And I would do it again.
One of the discussions I had this week with students here at the community college had me recall an event from my earliest teaching assignment. My class, an Intro to Research, was discussing assumptions, stereotypes and what behaviors we associate with talent. Almost across the board, and in most cases hypocritically, students believed that “use of alcohol” categorically signaled someone was a poor learner.
These young people come from an educational experience where they’ve learned to play a game called “read the teacher’s mind”. The rules? Imagine what you think the teacher expects to hear and say that.
Listening to their “say no to drugs” cliches, I was forced to share a story.
Back in 1996, I was working as an English teaching assistant in a high school. My job was to lead reading discussions and conversations with about three different classes each day. The teachers let me pick my own books.
One of my favorite classes met before lunch. These were about thirteen students, most of them boys. The mix of nationalities made it really fun. We had a kid from Turkey, a pair from Croatia, a girl from Sarajevo and a sincere, delightful boy from Poland. The rest of the kids were Austrians.
One afternoon, a teacher suggested she and I take lunch across the street at a café. Students from this favorite class learned I was going to neighborhood place and asked if they could tag along.
Before I knew it, six boys were going with me. We took a table in the corner. The teacher who invited me saw I had a group and left me alone to talk with them.
These boys had all kinds of questions, some about books, others about my Lithuanian identity and how I managed it with my American one. We talked about that week’s reading, The Catcher in the Rye, and we anticipated next week’s book, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. (We usually read a book every two weeks.) The boys really liked Carson McCullers’ title and wondered what the novel could be about.
The waitress soon came—she was also the cook. I got a bowl of goulash and a beer. The other students ordered items ranging from Wienerschnitzel to frankfurters and cabbage or fried cheese and jam. Some of them ordered beer while others got tea or mineral water. But two of the students, a Croat and a Turk, didn’t order anything. “We don’t have any money,” they said.
I told them to order whatever they wanted. I’d be happy to get them lunch. I was excited to know students were interested in books and curious to sit around a table and talk about identity and literature. To pay me back, they would give me a smoke before the next class started.
The boys ordered franks with horseradish, mustard and a Semmel, and each one got a beer. We ate together and enjoyed a conversation. Before the next period, we had just enough time for a cigarette and finished our talk in an area designated for smoking students.
This was Linz, Austria, if you haven’t figured it out. I worked there under Fulbright for two years, then banged around Central Europe illegally for a third. While employed , I very often ran into students in local bars and cafes, sometimes very late at night. We sat at the same tables, and I bought more rounds than I can count. Out of politeness, students also occasionally bought their teacher beer. Or whiskey. Or Red Bull Vodka, which I will never drink again.
This similar story, if it happened in the United States, would make the news. Both the proprietor of the café and the teacher would be arrested, then ridiculed, lambasted, buried without a trial. Various politicians, standing alongside “religious leaders”, would find ways to connect this “evil teacher” to homosexuality, evolution, abortion, gun control and intellectualism as signs of our cultural collapse. To solve the problem, they’d surmise where to send a cruise missile.
In Austria, nobody thought twice or even noticed. You had a beer with lunch? Ein Prosit.
My point is not to make an argument about the correlation of alcohol use with other behaviors, learning styles or whatever. If you think European countries have, despite their lax attitudes, bigger problems with drug and alcohol abuse than does the United States, read this. It’s true that the linked article shows Austria and the United States have about the same rate of teen binge drinking. But if you’re a teen in Austria and incapacitated from booze, the cops won’t arrest you. If you’re drunk and belligerent, even as an adult, your chances of getting shot are very low.
This aside, what continues to strike me as a community college English instructor is the amount of students who come out of high school having learned a set of “correct answers” that the “teacher expects to hear”. In order to have a natural, sensible discussion about a social issue, I find myself spending valuable time debunking cliches and ideas the students know are far from absolute. They make the claims anyway.
It’s a massive obstacle. Some students fight hard against the attempt because they’re used to a comfortable world where “the answer is right”, even when that answer contradicts their experience. It is like sitting down at a desk, cracking open a PBR and writing an essay titled “Beer makes writing impossible” without intending any satire.
Photo by Michela Simoncini.
True Community runs each Wednesday. Gint Aras explores his experiences as an instructor in a community college that serves a lower-middle to lower class district in Chicagoland.
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