Cluelessness: A Study in Three Parts

Part I: The Student Who REALLY doesn’t get math: As in, the one who asked me last week, in all earnestness, “to what extent” she would “have to use equations” in my class. I managed, in a feat that should surely mark me as a force to be reckoned with in the domain of improvisational theatre, to eke out a coherent yet tactful reply in which I succedeed (I think) in gently pointing out that this is a math class and that it we would do math things in it, and math things tend to involve equations of some form. (At least, math things at this level do. I’m sure that she didn’t want to hear “Oh, no, this class is ALL PROOFS.”) Worried that she would break if I in any way made light of the situation, I did not add that if she could come up with equation-free means of solving for unknowns then she was certainly welcome to use them. She seemed disppointed and scared.

Part II: The Student Whose Attempt to Enter the Classroom in the Most Respectful Way Imaginable Achieves Precisely the Opposite Effect: I can block out most types of distractions in class when I so choose, and it is not unusual for students to enter the classroom late. In general, I don’t mind; if they enter through the side without fanfare, I often barely notice them at all.

Last class, fifteen minutes into the lesson, I was in the middle of a long explanation when I heard a knocking sound. It was loud enough to distract me for a few moments, but I figured that it probably had nothing to do with me, and, accordingly, I continued with the topic. (It’s hard to distinguish knocking from ordinary chalk-on-board sounds and various other things going on in the hallway or outdoors, particularly when I’m teaching.) Half a minute later, the knocking began again, briefly. This time it sounded like a knock at the door. I moved toward the door, but the knocking stopped before I got there, and I wondered if I had misheard anything. With a bit more difficulty this time, I resumed the lesson; as soon as I did, the knocking resumed as well. Finally, I opened the door; it was a student of mine.

“I had an appointment today,” she explained, as though I cared. “Sorry I’m late. I didn’t want to interrupt anything.”

My students seemed as aghast as I; I don’t think any of them had ever seen this before. “Next time just walk in, through the side door,” I mumbled with an ire that was certainly discernable.

Part III: The Student Who For Some Reason Thinks That it is Acceptable to Sit in the Front Row and Assemble, in Class, a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich From its Constituent Parts and Then Consume it: No, really. What the hell was this one all about? And he wasn’t using those little tiny packets of peanut butter and jam that you get in cafeterias, either. This kid had, in his bookbag beside his textbook and binder, a JAR OF PEANUT BUTTER. And a jar of jam. And an ENTIRE LOAF OF BREAD, which he opened and from which he proceeded to extract and place on the table two slices for assembly.

He was hungry, he explained when this activity drew attention from his classmates.

I’ve often observed that there’s a nontrivial overlap between the job of college instructor and that of a parent. Never before last class had I noticed similarities between my job and that of a field primatologist. I envision Jane Goodall observing her subjects and thinking, “They are like us in certain ways, and yet, they are quite different.”Though presumably Goodall’s studies could contribute to a better understanding of human behaviour, whereas – a peanut butter sandwich? In class? The HELL?

(This kid is #1, by the way, for those following what will quite possibly blossom into an entire novella with him as a key character.)

The mind boggles. Anyway, I drew him aside after class and told him not to do that in class again, EVER (none of this wussy “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t do that, if it’s at all possible” stuff, which I figured he’d take advantage of; even if the kid has a medical condition that requires him to eat in class, he can do so more discreetly). He interpreted this instruction as an invitation to explain why he had eaten a sandwich in class: “I have FOUR HOURS of class, straight,” he said, “And I get hungry.”

teach four and a HALF hours straight, kid.

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