Saturday, November 12, 2005

First dialogue on education

(Peg and Al again. Recall that they are teachers at a private high school. Al teaches Math and Peg, Government. It's Monday afternoon, classes over for the day. Peg enters the lounge to find Al glaring at the coffee maker.)

Peg: Hello, Al. How was your day? --Uh, no coffee?

Al: No coffee in the pot; no coffee in the cabinet; no coffee in the storage closet. How can I work if there's no coffee? There's not even a decent coffee shop in the neighborhood--not even a bad coffee place around. Inhuman conditions; good grief!

Peg: Whoa, partner, don't lose your grip. I just saw Juliet and Roxie rolling the coffee supplies down to the cafeteria. I guess they’re setting up for that reception tonight. Let me just step over there and borrow some coffee back. I’d like a fresh cup, too.

Al: You don’t have to do that.

Peg: I’ll be right back, Al.

(A few minutes pass. Peg returns, makes fresh coffee.)

Al: That’s good coffee--thanks!

Peg: No problem.

Al: I’m just going to sit for a few minutes to let today’s case of nerves calm down.

Peg: I know. Monday’s a bear. The weekend resets your tempo to baseline, and Monday brings back the thrills, chills and frustration. That’s teaching.

Al: Between the students, the administration, the grading and our ever-cheery compatriots, we’re outnumbered.

Peg: But would you do anything different?

Al: I wouldn’t

Peg: I get a yen to try something else every so often. I took the law school exam about ten years ago, but didn’t follow through with any applications. I really didn’t want to make a career change, just a money change, and for me it would have taken too much time and energy to be worth it.

Al: I know you like issues and controversies. You would probably make an excellent plaintiff’s attorney or public interest advocate. But, you’re a great teacher, too.

Peg: Thanks! There are some good days. Every time I start thinking I haven’t found my vocation yet, something comes along to remind me that I should do what I’m doing now. Guess you’re it, this time.

Al: Well, I have my days, too. Not that I’d want to do something other than teach, but I do wonder what good I’m doing after thirty years.

Peg: We’re not setting the world on fire, that’s for sure. The students aren’t motivated.

Al: There are two questions I keep asking my students: Why do you get up in the morning? and Why do you--or your parents--think you should be showing up at our doors and in our classrooms every day?

Peg: How do they answer?

Al: Mainly they give me a confused look. I don’t think they have an answer.

Peg: Ouch.

Al: Once in a while a brave soul will look at me and say “It’s because I want something better than a boring, routine job.” Or, “I don’t want to spend my life on a hot roof like my cousins have to do.”

Peg: Sounds like as good a reason to go to school as any other.

Al: Well, it’s a start. And at least it proves there are some moral absolutes, even if they’re negatives. Most people do share those same sentiments. My question, though, is why it’s so hard to discover and then to commit yourself to some sort of a positive reason why you should be getting an education.

Peg: Maybe when you’re young you don’t have the readiness to find something to really pursue. Did you have some really definite ambitions when you were in high school?

Al: No, but I was sort of a contrarian. Whatever I thought most of my peers wanted to do, I would choose something radically opposite. But as to whether I really ever set my sights on a definite career and began to take real steps, no such thing. I was busy reading. What about you?

Peg: I was pretty typical. Mom and dad had their business; I think they tried to steer me in that direction. I had in mind that other things might be cooler: my sports, and whatever clubs I was in at the moment. I thought about a business career and gave law or politics a glance now and then.

Al: These things don’t really take a final shape until we actually do them. Even in college I changed majors officially once, and thought about it a couple of other times.

Peg: Me, too. My pre-law studies eventually became a degree in government and history with a teaching certificate attached, just in case. Now I can talk about public and political things all day, and have job security.

Al: That’s something that people in the political world don’t have, that’s for sure.

Peg: How did you wind up teaching Math? Don’t you have degrees in philosophy?

