Tuesday, June 13, 2006

potentially arbitrary binaries

So tomorrow I observe the kids I'll be teaching.

TOMORROW I observe the KIDS I'll be TEACHING.

In case you missed it the first two times:

Holy. Oh wow.

The last two days, we've had Institute classes. They have all been ostensibly well-organized seminars meant to get us ready for this crash course in teaching. They all have fancy acronyms and numbers to denote sequence and a slew of other crazy things. And, honestly, the organization system is damned near ingenious (if wasteful and tree-slaughtering)...but it fails when they don't tell us what's going on. And, while TFA is generally very good at hand-holding, I think they've missed a few steps.

Either that, or we're all shellshocked and incapable of taking in information, to the point that we've forgotten it was even given to us in the first place. It's entirely possible.

But it's taken me until now to figure out what all the little acronyms MIGHT mean, much less where to put all the pages that have said acronyms on them.

I also have a complaint about the food. Not enough of it at breakfast and lunch, and CERTAINLY not enough protein and whole grains. I NEED BRAIN FOOD, PEOPLE.

But I want to be clear: overall, it's not bad. I'm almost enjoying myself some of the time. (This is not just negativity; even the people who are uber-spirited say that Institute can be sometimes almost enjoyable.)

The truth is that sometimes I wonder what the fuck I'm doing here. I mean, really. I never wanted to be a teacher. Not really. Maybe, one day, I'd like to teach in a university. Sometimes, when I really think about the faces of the kids--and, especially, when I think about the theatre kids I might (still not sure) get to teach--I get excited about talking to them and imparting knowledge. But I've never really gotten stoked about how much work it might be just to get some of them to read fluently or write a simple topic sentence. I'm not excited about saying, "TOPIC SENTENCE, SUPPORTING STATEMENT, SUPPORTING DETAILS, SECOND SUPPORTING STATEMENT, SUPPORTING DETAILS..." ad nauseum.

Yeah, I admit it. I want to talk about Shakespeare and poetry and theatre and theory and all that. I don't want to teach kids to read.

But...I do. It's just...I don't know sometimes if this is me. I don't know sometimes if there is a me. When I think about leaving here and not doing this, what do I think of doing instead? Going back to Dallas, honestly.

WHAT?! That's not at all what I want to do, not truly. It's what I want to do because it's my comfort zone: the main stressors in my life are no longer there, since my parents live in Groves, and TFA lives in Houston (heh). Dallas has Cameron, Dallas has all the places I already know, Dallas has the IRC, Dallas has theatre people I know, Dallas has ease.

And I'm a lazy person. We talk so much about working hard and setting goals and earning successes in order to gain intelligence and self-confidence in Teach for America...and it's made me realize something really nasty about myself: I never did that. At least, not in any way that I recognize. Okay, no, I've done that...but not in many times when I should have. The times in my life when I really stretched myself...I can count them on one hand:
(1) planning Artvocacy / the women's program (but not for the whole time, since I started slacking and shirking toward the end when I was tired and afraid of doing outreach)
(2) writing my play (but not the whole time, since I never busted it to cut another fifteen pages during the rehearsals for the show...and I still haven't done them, or sent the plays out to theatres)
(3) playing Adela in The House of Bernarda Alba
(4) working hard against bad relationship judgment patterns (still working on that, and it's HARD, and sometimes I can't look at it anymore, but I'm still doing it)

I've done a lot of impressive things in my life, but most of them were really easy for me. We read about theories of intelligence in TFA: theories of "malleable" and "fixed" intelligence. The idea is that people who believe that intelligence is a fixed, inherent trait believe they cannot ever get more intelligent, so they don't try. They see success on assignments as more important than the learning process because success gives them "proof" of their intelligence; therefore, they don't try things they think they might fail at because the process does not appeal to them as much as the possibility of a loss deters them. "Malleable" intelligence theory? People who believe that intelligence is only the product of hard work--and so it can be increased--will search out challenges and see merit in the process more than in the end. They see challenges as necessary to their growth as a person.

I've always believed in fixed intelligence, I guess, without even knowing it. It's not that I've just plopped this theory down on top of my beliefs and tried to make it fit like a bad Christmas sweater. It's that, when I read about these theories, I nearly gasped and had to hold back tears of embarrassment. Yes, I have always believed I am just inherently brilliant...so it doesn't matter about working hard to achieve something, especially if I think I might fail and look stupid.

Of course, I "know" that's not true: look at all I've learned emotionally in the last two years! I even point to that as a reason to be proud--and I am proud of it. (In fact, those things on the list above are the ONLY things I'm truly proud of. The rest of my "achievements" are only trophies for others to be impressed by, for me to compete with others; I use them when I feel stupid to make others tell me how great I am or to make them feel like I have one-up on them.) But the truth is that I'm still not internalizing what I know about my emotional growth in terms of my intellectual and creative possibilities. I've almost never actually challenged myself as an academic or an artist...because if I did: (1) I might fail and look stupid; and (2) I might have to admit that my intelligence's quantity is in flux, or even in question.

All of these theories I'm hearing from TFA are, of course, reductive, and I know that, but I'm concerned about how they seem mutually exclusive: aren't people born with varying degrees of possibility? We're not truly blank slates, I don't think. Some people are more gifted in some things than other people. I think I am more genuinely talented (which seems to me to imply an inherent, essential quality, rather than a gained one) than some people, especially with words and performance/charisma.

But I'm not sure if my beliefs about talent and inherent capabilities are just something I WANT to believe or if they are indeed true.

But I know I sure never had to work the way so many around me have had to work. Writing papers? Piffle! Always been easy. I don't remember a single lesson about writing that's given me any real trouble, especially when it comes to digesting simple guidelines. So what's that about?

And how do I tell myself it's important that I work hard, despite feeling like my "natural gifts" will get me farther than other people's hard work so why bother? How do I instill a work ethic when I feel like there have been almost no times when the standards were high enough for me to have to try harder but not so high that I didn't find a way to get out?

Is this an opportunity? Is my impulse to quit TFA out of fear of failure and looking stupid rather than out of a genuine dislike for the work? Is this my chance to rise to a challenge and prove to myself that, not only can I help 100 kids work hard and up their intelligence and capability, I can work hard and actually increase my intelligence and capability?

Do I hate this job, or do I just not want to look dumb?

current music: Fiona Apple

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