his crotch.
“Ya, ya. They did that to my man, and then they tied his arms and legs with some ropes and threw his ass in a frozen river, but a few days later Rasputin’s body was found and he wasn’t tied up because he broke the ropes and all his finger nails were torn off because he scratched the ice he got trapped under.” Ivan hung his head as if he was at a funeral. “In the end, my man, Rasputin the homie, he drowned.”
Isabel, my student who thought the hammer and sickle was a swastika, raised her hand. “Didn’t someone dig up his body and burn it, but when Rasputin was on fire he sat up and stared at the guys who burned him?”
“Yes,” I said and joined Ivan at the front of the room. “And his eyes glowed green as he burned. Also, don’t forget that there’s a cult of women in France who found Rasputin’s junk and they keep it in a secret place so they can worship the most important part of his body.”
“Ya, ya,” Ivan said. “That’s why they call Rasputin ‘Russia’s greatest love machine.'”
“The only good part of that techno crap song,” Andrew said, referencing the music that had played with the question, “is at the end when that deep voice guy says, ‘Oh those Russians’.”
“So before we move on to the next question,” I said as Ivan took his seat. “Can anyone tell me why Rasputin lived in the palace with Tsar Nicholas II?”
Hands went up all over the room again.
“You all remember this?” I said.
Jackey called out from the back, “Rasputin lived in the palace because the Tsar’s kid had some sort of bleeding sickness and only Rasputin could get the kid to stop bleeding once he started bleeding from a cut.”
“Yes,” I said. “Maybe I should add a few more questions about Rasputin for the test tomorrow.”
A few heads around the room nodded.
“How’d I do?” Ivan asked me before we moved on.
I walked over to Ivan’s desk and gave him a high five. “You’re a damn good storyteller,” I said. “You had my interest for sure.”
* * *
The following week, when my second term began, I stood in front of a class of droopy faced teenagers, some that I had taught the term before mixed in with many new students that had just been transferred to my school. I felt good about my chances of becoming the best teacher around again and I also promised myself I would learn all my students names but this time I didn’t give a deadline. Once the bell rang for class to begin I said, “Welcome to the second term of modern world history. The first thing I want you all to know is that we are all going to die.” I waited for the blood to flow back into my students faces and then continued. “Now let’s start by making a list of reasons why we’re going to die and then I’ll tell you a little about the great 18th century philosopher Tomas Malthus.”