Sunday, March 1, 2009

"Lady, Step Away from the Metaphor..."

I’ve always considered myself lucky that I don’t lose my composure easily; staying calm and saying reassuring things during stress frequently helps me out as a classroom teacher. (Well, most of the time...) During stressful moments, I can seem measured as long as I don’t have to create any similes or metaphors. The figurative language I create under duress always gives my anxiety away.

If I didn’t teach literature, I may have never discovered this idiosyncrasy about myself. It first came to light when I had to videotape myself student teaching back in 1993. (The tape would provide perfect fodder for a “no teacher should do that” drinking game, by the way.) The tape showcases me at twenty, standing before an eleventh grade class of twelve self-contained, I.E.P. classified boys. With my zero years experience, I made the insightful decision to teach them feminist poetry. Anne Sexton’s Transformations to be exact. (It probably doesn’t require a viewing of the tape to laugh at me.) Shockingly, the class participation part didn’t go well. I wanted my students to write a simile, and they unanimously claimed they couldn’t think of anything. “Come on! Of course you can!” I urged. “Just pick something and compare it to something else…” The tape unflinchingly records the awkward pause as I struggle to think of a simile to show how easy it can be: My eyes search the room. My mouth hangs slightly open. My hands wave vaguely in the air. “Umm. Okay, Like…like…like…Look I’m doing it right now! For example, I could say, ‘The bell went off like a bomb in my head.’ Or I could say, ‘The flag waves like a body from the gallows.’” Oy. It goes on from there, but suffice it to say that my emotional desire to run screaming from the room as I surveyed the debris of my lesson revealed itself through my similes.

I’ve tried to avoid such pitfalls with better preparation. If I want to provide examples, I write a list of innocuous comparisons ahead of time. Once I’ve taught something before, I can usually remember the examples I’ve provided in the past. And since sixteen years have passed, teaching is less stressful now that I’m more experienced. Mostly, I do okay now, but this week, I revealed too much about my state of mind again through figurative language.

My school decided to put a departmental exam on computer, and the powers that be selected my class to help pilot it. We met in a special lab, but despite lots of troubleshooting, the pilot didn’t work, and I had to move my students back to our classroom to recoup the remainder of class time. My students bubbled with the euphoria that comes from having enjoyed thirty minutes with nothing to do. We walked back into our regular classroom, and I noticed someone new in the room, a colleague stopping by for an observation. I knew these observations would happen, but I didn’t expect one on such a raucous day; cue the stress. With a deep breath, I settled down my students and started to lead a productive lesson. Things rolled along well. However, one student got out a phone and started texting. Gently, I asked the student to put it away. “Oh, absolutely,” the student said, and put the phone under the edge of the desk, proceeding to text from the lap. Since I don’t tend to blush or yell when I get stressed, I should have reached for a rote teacher phrase, like “Please put it away in your bag.” However, I foolishly reached for a metaphor: “When my husband and I agreed not to cheat on each other, we didn’t mean ‘Don’t cheat on me where I can see you.’ We meant, ‘Don’t cheat on me at all!’” Oy, again. My class blinked and then burst out laughing. “Ms. K, you’re crazy!” The student zipped the phone into a book bag pocket, and my class observer looked at me wide-eyed. My mind reeled. Had I really just compared a texting student to a cheating spouse? Sheesh. Did my unconscious mind really feel so betrayed?

Ah, well. Maybe one day I will truly feel calm in stressful situations so that even my creative mind plays along. Until then, I think I need to just step away from the figurative language when I feel my blood pressure rise.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher


Anonymous said...

Cute. At least your metaphors are memorable. My examples leave them astonished and wishing they could find better analogies which - not surprisingly - get the message across.
In an effort to demonstrate sarcasm, irony, hyperbole, and how rumors are spread, all rolled up in one story (not a good idea upon reflection - one literary device at a time is about as much as one can handle). I recall starting my ad lib story - my poker face never once giving me up: "Let me tell you what my fifth husband did after my son who had just returned from prison refused to hand over the last piece of pie ..." The bell rang and my students left the room gasping. I never completed the story. "Whoa, wonder why her son was in prison?" "I didn't even know she was married." "Wonder why he wanted that pie? She can't cook!" This last comment is a result of another quirky analogy I have yet to live down.
Now when anyone suspects I am about to tell one of my infamous stories, they ask "Is this a true story or an analogy?"

Kate Ware said...

Very funny stories. Your experiences make me feel a lot more reassured as i prepare to embark on my student teaching experience. Classroom management and the difficulties that go with it are the things that terrify me the most when i think about entering an English classroom for the first time in the spring. You seemed to be pretty good at recovering gracefully when your metaphors ran away with you!