My time in Mr. Ash's classroom was short. The first time I went into his classroom, I had been mulling over a particularly stressful class from the previous day at my placement school. My students had been unruly, which highlighted my poor classroom management skills, and the substitute teacher might as well have been a figment of my imagination with all the assistance I had received from her. So I carried that baggage into Mr. Ash's classroom, and I felt the need to make myself scarce. I simply wished to stand in the recesses of the room and observe Mr. Ash teach in the hopes it would provide some perspective.
Mr. Ash's students were equally unruly. They gossiped to one another while he gave instruction, attempted to sleep at their desks, and tuned out the world with music from their phones. Mr. Ash's loudest voice was barely louder than the students' chatter, and whenever he attempted to manage one student, another would misbehave. I watched as he attempted to power through the lesson in the hopes that his students would grace him with their attention. It was stressful to watch, because it felt as if my worst day was his every day.
Album Art for Chance the Rapper's "Coloring Book"
The following week, I noticed two students sharing some earbuds and jamming along to the song at their desks. They were audible enough in miming the lyrics, and I immediately recognized the song "No Problem" by Chance the Rapper. I walked over to the two.
"That's Chance the Rapper, right," I asked. Large grins suddenly appeared across their faces.
"Yeah, you listen to him," asked the one on the left with the Atlanta Hawks flat bill.
"Sure do," I said. "I love hip-hop." I wanted to get to know some of the students in the class, and felt that I had found my way in. The boy on the right sporting a modest fro pulled his earbud out, stood up, and shook my hand.
"Who else do you listen to, uh, Mr. Taylor," he said after noticing my name tag.
"Right now, mostly Chance, Party Next Door, BJ the Chicago Kid, Kendrick Lamar, J Cole, and A$AP Ferg, I replied." This kicked off a conversation as we shared our favorite artists, the kinds of moods that prompt us to listen to certain tracks, and what the music meant to us. The two seemed to chase the cathartic release of the music, a mix of rebellion and feel-good vibes that get them through the day.
Later in the class period, I'd notice the two tune out of Mr. Ash's lesson on multiple occasions. I would quietly lean over and knock on their desks, whisper the page of the book everyone else was on, or echo Mr. Ash's instructions. Each time I was met with a sincere smile and a nod of solidarity. On my way out, they made sure to come up for another hand shake, and I left the class with a surge of happiness now that I was making progress with the students.
He meant to write "Awesome" in front of "Mr. Josh."
In the next week's class, I found the two students I had spoken to sitting alongside some other classmates. I walked over to their cluster and noticed that they were drawing me. I was immediately impressed by how detailed and expressive some of them were. They managed to capture my glasses, my huge grin, and my equally huge nose. It felt like tangible proof that I had made an impact on the two students.
I looked and realized the other students in the cluster were attempting to draw me as well. Initially, I had assumed that they were taking a break from drawing, but then I realized they were finished. These drawings had some things in common. What was immediately apparent was that I didn't have a face in the drawings. My proportions weren't very concrete either. They looked like abstract interpretations of my figure, with one sporting a thin, lanky neck and a large head, and the other portrayed me as some tall, looming figure with a tall head that resembled a golf ball on a tee.
In these drawings, I was an enigma, a faceless being devoid of any character, any concrete details to demonstrate I had made any connection with the students. It immediately reminded me of the Slender Man, a fictional creature spawned and popularized by communities on the internet. whose appearance, personality, and character traits differ from person to person.
The entire experience made me realize how little I had interacted with the class. I had continued to stand back and observe because on some level it was comforting to watch another teacher struggle to manage a class. It lessened the sting of what I had considered a failed lesson at my placement school. But by choosing to waive my involvement, I also had to accept the fact that I would remain a stranger to the students, a silent figure who showed up once a week, notebook in hand, eyes moving around the room like a lethargic metronome rod.
Illustration from Sherman Alexie's "The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian"
It was fitting that the class was reading The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian because, like the boy who felt torn between two worlds, I felt like I was neither a student nor a teacher in that classroom, and feeling content in that limbo made me detached from the class. As a student teacher, I am encouraged to interact with everyone. A teacher at my placement school told me that I am at a place in my life where I should be making as many mistakes as I can so I can learn from them. By standing in the corner of the classroom, I denied myself the opportunity to make so many mistakes. The optimist in me says this, in itself, was a mistake, and that my writing illustrates the learning process. But I would have never noticed I was making a mistake had the students not communicated this to me in their illustrations, and that is frightening to think about.