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When Caring Goes Too Far

Phoebe Maltz sings songs of praise to cold, unfeeling Stuyvesant High School:

My own most vivid memory of 11th grade was being called "Number 18" for the entire first semester, by a physics teacher who decided it was simpler to call all 34 students by number than to do anything quite so nurturing as make an attempt at learning our names. (One unfortunate girl got to be called "Number 2," and my date to Junior Prom was a nice young man named "Number 11.") . . .

High school students should be treated like nothing but a number--how else can meritocracy work if the young are not forced to prove themselves? At the private school I attended until high school, an attempt was made at making sure that, if a student cried "I don't get it!" or if her family decided to take their vacation during the schoolyear, everything would be OK, not to worry. No one was a number; each girl was a set of circumstances and difficulties that had to be taken into account when teachers holistically assessed her abilities. I preferred being Number 18.

I started out at the Grace Church School which, while private and quite tiny, was also a school of the old school along Episcopal lines derived from the harsh discipline of merrie olde England. For high school, though, I went to Dalton which, except for the rather large quantities of cocaine being used by the student body, was a pretty touchy-feely, new-agey place along the lines Phoebe describes. Hence, my physics class story, derived not from 11th grade but from 12th. As Phoebe says, "if a student cried 'I don't get it!' . . . everything would be OK." Except one day when it wasn't. "I don't get it!" a student yelped. So the teacher tried to explain again. Still not gotten. Another attempt at explanation. Still didn't get it. Then the teacher slumps into his chair, puts his head on the desk, and remains silent for a good little while.

It becomes apparent that he has started to -- yes -- cry softly and mutters, "I feel like I'm really failing here as a teacher. You're all smart kids, and if you don't get it, then I'm obviously not doing my job right. I just . . . don't get it." He then slowly moved out of the room, not to be seen again until two days later when we next had class. We never spoke of the incident again, but no one ever complained that they didn't get it anymore.

December 11, 2004 | Permalink


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Basically the theme of Stephenson's _The Diamond Age_, as you probably know.


Posted by: Cranky Observer | Dec 11, 2004 1:33:01 PM

That's really kind of sweet.

Posted by: Kimmitt | Dec 11, 2004 1:35:36 PM

I don't get it.

Posted by: Vaughn Hopkins | Dec 11, 2004 1:47:07 PM

Funniest thing you ever posted. You should develop this aspect of your talent.

Posted by: John Emerson | Dec 11, 2004 2:05:45 PM

Whew, you people took things too seriously. High school physics should never be so distraught. Even freshman physics shouldn't be. That's the time where the teacher says, okay, just forget it for now, let's go build a mouse trap boat or read some physics history, and I'll talk to you after school when it's marinated in your brain for a while.
But yeah, that is both sweet and funny.

Posted by: Saheli | Dec 11, 2004 2:12:02 PM

It is a shame the teacher had not been taught properly that not all students will understand all principles. People have differing abilities, and the failure of the school systems is their insistence on making all students the same.
Celebrate the diversity !!!

Posted by: Andrew Woodward | Dec 11, 2004 2:50:45 PM

Hmm. I presumed this was a very smart teacher and an example of applied psychology. Dalton is about teaching independence and peer support, I thought.

Good teacher.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Dec 11, 2004 3:17:51 PM

I'm with Bob. Your teacher was a goddamn genius. Is there anything more uncomfortable for the high school student than a display of male emotion. By using the strategy of caring too much, he proved that he didn't give a shit what the little snots thought of him. That's obvious, given that your class obviously thought he was nuts for the rest of the year.

Hilarious story.

Posted by: Oliver | Dec 11, 2004 3:50:12 PM

Sounds like a lot of people wish they went to Hunter.

Posted by: dstein | Dec 11, 2004 4:11:42 PM

Not to worry: evolution is gone, physics is next. Nothing to 'get', just memorize the Bible.

Posted by: abb1 | Dec 11, 2004 4:20:52 PM

Doesn't anyone else find the description of Dalton a tad disturbing?

Posted by: weboy | Dec 12, 2004 7:44:19 AM

The physics teacher at my school used to bring in a .22 rifle and shoot his desk with it every year to demonstrate the law of conservation of momentum (I think). Different worlds.

Posted by: Evan McElravy | Dec 12, 2004 11:44:19 AM

She left out the part where not only were their names replaced by numbers but they were made to where identical masks.

Posted by: pablo | Dec 12, 2004 9:35:28 PM

Well, I wasn't there, but it strikes me as being emotionally manipulative.

Posted by: fling93 | Dec 13, 2004 3:41:41 PM

"She left out the part where not only were their names replaced by numbers but they were made to where identical masks."

Now, THAT is just plane crazy; The masks should each have the corrisponding number on them, rather than be identical.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Dec 13, 2004 4:43:35 PM

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