Friday, June 29, 2007

My time in Tigerland

The four tones sounded shrilly over the public address system indicating the start of the first period. It marked my return to a high school classroom in over 20 years and the sounds of talking, lockers, doors and bathroom flushes came tumbling back in my mind from out of the past. This was a strange setting in a strange area. It was not the small rural school with four hundred students I left in 1986. This was a large campus of nearly 2,000 students going this way and that.

The school is nestled in the foothills of the Coast Range, the western border of the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Gone were the flatlands of SW Lower Michigan. Gone too were the farm communities of Western and South Central Pennsylvania where I served in two high schools in the 1960s. This one was different.

The students, adolescents all, were more sophisticated somehow. Yes, most carried their iPod or other MP3 players with an earphone inserted in one ear canal and the other dangling in the event they wanted to hear part of a conversation. And yes, most carried cell phone in pockets or in the ubiquitous back packs that most had slung across their shoulders. There were other distinguishing characteristics of sophistication noticeable among the young women: their clothing style. The boys had their costumes too, to be sure, mainly baggy jeans or low slung cargo shorts, but theirs was more modest attire. The girls, most shockingly, were showing way too much chest, midriff and lower back for this old-school former teacher. And on their feet, most wore “flip-fops”…those shower shoes that made their first appearance in my memory back in the 1950s. But as I quickly learned, the sophistication was much more than revealing dress. Academically, these students, the ones that came my way, were clearly far ahead of what I remembered as the norm from the mid ‘80s.

My job was to inhabit the small, but cozy room, the Math Help Center, which was located between two hallways that housed only math teachers; ten to be exact. Each of the five daily periods the Help Center was staffed with 2-4 student peer tutors dedicated to helping others in math; anything from geometry to pre-calculus (depending on who the tutor was and who needed help.) It sounded idealistic when I interviewed for the job, but the interview team assured me the concept worked. They were looking for an instructional aid to simply oversee the tutors, period by 72 minute period, and furnish adult supervision to the 16 – 18 year olds who got credit for teaching their peers on a one to one basis. The beauty and simplicity was that what their experienced and highly trained teachers might not have been able to do, these sparkling teens had a shot at making it happen.

I told the interview team that I was not a math whiz. Yes, I had a master’s in education (from thirty years ago) but the last math I had was college algebra and trig in the spring of 1961…a long time ago. They assured me that was ok since I would be assisted by some very capable students. Their description turned out to be on the mark. These students were amazing. The level of sophistication and understanding of math information was only overshadowed by their ability to relay the required help individual students needed in bites small enough that their “tutee” could understand and digest. Perhaps they get that skill from hammering out text messages to each other in little bursts of incomplete and incorrectly spelled words, I thought. Or maybe it comes from playing video games from the time they are toddlers, was another theory. Perhaps their ability to communicate with their peers has more to do with age. Whichever the reason, I came to respect these teenage math teachers that I had inherited.

The first order of business was somehow to get to know and begin to relate to these young adult-like people who, age-wise, could be my grandchildren. The first hurdle was to figure out whether or not I wanted to be known as Mr. Lutz or simply Tom. Gone were the days when I derived any self confidence from how I was addressed. From the time I first was out of college and was addressed as a “mister” it sounded strange, both as a student teacher and as a navy Ensign. When I finally got around to teaching for a big chunk of my career “mister” was ok and it kept the kids from becoming too close. But those same young people whom I had in the classroom (in the ‘70s and 80s) showed up in the workplace when I was enjoying my second (or was it my third) career. Some stumbled over whether or not I was still Mr. Lutz or if Tom was ok now that they were adults? I strongly encouraged “Tom.” Without thinking that is what came out of my mouth on this return to my roots. “Tom is fine,” I told the first girl who asked what to call me. I was not a teacher and the young gentleman who preceded me (the one I was to be compared to and whom the students loved) was known by his first name.

I settled into a quick routine: greeting students at the door, offering help either from me, but mostly from the tutors and managing the quiet hub-bub that comes from any group learning situation. I also listened and oh, what I learned.

The conversations were normally around typical kid things. The secret stuff that they had to tell their friends was tapped out (using their thumbs) as a text message on their phones. But one day not too long after I arrived a group of three seniors were in the Help Center. One of them, a boy, brought in the Oregonian newspaper, which was available daily at the office. The headlines blared something to the effect that the state legislature had mandated that birth control pills now must be included in prescription drug plans through out the state. The lone girl (an 18 year old emigrant from Germany) said out loud, “At last I can get my birth control paid through my dad’s drug plan.” What ensued with the two boys present was a discussion of the virtues of the new law, the economics of it and her morality. She had the courage to discuss the fact in the first person and one of the boys took her to task. My first inclination was to stifle the conversation, but these were three 18 year olds all three taking calculus and they had the nerve to discuss this previously, to me at least, taboo subject openly in the class room. I let them go, but I did intervene when the language became disrespectful…at least to my way of thinking. The girl later told me she was ok with the discussion, but it just showed the one young man’s level of sexual frustration. Ahem, I thought.

Every day was not filled with R-rated discussions, but most days did have some young ladies in PG-13 attire. I am not sure how boys from my era would have handled the exposure of bellies, backs and cleavage. Seemingly, the guys are used to it so it is no big deal. I saw the usual combinations of intelligence and pulchritude. I feel for the really cute young women who struggle with school subjects. My visions of them in the future include being used by some older guy with either money or a good line. And I struggled with a “different” boy who came in my room during lunch with his laptop (the school has WiFi) and ate his slice of pizza, drank his pint of chocolate milk, everyday, and played video games while wearing the same hooded jacket with the hood always up. He spoke only to the computer except to blurt out sort-of insults to anyone listening. “When is this school gonna get some teachers that can teach;” “Why do adults always blame video games when violence occurs,” (after the Virginia Tech shootings.) He calmed down a bit over time, and he trusted me with his computer and back pack when he had to go to an assembly near my room.

But the sophistication level that really opened my eyes came from a young woman, a junior, who could tutor three students in three different math levels at the same time and do it in a manner that would have made any teacher I know envious…and proud. She was on the interviewing team (good choice, administration) and could have led a team in any organization I have been in. I told her when I did her sit down evaluation with me on the last day of school that she was one of the most all around, gifted 17 year olds I had ever met…and she showed great sophistication in the manner in which she accepted the complement, with poise and grace.

So, there you have it. Eight weeks of as close to high school classroom experience as I could get. I will spare the less-than moments, the crude language that popped up and the smart talk that is always a part of any interplay with adolescents.

I loved my time in Tigerland, but all day, five days a week after the scheduled I carved out for myself over the past four years did not go well with our future plans. I am not going back next year. The new start-up of “small schools” and the movement of the Help Center will have to go on without this old teacher. I will be limiting myself to one night a week for six weeks at George Fox teaching HR…something I know far more about than SOH-CAH-TOA. And there are no deafening tones to change classes.

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