Teaching that Makes a Difference

Teaching that Makes a Difference December 2, 2015

Taylor Mali’s now-famous slam poetry homage to teaching is a delight.

It’s a delight because it is so patently filled with delight in teaching, and not just with delight in mocking people who don’t value teaching. It is a delight because it is filled with love–love for students, love for excellence, and love for the absurdity of life, including the absurdity of having the worth of worthy work challenged so rudely.

It is a celebration of worthy work, hard work, work that too few people can or want to do, work that makes both the laborer and the recipient of the labor better off at the end of the day.

I imagine that NEA president Lily Eskelsen Garcia, in her speech at an awards ceremony for a progressive political organization, was paying homage to Mali’s homage: the framing story is similar, and the litany of what teachers do includes one verbatim quotation from Mali’s poem. (Presumably, she was counting on her audience’s familiarity with Mali’s poem and did not feel it necessary to acknowledge her literary dependence.)

But her speech was not delightful.

And it was not a litany of love.

And it did not celebrate the work that it described.

Or perhaps it was and did, but I missed it because I was too distracted by her description of children as “chronically ‘tarded and medically annoying.”

Her chipper, cheerful apology offered several weeks later–that she meant to say “tardy” rather than “‘tarded”–is almost believable. That was, actually, the first thing I assumed when I heard the speech; she would never actually *say* such a thing on purpose, surely. I’ve seen a few other people speculate, on blog posts and such, that that was what had happened.

Perhaps. Perhaps if the apology or clarification had been offered immediately, instead of after the clip went viral, and the criticism of it began to mount, I might have more confidence in it. Perhaps if she had remembered her own mis-speaking and asked the organizing body not to post the video on YouTube as a sterling example of how progressive teachers behave, I might assume better of her. Perhaps if she had not so patently wished for her clip to go viral and so blithely ignored the implications of her mis-spoken word, my teeth would unclench just a bit when I’m watching it.

Image via PIxabay. Public Domain.
Image via PIxabay. Public Domain.

Or perhaps if her chipper-cheerful apology were more apologetic and less chipper-cheerful . . .

The “medically annoying” bit cannot be explained away, however, and I’m not sure the chipper-cheerful apology is actually all that apologetic on this score.

“Open mouth, insert foot” is what you say when you mistakenly call an older set of parents their baby’s grandparents, or when you call a new acquaintance’s favorite political candidate an idiot before knowing your acquaintance’s political leanings.

It’s not what you say when you describe people with medical problems as an annoyance, as if their medical problems are more burdensome for you than they are for the people suffering them. As if they generate medical problems for their own amusement. As if they woke up one morning and said, “How can I annoy my teachers as much as humanly possible?” and, you know, developing epilepsy was the best they could come up with.

Well, Garcia says she didn’t mean to refer to people with medical problems, so I suppose we must believe her, even though she offered no explanation for how that word that she Absolutely Didn’t Mean got in there.

But she will have to believe me when I say that overall her speech did not impress me with the enormity of the work that teachers do. It impressed me with the enormity of her resentment at the work teachers have to do.

Her litany of work was a litany of debts owed. “Look at all the work we do! Why aren’t we getting more recognition for it? Hello?”

I’ve seen that kind of resentment before, in overworked pastors and teachers and medical professionals who are always there when people are at their worst, in mechanics and librarians who are sick of always getting complaints about fines and broken radiators, in spouses who can’t believe their little acts of ostensible sacrifice aren’t being reciprocated.

Sometimes these are generous, hardworking people on the verge of burnout from their own generosity and hard work. But sometimes these are people who are happiest when they are complaining, and when nothing legitimate is on offer, they make sure they have something to be happy complaining about.

Her chipper-cheerful non-apology apology only reinforces the sense of resentment: “Look at my long record of service! I’m GOOD to poor people!” People who love the people with whom they work don’t think of them as poor people. They don’t need to refer to anyone’s zip code.

That’s not what Taylor Mali was saying. He said, “You know what, you stupid person who doesn’t value what I do? You’re the idiot. I have an awesome job, and I do an awesome job of it.”

I have an awesome job, too. I hope some day I’ll be able to look back and say that I’ve been doing an awesome job of it.

If I ever start listing all the things I do, and the word “annoying” is one of them, and that word refers to people I’m supposed to be helping? Someone kick me in the shins and tell me it’s time to retire.

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