If an American from the South had heard my bogus southern accent, that person probably would have thrown a bowl of grits in my direction or doused me with sweet tea. My Australian year 8’s, however, didn’t particularly detect the lack of authenticity.
They actually seemed somewhat engaged as I read them The Outsiders, so I drawled out the dialogue and got my y’alls polished up real good.
It’s not every day that you experience a victory in education. In fact, a VE day can be pretty elusive, like looking for a rare bird or any endangered species. When I was an exchange teacher in Australia, finding success was like searching for the dodo. Non-existent.
I felt like such an incompetent teacher, and every time I talked to my Australian counterpart, Dash, who was teaching my American classes, his updates deflated my spirits even more.
“Ah, yeah! Steph, we had a breakthrough today in Senior English; Madelynn* read a poem, revealing the abuse and torment she experienced as a child,” he e-mailed me one day. “It was the first time she’d told anyone. The event was so cathartic that we all had a good cry.”
Fantastic. The other day, when I tried to confiscate a cell phone from a student, the girl stuck the mobile in her bra and told me to “come and get it.”
I also recently dropped the F-bomb in one of my year 8 classes. And a few weeks ago, two kids dislodged a glass pane from its frame as they tried to stand in the window sill.
Basically, it wasn’t going to take much — just the slightest positive moment — for me to declare victory.
After experiencing several lead balloon lessons that crashed and burned, I decided to do a unit on S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. Not only is it a classic in adolescent literature, but it’s also about gangs, violence and coming of age. Consequently, the story includes heaps of bashing, drama and heartache. Perfect.
Additionally, in the early 1980s Francis Ford Coppola made a movie version of The Outsiders. At the time, I liked it, of course, because the movie featured all the “babes” of my day.
Ultimately, I was pretty sure the hotness of Rob Lowe, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, Tom Cruise, C. Thomas Howell and Emilio Estevez would be timeless. So if I could show the movie after we finished reading, I knew the fighting would enthrall the boys, and the heart-throbs would captivate the girls. It’s a bit of gender stereotyping, but generally, I figured the strategy would work.
I read to my classes every day and really cheesed up the Oklahoman speech. Soon the kids began remembering the characters’ names and wanted to know what would happen to them next. I was on to something.
“Does Ponyboy pash on Cherry?”
“Are they going to bash the Socs?”
“What’s going to happen to Johnny?”
We actually had some fairly meaningful discussions. It was pretty inspiring for me to hear them talk about something other than Facebook or ask a question other than “Do you have a pencil, Miss?”
A true victory arrived the day Mitchell, the class clown, was gone from class. “Where is Mitchell?” I asked the kids.
“He’s on internal (suspension), Miss.”
My disappointment was real since Mitchell, who was quite bright but unmotivated, had shown interest in the story from the beginning. Plus, he was well respected by the derelicts in class. Because Mitchell was sort of their leader, they didn’t act up while he was focused on the story. Some of the troublemakers even followed along, getting into the characters.
“Okay, well, let’s begin.” I started reading, hoping for the best, and after about five minutes, I heard the door open and in sauntered Mitchell.
“Hi, Miss,” he said as he went straight to his usual seat.
“Mitchell,” I began. “What are you doing here?
“I came to hear The Outsiders, Miss,” he said as he got out his photocopied version of the book, dropped his backpack on the ground and then sat down.
“Aren’t you on internal?” I asked.
“Yeah, but it’s my lunch break now.”
I smiled as I looked down at my copy of The Outsiders. My hopes were restored.
“All right, we’re glad to have you, but if you’re disruptive, I’ll have to send you back,” I glanced up from the page.
“No dramas, Mrs. Glaser.
As the story heated up, I looked several times at Mitchell who was following along, completely focused on the story. He scanned the text as I read. After a few minutes, his friends Lewis and James began laughing and whispering.
“Shhh!” Mitchell shushed them somewhat loudly.
Not deterred, they persisted in trying to distract Mitchell.
“Shut the fuck up!” he piped up while still fixated on the book.
“I’m trying to listen to the story, you wankers,” he added.
Suppressing a laugh, I wanted to high five, Mitchell.
“Okay now, guys. Let’s continue.” I said. “Mitchell, watch the language,” I added but I wasn’t mad at him at all since he relayed what I wanted to say.
Most of the boys were into the story, especially when it came to the fate of the tragic character Johnny. Several girls seemed riveted to the doomed relationship between Cherry and bad boy, Dally. When we finished the book, I don’t think anyone wanted to say goodbye to the characters.
As promised, I showed the film. To my complete surprise, the movie seemed slow, boring and old to me. It came out in 1983, after all. Fortunately, most of the kids were silent and riveted to the movie for the entire double lesson (that is a non-disputable victory in itself.) When it was over, some of the students were irritated because several key plot points were not covered in the film.
“I can’t believe they didn’t even show Johnny’s mom. That movie was crap, Miss Glaser.” Curtis told me definitively.
Ruby, a smart, sweet and pretty girl who often tried too hard to appeal to older students, came over to me after the bell rang.
“Mrs. Glaser, remember how you said you had a poster of the guy who plays Soda Pop up in your room when you were a teenager?”
“What’s his name again?”
“Oh, yeah, Rob Lowe,” she said and turned to leave.
The following day Ruby told me she had googled Rob Lowe.
”He still looks pretty good doesn’t he,” I said nodding.
“Yeah, he does. Especially compared to the other ones. They look like old bogans.”
Again, it didn’t take much to feel victorious. I would have to tell Dash I had a bit of a breakthrough, myself.
* Not her real name. Some of the other names have been changed in the story.