Al: It was an accident. When I graduated, I got hired as an emergency Math fill-in because I had taken enough courses in math and logic to satisfy somebody’s requirements. You know how hard it is to find Math people. They’re all in engineering, business, economics. I liked teaching, so I went back and finished the certification. But as you know I’ve taught other things, too. This and my night classes keep me fed and supplied with reading.

Peg: I’d rather keep up my garden than be a bookworm.

Al: Now you’re not going to tell me you never read. We’ve had too many good conversations for you to convince me you’re one of those brain-dead adults.

Peg: You’re right. I read the paper, a couple of good, serious magazines, lots of novels and some of the books on politics and history that show up as best-sellers. I guess nowadays I should read more from the Internet, too, since that’s where all the action seems to be. But I certainly don’t read all that philosophy stuff and literature that you read.

Al: I don’t know that many people do any more. I’m still the odd one in the crowd. I am up to speed on the Internet, though. In fact, I’ll tell you a secret: I have a blog.

Peg: Really? What do you put there--joke of the day?

Al: Once in a while the world gets a taste of my wry, ironic humor. Mainly there are a couple of things I use it for, when I have time. I store there some of the better thoughts that I happen across in my reading. Then I try to work out verbally some of the ideas I have about a couple of the topics I like to read about. Maybe eventually I’ll try to collect some of that randomness into something worth publishing. One thing leads to another, I hope.

Peg: Well I wish more adults would entertain an occasional literate thought--especially in and around our community..

Al: I’m a basic fatalist about that. For many of us, a literate thought is foreign territory. I know university professors who are as narrow in their learning as garage mechanics--in fact, the mechanics are more interesting to have a conversation. With my old car, I’m an expert on that. But I guess that’s the thing about educating human beings in society and for society. It’s a slow process that we can’t do alone. The whole culture has to be supportive. The media have to help, but today they only seem to make things stupider. The government’s schools have to improve. And parents have to do their jobs responsibly.

Peg: How do they do that? There are plenty of theories out there.

Al: One thing is for certain: parents have to model one critical value--a reverence for learning.

Peg: Are you sure “reverence” is the right word?

Al: I’m absolutely sure of that. I mean reverence in the exact sense, even with a religious connotation, as if learning is a kind of sacred object. We have to have the attitude that good learning possesses intrinsic value not only for what it provides in the utilitarian sense, but for what it is. Here’s an example: I’m sure you’ve noticed that there are certain of our foreign-born students, who live in traditional-culture families, who seem to have this attitude of a very special respect for learning--and for their teachers, too.

Peg: I sure have. It’s refreshing--makes me really feel like a teacher and not a lion-tamer or baby-sitter.

Al: Have you also noticed how these same students achieve an amazing learning curve in language skills, then quickly begin to surpass the competition in the rest of their acadmics?

Peg: Who wouldn’t notice?

Al: That’s exactly the point. Real learning, not surface knowledge, is about attitude and discipline.

Peg: Isn’t there a quote about character and fate--let’s see...

Al: That would be “A man’s character is his destiny.” Heraclitus said it in the pre-socratic era.

Peg: Thank you, doctor polymath.

Al: Any time--but you do see my point, don’t you?

Peg: I think you’re absolutely right, and I agree. The only thing I’d add would be that it’s not only those foreign students. We’ve got a fair number of other students who really strive to inquire, to learn, to discover.

Al: You’re right. These are the ones we have to support and to continue to push along. We’ve also got to be sure to tell them that we appreciate how they’ve got their heads on straight. And we’ve got to find ways to entice others to join this little community.

Peg: You’re right about that, too. We’ll have to continue this train of thought another time, though. I’ve got to pack my things and get on my way. I’m meeting my lawyer neighbor, C.J., for dinner.

Al: Say hi for me. Tell him not to be a stranger. I want to ask him about Judge Alito’s confirmation and all that.

Peg: Well, do you feel like joining us?

Al: It would be a nice start to the week. I’ll get my things and follow you. See you in a sec.

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