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“Do they exist or are they spooks?”

Classics professor Coleman Silk’s question is playful, casual. Its ramifications are serious, dire. He is accused of using a racial epithet about two repeat absentees he does not know are African American. Is it possible to make a racist slur when you don’t know a person’s race? Coleman’s persecutors are not interested in the niceties of such questions. Professor Silk loses his job.

This lexical faux pas, the precipitating event in Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain, was brought to mind this week when I made my own verbal misstep and found myself at the receiving end of student umbrage.

“So you sat down because you were lazy?” (“Tired” was surely the better word for both denotation and connotation.)

It was the very end of the day. We had nothing left to do but pack up. Yet I called the class together to go over the page they had just been working on with a partner. The teacher had not asked me to do this in the lesson plan, but I was determined to elevate a less-than-solid work period by providing a degree of closure. I may have been driven, too, by a masochistic impulse to sabotage an otherwise successful day with a difficult group of students.

Question number 5 had asked them to consider the fairness of charging a higher price for oranges after a hurricane in Florida. Engagement was weak, so I asked the yeahs to stand up and the nays to remain seated. As I might have predicted, most followed the early standers by slowly rising themselves. Only three stayed in their seats. I asked for their reasons but each demurred. The first hadn’t hear the question. The second, on second thought, changed his mind. The third insisted that, oh yeah, he had been standing, yet oddly (to me) he didn’t then correct the record by getting (back) up on his feet.

Thence my ill-phrased question.

If his eyes didn’t immediately narrow into a glower, they soon did. He was clearly upset, in an indignant sort of way. I compounded the indignity.

“You don’t have to be offended,” I might have said, or intended to say. More likely, I said something like, “That wasn’t mean,” or, “It wasn’t an insult.” But, like a joke, if you have to explain yourself, it doesn’t really work.  To my shame, in fact, “It was just a joke” or, “I was only teasing,” nearly leaped from tongue. Fortunately, I was able to stuff it back before demeaning myself with a lame schoolyard rejoinder. It was true that I had been using humor, as I often do, to break the tension, or perhaps engage the attention. In this instance it was maladroitly done.

I continued to misread the situation. M’s glowering and then his words put me on the spot, challenged me even. Before I knew it, I was engaging with him in full view of the class, putting on a show of the very worst kind. The situation was so fraught, my memory of it is blank. I remember just one remark. He asked rhetorically, “What’s wrong with this [picture]?” as in, a teacher isn’t supposed to insult a student. The class’s silence assented loudly. P, when I asked her, avowed it directly.

I understood then I was on the wrong side of history, as it were, so, after dismissing the class to pack up, I quietly made my apology to M. (He accepted it gracefully, but it would have been nice for him to have apologized to me. Nice for me;  important for his growth for him.)  A few minutes later, before dismissing the class for the day, I apologized to all, working hard to swallow the taste of crow.

The confrontation and my comeuppance left me shaken, and because of who I am, I could not easily shrug it off. I felt threatened, attacked, like a cornered animal. Even as I snarled and hissed in my thoughts, I recognized the imbalance. I am a grown man, more than grown, well on the backside of the hill. M is a child, still developing, insecure by definition. Why am I viewing him as a threat? Why am I flirting with playing the bully? I basically know the answers to these questions, but they are not the subject of this post, which is closer to Roth’s subject in The Human Stain.

It may be grandiose to compare my teacher-student dust-up with Coleman Silk’s life-changing (if fictional) ordeal. Perhaps. But I write to learn, write to better understand.

Today we call it cancel culture. Silk is canceled for his racial insensitivity, even though, we learn, he is actually a light-skinned African American who has been passing as white (Jewish) all his professional life. (The irony is rich.) I have already been “cancelled” once for allegedly striking a child. (A very defiant one.) Well, three witnesses to the interaction, his peers, wouldn’t go that far. I merely grabbed him firmly by the arm, they said. The principal and his assistant both addressed these accusations with me without allowing me to face my accusers. I was canceled (terminated) from an entire school district based on the testimony of minors: an aggrieved student and three peers who were no doubt afraid to cross him. [NB: I might have kept my job if I had challenged their allegations more forcefully while, at the same time, accepting their overall narrative. I could not deign to do either.] That history accounts for my overreaction to the boy’s accusatory glower and the tacit support given him by his peers. Was I looking at another cancellation?

But why the glower in the first place? I suppose, if another student would have shrugged it off and another would have cried into folded arms on her desk, this boy had his own way of responding. He perceived a threat: humiliation. Would it be fight or flight? He chose to fight.

But what about the words, “What’s wrong with this [picture]?” There was a time, after all, when pupils could expect to be berated by teachers, or at least to see their friends scolded, humiliated, punished. That was the “picture” they saw and expected. In the twenty-first century, a teacher who does not fit the nurturing, progressive model can be called out…by a kid.

True, my sardonic query had more than a hint of the passive aggressive to it. It is also true that there was nothing personal about it. I ore no grudge against the boy; he had, as yet, made no impression on me. Still, as the third in a sequence of students ducking the question at hand, he bore the brunt of my frustration, frustration that had built up over an entire day with a difficult class. I was wound tight as a thread on a spool, and the façade of control finally cracked.

M really did believe I was insulting him. I know enough about child development to excuse his misapprehension of my attempted irony and to condemn myself for same. On the other hand, his immediate, uncompromising response left me no room to make the humor intelligible. His dukes went up, his fur bristled. My own defensiveness followed soon enough. If either one of us were not so brittle, so hair-triggered, the whole contretemps might have (would have) been avoided.

M’s humiliation was no less real for being rooted in a misunderstanding. I was not saying he was lazy, as he believed (or said he did), but I was saying he hadn’t done his job. I was, also, without meaning to, accusing him of not being honest. I might have let these things pass. I might have said them more directly. Instead, I expressed them obliquely, with so-called humor that stung. I had made the unforgiveable sin of the teacher: to embarrass–or, worse, humiliate–the student in front of the class.

In writing this post, I wanted to be able to paint M as a poster child for child-centeredness run amok, for the unintended consequences of excessive child empowerment. But I can’t. M’s prickliness is all his own, part genetic, part environmental, just as my own is. That he could stand up to a teacher as he did indicates he is prickly in a way that I wasn’t at that age. He may, in fact, be an outlier.

Besides, the event took place at the very end of the day. M (and the rest of his classmates) were starting to check out, as they had every right to do. I suspect he never really processed my question. He wasn’t really not doing his job. He was just being a kid who allowed his attention to shift away from the teacher’s agenda in the final three minutes of the day. He had no way of knowing that his strategy for responding to being caught out was the exact wrong one for this particular substitute. Likewise, his substitute fumbled his own response. Disaster was averted by a simple apology, actually two. A third might have made a big difference in how this substitute came away from the altercation.

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